Will Young Biography
"What I love about that moment is that it was someone standing up for what they wanted. I didn't realise how strongly I wanted that career until that moment. I don't even know where it came from. What was odd about that moment was that it was a side of me that never would have come out otherwise. It was new to me."
Just recently, sifting through the iridescent pop gems that make up his back catalogue to assemble them together for his forthcoming hits compilation, and at the stately pop age of 30, Will has had a little Eureka moment. He listened to Evergreen again, the single that signposted his commercial fortunes on the back of Pop Idol. It was a song that he had deliberately stopped playing live on tour many years ago, and not heard in as long, on purpose, despite being the 12th best selling single of all time in the UK and the fastest-selling ever by a new artist.
It is only now that Mr Young has begun to reconcile himself to the faintly ridiculous speed with which he was accelerated into the public eye. “When you look back on the start of this, it was crazy. You forget going literally in the space of 3 months from being at drama school to having 300 people running after your tour bus in Middlesbrough. It’s one of those dream stories that shouldn’t quite exist. If it looked like a Chesney Hawkes film from the outside, then the truth is it actually felt like one from the inside, too."
"The Eureka moment with Evergreen can only be compared to that of Kylie rediscovering, perhaps even discovering for the first time the virtue of I Should Be So Lucky, so many years after its initial impact. “During Pop Idol I went from doing little one page things in Smash Hits to being on the cover of G2 in The Guardian. That’s what that song means. I haven’t done it for a few years but I’m going to sing it on the 2009 Winter tour.”Will profile
This is neither obligation nor apology. “I want to do it. It wasn’t the type of song that I would’ve listened to or bought at the time but now it has crystallized in my mind as the song of that moment. It’s a collective thing. It’s so much bigger than me."
The start of his career is strange then, only in the sense that at the time Evergreen was released, amidst the winter chill and the talent-show ticker-tape finality of December 2002, the Will Young story was not yet set. Was he a fleeting reality show story or a music story? As it transpired, he fell exquisitely and emphatically into the second category. His collection of hits is really the easiest explanation as to why, and how, that happened.
Over the hardy duration of 4 multi-platinum albums and close to a decade in the music industry, a period that has marked him out as the most successful and likeable UK male pop star of his era, Will Young has come to occupy a unique space in British pop culture. Of his contemporaries and peers, he is the only British pop star who has concurrently run an interesting, hit-strewn and award littered mass-market soul/pop career alongside leftfield career curveballs. He has written intelligent comment for The Times, appeared as a panellist on the highest rated Question Time in recent memory (“the highest since we entered into the Iraq war. Though I’m not quite sure what that says about me”). He has been the star of a South Bank Show special, a Stephen Frears movie (Mrs Henderson Presents) and a sell-out Noel Coward revival on Manchester’s most auspicious theatrical stage, The Royal Exchange.
He has occupied a space that can be considered to slot into mainstream and the elite, an almost impossible tightrope for the hardiest pop performers to straddle. It is one that evokes something, emotionally at least, of Neil Tennant at his commercial 80s peak.
And through it all, he has delivered freshly minted hit after hit. Within the space of his first album he had effected a forcible shift from dusting off a Westlife album track and turning it into a 1.8 million selling single, to working with songwriters of a cast-iron calibre that may be considered both contemporary bellwethers of their moment (Cathy Dennis) and the authors of all-time classics (Burt Bacharach). From as early as his second single, his loungey re-arrangement of Light My Fire, Will had began to shape something quite removed from the standard Scandinavian hit factory fodder that dominated the pop landscape at that moment. By the time he had closed his opening album campaign with You & I, a song he still cherishes as one of his finest to this day, it was clear that an erudite and intriguing pop proposition had blossomed from the unlikeliest seeds.
Will Young had began nurturing a signature style from the Light My Fire video. "Even at that moment we’d begun pushing things on. [Legendary director] Bailey Walsh shot it and it was so different to what you’d expect from somebody from that environment. It was a moment, for me, of understanding that you can do interesting stuff within the mass market. If you know Ciao! Manhattan then you’d pick up on the reference. If not, it’s still a lovely black and white video." He pauses for a second, before delivering the punch-line. "Shot in Leighton Buzzard."
