Harry Styles Reveals the Secrets Behind 'Fine Line' - Rolling Stone
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Harry Styles Reveals the Secrets Behind ‘Fine Line’

A track-by-track breakdown of the singer’s joyous, expansive new album

Harry Styles

Ryan McGinley for Rolling Stone

Harry Styles twirls in the center of the floor of the L.A. Forum, dancing wildly to his new song “Golden.” The venue is deserted. It’s Thursday afternoon, just a few hours before the release of his hotly awaited second album, Fine Line. He’s rehearsing for Friday night’s big album-release celebration show. (Outside the arena, the parking lot is full of tents — fans from around the world have been camping out all week, awaiting a spot on this floor.) After a few hours of rehearsing with his band, Styles cuts loose as the new album begins to blast over the speakers, breaking into a dance of joy. It’s probably the last time he’ll ever hear this song in a room where nobody else is dancing.

Backstage, he lounges on a leather couch in his corduroy flares, a string of pearls, and a yellow T-shirt depicting a panda and the words “I’m Gonna Die Lonely.” He and his musical wingman, Tom “Kid Harpoon” Hull, argue over the set list for the upcoming world tour, even though it doesn’t start until April. His mother reaches for an apple; ever the dutiful rock-star son, Styles directs her to the bowl where the tastier apples are hidden. He’s restless with anticipation for the world to hear his new songs, and he’s not doing a great job of hiding it.

Fine Line is the soulful, expansive, joyous pop masterpiece Styles has been reaching for ever since he blew up nearly 10 years ago, as the heartthrob of One Direction. As he sings in “Lights Up,” the single that dropped in September, he’s stepping into the light. “It all just comes down to I’m having more fun, I guess,” he says. “I think ‘Lights Up’ came at the end of a long period of self-reflection, self-acceptance,” he says. “Through the two years of making the record I went through a lot of personal changes — I just had the conversations with myself that you don’t always have. And I just feel more comfortable being myself.”

His life has changed in oh-so-many ways — some involving the occasional magic mushroom, others involving the even more psychedelic power of a broken heart. The music ranges from the Laurel Canyon hippie soft-rock vibe of “Canyon Moon” — Styles calls it “Crosby, Stills, and Nash on steroids” — to the R&B pulse of “Adore You.” Fine Line is a breakup album that’s often sorrowful but reflects the introspective evolution of a 25-year-old navigating the seas of having sex and feeling sad, despite Styles having spent so much of his youth in the spotlight. He’s refusing to follow trends or fit any formula. “The overall arc is just that I tried to redefine what success means to me. I tried to rewire what I thought about it. A lot changes in two years, especially after coming out of the band and just working out what life is now. I feel so much freer, making this album — you get to a place where you feel happy even if the song is about the time when you weren’t that happy.”

The first time Styles played this album for me, back in June, it was a few miles away, in L.A.’s Henson Studios, the same room where his idol Carole King made Tapestry — for him, sacred ground. “I look back on the last album,” he said then, referring to his 2017 solo debut. “And I thought I was being so honest, just because there’s one line about having a wank. I had no idea. You write a song that’s pretty open and honest, and you think, ‘That’s just my song,’ but then you hand it over to people, and it’s like, ‘Oh fuck!’ Until people hear them, they’re not even songs. They’re just voice notes.”

Here is Styles’ song-by-song guide to Fine Line — along the creative and emotional journey he took while making it.

“Golden”

The first song written for Fine Line, on the second day of the sessions at Shangri-La Studios in Malibu. “That was always the first one I played to people,” he says. “That was just always going to be Track One.” It’s a blast of vintage Seventies SoCal soft rock, the kind of Laurel Canyon mellowness that suffused his first album, layered in guitars and harmonies. “When we wrote ‘Golden,’ we were sitting around the kitchen in the studio, and I was playing it on guitar. There were five of us singing the harmonies — the acoustics in the kitchen made it sound so cool, so we thought, this song’s gonna work.”

