Cover Story: Liam Payne on his debut solo album and fatherhood

Jacket by Jil Sander from and shirt by Prada

Liam Payne has been in the public eye from a young age. He made his debut on British television’s The X Factor in 2008, only to be eliminated. He returned two years later and was made part of a quintet that became boy-band sensation One Direction. Five smash albums, world tours and stratospheric success later, they broke up. Payne has since forged a solo career – he’s about to drop a new album – and had a son with his partner, singer Cheryl Cole. He’s still mastering the art of fatherhood, and tells us of his passion for acting when we meet and shoot him in London. Watch this space, love.

Congratulations on the new single, “Familiar”. What is the song about?

A lot of my songs situate things that you go through when you’re younger. This song is about the idea of the chase, where you see somebody that you really like and you just want to get to know them more.

How has the reaction been?

It’s been great so far. You know, every song is different. At the moment, everyone is trying to  t into this new age of technology and you’ve got so many artists doing so many different things. It was a great week to release it because there were so many great songs out. I think this one is a slow burner – I see longevity within this song. With some tracks, you hear it first and you think, “This is great!” But this one, the first time I heard it, I was really unsure – and then I heard it a second time and was like, “Actually, damn, I was wrong!”

This is the fourth single from the upcoming album – all the tracks are distinct. What can we expect from the full album? Do you have a drop date?

I wish I did, because I want it out as well! The track list is completely  finished, I believe. So we’re two-thirds of the way; we’re just finishing it o . I think from this album, there’s a little bit of me almost finding my feet within the music world – where I think I’m supposed to be, what people think of me and how much I love making different styles of music. It’s very collaborative and different. Everything is quite hitty, bouncy and a lot more singy-rap than anything else. I’m actually trying to put more of the ballads on, because I know people want to hear me sing a ballad as well. So it’s a really mixed bag – very eclectic.

Jacket by Calvin Klein 205W39NYC from Mr Porter and top by Amiri from Mr Porter

You’ve said the album is like your Spotify playlist – an amalgam of everything you like. Who are your inspirations for it?

Not to be too cliché, but I love Post Malone. I think it’s so great the way he’s put everything together and he’s a very funny guy as well, actually – I got a message from him the other day that just said “DAD!!!!!!!!!” and that’s all it was! Charlie Puth makes a good pop song and I like Lauv, he’s made some great stuff too. In terms of hip-hop, I like Migos – I like the fun-ness of it. There have been some great writers I’ve been able to get through as well, so I hear a lot of songs that no one else gets to hear. Sometimes they come out later, sometimes they don’t. That’s another part of my playlist, this secret kind of song thing. I got one from Justin Tranter the other day – he’s one of my favourite writers and works a lot with Julia Michaels; they recently did “Sorry” for Justin Bieber.

You were in the world’s biggest group while just a child. How do you top that?

I think the only way we can top that is by being accepted and being great ourselves. One Direction was all concerts and big songs, with longer choruses and things people want to shout out. It was a bit of a teenage rebellion kind of thing, in a sense. The only way we could get any bigger is to throw one massive concert where it’s basically all of us versus each other, but we’re still in a band. So, if we all went like, “Hang on a minute boys, just going to throw this in” and bang, on comes [Niall Horan’s] “Slow Hands” and we’re all just popping along – that would be the most fun sh*t ever.

Jacket by Calvin Klein 205W39NYC from Mr Porter, top by Amiri from Mr Porter, trousers by ZDDZ and boots by Emporio Armani

So would this be like a friendly competition?

Yeah, in a sense. We’re like brothers – so, a brotherly competition. Seeing everybody come out with different sounds has been really exciting. I went to Louis [Tomlinson]’s house the other day and the first thing we were talking about was like, “Did you really realise how big what we just did was?” And we kind of both just sat there – there was nothing really said, but you could tell we were both thinking, “That was some mad sh*t, dude.” And it was! You don’t even realise until you come out of it and look back. The success we saw was how many people would turn up at a concert. And then seeing other people selling out these venues, select groups of people, and we played there so many times – like the Rose Bowl three times in a row. That’s nuts! But even when you read it in the paper, like “the world’s biggest boy band” – we did something that was “the world’s biggest”. It doesn’t really matter what it was. Like, if I made the world’s biggest orange, I’d be quite happy about that, you know what I mean? You can’t top that.

You’ve made your mark on the world.

