Ahead of a Sept. 20 show at Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre, Harry Styles took the stage at downtown L.A.’s Grammy Museum on Friday night (Sept. 15) for a Q&A conducted by writer and filmmaker Cameron Crowe. Styles, who released his self-titled debut in May, was joined by producer Jeff Bhasker for a lively, often laugh-out-loud discussion of how the album came together, Styles’ experience filming “Dunkirk” (“I was in the water way more than the movie suggests,” Styles cracked), and his views on the music industry.
And while the Grammy Awards weren’t mentioned specifically, the venue — as well as the presence of longtime Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich in the crowd — certainly brought to mind the possibility of a future nomination for what is arguably one of the strongest albums of the year. An understated post-interview performance of Styles’ gorgeous second single, “Two Ghosts,” featuring Bhasker on keyboards, drove the point home.
The story of how the music came together — written and recorded in a remote studio complex in Jamaica — has been told by this point, but Crowe dug deeper into the process, letting Styles and Bhasker expound on just how organic and, in the producer’s words, “authentic and viscerally honest” the project ended up being.
At the same time, said Styles, “it was the most fun I’ve ever had.” Partly because he started on the album without a label commitment (Styles would later sign to Columbia, home to One Direction), he felt unencumbered. “When we started the process, it didn’t feel like I was making any sort of commitment,” said Styles. “I didn’t feel any pressure.”
That freedom allowed songs like “Sign of the Times” to flow out of Styles, even as other tracks were still coming together. Bhasker described a moment in which Styles sat at the piano almost in a trance, coming up with the chord progression to what turned out to be his first single. “It was writing from this place of, ‘Let’s get an idea going, do something with it, and have fun,‘” said Bhasker. “And in 5 or 6 days, they had, like, 10 songs. … It was that immediate.”
Styles’ favorite track on the album is “From the Dining Table,” which he said is, “The one that makes me feel the most,” adding that, “it’s the most different than what I expected myself to write and it’s probably the most honest that I’ve been in a song as well.”
The album’s stylistic choices — what some deem as musical nods to classic rock acts like David Bowie and Pink Floyd — were also illuminated, with Styles explaining that his father listened to “a lot of Queen and Pink Floyd,” while his mother favored Norah Jones and Shania Twain. “I’m a huge Shania Twain fan,” said Styles (he later played a snippet of a Twain song on a kazoo, by request from an audience member).
Bhasker’s take is that if any “homage” is sensed, it was not intentional, though the record they ended up with was destined to sound the way it did. “We were not thinking about [influences] at all,” he said, noting that, in this era of ProTools and pop co-writes, “It couldn’t be more punk rock” to record an album the way those classic rock acts did.
Indeed, the sort of liberties Styles was afforded new artists rarely see, and for that, the singer credits the record company, run at the time of his signing by executive Rob Stringer, who has since ascended to CEO of Sony Music Entertainment. Said Styles: “We had signed with Columbia and I called Rob one day saying, ‘Hey, would you mind leaving me a alone for six months and I’ll call you when [the album is] finished?’ He said, ‘I want hear it when you’re excited to play it for me.’ … A lot of people get into this thing of, ‘It’s me versus the record label,’ and I feel so lucky to get to work with everyone at Columbia. The support from them allowed us to go do what we want, so I have to say thanks to them for letting it happen this way.”
Not to let the mood get too serious, though, Styles then encouraged all in attendance, which included journalists, television executives, and Grammy chapter members, to come to the Greek on Wednesday and experience these songs, the band, and the vibe, for themselves. “You’re all on the list,” Bhasker joked. Added Styles: “If anyone wants to come, Capitol Records said they would cover the cost.” Charge it to Niall Horan’s recoupable account?