Even in this sunny SoCal pop tune, there’s a tinge of bittersweet loss: As the sun goes down, he pleads, “I don’t wanna be alone.” As he says, “I don’t know much about Van Morrison’s life, but I know how he felt about this girl, because he put it in a song. So I like working the same way.”

“Watermelon Sugar”

Styles did this fruit-crazed jam on Saturday Night Live, stretching out with his live band. He wrote “Watermelon Sugar” with producer Tyler Johnson, Tom Hull, and guitar sidekick Mitch Rowland; as with the whole album, he worked with members of his tight rotating cast of friends and collaborators, rather than the usual hit squad of pros. “If you’re going in with session writers or something, you spend one or two days there, and there is no way that person really cares about your album as much as you do. Because they’re into something else tomorrow. I know that Mitch, Tyler, Tom, Sammy [Witte], Jeff [Bhasker] wanted the album to be as good as I wanted to be. They don’t care if it’s their song or not. They’re not concerned how many songs they get on an album. They want it to be the best album it can possibly be. We’ll bond over music we love and things we’re going through. It’s not like there’s one person in the group that’s like, ‘Well, no, I don’t talk about that. I just make beats.’”

A massive influence on the album — and on his life — is his experience on his first solo tour, stepping out without One Direction. “The tour, that affected me deeply. It really changed me emotionally. Having people come to sing the songs. For me the tour was the biggest thing in terms of being more accepting of myself, I think. I kept thinking, ‘Oh wow, they really want me to be myself. And be out and do it.’ That’s the thing I’m most thankful for, of touring. The fans in the room [make] this environment where people come to feel like they can be themselves. There’s nothing that makes me feel more myself than to be in this whole room of people. It made me realize people want to see me experiment and have fun. Nobody wants to see you fake it.”

“Adore You”

“‘Adore You’ is the poppiest song on the album,” he says of the latest single. “This time I really felt so much less afraid to write fun pop songs. It had to do with the whole thing of being on tour and feeling accepted. I listen to stuff like Harry Nilsson and Paul Simon and Van Morrison, and I think, well, Van Morrison has ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ and Nilsson has ‘Coconut.’ Bowie has ‘Let’s Dance.’ The fun stuff is important.”

“Lights Up”

After kicking off his solo career with “Sign of the Times,” a sprawling glam-rock piano epic, Styles surprised many fans with his first single from Fine Line: a succinct, sleek R&B groove. “When I played it for the label, I told them, ‘This is the first single. It’s two minutes, thirty-five. You’re welcome.’” It came late in the sessions: “Lights Up,” “Treat People with Kindness,” and “Adore You” were written in the final week this spring, in a burst of inspiration.

For Styles, it has something to do with stepping out on his own. When he began songwriting, it was as a member of the group. “‘Happily’ was the first time I saw my name in the credits. I liked that,” he says. “But I knew I’d only sing part of it. I knew if I wrote a really personal song, I wouldn’t sing it. It was like a safety net. If a song was too personal, I could back away and say, ‘Well, I don’t have anything to do with it.’ The writing was like, ‘Well, if I was going to write a song about myself, I’d probably never sing it.’ It’s like storytelling. Sometimes if you’re, like, telling a really personal story, then the voice changes every few lines; it doesn’t quite do the same thing. As the songs got more personal, I think I just became more aware that at some point there might be a moment where I would want to sing it myself.”

A turning point was “Two Ghosts,” a ballad from his solo debut. “’Two Ghosts’ I wrote for the band, for Made in the A.M. But the story was just a bit too personal. As I started opening up to write my more personal stuff, I just became aware of a piece of me going, ‘I want to sing the whole thing.’ Now I look at a track list and these are all my little babies. So every time I’m playing a song, I can remember writing it, and exactly where we were and exactly what happened in my life when I wrote it. So the whole show is this massive emotional journey, you know? That’s a big difference, rather than every 20 minutes you go, ‘Oh, I remember this one.’”

