Will Young back after a vital break from music
H ow many pop stars do you know who use the word fulcrum? OK, how many people do you know who use the word fulcrum? To be honest, I could probably just leave this interview right here: Will Young is a man who lobs the word fulcrum into chit chat over coffee. But that would leave an awful lot of blank space on the page so bear with me.
Young arrives at the bar where we’re meeting looking pretty tired. His white shirt is a bit rumpled underneath a hoody. His hair is messy and he’s not had a shave. There is no pop star primping and preening. His mobile phone gets put on the table alongside his packet of Silk Cut. (I didn’t know anyone smoked Silk Cut anymore). Turns out it’s not that he’s been partying up a storm – he doesn’t really drink anymore – he’s just done an overnight drive from the South of France, a sort of mercy mission for a friend of his. So he’s feeling a bit peaky but he’s optimistic the orange and soda water will sort him out and actually, he really quite enjoyed his adventure.
“So many funny things happened,” he says of his trans-continental road trip. “My favourite was when we discovered that the road we were on was blocked and there were eight firemen in attendance for a poodle that was tied to some railings. By a lead. They didn’t know who owned it. It was amazing.” He beams. “Eight firemen for a poodle.”
Will Young has been a pop star for nearly 15 years. There have been millions of albums sold, three number ones and 11 top ten singles. That’s a bigger pop career than most would manage to squeeze from the aftermath of an encounter with Simon Cowell. But there have also been appearances on film as well as documentaries for telly, an autobiography, a whole load of charity work for Stonewall amongst other charities. And then there’s the stage. He did a stint in a Noel Coward play, The Vortex (he played the cocaine addled composer Nicky Lancaster, whom Coward had played in the original production). And then came Cabaret. Young was the Emcee in director Rufus Norris and producer Bill Kenwright’s version of the show for which he was nominated as best actor in a musical at the 2013 Olivier Awards. So what we know is that Young is a shape shifter. He was never a one trick pony on a fast track to panto in Didsbury. But it seems that in the four years since his last album, he might have made the biggest shift of all – he’s become a happy man.
Young’s last album, Echoes, was released in 2011. And now he’s back with a new one. He’s “chuffed” with 85% Proof. And why shouldn’t he be? But before we get to that, it’s worth taking a little detour by way of the topic of Muay Thai boxing. It turns out Young has discovered a love for the sport. Having a flick through the sleeve notes of the new album it transpires Young’s been in Thailand at a kind of martial arts boot camp. That’s where the photographs were taken too – all mean and moody in harem pants. Let’s start with Muay Thai, I say, as he sips his fresh orange and soda. I am aware I make it sound like a cocktail.
“It does sound like that,” he says, “or some sort of dodgy bar. It’s amazing. I wanted a break. My brother said let’s go away but let’s do some fitness. So I said great, let’s do it.”
They picked a training camp called Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket. Eight corrugated-roofed training spaces dotted along an entire road. Then there are juice bars and massage places for recovery from the arduous work outs.
“After a training session, it’s like when tutorials finish at university,” he says. “You see everyone in transit, people who have just finished and others just arriving for a session. You line up and have an hour long massage for a fiver.
“There were guys built like brick s**thouses but there were women too. It was 50/50 split between women and men. There were MMA fighters, Muay Thai fighters and people like me who want to learn it for the first time. And you can also just do fitness – I say just. It was hardcore. I was running round the camp dragging tyres. It was amazing.”
He did one bout of sparring but didn’t like it. “I like the aggression and getting it out – healthy aggression is good and that was another reason that I wanted to do this. But I didn’t like sparring. I’m not sure I’d want to do that again. It is a beautiful thing to watch.” He drains his glass. “I will do it every year. I’ll go back there. It was my best holiday.”
Four years is a lifetime in the fickle world of pop music. But the break was important for Young. Vital really. It gave him a chance to catch up with himself. And when he did go back into the studio, with Jim Eliot and Mima Stilwell whom he’d worked with before, everything just flowed. The whole album was made in just 10 writing sessions. “I wasn’t really sure that we were going to work on the album, but we’re friends and it’s easy to be together. It was because of that, because it was so easy, it just worked. We wrote three tracks in two days. We’d average about two a day. Weird.”
Having just signed to Island Records, he was nervous about sending the first songs in for them to listen to. But he needn’t have been because they agreed instantly that those tracks would be the first two singles. “So our confidence was really high because it was so nice to get that feedback. Everyone needs feedback.”
The word he uses to describe the album is “eclectic”. And it’s true – it’s unashamedly a pop record but within that the sound ranges from ballad to belting pop tune. And Young sounds more sure of himself in every style. He’s written all but one of the songs. “As a song writer now, particularly lyrically, I’ve got a lot more confident,” he says. In part, that comes from having found his voice while writing his autobiography, Funny Peculiar. And since then he’s been doing some other kinds of writing – blogs mainly for the Huffington Post. “I’ve found a different voice as a writer,” he says. “I’ve got a great article coming up, the power of women.”
What prompted that? I ask. I don’t know what I expected his answer to be, but I didn’t expect it to begin with the sentence, ‘I was in Waitrose really early…’ It turns out he’s living in the countryside at the moment. Up sharpish one day, his plan was to hand in his dry-cleaning and to shop for a dinner party he was hosting. “I don’t usually cook so I get really uptight otherwise I forget the ingredients. I have to put it all in bowls, like a cookery show, because I’m so disorganised. There were just all these women in the supermarket, mostly women, mostly mothers, a lot of them in gym kit. It was 8:45am. I was supposed to have dropped off my dry cleaning but I hadn’t because I’d forgotten it – even though I left the bag by the door so that I wouldn’t forget it. They would have got the kids up, sorted breakfast, organised their kids for school, got them off to school, got to Waitrose and then they were heading to the gym. I just thought women are amazing. They are powerhouses. I know people go on about yummy mummies but f**k that, they’re doing it. Unless I got it completely wrong and they were just pottering around Waitrose and the nanny has done everything.”
