Singer Will Young on his Ipswich Regent visit

From his Pop Idol past to new beginnings, by way of Shakespeare and the recent riots, entertainment writer WAYNE SAVAGE talks to multi-platinum selling artist Will Young.

Forget the new album, tour and career retrospective for a bit; there’s something I need to know.

“How I maintain my good looks,” Young asks.

I’d put that down to all his trapezing and gymnastics antics in the video for new single Jealousy, “yeah and a lot of water”, he adds.

No, I want to know if the supernatural Sky Living drama Bedlam - which finished on an amazing cliffhanger - he starred in was coming back?

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“I think it is but I can’t do it because of the album. It was great to do and to do it in Manchester.”

We kind of have that series to thank for the new album.

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“I went shopping to Piccadilly Records, the amazing record shop in the Northern Quarter. I bought this Steve Mason album Boys Outside. Richard X [MIA, Kelis, Goldfrapp] 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,” Young remembers.

“I went to a gig at The Warehouse Projects with Pickers [producer Mike Pickering] 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.”

Young has written all but one song on new album Echoes - out this week along with Jealousy - along with a personally assembled roll call of collaborators including Jim Elliot and Mima Stilwell (Kylie), Andy Cato (Groove Armada) and Pascal Gabriel (Ladyhawke).

“It wasn’t a sort of conscious decision [the writing], I think I was very focused on what I wanted to do for the album which was make this more electronic,” he says.

Gone are the sweeping strings and key changes of his hit ballads, making way for sparer, more controlled, synthesised melody.

“I had to learn to undo my musical muscle memory,” he says “to allow space into the music.”

Young had always wanted to make a dance record.

“I started listening to the remixes of my own music and thinking about how my voice worked in a different way on them,” he says.

From Andy’s [Cato] subtle rewire of Friday’s Child to Fred Falke’s high energy re-re-rub of Grace, this soundscape seemed to suit the subtlety of Young’s voice. Classic vocal house records centre around voices and he was ready to go there.

“I did a lot of writing with Andy [Cato] and the songs never really came to fruition and I had this sort of folder on my computer of ‘Will’s upbeat songs’ and I thought let’s do stuff with this.

“People I’ve worked with were like ‘come on, we’ve got to do something with this’ and then I think there were two springboards - the greatest hits coming out and then History with Groove Armada. I just felt ‘this is working now, it feels like the time is right to do this kind of album’.”

Young saw the release of The Hits in particular as helping draw a line on the first part of his career.

“Not in a derogatory way, it’s nice to have a bit of a benchmark in your career I think; again it’s just about timing and it just felt right. I think if I’d gone straight from Leave Right Now to Jealousy it would have been too much of a leap.”

Performing History on Jonathan Ross was another important moment.

“A door just opened top me. I had the opportunity to perform something very different. That was all I needed to give me the confidence I’d always needed.”

Young found his ideal writing partners in the electronic duo Kish Mauve and began crafting Echoes at their studio in Wales. Together they fashioned 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. 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,” laughs Young.

Sounding upbeat while feeling downbeat, there was a certain melancholy behind the groove.

“Which is my life, basically,” he laughs again.

The resulting album is both, 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.” - and a massive change in direction.

“I can say with some certainty that this is my best record,” says Young.

“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.”

Unbelievably, it’s been ten years since Young beat - some would say series favourite - Gareth Gates to the Pop Idol crown. He’s done better than subsequent reality TV singing show winners have and this week took a pop at today’s TV talent shows, calling them “sensational”.

Saying there was a danger they would end up “hoodwinking viewers” he told the Radio Times TV bosses were not concerned about the music and never were.

But he goes on to say Pop Idol was good for gay rights, making people look at what prejudices they might have.

“So if they voted for this guy all along, they liked him, they felt passionate about him, got caught up in the TV show - then suddenly, do they have to think, ‘oh, well I’m not gonna buy his music ‘cause he’s gay’?”

Young’s never been afraid to speak his mind, always doing things his way; starting with daring to talk back to judge Simon Cowell and, at the start of this year, taking up residency at the 606 jazz club in Chelsea, performing to between 50-100 strong audiences a night.

“You have to remember 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’s an example of him putting creativity before commerce.

Looking at his career to date, Young says: “Half of my brand was created the first time I was on TV. The other half was Leave Right Now.”

Why does he think he’s lasted where so many others haven’t?

“I think the primary thing is the music; I think people can forget that you can have all the stuff that’s on the periphery and if the music’s good enough it will stand up. I think I learned that very quickly, probably the first time was Leave Right Now.

“My career definitely hung in the balance then, it was like ‘okay, let’s see what this person can do from a reality show’. Leave Right Now, crept up, crept up, crept up and then suddenly it charted at number one, I sold a million albums in three-and-a-half weeks and it was voted one of the top five songs in the last 20 years at the Brits.

“I think that’s the power of the song and I’ve always believed in making great music that’s honest and comes from an honest place and working with people such Steve Lipson, having Simon Fuller as a manager or having Richard X producing this record who I can learn off and who I can trust and let them do their thing to make a great record.”

On the subject of different challenges, Young took two breaks from recording Echoes; one of which involved heading to Serbia to watch his investment co-producing a Ralph Fiennes’ directed and starring film of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus; helping him flex another intellectual and creative muscle. No worries working alongside Voldemort then?

“No,” he laughs.

“That’s coming out end of this year; it was a really great thing to do. That’s the great thing about this job, we can take time to do other things and invest in other creative projects.

“To invest in one of the lesser known Shakespeare plays - which is actually his noisiest play, it’ got the most amount of musical direction than any of his others - was such a treat. To work with people like Ralph was an honour.

“It’s shot by the same person who shot the Hurt Locker; who would have thought it, from winning Pop Idol to be a part of such projects as this is great.

“The story is amazing. It’s very political, obviously; 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.”

On the subject on politics and the masses, he also ran in this year’s London Marathon in aid of the youth charity Catch22; which brings us to the recent riots.

Young has made it clear he feel young people have been let down over the last 15 years by successive governments; blaming people’s dissatisfaction and disenfranchisement on the desire for profit driving everything.

“My concern is all young people are going to be tarred with the same brush and I think that’s been happening anyway in the last few years. It’s a two-way relationship with young people, they learn from adults but adults also learn from them; they’re very smart, very savvy.

“I think the silver lining in this whole thing is that young people do learn very quickly; they just need some self-belief and to be shown the right path and then they’ll take it; adults are a lot more complicated.”

It’s clear Young is focusing on what makes him happy rather than others.

“I don’t think I was mature enough at the start, because of where I’d come from, to trust my own decisions,” he confesses.

“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 music.

“Because of the platform I’d come from I was desperate to be accepted in an area I wasn’t accepted in. If you’d told me I could’ve had a pop at being in Kerrang magazine then 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.”

Young’s looking forward to bringing his new tour to Ipswich on November 4.

“It’s nice to come back with Echoes. I had the greatest hits last year and that was like a mark in the sand and now it’s a new sound and it’ll be really good to do live, it’s quite an upbeat album.”

Any message for the fans coming to see him?

“Just please laugh at my jokes.”

A Night with Will Young, where he’ll showcase old favourites and new tracks and take questions from his audience, is on ITV1 at 9pm this Saturday.

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