Will Young is looking handsomely disheveled, having spent the previous two days driving across France on a dramatic mission to rescue a friend who had fallen ill. It’s an escapade that involved some resourceful detective work – at one point, he only had a Skype image of the view from his friend’s bedroom window to guide him – two changes of hire car and an early morning drive through Paris, where he watched eight firefighters rescue a poodle.
‘So many hysterical things happen to me,’ says Young. ‘I spend a lot of my time laughing. I get so many opportunities to laugh, because so many funny things happen to me at work. I love being a pop star.’
The 36-year-old has a habit of framing his extraordinary life in the ordinary language of the working man: twice during our chat he will refer to himself as ‘self-employed’, which he has been since successfully applying for the job of pop star on the first series of Pop Idol, where he upset the apple cart by beating bookies’ favourite – and Simon Cowell’s anointed champion – Gareth Gates in the final.
Since then, dozens of talent show winners have crashed and burned but, 13 years on, Young has stayed the course, with his current album, 85% Proof, earning him his fourth number one. He insists it’s not something he takes for granted. ‘You always have those worries about whether anyone’s interested in you any more,’ he says. ‘You just never know. It’s quite an up and down industry.’
This time out, that anxiety was increased by a four-year break from recording, during which Young developed his burgeoning stage and screen career – earning an Olivier nomination for his role in a West End revival of Cabaret – wrote an entertainingly salty autobiography and studied somatics, a form of movement therapy. ‘I’d finished with my record company, finished with my management company, and I felt it was important to look at what I was doing and what I wanted to do,’ he explains. ‘I gave myself my own work appraisal, basically. And I passed.’
He also stepped up his political activism, championing young people and gay rights, including fronting a Stonewall campaign to stop the use of homophobic language in schools.
‘Homophobia creates a climate of fear and shame that will be ingrained in those kids for the rest of their lives,’ he says. ‘Kids need to be educated to be accepting and open-minded. To be accepting of difference is to be accepting of yourself, because we’re all different. It’s just a no-brainer. But no-one wants to do anything about it, and meanwhile 53% of gay kids are self-harming and 23% have tried to kill themselves. That’s all because of what happens in schools, and people aren’t tackling it. I’m not satisfied.’
Young is among a very select group of musicians to have appeared (twice, in fact) on the BBC’s Question Time. ‘Lots of pop stars could do it,’ he insists. ‘They’re probably just not as mouthy as me. It’s terrifying, because I’m fundamentally quite stupid, and I don’t know much about politics. So that’s a worry. My position is really to be like a member of the public.’
He’s being slightly disingenuous here, as he does have a degree in politics from Exeter University – albeit a 2/2. Prior to that, he’d flunked his A-levels at Wellington College, the public boarding school he attended in his native Berkshire. Young describes his adolescent self as ‘socially nervous’. ‘I was pretty self-contained within the boarding house I was at,’ he says. ‘I didn’t really have many friends until I was about 16. I’ve always gone in very quiet to begin with, and then slowly allowed myself to open up. I did that at school, I did it at uni, I did it on Pop Idol.’
He has nothing but happy memories of his time on the reality show. ‘It was amazing. A joyous experience. It was so new and fresh, we didn’t have any sense of what it was, so we were very naïve, really, in a wonderful way. It was such a TV moment that it’s kind of embedded in people’s history. A bit like when Ange and Den divorced on EastEnders,’ he laughs.
The show made him a star overnight: his first release, Anything is Possible / Evergreen became the biggest selling single of the decade, while 2003’s chart-topping, Ivor Novello-winning Leave Right Now was shortlisted at the Brits as one of the best singles of the last 25 years.
Young credits his then-manager, Pop Idol creator Simon Fuller, with the successful stewardship of his early career. His relationship with Fuller’s great rival, Simon Cowell, is famously more fractious: more than a decade on from their on-screen sparring during Pop Idol, Cowell still can’t bring himself to say a nice word about Young, describing him as ‘obnoxious’ in a 2012 TV documentary.
‘I think I’ve said what I have to say about him,’ shrugs Young, who recently expressed his bewilderment at Cowell’s continued hostility. ‘I’m sort of done with it. To be honest, I’m more worried about the fact my tomato plants aren’t getting any water.’
For a brief moment towards the end of the last decade, it looked like Young’s star might be starting to wane – even though, by the standards of most reality TV graduates, he was still doing fairly brisk business. It coincided with a period of depression, which he puts down to ‘a number of different things’. ‘Depression is one word for a huge breadth of states,’ he says. ‘I could feel low about work, or I could feel physically, mentally depressed, and that could be chemical, it could be exhaustion. I think about depression in a different way these days. I don’t get it like I had it then.’
Lately, he has been busy working out his demons, both through somatics, which he says is ‘a way of letting go of things’, and through song. He describes Brave Man, 85% Proof’s dramatic opener, as being about ‘shedding past insecurities’, while the glacial Like A River is a defiant settling of scores – part peacemaking, part revenge fantasy – addressed to the teacher who bullied him at school.
‘He was a really unpleasant man. Awful,’ he says. ‘It was really good to write that song. It’s very dark, but it’s also about acceptance. And gratitude towards that teacher, I guess. It’s like: I got through it, and you allowed me to be a strong person.’ He flashes a wicked grin. ‘And now I’m going to drown you.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, July 16, 2015
(c) Waitrose Weekend