Looking back, it was undoubtedly risky suggesting to meet Harry Styles, the global music megastar, the apple of so many millions of eyes, at a public open-air swimming pool in London on an unusually sunny March morning—right when people were bouncing around the city with a vaguely manic, newly liberated energy, catalyzed by the total lift on COVID restrictions. But swimmers, particularly all-weather swimmers (the lido I chose is unheated and open year-round), take the meditative pleasure of swimming seriously, as Styles himself, who swims outdoors daily, knows well. «I feel like people who have discovered cold water swimming are just so happy for you that you’ve also found it,» Styles said. In other words, no one is hassling you for water-side photos. Indeed, around us, most swimmers were doing an admirable job of feigning indifference to the fact that an instantly recognizable pinup (the hair, the face, the tattoos) was stripped off, poolside.
Styles, who arrived in a knitted tank top with a motif of two pears and brown corduroy shorts, laid a quick-dry towel across his lap to shield himself as he switched from underwear to a pair of dark green trunks. «Can I do this? Is this all right?» he said, laughing, as he tried to avoid flashing. «I’ve put both legs in one leg, classic start.» The water was 52°F, a level of cold that still knocks the air out of your lungs as you enter. I wore a swimming cap and goggles. «All right, Michael Phelps,» Styles goaded as I dived in. He kept his Gucci sunglasses on and swam a refined breaststroke. We did two lengths (130 yards) and emerged pink and giddy. «That’s the thing with a swim,» he said. «It’s the one thing you never regret.»
Styles has spent the last few years on a quest to enjoy things for what they are, to «be in the moment,» as he put it. Swimming is good for this; it’s hard to think about anything else when you are struggling to keep breathing. Just before the pandemic, in December 2019, Styles released his second solo album, Fine Line, to acclaim. The corresponding live shows, Love On Tour, were due to start in April 2020. But by then, the pandemic was raging; disaster declarations had been made across the U.S., and Europe was on lockdown. Styles had envisaged himself busy, playing packed shows each night, the music bellowing from his lungs, his pearls and sequins glittering in the light. Instead, nothing. «Suddenly, the screaming stopped,» he said. Everything was canceled, an end to the relentless merry-go-round of attention Styles has been on since 2010—then a smiling 16-year-old in a skinny scarf that would hint at the kind of fey hip-wiggling rocker he would go on to become a decade later—when he appeared on the British talent show The X Factor and was set on a conveyer belt to stardom.
Now Styles was stuck in L.A. for months with nothing to do. «It was the first time I’d stopped since I left my mum’s,» he said. For a while, at the beginning of lockdown, productivity drilled into him, Styles felt like he should work, create. The ethos with One Direction (the boy band he was packaged into on The X Factor) was always more, next, bigger, better. It was «all about how do you keep it going and how do you get it to grow,» he said. «There were so many years where, for me, especially in the band and the first few years coming out of it, I’d just been terrified of it ending, because I didn’t necessarily know who I was if I didn’t do music.»
Styles came to see that COVID was out of his control, that he just had to ride it out. He bubbled with a group of friends and for about six weeks did «practically nothing.» Didn’t write any music. Didn’t record. He was suddenly just another young guy in a house-share trying not to bug his roommates. Styles came to realize that his past schedule had facilitated avoidance. «Whether it was with friends or people I was dating, I was always gone before it got to the point of having to have any difficult conversations,» he said. So he used lockdown to commit to being a better friend, son, brother. He pushed himself to confront things he hadn’t brought up, had many long, honest chats. And like most people who found themselves suddenly very, very inside, he thought a lot about the idea of home—about belonging, peace, sanctuary. «I realized that that home feeling isn’t something that you get from a house; it’s more of an internal thing. You realize that when you stop for a minute,» he said.
A few months later when he started recording in L.A., and later in Oxfordshire and London, he thought about what he was doing not as the creation of a new record but as an extension of that time kicking back with friends (he has a close-knit circle and was living with some of the same people he writes and plays with). «I’ve always made my worst, most generic work when I’m just desperate to get a single,» he explained. So he tried to see what he was doing as open, speculative. That is, he has realized, his great skill as a musician; he’s not naturally gifted at guitar or piano, not the most confident singer, can’t read music, but he excels when it comes to bringing people together. He is at his best, he said, when he pulls away from what is formal or expected and does something playful, collaborative, instinctive, fun. While Fine Line is full of references to Styles’ musical heroes (Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, Van Morrison), this time, when he started recording, he deliberately didn’t listen to anything—except classical, music that cleansed him of sonic references—so he could start again with «a blank canvas.»
He knew he had to commit to the reset, to the sense of a fresh start that was happening across his life. He is aware that this all sounds a bit pretentious, a bit airy-fairy, but then, who didn’t get caught up in a rush of pandemic life-improvement epiphanies? «I think everyone went through a big moment of self-reflection, a lot of navel-gazing, and I don’t know if there’s anything more navel-gazing than making an album. It’s so self-absorbed,» he said.
