Niall Horan on His Best Love Song and Favorite One Direction Deep Cuts

Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photo: Andrew Lipovsky/NBC

After One Direction broke up (okay, went on hiatus, if you’re still holding out hope), Niall Horan struck first. While his fellow members were announcing solo record deals, the band’s guitar-wielding Irish sweetheart took things a step further, dropping a live performance of his song “This Town” on a whim in September 2016. Not only did it become his first solo single, and the first single of any then-1D member — it was the first song Horan ever wrote on his own. “I hadn’t even gotten near finishing an album,” he remembers. “I was like, I really wanna release it. I just tweeted a link to it one night and it became my first single, I guess.” A bit of humility for a song that hit the top 20 in the U.S. and the top ten in the U.K. and Ireland.

Nowadays, though, Horan isn’t one to rush things. He took his time on his third solo album, The Show. After releasing Heartbreak Weather the week COVID-19 became a pandemic, he took a few months “to just go with what everyone else was doing,” like exercising and cooking. He’d had the title of The Show in his head for a while, but didn’t know what to do with it until, one day, the song finally came out of him. The song, reflecting on overcoming struggle, became the guiding light for the project. “I was unsure for a little bit, but then it was like, this is so obvious,” he says.

Horan is releasing The Show at a bit of a full-circle moment — nearly 13 years after forming One Direction on The X-Factor, he’s now a coach on a different singing competition, The Voice, in the U.S. (Being able to relate to his contestants paid off when a singer from Team Niall, Gina Miles, won the season.) Given the occasion, Horan is eager to reflect on his career, even after a full day of press. “You’re making me have a deep dive here,” he says at one point. “This is good thinkin’ time.”

Song you couldn’t have written until now

I think you have to have a deep dive into your head to write a song like “The Show.” I feel like it’s a song that provoked a lot of thought — even the concept of the show itself, like being grateful for what happens in life on a daily basis and realizing that you have to go through some shit to get some of the good stuff in life. I feel like “The Show” was probably that song for me.

I took a bit of time off to just go with what everyone else was doing in the pandemic and work out and cook and all that stuff. Probably August or September of that year, I sat down and wrote what turned out to be “The Show.” I sat down at the piano that night, and it just came out. And I had tested that theory before and nothing was coming, the old writer’s block. But I think once I’d written the chorus of “The Show,” I was like, Oh, might be onto something here.

Best love song

“You Could Start a Cult” is probably the one that epitomizes a love song. It’s very me. It’s probably the most “me” song I’ve written. It’s provocative. You know, “It gets the people goin’.” I had that title phrase and just wanted to write the complete opposite song of what you think it is. And I hope people look at the track listing and are like, “I wanna hear that.”

Most Irish song

“On My Own” is probably the most Irish one I have. There’s fiddle and things like that. There’s a song on the first record called “Fire Away,” and that’s very Irish to me. It’s got all of the Irish elements, a groove called 6/8, which is extremely Celtic and Irish.

Song that gave you confidence after One Direction

The first song I wrote after 1D was “This Town,” which ended up being the first single. I was so lucky in that sense, that I knew who I was, as an artist, and that I didn’t have to overthink about what it was gonna sound like. ’Cause some people will spend years looking for their sound. As an out-the-gate, first thing, to sit down and write “This Town” — it gave me confidence that, Okay, this might be something that people get. Then afterwards with how it was received, it took a lot of weight off the shoulders and made me stand out there and be confident as a performer when I performed it live. It’s a song I still don’t get bored of playing, actually. I thought I would. I thought after seven years now, I’d be sick of it.

Most surprising post–One Direction song

Probably “Slow Hands.” It’s in my wheelhouse of stuff I listen to, groove-wise and the guitar, but at that point I was writing a lot of folky stuff. So to go into that kind of ’80s-rock thing on the first record was even a shock to me. I was just playing like, [sings opening guitar riff]. We dressed it up to be a little bit poppier later, but it started out as a real rootsy, kind of bluesy jam. I remember writing it and I was like, All right, that’s another song. And then everyone was just like, “Are you crazy? That’s gonna be the one.”

One Direction song you miss performing most

“Stockholm Syndrome” was a great song to perform live. “Through the Dark.” And I wish we’d gotten a chance to perform a song called “Never Enough.” We didn’t tour that. The vibe of it is crazy. I remember being in a hotel in Chicago and the trumpet players coming in to play the riff, [sings trumpet part]. It’s such a cool vibe, it was unlike anything that was out there. Obviously it was a deep cut on the album, but it’s probably one of my favorite 1D tunes to this day.

One Direction song you’re surprised resonated

“Night Changes.” I knew it was a great song but I didn’t think that it would connect the way — like, I think it just got to a billion streams recently, which is nuts. When you think about “Story of My Life,” “What Makes You Beautiful,” “Drag Me Down,” that kind of thing, they all felt more hittier, if you like. So to see a nice slow jam at 65 bpm hit like that wasn’t a shock, but I definitely wasn’t expecting it to be as big as it has become.

Weirdest way you’ve been recognized in public

I’ve had people pull their cars over onto the sidewalk to get pictures. Been recognized in the toilet a few times. Pandemic was always interesting, ’cause I felt like with the hat, the sunglasses, and the mask, that I would have a chance, but apparently I was more recognizable. There were so many people that came up to me and were like, “Niall!” I was like, “How did you know it was me? I’m covered all the way up to here.”

Best song to audition for The Voice with

I’d like to hear a different take on “Heaven,” ’cause it’s one of those melodies that can fit into a lot of genres if you wanted to change it up a little bit. I’ve done little acoustic moments with it so far, but I’ve kind of kept it similar tempo. I feel like you could do some cool synth-y stuff around it as well. Let’s see what happens in the next auditions.

Biggest lesson from returning to a singing competition

I’m just glad that I enjoyed The X-Factor, because I see how intense it is now, looking back. I was 17, just going around bouncing off the walls. I’m glad I had so much fun when we were doing it, ’cause I see how intense these young singers are and how nervous they are and how scary of a prospect it is to stand up in front of the nation and give your best version of yourself in three minutes. And this time, I have this empathy now with the artist, because I’ve been there. That’s probably the biggest thing I can help them with, is that navigating a competition is scary.

What I’ve noticed — this is going to sound stupid. Music is so visual these days. Everything comes with a visual, with a video or a piece of content or something like that. It was so nice to go and sit and not have anything but two speakers in my chair and just hear a person sing, and it be about the voice. Why we love music, really, is the songs and the voice, and that’s what I’ve really loved about being on the show. Like, Jesus, I forget how little just music we listen to.

Niall Horan on His Best Love Song and Favorite 1D Deep Cuts