Will Young: 'I Don't Feel Like I Need To Prove Anything'

The Pop Idol winner talks ageism, Y2K nostalgia, politics and his new album Light It Up.
Will Young is back with a new album – and, apparently, a new outlook
Will Young is back with a new album – and, apparently, a new outlook
Jamie Noise

Will Young is excited to be doing things a bit differently for his new era.

After his warmth, charisma and, of course, talent made him an overnight household name on Pop Idol back in 2001, Will spent the following two decades running in the opposite direction to whatever was expected of him as the winner of a TV talent show.

“I hate being told what to do,” Will tells HuffPost UK of those early years. “I wasn’t an obvious person to win a talent show, either, so it was never really a clear fit.”

Will said that, right off the bat, he was “quite adamant” that he wouldn’t be “pushed into writing with all the same writers” as many of his pop peers from that time.

He recalls: “I didn’t want to go down that route. I thought that would be the death of me, actually. I needed to do different things.”

Clearly – eight albums (including four number ones), a string of top 10 hits, two Brit Awards and even an Olivier nomination later – it was a strategy that worked.

But now, with album number nine, Light It Up, on the way, Will is coming full-circle, and embracing what he describes as the “unashamed, brilliant pop” sound he’d long resisted.

For anyone who’s been following Will’s career in recent history, it won’t exactly be a mystery why now feels right for him to embrace something lighter.

Two decades after Pop Idol, Will Young says he's throwing himself into "unashamed, brilliant pop" for his new album
Two decades after Pop Idol, Will Young says he's throwing himself into "unashamed, brilliant pop" for his new album
Jamie Noise

“The stuff I’ve done has been quite serious over the last few years,” he admits.

“I did a serious documentary about my brother dying, I did a serious covers album, and a serious play about death.

“And also I haven’t been very well amongst all that. I had complex PTSD, I had a nervous breakdown.”

Understandable, then, that when the opportunity arose to put together an album of “bloody brilliant Scandi pop”, Will’s response was: “Yeah, of course. Why am I going to say no to that?’”

“I think I had to work quite hard to kind of prove… that I was a serious musician, probably,” he says. “But I mean, I’ve been doing it so long that I don’t feel like I need to prove it. That’s what’s so nice about getting older.”

Asked why now is the right time for an album like Light It Up, he adds: “It’s very hard to take in happiness if you’ve got an anxiety disorder. You can’t sit there and go, ‘oh this is lovely’, when your body thinks it’s under attack.

“So I think that’s probably a large part to play, that I actually feel safe enough now, having done a lot of work, and not been very well.”

The first single of Will’s new era is the 80s-leaning Falling Deep. “As soon as we did Falling Deep, I was like, this is what we’re doing, here’s the moodboard, let’s go for it,” he enthuses.

“I haven’t had that for quite a long time. But again, I think that’s probably a sign of how much I’m enjoying the work, how much it’s inspiring me.”

Will Young on the set of his Falling Deep music video, which features a troupe of dancers in their 40s and 50s
Will Young on the set of his Falling Deep music video, which features a troupe of dancers in their 40s and 50s
Jamie Noise

“I just knew it instantly,” he continues, naming “A Chorus Line”, “Fame”, “double denim”, “some sort of red seats” and “something in lightbulbs” as immediate touchstones for the accompanying music video.

Will reveals that it was actually the video’s director Samuel Douek who provided the idea that would set Falling Deep apart – the casting of dancers exclusively in their 40s and 50s.

“I just sort of went, ‘yes, yes, yes! Why had I never thought about that?’,” he recalls. “I was annoyed I’d never thought about it.”

“As a feminist, I think that particularly women in the arts can get sort of forgotten [past a certain age]. I think it’s better now, but it still happens.

“That made me feel, you can still have fun and it can still be light, but if your work is steeped in something that has meaning and does something positive, it makes the whole experience worthwhile.

“It’s still a fun video, but that’s just a cherry on top.”

This inclusion of dancers who might otherwise have been overlooked is fitting for Will, who notes that over the course of his career he’s “always” had to fight against expectations that have been put on him – first as a former talent show winner, later as an openly gay singer and now as a pop star in his mid-40s (“This is what it looks like!” he insists. “You don’t have to be 20-something”).

“The second video I did was all in black-and-white, with Bailey Walsh, based on Andy Warhol’s film Ciao! Manhattan,” he says. “It was not the kind of thing someone from a pop talent show was doing, getting played on CD:UK.

“And then I did the Friday’s Child video, where I’m all lubed up and my body is all gymmed up and lubed up – but I’m learning how to swim! And it’s just funny! It’s about subverting, that’s when I think pop’s really interesting.”

“It could have been something that was frustrating, coming from a talent show, but actually you get an opportunity to be a bit of a silent assassin,” Will continues.

“I was a massive household favourite, and then I came out as gay, and it was a bit, ‘oh, I’ve managed to infiltrate myself in the mainstream’. So, in a way, it’s like an opportunity that you can play the game. It’s quite fun! I’ve always tried to approach it like that. And I’m really, really, really proud of that – because it was a hard line to dance sometimes.”

Will Young performing on Pop Idol back in 2002
Will Young performing on Pop Idol back in 2002
Fremantle Media/Shutterstock

Having won over the viewing public on Pop Idol, Will released the winner’s single Evergreen (still the second biggest-selling single of the 21st century in the UK). Before a follow-up had been released, the then-23-year-old came out as gay in an interview with the News Of The World, after another newspaper had threatened to out him.

Two decades later, Will says that in a pop landscape where artists like Sam Smith, MNEK, Olly Alexander, Cat Burns and Kim Petras are enjoying huge success, it feels “like a different world” to when he was starting out in the industry.

