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Will Young

With hits "Leave Right Now" and "Jealousy", Will Young has been a household name for over two decades, we chat to Will about managing his outspokenness, what the future holds in music, and new album "Light It Up"

A household name for more than two decades, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t know at least one track from the truly expansive work of Will Young. Hit songs “Leave Right Now”, “Evergreen”, “Jealousy”, and “Light My Fire”, are just a few of the tracks that have made him a mainstay in any pop lovers catalogue. Famously getting his break by winning one of the most iconic talent shows, Pop Idol saw him go head-to-head with fellow rival Gareth Gates – a quintessential slice of music history.

Outside of his highly successful music career, he’s taken on a range of endeavours. From starring in a one-man play, Songs From Far Away to being nominated for an Olivier Award for his performance in Cabaret. If that’s not enough, he’s released a range of insightful podcasts and books, discussing important topics such as LGBTQIA+ and mental health. An avid campaigner for animal rights, he was part of a protest at Camp Beagle, handcuffing himself to the gates of a beagle breeding facility used for scientific research. He has three dogs of his own called Iris, Domino, and Esme. All this while the pop veteran has sold over ten million albums worldwide and eight sold-out national tours.

Returning with Light It Up, his highly-anticipated ninth album, Young is ready to fully embrace pop and his talent show origins. Working with his new collaborators, PhD, who’ve previously collaborated with the likes of Little Mix, as well as a host of other familiar faces. The first track, “Falling Deep” revolutionary features older people in the video, as typically they’re often overlooked, especially women. His latest single release, “Midnight”, is centred around being single and not having it together, which is something most people can relate to – continuing Young’s penchant for connecting with audiences long after his win on the worldwide Idol franchise. This album will also see him go on tour this autumn to over 50 different venues, with the majority of dates already sold out.

1883 Magazine chats with Will Young about managing his outspokenness, what the future holds in music, and new album “Light It Up”.

You had your start on Pop Idol over 20 years ago and were the only one to speak out against Simon Cowell. How has it been managing that outspokenness and always speaking your mind?

I think that’s one of the best questions I’ve ever been asked! Honestly, such a good question! I’ve done a lot of therapy so you’d think I would’ve thought about most things. It is hard actually sometimes when you’ve got an outspoken side. Even yesterday, I saw a Marks & Spencer truck and it had RSPCA approved organic free-range milk. I was like, “That doesn’t mean shit,” basically. I took a picture. I was stationary in traffic. I took a picture of the truck put it up and copied in the RSPCA, which is a move. Bit of a move. I’d had a meeting with the RSPCA about animal rights and I won’t talk about that meeting. I’ve got better at that where I don’t talk about meetings when I used to. I was like, “Okay I’m going to take it on.” I took this picture and said ‘More to come’. Then this story broke about how there were four RSPCA certified chicken farms, there was one in particular but I think there were four in total. People were watching them and the chickens hadn’t been let out in four days. Sometimes I regret and think, “Do you really want to go there?” Sometimes it comes from impatience because I want things to be better for other people or the animals. It comes from a sense of injustice. Sometimes I do have to count to ten and be like, “Do you really want to do this?” Anyway. I did it and then I did another post and copied in the RSPCA again and then mentioned animal rights. I was like, “I’ve done it. I’m annoyed.”

It’s a really inspiring quality such as with your forthcoming album embracing pop. As you’ve said other people might be snobbish about your talent show start, but has that ever altered your perception of yourself?

Yes. I think it did. I was thinking about this yesterday actually. It was really hard. There was almost a bit of an innocence that was lost. When people started, I became far more conscious of who I was as a person than perhaps I was before. I was thinking, “I shouldn’t downplay that.” It can be very hard. I remember for a very long time, it was bad being perceived as a nice person. Now, I’ve realised in my 40’s that it’s really good being a nice person. It’s such a lovely quality to have.

I really like that as I think it’s so relatable for any age and something we all think about.

Definitely and I think it is something we all think about. It gets more extended when you’re a known person. But it is something that we all think about. I would take being uncool and being a kind, thoughtful person any day of the week. In fact, I think that’s really super cool.

I’d have to agree and admire how you’re conscious of this as your career has progressed, such as with the music video for Falling Deep featuring men and women of an older age. You’ve mentioned how women often get overlooked as they get older. I thought that was really insightful and how you were working to change that.