Exactly – it’s like a small legacy. Even though I’ve got another tiny bear-shaped legacy in the background as well. I think it’s nice.

So you still hang out with Louis. How has your relationship changed with the One Direction guys?

A little while back, I gave a piece of advice to [American girl group] Fifth Harmony in a magazine. When you give advice, it’s sometimes something that you need to listen to yourself, too. I said: “Go away for a while, recollect and regather yourself, and then go and meet people again with your newfound presence.” And I like that, because I went away and the person I was in the band, I’m not him now. It was all right to be that person then, but now, I need to be something totally different. Even going to see Louis the other day – it’s nice to meet people and have them see how you are now, because you can understand all the things you might have done wrong or the things you might have regretted doing. You can say, “I’m different now, so whatever that was in the past, we were different people.” We got on well in One Direction, but there were times when we didn’t. Certain members fell out with each other sometimes, but it would always come back round. So, I don’t ever think that I won’t be friends with these people for life. But I think it’s important in anything that you can think about everything you would have liked to change about yourself and then grow.

Jacket by Alex Mullins, hoodie by Raf Simons from Browns Fashion, trousers by Dolce & Gabbana and shoes by Vetements x Reebok

How would you describe yourself then and now?

Fame made me a little bit nuts and distracted me a lot from the person I was. And it pissed me off in the end, because it was like, “You could have been this guy, but you chose to do this.” Nobody really knew anything about me. I put on a front that wasn’t really me. But now that I’ve had my time away, you slowly, naturally become the person you were before you started, but with a lot more knowledge. So I feel a lot more myself than I ever did before, rather than being a part of something and having a part to play or treading on eggshells around someone. And when I sat back and thought about all the silly things I might have said and done wrong – not that I have any regrets, because I think whatever happened, happened – I think that now is the time to not be that person. I remember the day we finished, because of the place I was in, I was quite happy that we had a break. I said to the person with me at the time, “Thank god I don’t have to play that person again for a long time.” It was exhausting and I couldn’t keep up with myself.

A year ago, you had a son, Bear, with your girlfriend, Cheryl Cole. How has life changed since?

It changes everything. Sometimes I turn around and I look at him and he’s like a little me. But he’s actually morphing into a lot more of Cheryl’s features now, the more he grows up. When he was born, she was like, “I carried him for nine months and he’s all bloody you!” Anyway, you become a lot more caring and responsible. Becoming a dad is difficult and I think a lot of people struggle. Dads don’t really speak about it until you’re part of the club and then they’ll go, “Oh, wait for this, that’s in the post!” and you’re all like, “Oh, thanks for the warning!” Fatherhood was totally different to what I expected.

The difference with being a dad is that you just have to take care of the whole picture at the start. A mother and a child is the most beautiful thing to watch, but they’re the closest thing ever – and you’re close, but you’ll never be as close. Their hearts were beating at the same time at one point, for god’s sake! You’re never going to be as close as that. So a lot of dads feel put out, in that sense. I didn’t really feel put out, but I was like, “Where’s my place?” I was desperate to find out what I was meant to do – changing nappies and whatever else. For me as a dad, you’re just taking care of everything as much as you can, making sure he’s got a smile on his face. And if you cook for her, she feeds him, so you’re cooking for everyone – that’s what my thing was. As daft as it sounds, cooking actually got me through fatherhood because it made me feel useful, rather than being the guy who just gets handed o  to change his nappy and make him laugh and giggle. That’s a lot of what it is. Women are superhuman. You don’t realise it until they have a baby. They can do a lot of things that, frankly, we can’t.

Trousers by Valentino, shirt by Prada, shoes by Philipp Plein and watch is Liam's own

Let’s talk about style. How do you usually dress?

Usually it’s quite chill. I went through a stage where I went through a lot of crazy sh*t, which was fun. I like to test the boundaries and see what happens. I don’t mind going out if it looks a bit silly – sometimes that’s the reason I’m wearing it, because it’s just fun and off-the-cuff and jovial, rather than something to be taken too seriously. The shoot was nice today because I referenced this Fight Club sort of thing a while ago, so I was happy before we did it.

You’re really into trainers. Any particular brands you enjoy?

