Harry Styles‘ ’House’ Had Some Roommates: Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson on Making 2022’s Most Ubiquitous Single, ‘As It Was’

Kid Harpoon and Johnson have been named Variety's Hitmakers songwriters of the year. They describe how they relied on instruments more than programming and worked like a band with Styles to come up with the celebrated 'Harry's House' album.

Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson Songwriter of the Year
Michael Buckner for Variety

As is evident from his recent arena residency shows on both coasts, Harry Styles knows the value of a good band. But it’s not just a live thing; the pop superstar has had the wisdom to separately assemble a thriving, tight-knit group in the studio, too. The blockbuster album “Harry’s House” and its ubiquitious lead single “As It Was” were (like the star’s previous album, “Fine Line”) largely the product of a core trio consisting of Styles, Kid Harpoon (aka Tom Hull) and Tyler Johnson. They form what is truly a working band, for most creative intents and purposes, even if Hull and Johnson aren’t joining the pop idol out on the road. This chemistry is what spurred Variety to select Johnson and Hull as Hitmakers Songwriters of the Year.

Hull and Johnson work together only on Styles’ records, otherwise maintaining their own impressive bona fides. Hull worked on Maggie Rogers’ latest album and one track with Lizzo, and talks about how all three would nix promising song ideas that felt commercial but didn’t reflect where they’re at in the moment. “Whether it’s Lizzo or Maggie or Harry,” Hull says, “what they’re putting out is so personal to them that if they’re not feeling connected to it, then it’s hard. Everything has to line up for them personally and musically.”

The key element to how they augment those impulses: “There’s not a ton of hired guns playing tunes or programming,” Hull says. ”It’s a lot of live musicianship that creates that aesthetic of a band instead of a well-produced pop record, with the writing coming out of an environment of lots of jamming. I love that.”

For much of the creation of “Harry’s House” during the pandemic, these two collaborators and Styles would take over a large space (in the case of “As It Was” specifically, a room in Sony CEO Rob Stringer’s London home) and set up three workstations, constantly tossing ideas at one another, and to an engineer positioned in the middle. Hull had the lion’s share of instruments at his station, including guitar and drum set, while Johnson was hard at work on a laptop and keys. With lyrics, Styles is “in his own lane,” says Hull, “but if Tyler or I chime in with lyric ideas, Harry is ‘Oh, that’s a great idea.’ It is very much like a group, a kind of collective making the music, the three of us.” Agrees Johnson: “If ideas stick, we go with it, and if not, we just disregard it and nobody feels kinda slighted. The trust and synergy between us when we’re writing is really the magic.”

Styles’ first two solo albums had him working in a singer-songwriter vein largely redolent of the ‘70s, so “As It Was” immediately established itself as much more of a leap into the MTV-era pop ‘80s, if not the 2020s (although “Watermelon Sugar” had served as a link between the two approaches). But Hull has an interesting thought about how he thinks “Harry’s House” links to the ‘80s. “When I was growing up in the ‘80s, you had all these kind of old rockers who played Woodstock having massive pop hits. You have like those moments in the ‘80s where Steve Winwood and Paul McCartney would be like, ‘Oh, we need to update our sounds,’ and even Bob Dylan did some super-interesting records with this weird new synth landscape. And so I feel like with Harry, from that point of view, mentally, that was how you could take all the (classic) influences but make it feel modern, as opposed to throwback.”

It predates the ’80s by a bit, but Gerry Rafferty’s 1978 “Right Down the Line” was also a specific reference point. “We’d listen to that a lot,” Hull reveals. “Harry’s vocals on some on this record are a bit like that, where they’re kind of undersung and produced in a way that recalls when artists were getting into double-tracking.”

For “As It Was,” which spent several weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100, the creative process moved swiftly. Johnson says: “We have a voice note of us writing it where about 20, 30 minutes in, you’ve got the lead line, you’ve got the drum beat, you’ve got the melody for the chorus, you’ve got the post-chorus. We wrote the bridge a couple days later, that more talky part. But the song came together quickly, for sure. Harry was playing chords on a keyboard and singing some melodies, and we thought it was cool, so then I took over and started making the chords loop while Harry started working on the verses, and Tom came in and chipped in the post-chorus [the “You know it’s not the same” part]. We wrote the bridge a couple days later, that more talky part.”

