Four months after releasing his eponymous debut and hitting No. 1 on the Billboard 200, One Direction alumnus Harry Styles revisited the album with executive producer Jeff Bhasker during an hour-long chat moderated by famed journalist and film director Cameron Crowe at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles on Friday night (Sept. 15).
During the conversation, the 23-year-old, who kicks off his world tour in San Francisco on Sept. 19, shared sharp and astute reflections on his artistic process, spanning everything from isolating himself in a studio in Jamaica to developing ideas to moving on from being in a band and how entering this chapter of his career allowed for new beginnings.
The chat began with Styles recalling how the record began: without any outside influence, and with nothing but fond memories of his time with 1D.
“We started the record without a label, so the start of the process didn’t feel like I was making any sort of commitment and I didn’t feel any pressure, [like] ‘You have to make this,’ or anyone have an influence on what they thought I should be making,” said Styles, clad in a black tee, black skinny jeans and a golf cap. “It was just a group of us writing stuff to have fun and writing some songs and seeing what came out with the thought that I would actually play them myself. I think that’s a large part of the record is that it started that way. It didn’t start from, what do they want? I think if you’re lucky, I didn’t go into making the album or leave the band coming out of it feeling suppressed or feeling like I never got to write what I wanted to write. I loved being in the band so much and got to learn so much, and with this, I felt like I could just have a good time working out what it would sound like if I made an album.”
When Bhasker, who has credits on projects from Beyonce and Rihanna to fun. and Mark Ronson, was first approached to work with Styles, he cancelled not one but two meetings with the pop star – something Styles was quick to remind him – but inevitably came around.
“I was in a place where I knew he was a very high profile person and artist and I was kind of searching for something else than doing that,” Bhasker explained. “When you come full circle, and I think the kind of music that we made, it’s so ironic that that first impulse I thought it would be, I think the album reflects it.” “To be honest, I didn’t know any of that,” quipped Styles to laughter. “I’m sort of sad! I mean it’s Hollywood, everyone cancels.”
Crowe served as a pensive moderator, drawing from anecdotes he learned from writing the Rolling Stone cover story on Styles in April 2017. “Are the best songs the most personal songs in general?” he asked. “I think my favorite songs,” responded Styles, “but my favorite way to listen to music is on my own, with my eyes closed for example, or not. If I’m driving, or operating machinery, I usually keep them open. But my favorite song on the album, the last song, ‘From the Dining Room,’ is the most personal to me and I think my favorite one. But I don’t think they have to be. I think it’s just as important to have songs that are fun and make you feel great, and I think that’s just as important as everything being moody and deep and meaningful.”
Bhasker recounted how he initially sat with Styles on his balcony, listening to reference tracks thinking they were Styles demos but were actually White Stripes songs. Bhasker initially had mentee producers hit the studio with Styles, but got more involved when the singer, wanting to unplug from distractions (including Instagram and Twitter, which Styles now rarely uses), took a recommendation from a friend to go to Jamaica to work in a singular recording space.
“I felt I was going into the studio to make an album I wanted to make,” said Styles. “I didn’t feel like, what do I need to make as Harry from that band for it to be good? I missed music. I just wanted to go on and write with my friends and have a good time and hopefully like what came out at the end.”
In the end, Harry Styles became a renowned success, spawning the single “Sign of the Times” that peaked at No. 4 on the Hot 100, amid a year where his theatrical debut in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk also marked his first time at the top of the box office. The chat concluded with Styles taking a few questions from the fans, explaining that his signature rings that he wears are from various people including grandparents and for his goddaughter and even taking a kazoo from one fan who suggested he play any song of his choosing (he picked one from Shania Twain).
It wouldn’t be a night without some music, and Styles strapped on a six-string to play a stripped-down version of “Two Ghosts” alongside Bhasker on keys and guitarist Mitch Rowland. Some words from earlier rang true as he thanked the audience: “It made it so we were in Jamaica, we’re in the studio every day, we just didn’t think about anything else. It was about these five guys in a room, we’re in Jamaica, let’s make some music that we want to sit in Jamaica and listen to, and that was it. I found it so difficult to explain music and making it and so much of the details, and we just wanted to write what we wanted to listen to and what we loved. And we finished with an album that we’re so happy with.”