Will Young interview: 'I’m not angry any more, I’d love to sit down with Simon Cowell, interview him on radio'

The singer talks everything from moving on from Pop Idol to Gay Rights

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The Independent Culture

Will Young is painted white with black netting clouding his vision, fighting a creature with the head of a bull on the body of a man, the Minotaur. Such is the scene that plays out in the video for his latest track “Like a River”, representing Young’s ongoing battle with his demons.

“It’s what art should be about, it teaches you so much about your life and the better the art, the more depth behind it,” he says.

It’s a haunting accompaniment to a song with a dark backstory: “Like a River” was inspired by bullying during his days at prep school. “It was very archaic, it was not nurturing or nourishing at all,” he says. “It really affected me, but there’s also a beauty to [the track], I’m like, ‘You need to go, I need to let you go’. It was really empowering.”

The former Pop Idol winner has always been one of the most interesting talent-show graduates; however with the album 85% Proof, he has now distanced himself even further from the pack. It “definitely [involved] more lateral thinking” than his previous releases, he says, and bears a creative daring that’s partly down to his new “zen” demeanour and record label, Island.

Will Young looking to the skies in Soho to promote new album 85% Proof

President Darcus Beese allowed him the time and space to make the music that he wanted to make and so Young went away, with long-time collaborators Jim Eliot and Mima Stilwell of electro-pop group Kish Mauve, and came up with an eclectic mixture of songs with no unifying sound. 85% Proof features R&B, Seventies pastoral folk, country music, disco and a piano ballad. It’s a result of carefree experimentation thanks to a new approach to songwriting, where the lyrics, about joy, love, and the world around him, would be written before the melody.

Young switched to Island from Sony at the end of his 10-year contract in 2012, which saw him enjoy three No 1 albums and more than nine million record sales. He doesn’t feel the weight of expectation from Island to match those achievements and he’s laissez- faire about the release of 85% Proof. “You can’t be scared, it’s just like playing a game of chess, you’ve got to deal with things as they come along,” he says.

“This is the first record where I literally would be happy to put out any song, I think they are all great and I can do no more … my granddad used to say to my grandmother, ‘Margaret, I’ve done the salad dressing, I can do no more’. So, I’ve done the salad dressing, I can do no more!”

Former Pop Idol winner Will Young in a Soho house

Young hasn’t always been so self-assured, however. He battled depression during a dip in popularity in 2009, when the single releases from his fourth album failed to reach the top five in the charts. And he had what he deems a “crazy year” in 2004, when he starred in BBC film Mrs Henderson Presents, “got a bit insecure” and “rude” and was micro-managing all aspects of his career – going into marketing meetings at Sony and doing presentations on how he thought his album campaign should play out.

In fact, he faced career difficulties from the very beginning. When he won Pop Idol, he was the surprise victor – beating Simon Cowell’s favourite, Gareth Gates. A feud between Cowell and Young played out on screen during the series and remains raw; Cowell labelled Young “obnoxious” in an ITV talent show documentary in 2012.

Will Young poses on the streets of Soho to promote his new album 85% Proof

He signed to Cowell’s label after Pop Idol, but the Spice Girls’ manager, Simon Fuller, took charge of Young’s career. Fuller moved the artist into another of Sony’s sub labels, RCA, after his third single, where he stayed until 2012. Was he ever worried Cowell would sabotage his career? “He’d go in the press and say things, but I never worried because I said to Simon Fuller, ‘Is this man going to destroy my career?’ Simon said, ‘Not with me around’.”

For Young, it’s no longer personal. “I’m not angry any more, I’m interested. I’d love to sit down with [Cowell], interview him on radio. I just think we’re such different people .... He really doesn’t like me and continues to slag me off. I’m like, ‘Why?’ You’ve got to ask the question, ‘Why do you want to hang on to that?’”

Will Young poses while sporting a beard and turtle neck in a Soho house

However, Young’s time at Sony was ultimately a happy one, thanks largely to smart decisions made by Fuller, who stopped him from agreeing to Pepsi and Wella advertising deals. “Sony missed out on a chunk of money and he didn’t mind that, he said, ‘This isn’t right for you’.” Fuller teamed Young with music video director Baillie Walsh (who has worked with Oasis, Saint Etienne, New Order and Massive Attack) and his second video for “Light My Fire” was black and white and based on the life of Andy Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick. “You wouldn’t think that’s what a second video from a talent show contestant would be, and I think that set the bar,” he reflects.

The singer likes Island for taking a “360-degree approach” to his career and encouraging his work as a political commentator and campaigner: Young recently made headlines for describing the general election as a “wet fart”. Gay rights is top of his agenda – earlier this year, he stood outside the house of Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities, with a sandwich board revealing some eye-opening statistics after she failed to respond to his incessant tweets.


“[The board said] 23 per cent of young gay people try and commit suicide, 52 per cent will self-harm and 98 per cent find the derogatory use of the word ‘gay’ offensive. They are not doing anything about it and it fucks me off! I had this hysterical Twitter [spurt saying], Hi Nicky Morgan, kept on going, and then I copied in The Sun, The Independent and The Times, and got a reply within half an hour. I said to her, ‘I want to address this, it’s insulting’.”

“She glossed over it … don’t gloss over it! Then she wouldn’t make the meeting [we had set up], this went on for another month. I finally said, ‘I’ve had enough. I’m coming to stand outside your apartment’. And I’ll do it again, but I need to go about it a different way, I need to try to work on [pushing for] a White Paper or something. I’d love to go into a [Commons] select committee.”

Will Young poses on the streets of Soho

In the video for “Love Revolution”, the first single released from 85% Proof, Young is a grinning, evangelical salesman selling faceless products to his brain-dead followers. Its anti-consumerist message wasn’t accidental. “It’s all about labelling and presentation,” he explains. “And that can be seen in music, you can have a lot of fluff around some music but there’s nothing really in it, it’s just about selling it, it should be about putting something out there that’s part of you as the creator.”

85% Proof is out 22 May.