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Harry Styles On 'Fine Line,' Stevie Nicks And His Definition Of Success

In a decade, Harry Styles has gone from teenage heartthrob to a global pop star in his own right. As he's distanced himself from his adolescent years as a member of One Direction, he's become his own person, starring in the 2017 blockbuster Dunkirk, hosting Saturday Night Live and creating music that pulls from a variety of influences.

Styles released his second solo album Fine Line late last year, and in addition to showcasing some of those influences and his talents as a songwriter, it was also a huge commercial success, with the biggest U.S. sales week for a British male artist since Eric Clapton's Unplugged in 1992.

But Styles says he spent a lot of time rethinking his idea of success after touring his self-titled album. "I think if you're making what you want to make, then ultimately no one can tell you you're unsuccessful, because you're doing what makes you happy," he says.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly spoke to Harry Styles about his love of Fleetwood Mac and finding freedom in the music of the '70s, what he would say to his 16-year-old self and nail polish. Listen in the player above and read on for a transcript of their full conversation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mary Louise Kelly: Your most recent album seems tied up in the '70s, which is a decade you didn't actually live through. What is it about that era that draws you in?

Harry Styles: There's a freedom in the music that is so inspiring. If you go back and listen to so much of that music, and you listen to songs from [Carole King's] Tapestry and Harry Nilsson songs, they sound so fresh. I think it's crazy that something that was made so long ago, you can listen to it now and be like "I want my drums to sound like these drums, and I want my strings to sound like these strings." I think that's really incredible. And I think it's just the freedom, it's people doing what they wanted to do. Obviously, the music business has changed so much since then — there was a lot more of everybody hanging out together and playing songs, and I feel like music is a lot more competitive now.

And is it maybe a little more produced now? Less organic?

The worst thing that can happen is that I make a record that I think everybody else wants to hear, and then it doesn't do well. And you sit there going "Well I wish I'd just made the record that I wanted to make."

I think we just have different technology. When we came to do my first solo album, I had this thing where I wanted to do everything to tape. And then I kind of realized that The Beatles didn't use tape because it was really cool to use, they used it because it was the best technology they had [at the time] and it sounded the best. And now we just have different ways of recording stuff and you can make stuff sound really nice — so we kind of abandoned the tape thing. Overall what draws me to that time with music is just the freedom.

Was making Fine Line sound like the music of the '70s a conscious choice?

I'm not listening to stuff so much anymore being like "I just want my stuff to sound like this." You grow up listening to what your parents listen to. For me it was the [Rolling] Stones, Beatles, Fleetwood [Mac], a lot of Queen, Elvis Presley, Shania Twain, Savage Garden, Norah Jones. That was kind of like the base of what my first experience with music was, and I feel like you can't help but have a lot of references from what you grew up listening to [in your own music].

Speaking of Fleetwood Mac, I saw you've gotten to know and work with Stevie Nicks. What's that like, to get to know someone who was the soundtrack of your childhood and go out on stage with them?

It borders on an out-of-body experience. "Dreams" was the first song I knew all the words to; I used to sing it in the car with my mom. Every time I'm with her, you want to be, obviously, present, right? I'm trying to enjoy being with her and soaking in. But I think at the same time, while you're in the room with her, I'm sitting there thinking about being 10-years-old and singing the song.

Does it matter if you're super famous yourself?

I don't think so, because ultimately we're all humans. It's not like paralyzing starstruck, it's more like I try and appreciate what my 10-year-old self would think of it. I think ultimately you meet [other famous people] and you're kind of in awe of them, but at the same time you get to hang out with them on this human level, where you're just talking and it's really amazing.

Those are the moments that kind of mean the most because it's real. And when everything else about being in music goes away, that's the stuff that I think you end up telling your grandkids. For example, with Stevie, my favorite moments about it aren't usually the show, it's the practicing. When we first played together, it was at the Troubadour — famously, where Elton John did his first U.S. show — and it was an amazing moment, but my favorite was soundchecking. It's like four people in there and just us singing in the empty Troubadour. For me, that's a moment that I'm going to hold on to.

Speaking of moments where you wish you could tell your younger self "Buddy, you have no idea": 10 years ago when you auditioned for the British reality show X Factor, the judge Simon Cowell asked you "What do you want to do with your life, what are your future plans?" You said you were going back to college in the fall to study "law, sociology, business and something else, but I'm not sure yet."

There's a lot of us who wanted to be a rock star and ended up being lawyers. You've gone the other way. Is it funny listening back to yourself? What do you wish you could tell your 16-year-old self?

