How Liam Payne found a new direction

The 24-year-old tells us why he took so long to start his solo career after the biggest boyband in the world ran out of road

Dubai, March 30, 2018: One Direction's Liam Payne performs at the Global Village in Dubai. Satish Kumar for the National/ Story by Saeed Saeed
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In show business, you create memories for your fans, but with the hectic schedule of a pop star, it’s sometimes hard to find the time or head space to collect your own. Scan through social media posts after any of One Direction’s mammoth stadium shows, and you will see a torrent of messages gushing about how it was life-altering. But the viewpoint from the stage, according to former member Liam Payne, is very different.

First of all, being a pop star is a physical business. “In an average show with One Direction, I would clock up six kilometres a night because of how long our stage runway was, and the fact that we were in stadiums. I measured that because I put my phone in my pocket on the step-counter,” he says before his solo gig at Dubai’s Global Village on Friday night.

Click to see photos of his performance at Global Village:

Payne points out that this distance is not far short of what professional footballers, including Lionel Messi, cover during a game, and “that’s just ridiculous”, he says.

The physical exertion, in addition to the busy touring schedule, has reduced Payne’s memories with One Direction – who have been on an indefinite hiatus since 2016 – to a series of vivid snapshots. He admits that he has still not come to terms with the magnitude of the group’s success. When asked about his memories of the 40,000 screaming fans at Dubai’s Sevens Stadium three years ago, Payne is apologetic.

“It’s like a montage of memories, and Dubai is somehow in there,” he says.

“I was reading a thing the other day where it said we’d done all these shows and sold eight million tickets worldwide. I sat there thinking, how did all that happen in such a short space of time? It was just a relentless period.

"But now that I am really thinking about it, you know what I remember about Dubai? We were flying there for the show and there was a sandstorm or something. So we basically had to pull the plane over in Bahrain and wait while it passed."'

This time around, Payne says he is approaching his career with eyes wide open. He was the last of the One Direction members to launch a solo career and, after emerging last year, he has released a stream of revelatory singles that force even the most cynical of music listeners to reappraise the 24-year-old’s abilities.

The debut track, Strip That Down, with its clash of hip-hop beats and clubby synth sounds, is a banger. The follow-up, Bedroom Floor, is even more sonically charged with its arresting mix of electro-pop and tropical rhythms. Then there are his collaborations with German dance producer Zedd on Get Low and Rita Ora on For You, which was part of the soundtrack for the film Fifty Shades Freed.

More than the decisive move away from One Direction's bubblegum pop-rock sound, it is the sheer dexterity of Payne's vocals that impresses: on Strip That Down his suggestive croon is on a par with Justin Timberlake, while on Bedroom Floor his falsetto is sublime.

Reflecting on his acclaimed singles, Payne says they are the result of the soul searching he did after the boy band called it a day.

The other members wasted no time returning to the spotlight – Zayn Malik was the first to leave and released his album Mind of Mine in 2016; Harry Styles released his self-titled debut in 2017 and starred in the film Dunkirk; Niall Horan released new music last year with the folk-influenced album Flicker; while Louis Tomlinson returned on up-tempo singles with American DJ Steve Aoki and pop singer Bebe Rexha.  

"I had to ask myself if I wanted to do this. Because once you step back in, you can't step out. Once I realised that this is what I love doing, I thought about ways I could make it work for me and my family. But it wasn't just about fixing things from my time with the band. A lot of it was personal, and I had to change the way that I approached things. I had to get the mental balance right, and once I did that, everything just felt clearer. That's been the best thing for me right now, which are these moments of clarity, and I am just enjoying myself more and not caring about things as much," he says.

Payne also attributes his newfound balance to fatherhood. He describes how his one-year-old son Bear, whose mother is fellow British singer Cheryl Cole, gave his career a sense of purpose. "He just started saying 'da-dad', which is just the cutest thing. Being a father is grounding. You realise that you are not working hard to improve things just for yourself, but for them as well.

"I realise I can build something for him to have, as long as I work as hard as I can right this second. So I've got to hit the ground running. Unfortunately, it's a risk that I will miss out on certain things. I am aware of that, but it's important for me that I carry on and make this right for him."

With his personal recalibration sorted, the next challenge for Payne was to find his artistic voice. Over One Direction's five albums, one got the sense of each member's musical sensibilities: Zayn Malik is geared towards left-of-field pop and experimental R&B; Styles is all about soaring pop sounds; Horan is a sensitive ­singer-songwriter, while Tomlinson has a rocky and dance vibe. It was Payne who was the odd one out. While he delivered his notes with ease and had a fan base of his own, one often wondered what he was about.

It was the same question flummoxing producers when Payne returned to the studio – he admits there is still some way to go in finding the answer. “I have a songwriter who I worked very closely with over the years. He told me: ‘I know what I’d do if I was working with Niall. I know what I’d do if I was working with Harry. But with you, I don’t know because there’s no limit to what you want to do really.’ The fact that I can sing in a lot of different lanes is a blessing and a curse. But I can’t complain.

“The thing is, when you are in a band, you find out where you fit in. When you are on your own it’s different. Once you lay the foundations and get a few hits under your belt, you get confidence. Then you start to step out of your zone and find out exactly who you are underneath.”

Payne's Dubai show was his second full solo performance with his own band and dancers. It was the experience with One Direction, he says, that is so far allowing him to conquer the introductory jitters.

"I am still trying to find my feet. But when I used to go on stage with 1D, at the start I was nervous. Then, after a while, it was the same 22 songs every day in different places ... you become 22 and 23 years old and you are still singing this song from when you were 17. It just feels weird, and I'm sure every artist would say that," he says. "Now I am back doing it again, and doing what I love to do."


Read more:

The advice Liam Payne offers to the members of Fifth Harmony

Kailash Kher responds to Zayn Malik cover of Teri Deewani

Niall Horan takes to the Dubai fairways with Instagram star Paige Spiranac and Rory McIlroy


Judging by the huge response Payne received at Global Village, the carefree attitude is working. You can't help but root for Payne as he transitions to a pop star in his own right. With over 80,000 fans singing along to the new material and his evergreen 1D hits, a humbled Payne left the stage with new memories of the UAE seared into his conscious.

Not long after the show, he took to social media to acknowledge the Dubai concert as a milestone. Posting a video captured by a drone flying away to reveal the size of the crowd, he said: "I just played to [the] biggest crowd of my life. 85,000. Thanks for making me believe."