Between albums one and two, Young began exploring his inclinations as a songwriter, encouraged by his manager, the benchmark pop mogul Simon Fuller. "He showed a real belief in me. I was allowed a bigger break than you would normally be between records and Fuller just let me get on with it." Two fundamental meetings were to shape the sound of Fridays Child, the first album delivered as Will Young: Artist. First he was introduced to Steve Lipson, whom he still refers to affectionately as ‘Lippo’. "He basically turned into my second dad.” The second was meeting Leave Right Now songwriter, Eg White, in his then crummy Shepherd’s Bush studio. "Back then it was the time that you went to work with songwriters, particularly in America, and you didn’t really do anything. You just picked up a percentage by lying. I got in with Eg in his studio in Shepherd’s Bush and he listened to me. He’s very sensitive. I’m very sensitive. We actually bonded. Neither of us really fit the mold and it just clicked. After Lippo, Eg was the first person that took an interest in me as an artist rather than me as a way to make a bit of money."
They alighted upon Leave Right Now together and the song was an immediate number 1 smash. "He wrote me a card after it’d first charted saying ‘thank you so much, my highest charting song before this was 72.’ He gave me some Tupperware, too." White has gone on to pen commercial smashes since for Natalie Imbruglia, Duffy, Adele and Daniel Merriwether. "We just found each other."
The flawless triptych of Fridays Child singles was completed with the theatrical jaunt of Your Game, Best British Single at the 2005 Brit Awards and the determinedly adult, soulful smoulder of the title track. "It makes me slightly shiver thinking back on that time now. It was so exciting. The irony was that we ended up selling twice as many records as we did off the back of the TV show."
And then the difficult third album – "or technically, the difficult second album, because really that’s what Keep On was." Though intensely proud of the musical steps he had taken getting to it – the upbeat skip of Switch It On, the timeless ballad All Time Love and his own personal favourite, the ironically titled Who Am I? – Will started to feel something in himself unravelling at this time. "It was a wake up realisation that I had had it pretty easy. That was the stage I think I’d got a bit big for my boots. I think I’d actually got a bit arrogant, which of course you never think that you will. And of course like anyone that gets arrogant, I wasn’t terribly happy. That was my moment of being ‘a bit difficult.’" It was a brief impasse. "By Who Am I? I’d got back on track. I loved that song. We did the Blue Peter video. It gave the whole thing a new lease of life. I was beginning to get back on track. British people smell dishonesty a mile off. If something’s not honest they can sniff it out at twenty paces. Because of where I came from I was particularly susceptible to this."
It was with some trepidation, then, that Will Young took to The X Factor stage to commemorate the release of his fourth platinum album in less than a decade, Let It Go. He performed his favourite single from the album, Grace. "It was amazing. And it was terrifying." The album itself was the exact opposite. "It was the most brilliant, enjoyable process. The easiest album to make. In terms of putting together a record I was very proud of, it could not have been better. I got back in with Eg on the best writing session we’d done, out of which came Changes, and when I first heard Let It Go it was almost headed somewhere folky but I loved it. A lot of the album was break-up stuff and very personal but it was honest and I’d got back that feeling of just being honest and it worked. I got back to loving everything that I did again. I loved promoting it, I loved making the videos."
Performing for Cowell again was his cathartic full stop on his 20s. There is fire back in his belly when it comes to music and Will Young isn’t quite letting it go just yet. As he has signed and sealed off his first Hits package, he is busy in the studio effecting a musical u-turn that may come as some surprise to admirers, and more besides, when it finds the light of day. Ever since Groove Armada’s Andy Cato remixed the song Friday’s Child, the two have become close musical allies. Will 2010 will see Will making a dance record, something he has longed to do for some time now? "I love the idea of singers on dance records. There’s something about dance music that you can almost hear the voice more than you can on a pop song."
"In some ways, I’m letting go of the first half of my musical career with this record" he says of The Hits. Given the singularity of his vision and execution of his career so far, one can only sketch in an acceptable date that we might expect Volume 2.