I guess like "Don't worry." In the early years, I spent a lot of time worrying about what would happen and getting things wrong and saying the wrong thing and doing the wrong thing. I'm trying to let go of the worrying thing, and that's what I've loved the most about this album, rather than the first one. I think I had a lot of fear — whether it was conscious or subconsciously — just about getting it wrong. When I listen back to the first album now, although I still love it so much, I feel like I was almost bowling with the bumpers up a little bit. I can hear places where I was playing it safe.

When I listen back to the first album now, although I still love it so much, I feel like I was almost bowling with the bumpers up a little bit. I can hear places where I was playing it safe.

I think with this one, after touring with an album that wasn't necessarily a radio record and people came to see the show, I realized that the only thing that people really want is for you to do what you want to do. Ultimately, I think if people believe in you, you can make a bad record, you can make a bad song, and people will still come to a show if they're interested and they want to come see you. I think the only time people go "You know what? I'm done with this," is when it stops being authentic. You can't really blame people for that. If there's an artist I loved and I felt like they were faking it, I can't say that I'd keep going to the shows. I think that was a big thing for me, just trying to worry less. The worst thing that can happen is that I make a record that I think everybody else wants to hear, and then it doesn't do well. And you sit there going "Well I wish I'd just made the record that I wanted to make." I think if you're making what you want to make, then ultimately no one can tell you you're unsuccessful, because you're doing what makes you happy. That's the biggest thing that I learned this time.

You dress amazingly. You wear suits, but they're patterned and florals and you had that blouse that got all the attention at last year's Met Gala. I noticed you're wearing nail polish, and you do wear clothing that blurs traditional lines sometimes. What are you hoping people take from that? Is it just "This is what I want to wear, deal with it" or are you trying to send any kind of message?

Tim Walker / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist

For me, it's not like doing it to send a message. Part of being on the last tour, when people came to watch the show, I realized "Oh, these people just want to see me be myself, and I'm telling them to be themselves." And I just didn't want to be a hypocrite. I do it when I'm not working, so to me it doesn't feel like it's "Oh, I'm sending a message with my nail polish." I just put a lot less weight behind it, I think. And sometimes I forget, because I'll go somewhere and someone will be like "Have you got nail polish on?" I'm lucky that I work in an industry that allows you to be creative and express yourself, and I'd encourage it to anybody.

Can you tell us about a favorite song on the album?

My two favorite songs on this album are probably "Cherry" and "Fine Line." "Cherry" is the fifth song on the album. It's one of my favorites, mostly because of how it came about. When I started making this album ... I felt like it had to be big. The last record wasn't really a radio record: The single ["Sign of the Times"] from it was a 6-minute piano ballad, so it wasn't the typical formula. So I felt a bit of pressure that I wanted to make something that worked. I was trying this stuff one night in the studio, and I was worried because I just wasn't really liking anything that I was doing. I felt like I was trying too hard. That's when I make the music that I like the least, is when I'm trying to write a pop song or I'm trying to write something fun.

Everybody left for the weekend, and it was me, Tyler Johnson, who I work with, and Sammy Witte. It was two or three in the morning, and we were having a drink and just talking. I was saying how I have all these records that I'd love to make, I love all this kind of music and in five years I want to make this kind of record, and in 10 years I want to make this kind of album, and then I'll get to make the music that I really want to make. And Tyler just said "You just have to make the music that you want to make — right now. That's the only way of doing it, otherwise you're going to regret it."

And "Cherry" was the result of that?

Yeah, so we stayed and Sammy started playing the guitar riff, and we did it through the night and recorded it. Everybody came back in the morning and listened to it ... I heard it when it was finished and was like "This is the kind of music I want to make."

How did you write "Fine Line?"

"Fine Line" I wrote [during] a gap in the tour. It was January 2018 and I was at my friend Tom's house, who I work with, and we just started strumming this thing, and we started layering these vocals, and it turned into this 6-minute thing. I had it for a long time and I kept listening to it during the tour, like I'd listen to it before I went to bed. Just sonically I loved the song, and I loved the lyrics of the song. When we wrote it, I kind of knew it was the last song of an album, and we ended up taking it to Bath, in England, where I was making this record for a while. I wanted it to turn into something else at the end, I wanted like a big crescendo ending. While we were in Bath, Sammy started playing this little thing on the piano, and I tweaked it a little bit and I was like "That has to go at the end of 'Fine Line.' " Now when I listen to it, it's one of those things where I'm just proud that it's mine, I'm so happy. It's one of those songs that I've always wanted to make.

NPR's Mallory Yu, Sarah Handel and Sami Yenigun produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Cyrena Touros and editorial intern Jon Lewis adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.