Thank you! That’s been received so well and it was a suggestion by Sam, the director. I thought, “Oh my God, how did I not think of this?” Because I would think that I was going to work with dancers of a certain age and then I would start body shaming myself. “Oh God, better go on a diet for a week to get slim so I still look like the shape I was in when I was 22.” It’s just not possible. I was quite a skinny person. It got rid of all of that. It was so nice and so simple. Just a suggestion that flipped the script on your own thought process. Plus as a feminist, of course, why hadn’t I thought of this before? I think, hopefully, the next video I do will have two of the dancers from the first video but they’ll be two of the women which I’m really excited about. It’s nice to do things that you feel have more of a reason behind it.

I really love that! You have Midnight coming out, which is about being single in your 40’s and it being okay to not have it all together. It’s great to hear how you capture the human experience.

Thank you! That’s really fun. The Midnight thing has been a really brilliant song to write and weirdly one of my most personal but it’s got humour to it as well. I feel like I’ve just managed to crack that code. I can do it when I give mental health talks and be humorous and vulnerable. But I hadn’t managed it in songwriting. I hadn’t really managed it in social media funnily enough but something’s shifted. I hadn’t heard anyone talk about this in my age group. I thought, “That’s quite fun.” I shot a video in Mexico. I went vintage shopping and found this outfit. I deliberately have a T-shirt that’s a bit too small so I could make a thing about me being conscious of my body as well. There’s a bit in the video because I self-directed it and wanted it to be me embracing that rather than trying to suck my tummy in. It’s really cute actually and I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do that a few years ago. There’s something quite liberating about that. I’m also sort of like an alien with weird sparkly make-up. That represents what it can be like when you’re single in your 40’s. You can be seen as a bit of a pariah. People can treat you differently. You don’t get asked to things with other couples, it’s really weird. I really enjoyed doing the video.

You’ve got a background in theatre with performances in Cabaret and a one-man play, Song from Far Away. Have all of these experiences led you to where you are now, such as self-directing your music videos?

Yes! The music videos are a new thing. These two I did in Mexico just because I was out there and thought, ”I can do this. I’ve learned from enough people and most importantly it will be fun.” It does all mould together and nothing is mutually exclusive. It all feeds into each other. Probably doing quite a serious play although it was actually quite funny, dark humour led me to doing a quite unashamedly pop album. I sort of reacted to that because I did it twice throughout the year. That’s quite intense. I really enjoyed it but it was very intense. I think that made me go more towards unashamed, crisp, brilliantly produced pop.

Where are you most comfortable in your artistic endeavours?

That’s a very good question. If I’m answering this from a continuity point of view where I know I will always be comfortable, funnily enough, would be when I’m on stage acting. The feeling I get from singing because my mood can go up and down if I’m feeling a bit vulnerable, it can be a bit too hard work for me. Because let’s say I’m feeling sad or anxious that day, then I feel very exposed. Let’s say I’m playing a character I can sort of hide behind the character. I find it very meditative and always brings me out of any mood I might be in if it’s a harder mood to handle. That’s why I’m saying the acting because I find it very meditative but it has to be on stage. I think most actors who do film, TV, and theatre would say theatre. It’s a weird mixture of energy but also very peaceful. That’s quite extraordinary. I could delve deeper into that. I love making people laugh.I think an audience laughing is one of the most incredible feelings.

What do you like to draw upon or share?

I love sharing stories which I have done for quite a few years now. I wanted to make a compilation as I’ve recorded every gig I’ve ever done. I wanted to do a compilation of all the stories I’ve done over the years into a story tape as it’s really funny. The really funny moments are normally with an interaction with an audience. You don’t know what they’re going to say and someone will say something and it sparks off five minutes of hilarity. That’s why I like talking to the audience. Someone asked me a question once, “I saw you at your first performance on Pop Idol and then I moved to Australia and I’ve just come home after 22 years. Can you catch me up on what you’ve been up to?” It was just so funny and it led to a 15-minute monologue. Interactions with audiences are hysterical.

From selling over ten million albums to protesting for animal rights, holding Wellstock, and your mental health initiatives. How has it been managing all of these different areas?

