The making of Harry Styles' As It Was: "Harry was sitting on the Moog One and I liked what he was playing, so I sat down and played as he started to write the melodies and the lyrics”

Harry Styles Tyler Johnson Kid Harpoon
From Left to right: Harry Styles, Tyler Johnson and Kid Harpoon. (Image credit: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Seemingly inescapable whenever you turned on the radio last summer, Harry Styles’ As It Was was one of the biggest hits of 2022, and remains on heavy rotation today. It topped Spotify’s end-of-year list of the most popular songs, and hit number one in the US and UK.

The song was co-written by Tyler Johnson alongside Kid Harpoon and Styles himself. Johnson and Harpoon both have production credits on the track - as they do on Watermelon Sugar, another Styles mega-hit - but as Johnson explained to Music Week [Paywall] last year, the creative process behind the two songs was very different.

“[Watermelon Sugar] took a while and As It Was was more speedy, right out of the gate,” he says. “Harry was sitting on the Moog One and I liked what he was playing, so I sat down and played as he started to write the melodies and the lyrics. Tom [Hull, aka Kid Harpoon] did a half-time beat around it, we were like, ‘No, it’s not right.’ So then Tom played the double time beat, which felt very good.”

In terms of harmonic structure, As It Was has been compared to a-Ha’s Take On Me. As John Mayer demonstrated during a recent live performance, the two songs share a similar chord progression - ii-V-I-IV - but As It Was has a very different, highly distinctive topline.

“I said to Harry, ‘We need a lead line’ and he just came up right away with the ‘Dah, dah, dah...’ part,” reveals Tyler Johnson. “He didn’t hesitate. Then he started writing the second verse and referring to himself in the third person. So much of this song just came from Harry’s heart. And then Tom, as he does, with this magical sense of hooks that he has, came up with the idea of doing, ‘You know it’s not the same…’ after the chorus, which I was very impressed with. That turned out to be a very smart move.”

The song came together quickly, then: “Really, the record was about where it’s at now after three or four days,” Johnson recalls. “It didn’t go through a lot of [changes], there was never anything drastic. I had a guitarist friend, Doug Showalter, add electric guitars and some transition sounds. Then we got the tubular bells - another Harry idea - and I’ve got a video of him playing those. We had Mitch Rowland come in to do some live drums. We chopped those up for the ending to give it a more bombastic feeling.”

The best thing about As It Was is just how effortless it is, how it just flows over you and gives you a good energy.

Tyler Johnson

Having a real drummer, it turns out, is important for Johnson, Harpoon and Styles. “For As It Was, we were thinking 2008-2012 indie rock, MGMT, Phoenix, Passion Pit. We want to be referential and for the music to sound familiar, but our process is that we don’t do as much drum programming as live drums. That’s what people in that era were doing to make things sound big, but not too programmed. Our engineer Jeremy Hatcher really helped shape that, those drum tones are unique in pop.”

Speaking to Rolling Stone, Kid Harpoon threw another influence on As It Was into the mix: “I’m sitting there on the drums and I was like, oh, this could have a Strokes kind of vibe,” he said. However, while he acknowledges the debt that As It Was owes to other artists and songs, he also firmly believes that it has its own identity.

"You get to the end and you hear it and you go, oh, it’s got the sort of A-ha references and the Strokes references and maybe there’s a bit of Talking Heads in there and then it becomes something bigger than the sum of its parts.”

Perhaps the relaxed vibe of As It Was stems from the fact that it was recorded in the living room in the home of A&R man Rob Stringer’s house, a place conducive to chilling out, you would have thought.

“The living room was actually a very perfect size for a control room, nice and tight but kinda long,” notes Tyler Johnson. “The back of it had a couch, an upright piano and windows that looked out over some fields, and in the front we had the desk. We rented a ton of gear, all the walls were lined with preamps and compressors. Even though we were going kind of bedroom-y, Tom and I just love lots of microphones and we do live drums, analogue synthesisers, multiple guitar amps… We love that whole element to recording.”

It was Styles, it turns out, who pushed for As It Was to be his album’s lead single. A wise move, it turns out, given its subsequent success.

“The best thing about As It Was is just how effortless it is, how it just flows over you and gives you a good energy,” thinks Tyler Johnson. “It has a gentle conversation with the listener while being upbeat. It’s easy to consume, but it still has depth and Harry brings so much character to it. Really, pop is just about people living life with music to garnish it.”

Ben Rogerson

I’m the Deputy Editor of MusicRadar, having worked on the site since its launch in 2007. I previously spent eight years working on our sister magazine, Computer Music. I’ve been playing the piano, gigging in bands and failing to finish tracks at home for more than 30 years, 24 of which I’ve also spent writing about music and the ever-changing technology used to make it. 

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