By Nick Remsen
Summer 2017. It will, justly, go down in musical history as the season of Cardi B’s ascendance; the career-making single “Bodak Yellow” was released in June, and, by year’s end, it had propelled the performer into the firmament of hyper-celebrity. 2017 also marked the year of “Despacito,” released in January by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee (only to then be remixed in April with Justin Bieber). “Despacito” was tied as the longest-running No. 1 placeholder on the Billboard Hot 100, until Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” broke that record in mid-2019.
Within that same time frame, another mega-hit would emerge. It was the solo debut from Liam Payne, whose years as one-fifth (then one-fourth) of One Direction have made him a permanent global force. “Strip That Down” dropped in May, featured Migos member Quavo, and was penned by the singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran. Payne describes the track as “rap singing” with a “pop melody on top.” With a bouncing intro beat overlaid with percussive snaps (and a dusting of piano-key complements), the song was palatable from the first hook and dance-floor ready throughout. In essence: a satisfyingly uncomplicated, all-but-guaranteed banger that would go on to become a quadruple-platinum success (with over 300 million music video views on YouTube and nearly 700 million streams on Spotify, totaling north of 1 billion plays).
Before “Bodak Yellow” pulled its money moves by gaining major traction toward August and onward, “Strip That Down” was what you heard blasting when cars drove by; sun and sound and windows-down fusing together to create that fleeting, specific euphoria that helps determine the song of the summer. “Despacito” contended, no doubt, but it had been around a bit longer, and there was something extra — a listenable breeziness — about “Strip That Down” that made it linger. Payne says he couldn’t release any new material “for nine months, because they just wouldn’t take it off the radio.” According to YouTube commenters, the song has had a minor resurgence in 2019, and Payne admits he is still shocked by how it continues to stream in the millions, monthly. “I’m like, what? It’s so old now.” The song also made a major, unmissable declaration in its chorus: Payne repeatedly voices, “You know I used to be in 1D / Now I’m out, free.”
Fast-forward two years from the song’s release, and Payne is sitting in his London management office, jet-lagged but energized after a quick but busy trip to New York City to promote his newest single, “Stack It Up,” featuring the artist A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie. The song, which also credits Sheeran as a writer, marks Payne’s first major promotional push since “Strip That Down,” having released an EP in 2018 but, as of yet, no complete album. Though fans will not have to wait much longer: it was announced in mid-October that Payne’s first album, titled LP1, will arrive on December 6, 2019.
Eating a salad from Pret a Manger, he is boyishly handsome, even when battling time-zone disorientation. At 26 years old, the Wolverhampton, England-born Payne is father to a son named Bear (with ex-partner, Cheryl Cole) and no stranger to fame. One Direction, that union of Payne, Louis Tomlinson, Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, and Harry Styles, formed in 2010 after appearing on the British version of the singing competition show The X Factor. “1D” would earn millions of fans worldwide and hundreds of millions of dollars; the band went on indefinite hiatus in 2016. “I’ve been doing this for 10 years,” Payne says with a smile, when everyone in the room admits to feeling the grind of an exhausting schedule.
“We’ve gone full circle,” Payne says, relaxing into his chair. “‘Stack It Up’ is the same team that made ‘Strip That Down,’ which is why it sounds like the song’s little brother.” The track is similarly playful but is more about cash-lust than anything physical. It’s also slightly less shimmery, with an attenuated keyboard pulse and a semi-scratchiness to Payne’s vocal work. “One of the main problems I had with the song, actually, is that it’s very money-oriented, and I didn’t know if that was the message I wanted to convey,” Payne continues. “I’ve been really lucky to have great success, but there have been times in my life when I am sitting there, looking out at the most beautiful view, and all of these amazing things are happening around me, but there’s no one there and you’ve got no one to share it with. You sort of think, ‘Well, that didn’t fix anything, did it?’ You feel just as low as if you had none of it.” This is the first bite of Payne’s ice-clear transparency. He is think-aloud and cut-to-the-chase candid, which, it could be argued, is a rare trait for the very famous.
“So, with that in mind, we kind of switched up the lyrics so that you have dreams for you and someone else, and sending this message of working hard for what you want to gain,” Payne says. “I was a kid from humble beginnings. My parents didn’t have a lot. They gave us what they could. The reason I love this song is that, if you’re on your way to work and you’re listening, I like to think that it gives you the urge to go above and beyond for your shit.”
Love — sometimes messy, sometimes fanatical, sometimes deeply personal — is part of Payne’s narrative. His relationship with Cole, another singer (she was also discovered on TV) and personality, was relentlessly targeted by gossipy media. Likewise, his friendships (both then and now) with the other members of One Direction. Regarding modern love — and the trials and tribulations he’s gone through to understand it, and to achieve self-love, at this point — Payne has much to say. The path to 26 has not been easy: The singer has been open about facing mental health, relationship, and self-esteem issues. There is fact and fan fiction when it comes to One Direction’s split, but Payne himself has said there was strife. He even has a tattoo that reads, “We are the quiet ones,” as he felt he was never allowed to speak up on account of the group’s squeaky clean public-facing image.
