Will Young raises his eyebrows conspiratorially. He’s talking about his new album and he knows he isn’t supposed to say this sort of thing. “I was dreading doing it,” he says. “I’ve had a few dark nights. I’m a bit worried about the title, too. You know, Let It Go. It sounds a bit like a self-help book. With me, Dr Young!” He laughs, tucking his tight trousers under himself as his mood quickly changes. “But what’s in it — I love it. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I’ve finally got comfortable with what I do really well.” He takes a sip from a lime-spiked bottle of lager.
Young turns 30 in January and, despite his current cheer, it’s obvious that the odd coming-of-age crisis has nipped at his heels. His new album is a master class in grown-up soul-pop, delivered in a vocal full of heart and personality, but songs called Tell Me the Worst and If Love Equals Nothing hint at other, less joyful stories. And then there’s the chorus from Changes, the album’s melancholy first single: “Been out of luck/For so long/And I don’t get much/So there’s nothing much to lose.”
These songs do have some personal resonance, Young admits. There is his breakup with a long-term boyfriend (the two are now on good terms), but there is also the sense that Young is growing up, reflecting on the peculiar beginnings of his career and realizing how he can transcend them and become an artist in his own right. “Yes, that’s pretty spot-on,” he agrees. “Although Pop Idol was wonderful for me. I could never knock it.”
Young was always an unusual talent-show winner. He turned 23 during Pop Idol, famously sparred with Simon Cowell, and looked like a worldly-wise adult next to the other finalist, the baby-faced teenager Gareth Gates. Everyone expected Gates to win. He was conventionally cute and had overcome a stutter; his was a great tabloid story. When Young won, it was a shock.
“Looking back, it’s all quite weird,” says Young. “When I started at the auditions, I just thought of it as another way in.” He had already worked for Sony Music Publishing to try to get his foot in the door. And when Pop Idol started, he had just begun a three-year musical theater scholarship at London’s Arts Educational School, straight after getting his 2.2 in politics from Exeter University.
“Then everything changed,” he says. “I was a 23-year-old student with £20,000 [US$38,000] worth of loans, who suddenly got a wodge of cash, a record contract and a business. I had to get to grips with a machine and take control of it.” Other people would have left the business concerns to the management, wouldn’t they? Young’s eyes fix me keenly. “Not me. I knew Pop Idol was a means to an end and I had to take the reins. I was determined to have a career, and that kept me going.”
Young knew, too, that success did not mean that every door was suddenly open. The Glastonbury festival [the venerable music festival with hippy beginnings held in southwest England] was a case in point: “I couldn’t just expect to waltz into a festival back then and go, ‘Oh, hello, it’s me from the telly,’ could I? You’ve got to work. You’ve got to earn it.” And earn it he did, finally playing Glastonbury this summer, as well as T in the Park [a music festival held in Perth and Kinross, Scotland]. It was clearly quite a landmark for him and he was delighted to see fields of “drunk, blokey men” singing along to songs like his 2003 No. 1, Leave Right Now.
Barely a month after his double A-side debut single, Evergreen/Anything Is Possible, hit No. 1 in the British charts, Young also came out publicly. At the time, he said: “For me it’s normal and nothing to be ashamed about. I’m gay and I’m comfortable with that.” Given the sanitized genre in which he operated — and his core audience of teenage girls and their mothers — it was a bold move, but, thankfully, one that had no effect on his career. Coming six months after the openly gay Brian Dowling won the second series of Big Brother, it also suggested the general public are no longer terribly troubled by their reality heroes’ sexual preferences.
Did he feel like he did something special by coming out so frankly? “Oh shit, no, I’m the worst gay person ever!” Young cackles. “If it helped some people, then great. Thing is, though, I never wanted to be in a box. I still don’t. I mean, if an issue is prevalent, then I’m happy to make a comment about being gay, middle-class, or a singer, whatever. It’s not like I’m a big gay campaigner picking up my mantle and charging towards Soho.”
Nevertheless, last year Young wrote an elegant response to a Matthew Parris column in the Times, in which Parris told his “fellow-queers” to remember that “there has been no better, luckier, time or place to be gay than Britain in 2007.” Young agreed with his point, but also described his own experiences of homophobia, drew attention to the invisibility of gay sportsmen and actors, and talked about how homosexuality still had to be equated with normality. Or, as he put it: “Coming out should just be a statement of fact — I have red hair, I drink tea, I sleep with the same sex.”
Were you proud of the piece? “I was. Because I did agree that things were good for us, but … the very fact that we’re talking about me being gay now says everything, doesn’t it?” He smiles cheekily. “Matthew wrote a very charming letter to me afterwards. We were just like two academics sparring across our periodicals.”
Young also wrote a piece for the Guardian, about being nominated for both the Brits and the Baftas in early 2006. The Bafta nod came for his role in the Judi Dench-led musical, Mrs Henderson Presents. Then, in 2007, came something he had always craved: his first role in theater. Young spent four months playing Nicky Lancaster, the protagonist of Noel Coward’s 1924 play The Vortex, at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. The London Evening Standard’s theater critic, Nicholas de Jongh, loved his performance, saying it had “taken more than 80 years and the performance of Will Young … to bring out the full truth about Nicky Lancaster.”
Young is clearly energized when talking about that time, though he adds: “It was shit-scary — living in Manchester on my own, constantly conscious of what people thought of me getting the role. And being angry eight times a week. My friends said I looked like shit.” He hasn’t had any roles since, and worries that it’s because of people’s prejudices. “But if I have to graft like I did with my singing, I will.”
The toughest thing Young has had to deal with in recent years, however, concerned the mental health problems of his twin brother, Rupert. A constant presence during the Pop Idol tryouts, Rupert grappled with alcoholism and self-abuse, even slitting his wrists during the auditions. In 2005, he was diagnosed with dysthamia, a depressive disorder triggered by trauma, and since then has set up the Mood Foundation, which provides mental health treatment for the less financially sound.
“I’m so proud of him,” says Young. “It’s been so fucking hard seeing someone you adored being so very unhappy, trying to reach out, them not letting you in.” He had to cut the strings a few years after he got famous, which was particularly hard given the differences in their lots. Did he feel guilty? “Of course I did. But it got to the stage that I was like, no, I can’t feel guilty about it. Because I loved him to death, but I had to wait for him to help himself.”
Young is still angry about the mistreatment of depression in the UK, though. With a laugh, he adds that he is equally angry about post offices closing down, the nanny state and the lack of mutual responsibility being promoted by the government. “I’m growing older and grumpier. Next tour, I’m taking a soapbox and a loud-hailer.”
Young has always been straightforward. Proud that his music follows similar lines, he has recently been getting into the “simple, direct messages of folk music and country” and talks passionately about the recent Robert Plant and Alison Krauss album, Raising Sand, and a compilation on a small Manchester label, Finders Keepers, called Folk Is Not a Four Letter Word. He makes me write down a list of similar things he might like, and reveals that he’s desperate to go to Nashville to make his next album. “I feel like I can, you know? Because it feels like another one of those transitional times. I used to feel I had to apologize for what I was doing — and I don’t any longer.”
He laughs and clinks his bottle against mine. “I mean, I’ve been around for years now, haven’t I? I’ve done my time. And it feels good.”
Let It Go was released on Monday.
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