NEW YORK • After being in a boyband, Harry Styles was a blank slate.
Speaking recently about recording his debut solo album - which has, for years, felt like a foregone conclusion, given his status as the most breezily winning member of One Direction - the floppy-haired 23-year-old said: "When we started, I didn't know what it was going to sound like or what I wanted it to sound like."
Where he landed, while not entirely predictable, considering the beat-driven pop sounds of the day, was close to home: "Pink Floyd, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac - all the stuff I grew up listening to," he said.
As unlikely as that may sound, it is true: His self-titled LP is a paean to classic rock and its English progeny (Oasis, Blur), built around fingerpicked acoustic guitars, McCartneyesque jangle and lyrics about one-night stands with devilish women.
"She's all over me, it's like I paid for it/I'm gonna pay for this," Styles, who is not running from his essential Jaggerness, sings on Kiwi, a sleazy-sounding number with grown-up references to cigarettes and cocaine.
Softer and more broadly sensitive are the first single, Sign Of The Times (a homage to Prince in title, and Bowie in practice), and the more believably adult closing track, From The Dining Table, which begins with a line about masturbation.
Yet, for all the earthbound introspection and insistent maturity, Styles, who was discovered, along with his former group, by Simon Cowell on The X Factor, remains as slippery in conversation as any mega-famous pop star who has been dodging tabloids since he was 16.
On the telephone from London this month, he insulated his vagueness with polite deflection and generalities while declaring that his new album was his most open work to date.
"I just realised that I find writing to be therapeutic - I think it's when I allow myself to be most vulnerable," he said. "It's exciting to kind of share a piece of me that I don't feel like I've really put out there before."
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How did writing and recording in Jamaica influence the album?
I went there because I didn't want to be around distractions. The thing with being in London or Los Angeles or pretty much anywhere that you know people, is it's tough because you go into the studio for 10 hours, and then, at some point, everyone has to eat, and you go home. I just wanted to immerse myself. It became this fluid thing that we were doing all of the time, rather than going in from nine to five. I also didn't want to be around people who might tell me what the music should sound like.
Was there added pressure in being the one who had the final say?
The guys whom I was working with (writers and producers Jeff Bhasker, Alex Salibian, Tyler Johnson and Kid Harpoon), we were kind of all working it out together.
But in terms of choosing the songs and the track listing, it was time to make some decisions for myself and not be able to hide behind anyone else. As a person, too, probably. Everything, workwise, that I'd done since I was 16, was made in a democracy.
There are not a lot of mainstream pop stars going the rock route. Did that feel like a risk?
That's just what my references are. A lot of people, when they make music, they build a wall between them and their fans. They think: "We'll do this because people will get it."
I wanted to make an album that I wanted to listen to. That was the only way I knew I wouldn't look back on it and regret it.
There is a handful of more PG13 subject matter on the album. Was it liberating to be able to act your age?
Starting out with no reference points for the sound, the only thing that I knew I wanted to be was honest. I didn't want to sit and edit lyrics. In the times of going, "Oh, can I say that?" I wanted to be like, "Yeah, I can - because that's what I wrote."
You have spoken with a real respect for the tastes of teenage girls, who have driven a lot of your popularity.
When people have fans who are younger girls, people assume that their opinion on the music is tainted by desires that aren't based on music. In fact, I believe that fans whom I've had in the past, if anything, expect and demand more.
Fans are usually the first people to tell you when stuff's not good enough. And I just think it's a little naive to write off younger female fans, in particular, the way people do.
Like I've said, young girls were massive fans of The Beatles. It's crazy to think that they're not intelligent.