Wellstock was a great thing. I don’t even know how that came about. It was so weird. It just sort of happened. I suppose I lucked out and got Ed Sheeran to do a gig. I mean that was really incredible. He’s the most amazing man, Ed Sheeran. He just said, ”Yes I’ll do it.” Raised up to £200,000 for this charity that really needed it, Shout. To be honest I’m probably a bit of an overachiever. But I never feel like I’m doing enough if I’m honest. I’ve always been like that. I just really like being busy. I do like little and often so I never feel overwhelmed. It seems to come together. I’ve started a book now but that might take me three years to do but I don’t put myself under pressure. I have just been commissioned to write a comedy now so that’s a little bit more pressure to see if I can do it. I think the key is to not pressurise yourself and also do things that are fun so you want to do them. If I’m honest, charity work and campaigning are the hardest things as you’re spending a lot of time demanding things from people. That takes up a lot of energy. Way more than the creative stuff. Hunting people down, trying to hold them to account, or trying to get things for a charity auction. Those kinds of things as you have to be a constant annoyance really. I find that the most tiring out of all of the things.

How do you rest and spend your free time when you’re potentially trying to get out of that headspace?

“Easy! I rest the whole time. Today I’m doing up some chairs. I’ve had a lovely day today. I did my kickboxing. I’ve got some chairs that I’ve found in a bric-a-brac place. I’ve been stripping the paint and redoing the cushions. I walked my dog.”

Was that Domino, Iris, or Esme?

It was Esme that I walked today. She’s the oldest and doesn’t go that far. I like to walk her on my own as she’s got a bit of dementia. Domino and Iris go out with the dog walker.

I read in an article that you’d said you were planning to quit music by the time you were 50. Is that still on the cards?

I did. I don’t know if it is still on the cards. I think at the time I wasn’t really feeling that inspired to be honest. But I feel a bit more inspired now musically. I’d like to do a classical album. I’d like to do a proper dance album. I’ve got about four things I’d like to do. I’d like to do a really great ballads album. That’ll take me past 50, won’t it? I think that was in Covid time and I was a bit listless really. Probably a bit confused. I couldn’t envision my work past 50. Now I think I can. I was probably thinking of older pop stars. How do you be an older pop star? I think I’ve got through that now by embracing it with this whole record. That’s probably been the change. I think you can be in your 40’s and be a brilliant pop star doing amazing music. I was probably being a bit down on myself for my age but now I’ve sort of worked it out. Be yourself.

I’m looking forward to these future records! The media landscape has changed since the beginning of your career on reality TV with the rise of social media, such as TikTok. How did you find that going into this ninth album?

I think I’ve probably got to grips with social media now. I hadn’t. Now I quite like it. I still think it’s probably one of the most damaging things for young people. I think that’s probably undeniable. I definitely have struggled with the change in the model of music. I mean effectively music kind of is free, which I know artists such as James Bay speak about. That was hard and I probably still struggle with that and always will because I came from a time where we didn’t stream music. If I didn’t remember that time it’d be fine. But I do remember that time. That’s been the hardest thing to understand and I probably still don’t. I still slightly rally against people at work when I go, “I don’t understand it, I’m still a big fan of radio…” I don’t think I’ll ever get my head around that. There’s been some really good things. Probably not so much with music but how it is being in the public eye. How the media kind of ran the narrative and made life very difficult. Then obviously the phone hacking. I’ve been through all of that. I was there at that time. I was hacked on numerous occasions by numerous papers. That’s been an interesting time to go through and I’m glad now we sort of have the narrative where you couldn’t before. That’s a real difference and very welcome. Even for campaigning and things. You can put things up. You can hold people to account just by putting things on your social media and that’s pretty amazing actually.

It definitely has two sides. Is there anything that you’ve never been asked but wished that you had?

“To be honest, your first question I’d never been asked, and thought it was the most wonderful question. I probably sometimes would like to talk in a very nerdy way because if you’re passionate about something you’re basically a nerd, about how the voice works. I do that when I teach, which is less at the moment. The technicalities would be so boring for anyone who’s not a singer to read. I always think that’d be fun to talk about more. That’s why I like teaching and if you get someone who’s a really good singer they’ll get it. It’s like talking a language and that’s always quite fun.

Can you share something you’ve enjoyed about how you’ve used your voice for this album?

Working with the guys from Scandinavia, they work you hard as a singer when you’re recording and I’m like, “I think we’ve got it, that’ll do alright.” I liked the way they worked me very technically hard. It wasn’t anything overarching. It was really detailed. “Can you use less vibrato here? Can you come off a millisecond earlier? Can we have a bit more breath?” Really challenging things to do as a singer, which part of me hates because I’m lazy and I have an ego but part of me is, “I can do that.” I like the challenge of it. That’s why there are some producers that produce really good pop music. It’s nice to be challenged.

New track “Midnight” is out now.

Interview Camilla Whitfield

Photography Jamie Noise

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