“Cherry”

The most powerful moment on Fine Line — a raw confession of jealousy. His engineer Sammy Witte was playing an acoustic guitar riff that Styles overheard and loved. “That was the moment of saying, ‘Yeah, I want my songs to sound like that,’” he says. It ends with a female voice speaking French, while Harry jams on guitar. “That’s just a voice note of my ex-girlfriend talking. I was playing guitar and she took a phone call — and she was actually speaking in the key of the song.”

“Falling”

A dreamy soul ballad. “Tom had come up to my place to grab something, and he’d sat at the piano and I’d just got out of the shower. He started playing, and we wrote it there. So I was completely naked when I wrote that song.”

“To Be So Lonely”

The song ‘To Be So Lonely’ is just really like the articulation of Mitch’s brain,” Styles says. “Even when Mitch plays to himself, he’s got the swing.” The song was composed on a guitalele — a ukulele with six strings. “They’re really good for writing on, because you can travel with them. I had one of those with me in Japan, so they’re really good for spur-of-the-moment ideas.”

“She”

A fantastic six-minute rock epic with a loopy guitar excursion, as if Prince circa “Purple Rain” jammed with Pink Floyd circa “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” “Mitch played that guitar when he was a little, ah, influenced,” Styles says. “Well, he was on mushrooms, we all were. We had no idea what we were doing. We forgot all about that track, then went back later and loved it. But Mitch had no idea what he did on guitar that night, so he had to learn it all over from the track. That one to me feels really British. I usually sing with a slight American twang, because the first person I ever listened to was Elvis Presley. When I’ve been doing the track listing, and ticking off the ones to definitely make the album, it’s always in the first three to be ticked. That’s a phenomenal song.”

“Sunflower, Vol. 6”

An experimental trip with “deep cut” written all over it: “I would love people to listen to the whole album. I want people to listen to every song. Even with streaming and playlists, I love listening to records top to bottom. So I want to make make albums that I want to listen to top to bottom, because that’s just how I listen to music.”

“Canyon Moon”

“I was in a pretty big Joni hole,” Style admits. Inspired by his Southern California surroundings — and his obsession with Joni Mitchell’s 1971 classic Blue — he tracked down Joellen Lapidus, the woman who built the dulcimer Mitchell plays throughout that album. Back in the day, Lapidus introduced Mitchell to the wonders of the mountain dulcimer; she took it backpacking around Europe and wrote some of her most classic songs on it. Styles and Tom Hull got their first lesson in the instrument from Lapidus herself, at her house in Culver City. He proudly calls this song “Crosby, Stills, and Nash on steroids.” When he played Fine Line for Stevie Nicks this summer, she picked this as her favorite — and as you may know, Stevie’s opinion means a lot to the young man she called “my little muse Harry Styles.”

“Treat People With Kindness”

This up-with-people singalong doesn’t sound like anything else on the album. It began after the slogan was featured prominently on Styles’ first solo tour: “I told Jeff, I would love to someday write a song called ‘Treat People With Kindness.’ And he was like, ‘Why don’t you just do it?’ It made me uncomfortable at first, because I wasn’t sure what it was — but then I wanted to lean into that. I feel like that song opened something that’s been in my core.”

“Fine Line”

The longest and most eccentric song on the album — one of the first to be written, as a simple folky ballad, but it kept expanding and evolving. “It’s a weird one,” Styles says. “It started simple, but I wanted to have this big epic outro thing. And it just took shape as this thing where I thought, ‘That’s just like the music I want to make.’ I love strings, I love horns, I love harmonies — so why don’t we just put all of that in there?” It typifies the spirit of the whole project. But he knows he can’t please everyone. “When my granddad first heard ‘Lights Up,’ he was, ‘Yeah, I had to listen to it a couple times to get it. But I’m just glad you’re still working.’ It was funny, but I thought, I’m just glad I’m still working.”

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