September 8, 2008

Young, Gifted and Back

By Chitra Ramaswamy

He's come a long way since singing 'Blame It On The Boogie'. Four albums in, a relaxed Will Young tells Chitra Ramaswamy why there's more to life than carping and competition

'Were you at T in the Park?" Will Young demands before I've had the chance to open my mouth. Yes, as it happens, I did witness the throngs (of mostly women) panting as he seduced them with a Highland fling and a medley of 'Loch Lomond' and The Proclaimers' '500 Miles'. The man knows how to get an audience eating out of his hand. "Did you enjoy it?" he asks, and then bulldozes on. "Weren't they a great crowd? I didn't know what to expect. I was nervous about that one, what with it being a rock festival, but it was amazing."

He loves Scotland, holidayed in Dumfries and Galloway every year "from the age of zero", and dubs the Edinburgh Festival "one of my favourite things" (also on the list is bric-a-brac shopping in London, swimming, going to the pub, acting and - oh yes - singing). This year he saw his good friend cabaret singer Camille O'Sullivan and then went dancing at the Silent Disco. All the while I nod at this torrent, open and close my mouth occasionally like a guppie, and ponder whether to set fire to my questions and just let the tape roll.

It's interesting, though, that someone who has a Brit Award and an Ivor Novello, released the fastest-selling UK debut single of all time (it's also possibly the worst, though Young's no great fan of his Pop Idol hit 'Evergreen' either), and pulled off a hat trick of multi-platinum-selling albums, should be this excited about having played a small stage at T in the Park, sandwiched between Lightspeed Champion and Tom Baxter.

"I feel like doing things like T in the Park and Glastonbury - it's such a journey from Pop Idol," he says. "It didn't feel forced, it felt like the right time. I think I've earned my stripes." This has been his first year on the festival circuit, and it all seems part of the Young masterplan to flirt outside the mainstream. Most pop stars travel in the opposite direction, but then most pop stars didn't start their careers warbling 'Blame It On The Boogie' to a bemused Simon Cowell.

That feels a long time ago now. We're sitting in the plush office of Young's PR company in London. Actually, melting is a better word for what Young is doing, sprawled catlike across a sofa, sinking further into its depths the more we talk. He looks so relaxed, in fact, that his PR manager pops in and offers in jest to bring him a pillow and a blanket. The 29-year-old, irrepressibly handsome in that preppy, cheeky chappie sort of way (though no bowler hat for this cat today), looks healthy and happy and says he feels he has less to prove than he once did. "I feel it less and less," he says. "You're always going to have doubts but now I don't worry about it so much. I think I've worked it out, it just took me a bit of time. I was very controlling in work and in my personal life and I've relaxed a lot. As long as I'm signed, making records and getting good money, it's brilliant. For a while I lost that massive enjoyment I had when I first got my record deal. It became such a business."

His upcoming fourth album, however, doesn't exactly match his buoyant mood. Let It Go sounds a lot like a break-up record, in fact, from which lines such as "If love equals nothing but sadness and pain/Why do I need it?" pour like so many tears. It continues where his last album, Keep On, left off, but is more sophisticated, with complex arrangements and stirring ballads in minor keys. It's sure to further cement Young's place as Britain's 21st-century soulman, a rightful successor to the likes of George Michael, though he could still do with some of Tom Jones' oomph. But his voluptuous voice is more velvet than ever, and the nation continues to love Young in the same cosy way they love a good cup of tea. And I can see why. He is charming, intelligent, and doesn't suffer fools gladly or otherwise, the sort who would be a riot on a night out, and would never abandon you on the dancefloor either.

He disagrees that Let It Go is a downbeat album. (He disagrees with me a lot, in fact, though in a very polite way, of course.) "No, it's all about crossroads," says Young. "I don't think it's a slit your wrists album. It's an honest album about times that were tough." I'm not sure what the difference is, and Young admits he did break up with his boyfriend and recites a line from forthcoming single 'Changes': "Out of love for so long/And I don't get much so there's nothing much to lose." He laughs. "That wasn't a good day for me." He isn't an easy person to be in a relationship with, he says, but he hopes the struggle is worth it. At the moment he's officially married to his job and "the relationship is going really f***ing well".

Later, Young tells me his newfound optimism is partly inspired by having therapy, seeing his twin brother come out of a long struggle with depression and alcoholism, and the perspective he gained when someone close recently died. "That's what happens as you get older, isn't it? You experience more, start getting more perspective, and realise it's not all about me so much. Getting older is the best thing." He feels like an elder statesman of pop these days, and he likes it. "I've earned my place and I'm like an old pro," he grins. "It's been seven years!"

It was in 2002, just after winning Pop Idol, that Young came out, getting in there first as a tabloid prepared to run a story. It has always been a non-issue for him. "The best thing is when people don't even think about it," he says. "Look at Bloc Party or The Feeling. It was a different time before [when he came out]. Check out the seasoned old queen here! Maybe things did change because of me coming out from the beginning. Maybe record companies saw and thought, 'it hasn't ruined his career'. My sales went up."

Some carp that his is a sanitised gayness. Boy George, for example, called Young "a common or garden homosexual, not a queer". Although on his last album one lyric announced that "happiness is being gay", he does tend to write non-gender-specific love songs. On Let It Go, just one track, 'Disconnected', addresses his "baby boy". "The gay subtext is there if you want to see it and I think that's more interesting than going boom!" he says. "I could have done it but the reaction might have gone against my point, which was that it doesn't matter."

What makes him most angry is being labelled, whether based on his sexuality or his class, which interestingly gets mentioned more. "We're class obsessed in this country," he says. "So much is built on this archaic class system, though we're much more of a meritocracy now, which is a good thing." Young is unreservedly middle class with a degree in politics from Exeter University. "I honestly think it's just because I'm posh that people think I'm intelligent," he laughs. "I don't really know anything."

Acting is another passion and his two projects so far - a Noel Coward theatre production and a small role alongside Dame Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins in Mrs Henderson Presents... - have been successful. "I'd love to do more," he says. "I don't know if people are still confused and think it's a whimsical thing for me, but I really take it seriously. I've got a lot more to learn but I think it's the same as singing. I just learn from experience, and bide my time."

'Changes' is out September 14, the album Let It Go is out on September 29. Will Young plays Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on November 20

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