Subtle details further gilded the lily, in the production of “As It Was.” Hull loved the drum part he’d come up with on the spot, but found the actual sound of it lacking. So he re-recorded each element of the drum kit, one at a time. They also brought in a second drummer, Mitch Rowland, who plays guitar on the album as well, for a slightly thrashier sound toward the end of the single.

As for the tubular bells that add a kind of epilogue to the smash, neither Johnson nor Hull will take credit for that crowning touch: “Not only were the bells Harry’s idea,” says Johnson, “but that melody that they’re playing was his idea —, kind of like a counter melody to the other lead line, which is great. We got tubular bells brought in and he actually played those himself.” Overall, (literal) bells and whistles aside, it’s Harry’s Moog that is inevitably the focus for the listener for most of the tune, but “As It Was” has a key guitar part throughout, and an auxillary guitarist adding an extra layer to bolster the sound in the second verse.

Hull thinks a lot about classic pop records and how they benefitted from real players, however much technology factors in. “From the musicianship side of it, I just want it to be musically interesting from a player’s point of view. You know, someone sitting there programming something interesting is great. But also, there’s classic records where, if you’re a fan of drums, you can listen to ‘Thriller’ as a record and appreciate Jeff Porcaro’s drums and be like, ‘Oh, I love what he’s doing there.’ And I feel like that’s something we wanted to get with Harry, that it’s not just about getting a song and quickly popping up some music around it to support it and then putting it out; it’s wanting to create something that’s musically three-dimensional and has a depth to it when you can listen to it.

“Live instrumentation is such a big part of Harry’s music and what really excites him. He could walk into a programmed drumbeat we were doing on a laptop while we had our back to him, but the actual physical act of playing a guitar, playing a drum kit, playing a piano, playing even a synthesizer in the room and doing sounds, that’s what really gets Harry excited.”

Lyrically, Johnson says they tried not to overthink it in the moment, and the team analyzed it more after the fact, in thinking about what connected with fans. “I think there definitely was some intentionality to have the juxtaposition of the melancholy lyrics about how things are changing and how life is irreconcilably different than maybe it used to be at a certain point — not even just talking in geopolitical things or anything like that, but just the reality of growing up — and then the drums and everything kind of juxtaposed against that. But it was not so much intentional, I think, as just a mood that came out of us being in rainy England, at somebody’s house. I think we were all just emotionally feeling — especially Harry — how that song sounds. And what I really like about how Tom and I work together is that nothing got in the way of us getting that song down.”

It’s odd, if you think about it, that “As It Was” became such an indomitable smash without having any big climaxes or ever really losing its cool. Says Johnson, “I do think the fact that this song avoids that big moment is exactly what people were wanting. They wanted something that they could dance around to, but that has an understated nature to it. I didn’t recognize the value of that or the quality in that until hearing it through other people’s ears after it came out. We just thought the song was great and that it should be on the album. Then Harry was the one to make the call that it should be the first single,” even though there might have been even more obvious and certainly more celebratory candidates. “That was his vision.”

The writer-producers think that Styles’ record is the rare one in the modern age that reached virtually all demographics… even if you wouldn’t necessarily know his multi-demo appeal from attending a show. “Obviously there’s a lot of girls at the live show, and it feels like a (main) demographic, but I feel like that’s honestly because they buy the tickets before anyone else gets a chance,” says Hull. “But it doesn’t feel like this is just for his fans — it feels like a cultural moment. And it feels like music, regardless of whether you know anything about Harry.”

And it all came out of an atmosphere free of anxiety or hurry in the writing (and, de facto, production) room. “I think that that allowing everyone in the room the freedom to do the wrong thing is just as important as anything else,” Johnson says. “There’s spontaneity to it, but there’s mainly just a lot of hunting until you have that emotional feeling of freedom and looseness — even if it took hours and hours to get there.”