Will Young has been making big impressions both musically and personally since the day he stood up firmly to Simon Cowell during the inaugural 2002 Pop Idol. Since then, he has continued to garner attention, while collecting multiple top-hit singles, albums and honours. Melissa Blease spoke to the singer last year, ahead of the release of his album, Lexicon, and his brilliant performance at Pub in the Park in 2019.
“Imagine if I went into politics! I’d end up creating another expenses scandal for buying too many Moroccan rugs, and then there’d be another scandal about how many nude pictures of me there are on the internet. Go on, Google me naked! You’re in for a treat…”
By the time I get around to talking scandals with Will Young, we’ve already discussed his parents’ new rescue puppy, his own dogs and his flourishing avocado plant. Has Will got nothing better do with his time? Yes indeed he has – if you think Young is old news, it’s time to catch yourself up while he and I calm ourselves down.
This enduringly popular renaissance man first stole the nation’s heart when he narrowly beat Gareth Gates to the title of Pop Idol in the inaugural series of the ITV talent contest in 2002. His debut album From Now On went straight to number one and his following albums went multi-platinum, selling over eight-million worldwide and earning him two Brit awards. But his multifaceted career had only just begun…
In 2005, Young co-starred alongside Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins in the BBC film version of Mrs Henderson Presents. In 2007, he took the role of Nicky Lancaster in the Royal Exchange Theatre’s production of Noël Coward’s hothouse drama The Vortex. In 2013, he was nominated for the Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his role as MC in the Rufus Norris revival of Cabaret. He’s written an autobiography (Funny Peculiar, 2012); he’s an active supporter of charities including the Princes Trust, Catch22, Mencap, Women’s Aid, gAID and the WWF; he co-hosts the Homo Sapiens podcast with filmmaker Chris Sweeney… and he’s appeared on the Question Time panel. And now – despite rumours suggesting that Will may have retired from music – there’s a new album.
“Lexicon has got a real ease to it – perhaps because it’s the album that wasn’t meant to be,” he laughs (which he does often). “Last year, I was really busy doing stuff in the West End, writing a book, and doing the podcast, which really took off. But then Pub in the Park offered me a gig at their Marlow festival, which I did, and which was really fun to do. The juxtaposition of doing a live gig again compared to what I was doing at the time (a very regimented show, necessarily so) made me think I’d quite like to do some touring again. So then I wrote a new song… and it just went from there, really.”
“I’m in a very fortunate position where I can publicly stick up for people that don’t have the chance to stick up for themselves…”
Until that point, had he really considered retiring his music career? “Well I might have done, yes. But I worked out a way that I could continue making music which would work for me, and which wasn’t stressful. I found a producer that I loved, and I left my management company and found someone that could simply manage my music. I think I was sort of like, come on, you’re 40 now – let’s just do the things that you like doing.”
Ah, the Big 4-0. How is it for Will? “It’s fabulous! I love being 40 – it’s just a delight. You can drop so much unnecessary baggage, and tell people who need to be told where to go where to go, and be confident doing it – there’s nothing better than telling someone to [insert popular profanity here]; I do it all the time. I’ve done a lot of therapy so I’m very good with boundaries, which is terrifying in a way – liberating, but terrifying too.
“Therapy is like having a really perverse teacher goading you on to do the naughty stuff you really want to do. I can wear really silly clothes on stage now without caring if people laugh at me. Give people the space to just do or say what they want to do or say, then let it go – that’s my ultimate belief. I’m very zen about most things, these days.”
Zen perhaps – but incredibly busy, too. “My work is all about different types of performance, so it’s hard to compare and contrast, say, live theatre to recording an album – it’s all a performance,” he says.
“But there’s something very, very special about acting on stage; it’s quite terrifying, but really electrifying, and it changes every night, which keeps it really interesting. If I had to pick one way of performing that covers so much special stuff, for me, I would say acting – particularly in a very, very good dark musical like Cabaret. Oh, but I loved going on Question Time too! I like being asked to go on the radio or TV as a sort of commentator if they can’t find anyone else – I like the attention. I’m quite stupid, but because I’m well-spoken people think I’m clever.”
Ah, methinks he doth protest too much – Will was even a superstar at school, when he flirted with the idea of competing in the Olympic Games and could run the 400-metre sprint in under 50 seconds when the Olympic average was 43. “I still love sports,” he says. “Team sports in particular. I used to really enjoy rugby – I was on the wing, though, so mostly I just ran away from people.” He went on, however, to study politics at the University of Exeter. Although his career direction took a different turn, he is today one of the most articulate, informed, outspoken ambassadors for the charities he supports. Is he an activist?, I ask.
“I’d like to be called an activist ’cos that’d boost my ego and make me feel like I’m doing more for the world than just wanting to buy some more rugs for my house – primarily I’m completely conceited and just like to do things that please me.” No Will, I’m not letting you bask in the shallows. “Okay, I do have a genuine desire to help others,” he concurs, when (gently) pushed. “I always have – I was brought up that way. I believe it’s really important that I look out for people who get bullied – I really, really don’t like bullies. I’m now in a very fortunate position where I can publicly stick up for people that don’t have the chance to stick up for themselves, through my charity work and on a personal level. If that makes me an activist, then I’m an activist. But actually I just hate bullies!”
Activism and avocados; Moroccan rugs and director Michael Gracey (The Greatest Showman), with whom Will is currently collaborating on a musical drama – there’s so much going on in Will’s world that it’s hard to say goodbye. But the dogs are barking, his garden needs attending to, and he needs to practise perfecting his freestanding handstand (long story).
Images: Steve Schofield