“I think everyone has a love-hate thing with what they each individually do. It’s not always nice,” he’ll say of his career. “You get a bit of that feeling of turning against your profession.” Has he ever fallen out of love with music? “It can get tedious, and there is a lot of pressure a lot of the time, which is difficult. Your urge sometimes will not be enough. I’ve found that having people around you that give you unwavering support is, more than anything, what keeps me going. I know my girlfriend [Maya Henry] loves my music, and, because of that, it makes me want to make the music 10 times better. Whereas in the past, there have been times when I didn’t know if I wanted to make any more music. You need those people around you to make sure that you carry on.”
Payne has been careful about being too public with Henry, whom he started dating earlier this year. As he sees it, the key to a successful relationship is “a level of calmness, more than anything.” He explains, “A lot of things in my life have happened very quickly, and I’ve not had the sense of stability with somebody in the way that I have it with her. She keeps me calm and grounded about a lot of stuff that I am usually not so at ease about. There is never a lack of trust. It’s about having someone you can hang with, where you’re never pressured to fill the silence. Everything outside and around me is so high intensity right now. She brings the calm.”
Recently, it was reported that Cole had been upset over seeing Payne and the singer Rita Ora performatively almost-kissing on The Tonight Show in January 2018. Tabloid junk? Probably, but while Payne and Cole seem to have struck an equilibrium in their co-parenting and post-romantic life, one does get the impression that Payne is finding the “calmness” as something fresh — and very welcome.
Decisions about what to post on Instagram, the de facto conduit for declarative relationship statuses, are, as expected, not made hastily (he only recently went “public” with an upload featuring Henry). Of course, part of it has to do with fame maintenance; give the audience a little, but not a lot. Payne also admits to mentally working through the backlash and the hysteria that can follow his every move. From the One Direction days, his fandom can tread into extreme territories. “Some people can be really nasty for no reason,” he says. “And also, when you’re worried about going to a restaurant or the park and being overprotective, that actually causes more problems. Because then the paparazzi and the press get more on your shit when you’re hiding away, and then when you do finally show yourself or reveal something, it’s a fucking frenzy. [Maya] and I don’t have any of that. We just go and do our thing. I’ve been at the point of sacrificing my own happiness for other people and their shit, but I don’t feel that way right now.”
Payne then paints it all in celebrity-speak: “I need someone who is relaxed all the time. We had a crowd of 300 girls chasing after us the other day in New York, and I was shitting my pants because I was trying to get her in the car so that she was safe. She got in and just started playing on her phone. I thought, ‘What is wrong with you?’ She’s not phased by any of that shit. People that aren’t impacted by the madness are really hard to find.”
Payne would not count himself as one of those people. He has been affected by acute anxiety, agoraphobia, and insecurity. He has canceled shows and, at one point, found himself drinking too heavily as a coping mechanism. “We all have an ideal in our heads of what we want to be,” Payne says of self-love. “From the moment you step in and say, ‘I am who I think I am,’ then nothing can touch you. For a long time, I was playing this character, and in reality, I was a million miles away from it, and everyone could fucking see that shit. You get a different level of confidence once you are, like, ‘I’m good.’ Self-assuredness is a powerful thing.” Payne says committing to a fitness regimen and routine has helped, too. “You become happier and more confident, more quickly.”
Fatherhood has been the No. 1 factor in keeping Payne on track and in an upward trajectory, both in terms of motivation and thinking positively. Bear Grey Payne is two-and-a-half years old and has, by nature, made his dad “a better person.” “There’s a new urgency to go to work because you know what you’re working for,” Payne says. “I shied away from the role model position because I thought I was going to fuck it up at one point. But when you’re a parent, you have to be. I want to do better and be better for him. I have to travel a lot, but I can set an example for him by doing a good job. If I don’t do a good job, then it would all be a travesty. He has to have an understanding that everything does not happen by accident. You have to work hard for what you have, and what you want.”
At the end of summer 2019, Payne had his first “almost” conversation with his son. Bear was upset about something at school, but eventually he calmed down, and Payne asked, “How was nursery, was it good?” “He said, ‘yep.’ He kept saying it, for about five minutes, to each question. We were having a little chat about nursery! It was the best thing ever. He’s a lovely little boy, and he is so chill. I hope this continues because his dad and mum are notoriously not chill.”
Payne concludes by saying he has only “very recently” felt truly comfortable in his own skin. “I’ve just had a long conversation with a friend about this,” he says. “Don’t let your past define you. It’s not all about what you did or didn’t do. I’m on the map of where I am supposed to be, and knowing that is the key.” Liam Payne, consciously stripped down and continuing to stack it up, takes the last bite of his Pret salad.
Photographed by Charlotte Rutherford
Styled by Adele Canny
Groomed by Bjorn Krischker
Set Design by Chloe Brady
Photo Assistant: Emmet Green
Stylist Assistant: Morgan Hall
Welcome to VOL.UME: Love Now, a new series of stories chronicling how we find and experience romantic connections in the digital age. For the full experience, head to volume.mtv.com.