[B]ack in 2002 a young politics graduate from Berkshire made history winning the first ever Pop Idol – a show which would go on to shape our current music contest-dominated landscape. 13 years on Will Young is much more than a contestant winner. In his case, the format definitely worked. With six successful albums under his belt he is not only a fully formed artist but has expanded his repertoire, especially in the last four years, to being a teacher, an author, starring on stage and screen, and even being nominated for a Lawrence Olivier Award for his role in Cabaret in 2013.
But after four years of success outside of music, Will Young is back with a new record label (he’s now signed to the legendary Island Records) and a new album. Released on Monday, 85% Proof shows a more eclectic side to his repertoire. To accompany this very special shoot by Rankin, we sat down with Will to find out more about his current sound and why he won’t be investing in British film again…
It's been four years since your last album, Echoes, came out. What made you want to come back?
Well, it was really the love of music that made me come back. I’d never really thought about that until now. I reached a goal with the last record and in more ways than one I’d sort of done a record that I always wanted to make and then I finished my contract with Sony, which was a pretty big deal. So I went into theatre and did Cabaret, did some teaching, just really moved away from music. I always ask myself, “am I still happy doing what I’m doing and do I want to carry on?” Because there are so many careers that I could do. But I guess that’s when I realised I still loved music. I came back and wrote the record in ten days. So maybe I should take another four years off!
Do you feel like all the things you did in those four years made you a more rounded artist?
Definitely. I think funnily enough the two things that changed or jettisoned my creativity was doing a film called Mrs. Henderson and then doing Cabaret. They both came at the perfect time – I just needed to be reminded that I can play other roles and explore characters. In pop I get frustrated with the fact that it’s always me – I really love being me but I don’t find it as liberating as playing a character on stage, because then I can really do what I want. The songs in my pop career have been really liberating, that’s the storytelling, but ultimately I’m always me. So I need to have these projects that come along at the right moment to remind me that I can play other people on stage.
So when it comes to the new songs themselves are you telling stories or are they still quite personal?
There’s always going to be a personal element to it because it’s coming from me. There are some songs that are from experiences and then there are more songs on this record I would say that are just thoughts. There’s a song called “Gold” and I just remember thinking that I loved this image of gold being at on the ceiling of a room and someone being broken, and just asking them to look up. But then there is a song called “Thank You” which is very much directed towards a teacher at school who was abusive to me and the lyric ‘thank you’ is actually genuinely thanking that person for giving me the experience because it has made me a better person.
What about the visuals? It seems like you are really enjoying that element with your new material.
I love it. Again I think that’s something that has really been revitalised. It’s always been a love of mine doing video and now, what’s so wonderful, is that there are so many more outlets for doing visual things. I just did the shoot with you guys, which was one of the best shoots I’ve ever done, and I’m fifteen years into my career! It is just unbelievable. And I get to make a video with a director called W.I.Z. who is, in my opinion, one of the top music video directors, in the UK if not the world and it’s not even for a single! People now see the attraction and the reward for getting content out there. Content used to be such a sterile word – I don’t want you to call my performance content – it sounds almost like discharge!
It really is an ugly word...
But what’s so wonderful now is that I really feel like I’m getting up and running with my creativity because there are so many more outlets. Getting nominated for an Olivier Award was definitely a confidence booster and now I genuinely feel that I’m really embracing being a performance artist.
We know that you wrote the album in ten days but was there anything else that stands out for you with this album being different at all?
I think my last record was very together and cemented as an album; it was one piece. This one is a lot of very different styles. It wasn’t purposeful to do that but I think it probably explores different types of music that I like listening to but haven’t done before. I sing in a much lower register than I have done before as well. I’m not sure why. But in “Thank You” and “Gold” I’m singing really low, and not particularly loud. The difference is that I wrote every song before the music. We would get a song title and write the lyrics so I guess I felt like the words stood out as they are. I think the quality of the song writing is overall much better.
I suppose also you have the added confidence that your fans have stayed with you for such a long time...
The thing is there’s always the fear. I’m freelance basically – I’m self-employed and I can lose my job. Who knows! But I could be worrying about that for the next 50 years and get to 80 and then think, “oh shit, I never wrote that album because I was terrified about not being in the charts.” I just try to write without any fear. I don’t want to write anything written in terror because you can smell it on the songs, don’t you think? You hear some artists and you think, “yeah that’s great but you know you just wrote that to get your house and a car.” Which is fine, but I can’t do that because I just churn out crap if I try to do that.
I suppose one thing that has really changed over the course of your career is the rise and rise of social media. It can be quite invasive for those in the spotlight. How do you feel about it?
I don’t think it’s invasive. It’s only invasive if you let it be. I kind of love it actually. Some days I do think, “what the hell is this?” But then in terms of Instagram I always take pictures anyway so it’s all about sharing. I think it’s great that there’s a place where people can share interesting images. And I like the fact that I can get in touch with fans and people that like me. The huge thing for people in the spotlight is that you can put to bed mistruths very quickly now.
You have always been quite vocal about your political views, how are you feeling in the wake of the General Election?
I think it will be interesting. What I think is dangerous, and I don’t know where it’s suddenly come from is this “us vs. them” patriotism that’s somehow been riled up. It’s a dangerous thing. It doesn’t feel genuine to me, it feels like it’s being used for political gain. I think we can all fall back on patriotism but patriotism can suddenly move into UKIP territory and become xenophobic. I’m very wary about UKIP. They got four million votes and I’m in two minds about that because on the one hand I don’t think our voting system is fair at all, but of course I don’t really want anymore UKIP! It will be really interesting to see what happens without the LibDems in coalition. I just worry that [the Tories] are going to swoop down, privatise everything, slash welfare… could the monster rear it’s head now?
Well their policies on arts funding and LGBT rights seemed fairly non-existent which is worrying...
Very worrying. I did a film called Coriolanus with Ralph Fiennes and the HMRC made it so difficult to genuinely invest in a film that I won’t do it again. They were even asking who Ralph Fiennes was! The problem is they’ve been given carte blanche. The idea was to bring money into British film but then they go and get rid of the UK film council and have moved the goalposts for investing in film. I didn’t want to buy a Ferrari, I wanted to invest in a Shakespearean film but they wouldn’t let me!
Tell us a bit about your shoot with Rankin. We heard you were evoking ex boyfriends at one point?
That came in about halfway through when I said I’d do six faces for six ex boyfriends to show how I think of each one and it was just so funny. It was the most amazing shoot. I love the fact that Rankin is really quick, he knows when he gets it. We went through about nine different outfits and in each one I felt like a different person. You just know he’s finding really interesting angles and he’s great at what he does. It makes such a difference to be in that kind of photoshoot. It was wonderful. I’d do it every day of the week!
85% Proof is out now. Buy it here.
Find out more about Will Young on his websit: willyoung.co.uk
[Headline image credits: suit by Dior Homme, shirt by Ede & Ravenscroft, tie by John Varvatos]