Two years on, Styles and I are meeting because that album, titled Harry’s House, is about to be announced to the world. (Styles actually finished it before he finally held his much-delayed Fine Line tour in September 2021, the first full indoor arena concert run in the U.S. since COVID hit.) The day before we meet, I listened to the album in a room at Sony’s London headquarters under the watchful eye of a company executive. Only a handful of people knew then about its existence, and, overwhelmed by the pressure of secrecy, I briefly freaked out when I found myself audibly humming one of the songs on the train home. Harry’s House is, as you can probably guess, about home. Not just home in the sense of a physical space—though there are plenty of references to kitchens and «sitting in the garden» and «maple syrup, coffee, pancakes for two»—but also to home «in terms of a headspace or mental well-being,» as Styles put it. «It sounds like the biggest, and the most fun, but it’s by far the most intimate,» he said of the album.
At this point, Styles and I were sitting with a coffee on a patch of grass outside the pool, and I had begun to realize that I had kept him in the cold water way, way too long. He was visibly shaking. «Two lengths was too much,» he agreed. I think we were both trying to show off—me, nonchalance to a popular heartthrob, and him, hardiness to another committed cold water swimmer. I became worried I had incapacitated him, something that would get me into great trouble, as a member of his team reminded me by text later, as he was due to perform at Coachella in a few weeks. «If you killed me, it would make for a good story,» Styles said, eager to see the sunny side. We set off in search of heat.
Almost anyone who meets Styles will tell you how polite, breezy he is. Few interviews go by without mentioning his charm. Indeed, it is hard not to describe his boyish enthusiasm in the same campy, knowing cheesiness that enlivens his songs («strawberries on a summer evenin'» or the exquisitely saccharine, «If I was a bluebird, I would fly to you; you be the spoon, dip you in honey so I can be sticking to you,» from «Daylight» on Harry’s House). Styles is teddy bears on your teenage bed, perfect handwriting on thank you cards, picked flowers on Sunday morning, puppies running on fresh-cut grass, Grandma’s favorite homemade cake. At points, he is almost daffily nice, too attentive, as if held in the throes of a decade-long bout of imposter syndrome (he confirmed that he does, sometimes, expect that someone will tap him on the shoulder and say, «The jig is up. You’re done now»). Surely a mask, you are thinking. No one that fancied can be that sweet. I asked Styles this myself: Is he actually pleasant, normal, sane? «My producer keeps asking me when I’m going to have my big breakdown,» he said, laughing. «The most honest version I can think of is, I didn’t grow up in poverty by any means, but we didn’t have much money, and I had an expectation of what I could achieve in life. I feel like everything else has been a bonus, and I am so lucky.»
That said, both Styles and his therapist have questioned why he cares quite so much about being likable. This is one of the things he thought about a lot in his big pandemic reflection. In part, it’s a choice, he explained. He recalled moving to London after The X Factor and hearing tales of petulant celebrities screaming because someone got their coffee order wrong and deciding to never be that guy, to never give someone a petty reason to bad-mouth him. But more recently he’s come to worry that the drive for approval came from a more complex place, a place of caution, fear, control. «In lockdown, I started processing a lot of stuff that happened when I was in the band,» he said. He thought about the way he was encouraged to give so much of himself away, «to get people to engage with you, to like you.» He thought about the fact that no baby photos exist of him that aren’t on the internet (you give a bunch to an X Factor producer doing a piece on your backstory without much thought, and suddenly your childhood is online). He thought about the journalists asking questions, when he was still a teenager, about how many people he’d slept with and how, rather than telling them to go away, he would worry about how he could be coy without them leaving the room annoyed. «Why do I feel like I’m the one who has done something wrong?» he said to me, after we got up to shift spots in the park when a teenager started filming us for a prank video.
Styles said he often spent interviews terrified about saying the wrong thing until he stopped to question what abhorrent belief or bizarre opinion he was scared he’d accidentally reveal and realized he couldn’t think of anything. He thought about how, when good things happened—say, a No. 1 album—he wouldn’t feel happy, just relieved. And he thought about the cleanliness clauses in the contracts he used to sign, which would dictate that they would be null and void if he did anything supposedly unsavory, and about how terrified that used to make him. And about when he signed his solo contract and learned that the ability to make music would not be affected by personal transgressions, he burst into tears, a reaction he still seemed shocked by, retelling it to me now, years later. «I felt free,» he explained.
When Styles began therapy about five years ago, he was reluctant initially, feeling it was a music industry cliché. «I thought it meant that you were broken,» he said. «I wanted to be the one who could say I didn’t need it.» He returned to the home theme that has underpinned our conversation, explaining that therapy has allowed him to «open up rooms in himself» that he didn’t know existed, allowed him to feel things more honestly, where before he had tended to»emotionally coast.» He said, «I think that accepting living, being happy, hurting in the extremes, that is the most alive you can be. Losing it crying, losing it laughing—there’s no way, I don think, to feel more alive than that.»
