Words: Alastair James; pictures: Supplied
Will Young hates being a pop star. He absolutely hates it. “Actually”, he tells me, “That's not true. I hate elements of being a pop star. I love the expression. I love creating the music. I love recording. I love doing it live. I love the creative side. But the business side, I find really tests my self-esteem, but I think I deal pretty well with it…”
We’re discussing his upcoming album Crying on the Bathroom Floor when this frank admission comes out. Will shot to fame after winning the first series of Pop Idol 19 years ago. But how has he changed since then?
“I’ve got a much richer voice. It's much richer, it's much broader, there's a lot more warmth to my voice. I've learned to use it and explore the whole facility of singing. It’s fascinating to me. It’s my number one passion - singing. Being a pop star is not my number one passion.”
Will says he’s fascinated by what goes on on-stage, hearing other singers and learning from them. From an emotional perspective, the now-42-year-old says that singing will always be the way he connects with his emotions and feels calm.
He adds that the album shows he’s “confident enough to take on other people's songs” and not have to apologise for it. “I feel quite secure in my place as a singer.”
But he doesn’t feel secure as a pop star. However, he's learned to navigate the cyclical highs and lows that come with the territory: “I have lots of other things in my life, so I know that if I don't get the cover of Vogue - which is never going to happen – I’m still a good person. I can't rely on my job making me feel like I'm a good enough person because it will just go up and down the whole time. So, I've learned to find those other things. But that's why I really hate some of those elements of being a pop star.”
Crying on the Bathroom Floor (which Will is also touring) is a selection of covers of alt-pop songs from female artists such as Solange, Bat for Lashes, and Robyn. “I knew that by choosing female artists, that would take me down an interesting path.”
The female artists ground the album, according to Will. “I think they stand for something and they're quite independent. It was the nature of the artist as much as the song that dictated whether it would work. There were some songs that were great, and I thought I could do a good version of, but the artist wasn't right.”
Much like an actor, Will says there wasn’t much thought regarding the songs and more of an emotional connection. “I worry that if I think if my mind gets in the way, it can make it inauthentic. For example with ‘Daniel’, I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, I’m a gay man singing about another man” Maybe subconsciously it was really nice. Maybe subconsciously I was connecting to that. But I didn't consciously.”
With talk of “emotional recall” when it comes to relating to songs such as ‘Losing You’ it’s clear Will has approached this like an actor would a role. “It's about occupying that space, not necessarily having to put my own personal experience, again, consciously into it, but knowing that yearning. I've been in that situation, so that emotion comes up in the performance and in the belief of what the story is. And that's what's so brilliant.”
We move on to talk about how artists are much more open about sexuality or gender identity than artists have probably ever been before. And while a record label executive may have said he sounded “too gay” on occasion; Will won’t let the injustice get him down. “I'm very proud of what I did and that I didn't pretend to be someone else. And I think that is so, so cool for a 22-year-old to do that. I'm proud of that part of me that was like, “F*** you all! I don't give a s***!”. That approach comes from his parents, by the way.
Continuing on the topic of representation, we’re talking the day after Tom Daley won his first Olympics gold medal. “It’s absolutely bloody brilliant” says Will, but he thinks football is where a real impact could happen. “It needs to happen in football, and on the track, and in tennis. They’re worldwide so I think it would just be immense! I think our captain [footballer Harry Kane] wearing a rainbow band on his sleeve is not to be dissed. It’s very powerful. So, I think they are doing it. I suppose it's for gay people to feel that sport is a safe place for them.”
Naturally, we move on to talk about gay shame, the subject of Will’s recent book To Be A Gay Man. Will says he’s dealt with his for the most part, but admits he’s still triggered every now and then.
"It was brilliant to exclaim that I felt awful that I used to stare at my friend's willies in the shower when I was 15," he reflects. “And I felt so ashamed of that. I felt like I was just the worst kind of pervert in the world.
"But writing it, I was like, 'no, f***'. I'm going to say that because of course I would: I fancied boys and I am a boy. So, it was nice to write those kinds of things and maybe give other people permission to feel the same way.”
He advises anyone else struggling with gay shame to “face it front on and share it with others because shame can't exist when light shines on it. The thing that obliterates it is the thing that we don't want to do.”
Coming to the end of the interview I can’t not ask how lockdown has been for Will. It turns out he’s one of those people who actually enjoyed the relative isolation due to his mild agoraphobia.
“I have actually been alright. I've had quite a couple of big challenges that have come up during the pandemic. But being given permission to stay at home it's like, Hallelujah! This is what I do anyway!”
Crying on the Bathroom Floor is available from 6 August. Click here for information on the tour.