About Will Young
In December 2011, Will Young will cautiously celebrate the 10 year anniversary of his winning Pop Idol. That a first-wave reality TV show winner has endured for a decade in the British music industry, collecting plaudits, fans, multimillion sales and crafting some of the deftest British music of his era seems enough reason to pop the corks. That he has done it his own way, thoughtfully, carefully and retaining his uniquely British sensibility is astonishing.
At the beginning of this year, Will took up a residency at the 606 jazz club in Chelsea, performing to between 50-100 strong audiences a night. It was just one pit-stop in a series of key events that led to the event of his beautifully personal 4th studio album, Echoes.
‘You have to remember that my first gig was in Wembley Arena,' he says ‘I've had to go backwards in ten years to get to where I want to be.' The intimacy of these gigs was not about trading down, it was about a subtler shift that has marked Will's career in the ten years of his triumph; prizing creativity over commerce.
His trajectory has been a fascinatingly new model for pop - implicitly asking the question as to whether the ticker-tape finale of the instant returns of reality-approved pop can equate with art. With Echoes, he may just have answered it.
A long enough time has passed now for Will to contemplate his entrance into the giddy pop stratosphere philosophically. ‘Half of my brand was created the first time I was on TV. The other half was Leave Right Now.'
If we think we know what Will Young represents musically, we must on the occasion of his tenth anniversary prepare to divide the square of these assumptions into a brand new triangle.
With Echoes, he has broken his own rules, sidestepping tentatively into the world of electronic music, making an album of sophistry and gentility that pulses with the undercurrents of the dance-floor, without ever quite taking their position directly under the mirror-ball.
The sweeping strings and key changes of his hit ballads have made way for synthesised melody, towards something sparer and more controlled. ‘I had to learn to undo my musical muscle memory,' he explains. ‘To allow space into the music.'
It was Will's personal plan to make a dance record. ‘I started listening to the remixes of my music and thinking about how my voice worked in a different way on them,' he says. From Andy ‘Groove Armada' Cato's subtle rewire of Friday's Child to Fred Falke's balls-out high nrg re-rub of Grace, this soundscape seemed to suit the subtlety of his voice. ‘If you think back to classic vocal house records, this music centres around voices.' He was ready to go there.
As he entered his 30s, Will was enjoying discovering the margins of London nightlife; tellingly, he is in the middle of a house move from sedate West London to the nocturnal mayhem of the East. As with many turns in his career, the intention didn't quite turn out as planned. Something far more interesting occurred.
Benefiting from the hardy musical ear of former Hacienda resident DJ and the man who, in his career at the helm of M People brought the kind of audience Will Young now has to house music, the idea formed to work the other way round. To bespoke the subtler timbres of dance music to Will's audience. ‘We became unlikely friends after he worked on Let It Go,' Will says, ‘What I love about Mike is that he's not snobby at all, he's just completely intuitive about music.'
Having laid to rest the first chapter of his career with a successful Greatest Hits set, Will was keen to move on. ‘With the duet I did with Groove Armada, History a door just opened to me. Getting to perform it on Jonathan Ross was a really important moment for me. After The Hits, which had done really well in drawing a line on the first part of my career, I had this opportunity to perform something very different. That was all I needed to give me the confidence I'd always needed. It just felt right.'
Will found his ideal writing partners in the electronic duo Kish Mauve and began crafting Echoes at their studio in Wales.
Together they fashioned first single, Jealousy, in a day. ‘Instantly I felt like it was going to turn the whole record on its head. I'd been doing quite upbeat, feel-good dance music with a variety of producers and then I got with them and I knew this was it. I'd found a sound. It was natural and relaxed, not upbeat euro-house. It felt right for my voice. So I just found myself heading back there again and again and occasionally canoeing on the Hay river between sessions.' A pattern emerged. ‘I'll go for a canoe, then I'll write a hit,' he laughs.
While staying in Manchester to film his starring role in the Sky Living drama series Bedlam, Will went shopping. ‘To Piccadilly Records, the amazing record shop in the Northern Quarter. I bought the Steve Mason album. Richard X had produced it so, so well. I knew Richard's stuff from before but all the decisions he had made on that record really resonated with me. I went to a gig at The Warehouse Projects with Pickers and saw Steve play and then wrote Richard a card asking if he'd consider producing my next record. I knew I needed someone who understood pop completely but was a little leftfield. I trusted everything about him'
The two hit it off. ‘Richard is a funny, ironic, Northern guy. I got on with him great.' A magic emerged in the studio.
Like all the best dance music, it sounded upbeat whilst feeling downbeat. There was a certain melancholy behind the groove. ‘Which is my life, basically,' he laughs.
Something interesting had started happening to his voice as it moved into a new, higher register. ‘It's quite weirdly prominent now, from Antony Hegarty to Wild Beasts, obviously Jake Shears and even Mika, but men singing in that register seems to make sense again.'
The resulting album is a quietly joyful equation. From the gentle epiphany of Personal Thunder to the solemn heartbreak of Outsider (‘When I feel down, I don't relate to people. In my work I don't feel like I relate to my peers, as a gay man I don't necessarily relate and that's what that song is. It's about isolation') this is an evolutionary shift in Will's catalogue. While songs like Jealousy and Hearts on Fire have a habit of lodging in the brain after one listen, their lyrical depths bear up to repeat playing. ‘I can say with some certainty,' says Will, with a little pushing, ‘that this is my best record.
I like being tested as a singer. I'm 32, where do I go? In ten years I'm on my last record with Sony. Where do I see this evolving? There's only so much more money you can make, if money is your motive. There's only so much more famous you can become, if that's your motive. So it's about other things that are challenging for me.'
Echoes is clearly about developing new taste levels for Will. During the making of the record he took a sabbatical to Serbia to watch patiently his investment co-producing a Ralph Fiennes directed and starring film treatment of Shakespeare's Coriolanus. It helped flex another intellectual and creative muscle for the artist. ‘The story of Coriolanus is amazing. It's very political, obviously but it's also Shakespeare's noisiest play. It has the most stage direction for music. The parallels to now are so weirdly on it - the watering down of the elitism of politics and having to take it to the masses.' Clearly, Will has started thinking about the bigger picture not just with Echoes.
‘I don't think I was mature enough at the start, because of where I'd come from to trust my own decisions. It was a bit like moving East now. If I'd done it earlier it would've been for the wrong reasons. It would've been trying to be cool. It's the same thing with the music. Because of the platform I'd come from I was desperate to be accepted in area that I wasn't accepted in. If you'd told me I could've had a pop at being in Kerrang magazine when I would've tried it. That was my mentality for the first few years of my career. Whoever doesn't like me, I want to do that. Therein disaster lies. Now I want to make music and try new things not to be accepted by other people but to please me. Everything from curating to creating this record has been about making me happier.'
Happy anniversary, Will Young.