Recently Styles began to work through issues related to intimacy, dating, love. «For a long time, it felt like the only thing that was mine was my sex life. I felt so ashamed about it, ashamed at the idea of people even knowing that I was having sex, let alone who with,» he said. The life of a boy band member is something of a Ken Doll existence—a smooth nothingness where sex should be. One must be flirtatious (swoon!) without ever being seen to have sex, let alone casual sex. One must project the intrigue of a bad boy without ever doing anything bad; you are an object, an image, onto which people project fantasies, not a person who actually does things, who gets messy. «At the time, there were still the kiss-and-tell things. Working out who I could trust was stressful,» Styles said. «But I think I got to a place where I was like, why do I feel ashamed? I’m a 26-year-old man who’s single; it’s like, yes, I have sex.»
Styles has come to fame at a complex time for the idolized. When he emerged, the UK was at the height of its tabloid culture, when celebrities were being hounded, exposed. That gave way to social media, where everyone expected to see everything, where anyone could publish snapshots, footage, gossip. «I think we’re in a moment of reflection,» Styles said. «You look back, especially now there’s all the documentaries, like the Britney documentary, and you watch how people were abused in that way, by that system, especially women. You recall articles from not even five years ago, and you’re like, I can’t even believe that was written.» He has been thinking a lot recently about autonomy, ownership, privacy. About what he should be able to keep to himself, what he should be able to simply communicate through his music without follow-up questions or prying. Around the time of Fine Line, he faced scrutiny around his sexuality. People became incredulous that he wore dresses, waved Pride flags, and yet hadn’t clarified with precision, publicly to a journalist or on social media, the specifics of who he’d slept with, how he defined. This expectation is, to him, bizarre, «outdated.» «I’ve been really open with it with my friends, but that’s my personal experience; it’s mine,» he said. «The whole point of where we should be heading, which is toward accepting everybody and being more open, is that it doesn’t matter, and it’s about not having to label everything, not having to clarify what boxes you’re checking.»
But Styles does not want to appear ungrateful or defensive, or even angry. All of this contemplation, this honesty, is not to say that he didn’t love it, hasn’t loved it all—because he has, he reminded me several times, «absolutely loved it.» Despite the acceptance that some things could, should, have been different, he still feels lucky every day, he said, lucky to make music, lucky to do what he loves.
By now, we were snug in a local café; all the other attendees appeared to be in their late seventies, and no one gave us a second glance. In about an hour from now, just after we’ve parted, Styles’ album’s existence will be announced to the world on Twitter. The cover, on which he stands alone in an upside-down room, will go on within mere hours to receive over a million likes. The first single on the album, «As It Was,» begins with a clip of a voice note from one of his goddaughters asking him to say good night to her. It is, he said, about «metamorphosis.» About when you look back on life, and on your past selves, and barely recognize them. About when you realize everything has transformed, irrevocably. About when you grow up, change, begin to move on.
Toward the end of our meeting, Styles told me a story about being at the Grammys in 2021 and observing the emergence of new superstars, like Billie Eilish, who he admires. Watching her—so talented, so buzzy, so new—was a turning point for him, he explained. «She was so much younger than I am, and, when I was in the band, we were always the young guys. When I did my first solo thing, I was still like the young guy,» he said. «I’m not like an old man now, but she’s just a different generation.» It made him reflective, he said: A former self could identify with what she was going through—the sudden rush of admiration, the clamoring—and he felt proud of her, happy for her, but, simultaneously, oddly distinct, hardened even. He realized that fighting to always be «the thing,» always the hot new name, would not only be miserable but unsustainable. He realized that that need for validation, for relevance, for competition, is what had caused countless breakdowns, countless bad choices, even bad songs in the history of music.»You can’t win music. It’s not like Formula One,» he said. «I was like, in my lifetime, there will be 10 more people who burst onto the scene in that way, and I’m only going to get further away from being the young thing. So, get comfortable with finding something else that makes you happy. I just found that so liberating.»
Styles told me that he sees Harry’s House as a similar watershed. «Finally, it doesn’t feel like my life is over if this album isn’t a commercial success,» he said. «You’ve never felt that way before?» I asked. He said, «Honestly, I don’t think I have.» With his first album, he explained, he was terrified to make fun music, «because I’d come out of the band, and it was like, if I want to be taken seriously as a musician, then I can’t make fun music.» He called it «bowling with the bumpers up, playing it safe.» While the second album was «freer,» he became concerned with making «really big songs,» an objective he now questions. Now his goals are, on the surface, smaller but, to him, far greater: «I just want to make stuff that is right, that is fun, in terms of the process, that I can be proud of for a long time, that my friends can be proud of, that my family can be proud of, that my kids will be proud of one day,» he said. We hugged goodbye, and he set off through North London on foot—a sex symbol, a fashion darling, a very modern rock star, weaving his way back home.
Text By Lou Stoppard
Photos By Tim Walker
Stylist Harry Lambert at Bryant Artists
Makeup Artist Ammy Drammeh at Bryant Artists
Hair Stylist Matt Mulhall at Streeters
Manicurist Lauren Michelle Pires at Future Rep
Production LG Studio
Photo Assistant Antonio Perricone
Digital Operator Tony Ivanov
Styling Assistants Ryan Wohlgemut, Naomi Phillips, Neve Randall
Producer Laura Galligan
Production Coordinator Camilla Lewis