“I think it’s brilliant,” he says. “I think it used to be pointed out a lot, ‘gay pop star’, the two went hand in hand. And I think I probably did suffer a bit from it, because literally people would come up and say, ’oh, I listen to your music – but I’m not gay’. It was a bit like, you couldn’t listen to me because it might mean that you were gay. And I don’t feel like that’s a thing now… so much. Maybe it still is a bit.”

“But it’s great,” he adds. “People can just be how they want to be.”

With so few artists of his own generation out of the closet at the time he was enjoying huge chart success, Will remembers it as a somewhat “lonely” time.

“Looking back, it was probably quite isolating,” he admits. “When you look around and you don’t see yourself being mirrored or modelled in any way [it is lonely].

“And also, I don’t think it was a sort of ‘head up’ situation, I think I was like a ‘head down, let’s get away with it’ kind of thing.”

Will Young during an early TV performance in 2003
Will Young during an early TV performance in 2003
Ken McKay/Shutterstock

Will says some of the “behaviour” towards him and “stuff that was said then” would be considered “outrageous” by today’s standards.

“It was just like, ‘that’s the way it is’ – which just seems so odd to think of it now,” he says. “I remember one very famous person who I can’t say telling me, ‘oh you know, once I got a blow job from a bloke’. It was like I was a bit of a freak.

“I mean, you ran into people who were around people like Bowie or Annie Lennox or Grace Jones, the really cool people, they didn’t give a shit. They’re not like, ’oh my god, you’re gay…’. There’s that level of people that are operating where they just don’t care. But I think on an industry level, it was quite isolating. And a bit scary, at times.”

However, Will is also quick to highlight that the struggle for LGBTQ+ equality is far from over, pointing to an “attack” on “gender-fluidity” and the transgender community he says has been “absolutely terrifying to witness from the government – and, in fact, all politicians”.

“I am a Labour supporter but I don’t think they’ve done enough for transgender [people],” he says. “It’s been disgusting. And I hope to God it gets better.”

Will adds that he does feel hopeful for the future, provided “the Tories get out” at the upcoming general election.

The former politics graduate notes he’s “never been so political” as he feels under the current government, claiming: “I just couldn’t take it anymore. It’s just awful.”

After a series of heavy and "serious" projects, Will is stepping into the "light" on his new album
After a series of heavy and "serious" projects, Will is stepping into the "light" on his new album
Jamie Noise

He also maintains that if the Conservatives do stay in power at the next election, he’ll leave the UK.

“If they stay in, I’m not staying around,” he insists. “No way. I’m not living in the UK under that government. Are you mad? They’re turning into fascists. And a lot of them are anyway. It’s terrifying!

“We’re into utter stupidity – but also some people that are quite smart, that have picked out marginalised groups, and LGBT people being one of them. And, ‘let’s point out LGBT people and migrants and put them in the same category’.

“It’s terrifying – and the thing is, I’m not even sure they believe it, but they know it gets column inches, and that’s even more terrifying. You can forgive a crazy person, in a way, but not a calculated person. And that’s what they’re doing. Their calculations are so terrifying, and that’s why I go on and on about it. Literally, ‘get the Tories out’.”

To coincide with the upcoming Light It Up album, Will is also planning a mammoth 50-date UK tour later this year. And as you might expect by this point, he’s doing it his own way, spurning the usual arenas and grand spaces in favour of smaller theatres and “tiny venues, deliberately”.

“I did these shows [in 2021], kind of because of Covid, and they were literally supposed to be album launches – mince on stage, sing a few songs, answer a few questions,” he says.

“I didn’t think it would end up being a tour, but it was so fun, so funny – and then very moving, to go from laughing with the audience, to singing the saddest song. It really works.”

Will on stage in at the British Summer Time festival last year
Will on stage in at the British Summer Time festival last year
Dave Hogan/Hogan Media/Shutterstock

He adds: “I wanted to get to more places where I’d never been, and I feel like sometimes people have to travel quite a long way to get to see a gig. It costs more than just the ticket price, it’s the travelling, it’s ‘if they stay over’, ‘if they have supper’, all this kind of thing.”

“I can’t believe I’m playing Newbury,” he says of his a show scheduled in his home town. “There’d be no chance I’d ever play there.

“It’s just nice, because I know all the local people can come to that. Before, the one they’d have to go to would either be London or Bristol, which is an hour’s travel both ways.

“In fact, there’s three areas just around where I live that people can go to, and I think they vary from like a 300-seater to maybe 600? And I love that! Why would I not do it? Probably just ego, what, because I’m not playing bigger venues? That’s just silly.”

Will Young is heading on a 50-date tour later this year
Will Young is heading on a 50-date tour later this year
Jamie Noise

And as a key fixture on the British mid-2000s pop scene, Will is enjoying the surge in Y2K nostalgia, even if it’s something he can’t fully wrap his head around.

“I never thought that would happen – but of course it was going to, because we had an 80s moment and then a 90s moment,” he says. “It’s really interesting to see. And I like it! I like it. I’m not sure if I could describe what it was like, because I was in it.”

One thing Will is certainly excited about is the prospect that “brilliant, brilliant” music from that era is being rediscovered.

“From that perspective, it’s like, yes, everyone should know Sugababes songs from that time,” he enthuses. “Everyone should know Rachel Stevens’ Come And Get It album. Everyone should listen to Samantha Mumba Body II Body. It’s a rite of passage, if you don’t before you die, you’ve had an awful life.”

Will Young’s Light It Up is released on 9 August. Lead single Falling Deep is out now.


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