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Interview: Will Young

10 min read

Since taking the Pop Idol crown back in 2002, Will Young has become a household name in the world of pop music. The last 13 years has seen Young release 6 incredible studio albums and successfully experiment with multiple genres to craft a catalogue that would make any artist in today’s music industry very envious.

Young has not only mastered the last 13 years a a recording artist – he has also become an acclaimed actor, showcasing his skills in films such as 2005’s Mrs Henderson Presents in which he starred alongside Dame Judi Dench and several television series. He was also praised for his performance as Emcee in the West End production of Cabaret and was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical in 2013 for his work in the musical hit.

After 4 years away from the music industry, Young returned to work in the studio with some of his previous collaborators and the end result is his brand new record, and 6th of his career, 85% Proof.

Sneaking into his busy promotional schedule, we were able to have a chat on the phone with the pop prince about his return to music after a 4 year absence, his ventures in acting, his recent record label and management move and all about new album 85% Proof. Here is what he had to say…

Brendon Veevers: Where are we talking to you from today Will?

Will Young: I am in the UK. I am in a hotel room. It’s a nice day here and I’m up nice and early so yeah, it’s all good.

BV: Congratulations on the release of your new album which is called 85% Proof. What did you do to celebrate the release and your return to music?

WY: I’m actually staying in a hotel room (laughs). It’s actually my favourite hotel called The Corinthia in London and it’s a real treat to do that so I decided to stay here for a few nights and have meals with friends and to treat myself in between working hard.

Will Young 85 ProofBV: Talk us through the title – why did you go with 85% Proof and is there a hidden reference in there?

WY: I was on a kickboxing training camp in Thailand with my brother and we were talking about how sailors used to get paid in rum in the 17th Century and to test the alcohol content that would put a little bit of it with gunpowder and they would light and if it sparked up then they knew that it had enough alcohol in it. I like that whole idea of percentage and proof of percentage and it just sort of stuck with me really.

BV: With this being your 6th studio album – what would you say sets 85% Proof apart from previous records?

WY: I think mainly a development rather than a difference in that I have written all the songs. I wrote all the song lyrics before doing any of the music and that is a new way of writing for me and I kind of found a different voice. I’ve been doing a lot more social commentary and journalism and it’s sort of reawakened my sense of social awareness and activism and I studied politics and I think that those things have naturally come into the songs in terms of standing up for things. There is a sort of quiet sense of revolution I guess.

BV: It’s been a while since we had an album from you with Echoes being your last in 2011. What have you been up to in this time?

WY: I took a break but I act as well so I played Emcee in Cabaret in the West End which was incredible. It was directed by a man named Rufus Norris who is now the head of the National Theatre here. It was just a part that I’ve wanted to play for so long so when it came about it was just about trying to organise when to play it which was sort of a feat in itself. Bit I loved it so much that I did it twice; I did it in London and then I took it on tour around the UK.

So that took up a fair amount of time and then I took up some teaching and then I did some studying; I did a fair amount of journalism. So yeah, I also moved record labels and then started a record. I also wanted a break. I had finished my contract with Sony. I had a great time there and I just wanted to take stock. I think it is really important to have moments to check in and go “well, do I still want to be doing this?” I mean, I don’t have to be doing it forever.

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BV: Do you think that the break from recording albums and from the recording industry gave you the desired time to allow you to reflect enough on your career and return a revitalised artist with 85% Proof?

WY: Oh yeah! I think it’s essential actually because I think that not only with the creative output – I’m not someone who operates well to have to just go, go, go. I need time to kind of refuel. But this is what I love to do and you have got to love what you do but if I was churning it out all the time then I don’t think that I would love what I do. I also don’t think that the output and the songs would be that great because of that. I like to take my time. I also go and do other things and the thing is that it all feeds into it anyway – the acting and the teaching and the writing and the studying – it all works together because with anything creative it’s like osmosis – it just kind of comes out.

BV: While Echoes dabbled in electro-pop, 85% Proof experiments with many different genres like RnB, big band and Motown. It’s experimental but also very cohesive. Was this a conscious decision to blend these genres into this new collection or was it more of a spontaneous shift in the studio?

WY: Yeah, it was more spontaneous. I done the last album with Jim and Mima Eliot from the band Kish Mauve and in that time we’ve become such good friends. I mean, really close friends. So when I got into the studio I deliberately didn’t think about what I was gonna do in terms of musical direct, and we wrote the songs in 10 days and that was it. We kept on looking at each other and kid of going “we’re not quite sure what’s going on here but we kind of like it so let’s just keep on going” (laughs).

