Olly Alexander is pop music’s posterboy for social change: as likely to share a message about mental health or LGBT+ history as he is about new music, he is both frank and intensely passionate about people.
Celebrated for his live performances, which combine a high camp aesthetic with queer political activism, the singer uses his influence to support and highlight underrepresented groups as well as talking openly about his own mental health demons.
Now 29, the Years & Years singer is living out his lockdown in east London, and was making headway with the third Years & Years album when coronavirus thwarted his plans.
In the weird months that have followed, Olly has been coming to terms with the temporary world of the ‘new normal,’ and working out what that means, much like the rest of us.
It’s fair to say life under lockdown hasn’t been as uplifting as the summer-ready anthems Olly has moulded with Years & Years.
“We’re all experiencing this pandemic in different ways,” he tells HuffPost UK. “A lot of people are struggling with their pain - I would never judge somebody.
“The other day I got really sad reading all these negative comments about people tearing each other down on their appearance or body, you see it all the time. I don’t know, it just built up for me and I just cried, it’s so sad.
“Shaming somebody almost never does the thing that the shamer wants it to do,” says Olly. “It doesn’t work - it’s a very negative thing to do to somebody and it just encourages poor mental health and often repeat behaviour.”
But for every challenge, there’s been huge new positives - daily runs near his Hackney flat have been joyous; a necessary breather from the weight of lockdown and his social media feed.
“Just being able to appreciate the things like being outside, breathing nice air, seeing a friend. That is, you know, really beautiful,” he says.
The singer has also made time for other simple pleasures under lockdown: he has made the effort to get to know his immediate community better, including his neighbours, whom he is immensely thankful for.
“I live underneath some extremely nice lesbians,” he says excitedly of his new lockdown discovery. “Which makes me feel so safe because I know in a crisis I can just go upstairs.”
“I’m part of some mutual aid groups locally and it made me realise I never really engaged with my local community in the way I have been,” he reflects. “In terms of just literally the streets around my apartment and the people that live in my building. That’s been amazing.”
When he’s not busy with his neighbours, most days Olly has been working from home on new music. He’s thankful to be able to work in his own space, and the creative process has taught the singer a lot about the very nature of his creativity.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how when I make music, I go to these imaginary places in my head... I’m so lucky I can do that"Olly Alexander
“I’ve been thinking a lot about how when I make music, and when I’m going to these imaginary places in my head, that’s really a beautiful thing that humans do and I’m so lucky I can do that,” he says.
“I just need my brain [laughs]. I don’t need anything else.
“But it’s obviously not that simple. Sorry I can’t remember what your question was - now I’m talking about my brain…”
He finds music-making therapeutic “even if I never produce anything good”, like he hadn’t written the number 1 hit King and barrels of other Years & Years chart successes.
Olly also writes a diary, an activity which has increased since lockdown.
“It’s my therapists’ top tip - I’ve seen my therapist for six or seven years and we’ve been Skyping,” he continues.
“He’s always, like, ’writing stuff down is so helpful for you to help understand your feelings,’ for me anyway, so I’ve been doing a lot of that.”
Reading, as well as writing, has kept the musician on an even keel, and lockdown has provided plenty of opportunity to revisit classics by some of his favourite writers, mainly queer writers like Derek Jarman, Alexander Chee and Maggie Nielson.
He has found queer texts empowering, some of which he will recite virtually from lockdown this bank holiday weekend as a part of the Google Nest Sessions, streaming for free online. “I’m going to talk about literature that has really influenced me,” he says, “we talk about some queer authors, how that affects my mood.”
As lockdown stretches onwards there’s likely to be more opportunities for introspection. More time to question the forces that drive him to create powerful crossover pop-dance music, to make stands against a broad spectrum of social injustices from queer rights to sex worker rights and to channel his responses openly to fans online.
“Everything feels a little bit called into question right now,” he reflects. “Me putting out music - what does that really mean and is there any point?” He laughs at the suggestion, garnishing his existentialism with a trademark guffaw.
“And I think asking those questions is pretty normal, but I’ve come out the other side and I really love my job,” he says assuredly.
It’s clear how much comfort he finds in work, even with the overwhelming personal challenges of lockdown.
“I really want to put out something that’s fun and beautiful into the world for people to just escape to,” he surmises.