Yeah, I love trainers. I’m not much of a brand guy, but I’ve started looking more into brands. Sometimes you feel like you have to know a bit to fit in, which is a bit false, but at the same time, I’ve made some good friends through that. I think what Kim Jones did for Louis Vuitton was really great – I had a lot of those pieces – and obviously, Virgil Abloh is a massive thing in culture now, which is just crazy. I went down to Virgil’s art exhibition and it was really, really cool. He’s designing buildings, for god’s sake – how did it get to that level? He’s definitely someone I’ve been drawn to. I did like Vetements for a while, but I don’t get the thing with the unicorns – I can’t bring myself to wear a unicorn. I liked the DHL stuff. That’s the kind of silly fashion I’m talking about. I went to a boxing match in a DHL shirt and the newspapers were like, “Liam’s got a new job,” which I thought was quite funny. And that’s often my reaction to a lot of press – they poke me all the time, so why the hell should I not poke back?

Jacket by Jil Sander from Browns Fashion, shirt by Prada, trousers by Neil Barrett, shoes by Valentino and eyewear is Stylist’s own

Though you’re not wearing any today, what’s with the chains?

No, I’m not wearing a big one today, but I just love them. For me, it’s all a bit of fun. Why can’t we all just have fun with it? That’s the best way for us to get around this very awkward time of being politically correct – just have fun. That’s the basic answer to most of these types of questions. In today’s world, teenagers put so much pressure on themselves. I remember feeling pressure as a teenager, with all these cameras and selfies and how many likes you’ve got or whatever the f**k is going on. I hope that they just have fun with Instagram and Facebook. Don’t treat it as a tool or a serious thing. Just mess around and it’ll all come together, if that’s what you’re interested in. There was an article the other week that said more people want to become YouTubers than anything else. But then, I wanted to become a pop star. I remember going for a job thing and they were like, “What do you want to be?” and I was like, “Well, a runner, a pop star or a  reman.” And they said, “Okay, let’s put pop star at the bottom.” And I was like “Okay, f***king watch this then, watch this space, love.” That’s like a lot of these things, like becoming an influencer or a YouTuber – in my head, it’s like, well, I don’t really understand the world, but carry on.

In 10 years, where do you see yourself?

Well, 10 years ago, I definitely didn’t see myself here. I mean, I’d just met my future missus in a room [on The X Factor] where she was giving me a yes or no. [laughs] I got three yeses in the end from her. That’s hilarious! I didn’t realise at the time that, by doing what my dad would say – “Oh go on, we’ll try at this” – and just going along with it was one of the best things I ever did. And even now, with my management and everyone else, they’ll be like, “We’re doing this, then” and I just go along with it. That’s how I’ve survived through this.

Plotting the future, I’d like to have a couple more albums. I would like to see One Direction come back and do that big concert I was talking about. And just have a happy, happy family. Success has become a different thing after having Bear. The idea that I want to provide everything for my son – and who wouldn’t? You’d jump on a hot  re for them. I have to do all this stuff  because I want to build a bright future for him. Also, if I’m lazy and retire at this point to spend more time with him, what am I teaching him? I can’t teach him to just sit back on what you have and the success that you’ve made – not at all. You have to go out and work for what you want. The one thing that I learned from my dad, even if he wasn’t around as much as I’d have liked, was that he went to work and did his job so that I could enjoy myself. And that’s what I want to do for Bear. Life does not stop when you have a child.

Shirt is SSS World Corp and t-shirt (worn underneath) by Neil Barrett

Besides music, what’s on the horizon?

Acting has always been one of my major passions, but I want to get it right. Someone showed me a script the other day that we could have gone for. It was by someone who was really well known, a good idea, but I was like, “I don’t know what I’m doing yet, so how the f**k can I just walk in and do this?” I need to baby-step this one, because I don’t want to get it wrong. So I want to learn how to act first before I pop myself in front of loads of cameras and have people screaming at me.

If you know you’re not going to do it well, you’d rather not do it at all?

Exactly! I’m going to have a crack at some point, but I don’t know when. I’ll have to wait for the right script. I’m accepted now and was really well received by the music industry, and the people who wanted to work with me were higher up the ladder than I thought – such as Ed Sheeran and Zedd, who are like musical gods. If the same thing could happen with acting, that would be the best. Being on-screen with other great actors only brings more out of you. It’s a very collaborative thing, once again, and I like working like that.

Photographer / Rick Guest
Creative Director / Paris Libby
Fashion Editor & Text / Kieran Ho
Styling / Atip Wananuruks
Styling Assistant / Sophie Casha
Groomers / Rebecca Wordingham & Debbie from Saint Luke Artist

This feature originally appeared in the May 2018 print issue of #legend  

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