So yeah, that’s just the way it happened really. It was very unplanned. Sometimes the best things are just unplanned and not overthought. They are just really coming from what’s going on in the room that day and I’m pleased that you say that it is still cohesive because that was a concern of mine. I had thought “oh god, is this just way too eclectic?” and the thing is that it was all done with just the 3 of us apart from one song so it’s going to have a cohesiveness just because it was just us.

I think there was also that desire on my part to try different styles.

Will Young 2015

BV: Do you think that came from wanting to keep things updated and fresh for you as the artist?

WY: No, it’s not that thought out. It was really to do with where I’m at and where Jim and Mima are at at this time in our lives and I think that’s where it comes from. I think that it comes from a very authentic place. I think that’s the key thing; as long as its honest then that will resonate with people, for me, personally. If I try to overthink things then they are normally just a bit crap (laughs).

BV: Going back to the new album, 85% Proof, the record was released through your new home at Island Records. What has the transition been like moving from your former home of Sony over to Island?

WY: It was hard actually, yeah it really was. It was hard because I didn’t realise how embedded in I was.

It was harder with my management just because I really did spend a lot of time in the same place, in the same office, for 13 years so that was hard to get to know people and it just takes a while, from both sides. But I completely knew that I had made the right decision and Tim and David who run i.e:management and who look after Robbie (Williams) and who used to look after SIA, and Passengers, they are incredible. They’ve been around and they know the industry backwards and they are just two really cool dudes.

And Island Records was easy because immediately they just embraced me as an artist and not just as a musician. They were really keen on my acting and really keen on the fact that I write and really keen on the fact that I wanted to do a lot of visual stuff so. You know, that’s made a huge difference actually. I had a wonderful time at Sony but it’s made a huge difference in moving to Island.

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BV: Where do you see yourself as an artist these days and with the new record with it being your 6th album and 13 years since your debut?

WY: Established I would say, in the UK. Not established elsewhere. I’ve had flirtations over the years but that’s been my only disappointment really; that I have been given the freedom to do more internationally but now I am and that’s wonderful.

BV: I was going to ask you – is that going to change now that you have moved labels and management companies?

WY: Yeah, there are now and I think that’s certainly tied into being with Island Records and maybe it’s the right time now. Maybe it wasn’t before. I think, I mean it’s really difficult to say, but being an established artist, I feel a lot of changes and it’s amazing.

You know, social media – it’s such an awful phrase “social media” isn’t it (laughs). I just say ‘the internet’. ‘The internet’ is much nicer. “’The internet’, are you ready for your social media operation now” (laughs). The internet has made things much more interesting for new artists and for established artists.

I’ve done amazing shoots with Hunger TV which is an internet magazine with Ian Rankin, an incredible photographer.  I’ve done a video for a song called Like A River which is a single and that’s out there. And it’s an amazing piece of art. I mean, it really is a piece of art. And there is a reason now to do a lot of the things that I’ve always wanted to do which is to just have fun creatively. I mean, I could go out and do a shoot today and immediately put it up on Instagram whereas before there were a lot of things that I wanted to do but I had no way of getting it to an audience.

I think there is less control by media. There was print press and radio TV and that was it but now with the internet there’s a whole new dimension and as an artist it is really exciting because I can just go and do all of these things and I can find an audience because everyone wants to find an audience.

I can do a fantastic shoot in a magazine or I can do a great interview on the radio and a brilliant performance on TV – you know, I did a gig last night in a warehouse in North London for a website where you go into people’s houses and do gigs and people turn up and they don’t know who they’re gonna see and that is just amazing – it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. Before it would have been like “here’s a TV show, we need to book someone” and you’d have to go through the whole thing but with this there are no rights involved because it’s just at people’s houses and people turn up with their own drinks and people smoke inside. It’s just not a problem, it’s just a completely different way of doing things. It was really liberating and really cool.

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BV: We are coming to the end of our interview so I’m gonna sneak in one final question.

WY: Go for it Brendon – go up to the wire (laughs)

BV: You have a UK tour scheduled for later this year Are there any plans to take 85% Proof on the road throughout in Australia?

WY: Yeah, I really do hope so. My family are Tasmanian. My great, great, great Grandfather was the Governor of Tasmania.

BV: So you could almost say that you have an obligation to tour the Southern Hemisphere then Will.

WY: (laughs) Yeah, exactly. But yeah, I really want to. Touring is so much fun and I really would want to come to Oz and it seriously is a place that has a piece of my heart because it is a part of my family on my dad’s side, it really is. My Grandfather fought in the war and was captured twice. They swam for Australia in the Olympics. A cousin of mine played volleyball for Australia in the Olympics so it’s a huge tie for me so I really do want to come to down there to play gigs and to have my music out there.

Will Young’s brand new album 85% Proof is out now.