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June 26, 2018 04:30 PM

Since his band took an indefinite hiatus, Liam Payne has been moving in a completely new direction — and he couldn’t be happier.

On June 20, the pop star headlined his first New York City concert as a solo artist. Ahead of the sold-out Chase Sound Check show at the Beacon Theatre, PEOPLE caught up with Payne about his solo success after One Direction’s disbanding.

“I was quite overwhelmed to see my face on the marquee, in all its electric glory,” says Payne, 24. “When I got here, I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve been waiting to do this for 10 years!’ It’s crazy.”

Indeed, Payne’s journey has been years in the making.

After chasing a recording career for two years, Payne rose to fame in 2010. When he auditioned for The X Factor in the U.K., producer Simon Cowell placed him in the pop group One Direction alongside Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson. The quintet dropped four chart-topping albums and spawned 13 Top 20 hits before they took an extended break in March 2016.

In the past year, Payne has released five smash singles, including “Strip That Down,” “Bedroom Floor” and the Fifty Shades Freed duet “For You” with Rita Ora. He also became a dad, welcoming son Bear in March 2017 with girlfriend Cheryl.

So how has life changed the most since going solo?

“It used to take hours to get anywhere — that’s the biggest difference!” he says. “Having five bodies to move around, when we had a break, it wasn’t the case where we could just go, ‘Oh, well I’m gonna go here, and you’re gonna go there.’ I never used to get out anywhere — and that was quite taxing, more so than anything else in the job that I was doing. We were always stuck in hotels or in a car. That was the hardest part.”

One Direction (ca. 2010)
Gareth Cattermole/Getty

Now, Payne is liberated. And he feels that freedom in the recording studio, too.

“I’ve released so many different types of music,” says the star, who is preparing his debut LP. “This album’s so important for me right now so I can find out which lane is most suited for me: the fine-tuning experiment of what you think of yourself, where you want to go and what other people think of you. As soon as you can find that median point between all three, you’re there — and this is like the last piece of the puzzle for me.”

Like Payne, his former bandmates have found their own niches in the pop universe: Styles in rock, Horan in acoustic songwriting, Malik in R&B and Tomlinson in dance.

Liam Payne
Bill McCay/Getty

“We did so much within the band that it’s so hard. How are you gonna top what we did? It’s amazing. So for me, this was like our chance at a bit of freedom,” he says. “I think you can see that in all the boys and the way that they now are expressing themselves, and they wouldn’t before. This is the chance to do that. When I was finding my sound, I wanted to have more fun with it. I wanted to get collaborations. We’d never done that before. And it was really nice the way I was received within the industry of people wanting to work with me.”

Sure enough, Payne has worked with a slew of collaborators, from Ora and Migos rapper Quavo to Latin star J Balvin, on their new summer single “Familiar.”

But no matter how far the singer has come, he has some solid perspective.

One Direction offered “some of the best, best times in my life,” says Payne. “I’ll never forget where I came from. That’s why I love singing the 1D songs when I’m out and about. It’s quite nostalgic for me.”

Liam Payne
Boo George

During his headlining set at the Beacon, Payne made his way through his own singles and some high-profile covers, as well as One Direction hits like “Little Things.”

Frank Nakano, a managing director and head of sports & entertainment marketing at JPMorgan Chase, says Payne was the perfect fit to kick off the season with the Summer Sound Check concert. “We like to say we’re in the memory business; we like to play in that emotional space,” says Nakano. “He’s got the album coming out, and this is the first time he’s here solo — we wanted to give something to card members and do something fun.”

Looking forward, as Payne works on his album, he’s keeping a level head.

“I always get surprised and still get overwhelmed, even this long into what I’m doing,” Payne says of his success. “I just can’t believe my luck. It’s been a whirlwind ride for sure.”

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