A new album, a more chilled out way of being, inspiration everywhere. Young strikes me as a man at ease with himself. Happy to chat, sure of himself, confident. That’s it, he’s confident. “I think it’s also not being so inward-thinking,” he says. “That’s true about my music too. I’m in my 30s and I’ve settled. I’ve grown in confidence but also I’ve stopped worrying about whether that person will like my shoes. It allows me to look out more and be more interested in life and people and happenings. That’s affected everything I’m doing at the moment.
“I think it’s about the power of vulnerability. There you go, that’s another article. I’m going to do a book in the end. A self-help book. I’ve just started formulating it now. I meditate. I study somatics. I practice – actually I don’t like that word – I’ve learned mindfulness. So I’ll do a book.”
I’ve never met Young before, so I don’t know from first hand experience that he’s changed radically, but it very much seems like that. He strikes me as a man who’s been through something and has found himself now, on the other side, different. So what’s that about?
“I think it’s just been a natural progression. It’s come mainly from working on myself because the more that anyone works on themselves the more they’re settled and can look out beyond themselves. I’ve never set out to change because if I had it wouldn’t have been real.
“I’ve been very fortunate because I’ve managed to attain my dreams quickly. In 13 years. I’m financially well off so that doesn’t take up loads of my time and for which I’m constantly grateful, it’s amazing. I’ve got a nice house, I’ve always been able to have nice cars, all those things.” He pauses. “Actually no, there was a moment. I got number one with the last record, I moved into my house – beautiful, I’d done it all up, it was like World of Interiors, and I thought there’s something missing and I don’t know what it is. So I thought, let’s find out. But it was because I’d got to that place that I could do that. I could’ve gone my whole life just being like I must get another whatever and that will make me settled or fulfilled. So I started looking at behaviours and what was important. Was it important to get a really big house? The answer is, it’s not. At all.”
He started reading books too, self-help classics such as Pia Mellody’s Codependency and Love Addiction and John Bradshaw’s Healing the Shame that Binds You. “What’s been incredible is that it allows me to know what’s going on with myself and also other people in terms of how I’m reacting. The two together are magical.”
I tell you what all this awareness has done for Will Young. It has made him the kind of interviewee who when he doesn’t understand what I’m banging on about says exactly that. Care for an example? I try to ask a question about how Young is managing to be his new authentic self in the music industry, a business not exactly renowned for encouraging self-awareness, certainly not at the expense of record sales. Does he know what I mean? “No, I don’t,” he says, straightforwardly. Oh, right then. I give it another bash referencing big houses and flash cars. He doesn’t look convinced. “Oh in that way,” he says skeptically, “like in an 80s way, all money, money, money.” I try again – well even if it’s not about money, it might be about attention or fame. “I’m just me, wherever I am,” he says. OK, fair enough, I’m not trying a third time. He relents. “Here’s a good example, I’m off to some fashion parties. I used to go to them when I partied a lot. It was brilliant fun. I’d go with a bunch of friends, we’d go from party to party, get smashed, try to steal goody bags. I’d go trying to be someone else. Now, I’ll go tonight and I’ll be the same there as I am now. I don’t need to be anyone else.
“Now when I meet people I’m actually listening to them. Before I would’ve been looking over their shoulder and my shoulder, thinking how’s it all going? How am I looking? Oh god, he’s got a better outfit than me. S**t why did I wear these shoes? I got out the car and no one paid any attention. Now it will be noise in the background and I will be properly talking to someone and genuinely being interested. That’s the difference. And it’s huge.” And he knows that this way of being isn’t easy to achieve so he’s even clearer that taking a break from the music industry was really important. And when he says break, he means more than just time out. He had made “the record he’d always wanted to make”, and it went to number one. He finished his contract at Sony and left “under all good circumstances”, then he left his management too. But the game changer was when he got himself a pair of leather shorts and a corset and turned into the Emcee from Cabaret.
“Cabaret was a huge fulcrum,” he says. “I was really protected because it wasn’t me so I didn’t have to worry at all. I just got on stage and played this person. I loved the production and it was everything I believe in because the person I was playing was very fluid so I could just be on stage and that was just amazing.
“It reminded me how important it is as a performer to be political and to play with the audience, manipulate them and show them what’s going on. Cabaret is such a brilliant way to do that, to hold a mirror up. Looking back, it’s really awakened my political interests and my social conscience. It’s made me really think about what I’m putting out there.”
Later in the year, he’ll start touring. He’s been inspired by Cabaret. “It’s going to be amazing,” he says. “I’ve got a whole idea, a whole bloody idea. My poor tour manager. It’s going to be quite theatrical.” He smiles.
And just in case I’ve created the impression that Young is totally zen-like, completely chilled out and relaxed, oozing self-awareness and confidence from every pore, let me add a little ballast. He still has days when he feels the pressure of where the next job will come from. He is, he says, ever mindful of “freak out mode”.
“I call it I’m being mental pop star today,” he says. It’s when he gets a bit high maintenance. “And then I also have pop star days when I feel like a proper pop star. I had one the other day. I got given a suite in the Savoy. I was chauffeur driven, nice outfit, hair and make up. I sang a song in front of lots of famous people at the Southbank Awards. It was a major pop star day. I even had a glass of champagne and I don’t really drink anymore. Awesome.”
And then the day after that?
“I was cleaning up my dog’s s**t in the countryside.”
85% Proof is out now on Island Records