(PLEASE NOTE: This interview largely centred around Will Young’s proposed Symphony at the Tower show in Lancashire on Friday, July 1, which was unfortunately cancelled on the day of the show. I’ve subsequently updated where I felt I could, and a footnote follows about that scuppered event. The rest remains relevant though.)
When I spoke to Will Young, he was a little tired and emotional, having been up since 2am, forced to rush his poorly dachshund, Nelly, to the emergency vet.
Word was that she’d eaten most of a bar of dark chocolate, with predictable consequences. Thankfully though, Nelly was soon recuperating back at home near Bodmin, Cornwall, being looked after by a concerned Will and fellow housemate, Esme the border terrier.
By 10am, singer-songwriter and actor Will was finally getting down to business, looking forward to a busy season of outdoor dates, including one which was set to be on my patch on Friday, July 1st, when he was due to top the opening night bill of the 21st Symphony at the Tower annual fundraiser for St Catherine’s Hospice in Lancashire (subsequently cancelled on the day of the show, due to torrential rain in the preceding week – with full details below).
Will’s Hoghton Tower visit was set to come just six days after a prestigious spot at Glastonbury Festival, one of 19 summer shows for the popular 37-year-old, that string of dates stretching from a concert at Newmarket Racecourse on Thursday, June 24th, right through to a Manchester Pride appearance on Sunday, August 28th.
“I love the summer shows, they’re so much fun and always very different. I tend to do an autumn/winter tour, but I’ve got some cool creatives, which I’m very excited about, and it’s a very different show to the one I did in theatre.”
Now it’s time for my disclaimer, letting readers know I’m the last person to stick around when there’s a talent show on the box – whether we’re talking Britain’s Got Talent, The X-Factor, I’m a Vacuous D-list Celeb and Ready for my Close-Up, or Strictly Dancing on Thin Ice (actually, I’d probably watch the latter). All those shows remind me of miserable Saturday night TV in the ’70s and early ’80s involving end-of-the-pier variety acts, called Summertime Special or some such. So when the UK got excited about a battle royale between Gareth Gates and Will Young on Pop Idol in late 2001 and early 2002, I was well out of the loop.
But while I was hiding behind the sofa, in my homage to Dr Who, Will was amassing 53.1% of a staggering 8.7 million votes cast on the final night of the competition. Of course, the winners of previous ITV hit show Popstars, Heresy … sorry, Hear’Say had broken all records (metaphorically, unfortunately) when they released debut single Pure and Simple, selling half a million copies in the first week, yet a swift decline followed, suggesting that sustained success was far from a certainty. However, Berkshire lad Will very quickly proved himself on the live circuit after his much-publicised rise to fame, the inaugural Pop Idol showing he was much more than just a 15-minute ratings wonder as he seamlessly switched from high-profile televised stints to full-blown shows and tours.
Some 14 years on he’s still got it too, with further evidence of his longevity late last year with his sell-out Love Revolution tour. But all these years after Anything is Possible/ Evergreen became the UK’s fastest-selling debut single in the UK, does he still get nervous before a live appearance?
“I get nervous, but I think it’s good to get nervous. It’s not as bad as it used to be. I’ll be nervous for the first couple of shows, then I’ll get into it. I think that’s pretty much the same with everything – theatre, musicals, or TV. Once I get into the swing of it, I’m fine.”
The 37-year-old was due to be an opening night headliner at Hoghton Tower, for an annual St Catherine’s Hospice fund-raiser newly expanded to three nights. His show was set to be followed by an evening with revered US blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa’s personal ‘tribute to the British blues explosion’ (switched indoors to Preston Guildhall at the last minute), then a closing-night Symphony Spectacular with a live orchestra (also subsequently cancelled – again, see below for details).
Last year’s Symphony at the Tower – the event first established as a one-day live music affair in 1995 – saw the hospice celebrate its 30th anniversary in style, with more than 10,000 people rocking all over Hoghton Tower’s grounds with Status Quo (with a review here) or enjoying a Proms-style classical concert with Lucy Kay and Blake the following night. At this stage of the interview, I asked Will about his planned opening night contribution this year. Would his regular band be with him? And if so, was that right that we might know a few of the group from BBC prime-time talent contest The Voice?
“Yes, Dave (Tench) – my musical director – has been the MD of The Voice for two or three years now. But sometimes it’s hard to get hold of him, so I’m not sure if he’ll be free or not.”
We can certainly expect a few surprises on stage, judging by the promo videos for last year’s well-received 85% Proof album. Might we see Will transformed into a minotaur as per Like a River, or chasing women with vacuum cleaners as per Joy?
“No minotaurs, but I will be on a mobility scooter at some stage, and there are going to be quite a few outfit changes. And there should be something of an homage to Kurt Cobain.”
Well, there are at least two early indications then. So are you out to confound expectations then, Will?
“It’s more about what comes into my head. I work with a brilliant lighting designer and we do the creative together, and have for a few years. My philosophy is that I don’t do shows to make the maximum amount of profit. Even if that is often encouraged, I believe more in the art and in the audience. I think the audience deserve a good show. I could make double the money with a very simple show and just singing the songs, and that’s fine, but I prefer to do something a little more rewarding for me and hopefully the audience. And I always do something different for any tour I’m doing.”
Let’s face it, Will must be worth a few quid now, but that high profile he has at least gives him a chance to do more of the things he truly believes in, for example speaking out on certain issues he feels strongly about.
“Well, I remember doing an arena tour on my third album and earning absolutely nothing off it, when I could have earned half a million quid … which was a bit foolish! “I decided I wanted to have what I wanted, and my accountant thought I was mental. It’s never been about money, and if I lost everything I have now, I’d survive.”
Symphony At The Tower is St Catherine’s Hospice’s flagship fundraising event, generating income to provide palliative and end-of-life care for people in Central Lancashire. Have you had a chance to visit Hoghton Tower before? Or the hospice itself? And have you any personal reasons to get behind events of this nature?
“I haven’t, but I did do something a few years ago when I was in Hull. A lady came up to me and asked for a signed autograph for an auction benefitting this hospice for kids. I decided to do a collection. I was doing Cabaret (playing the emcee of the Kit Kat Klub), and the audience were incredible. And this at a time of recession. We raised more than £5,000. It was just unbelievable. I couldn’t believe the generosity of people. Mind you, I did say for £100 I’d get naked – or maybe not get naked – trying to give them some incentive!”
So was it £200 to keep your clothes on?
“Exactly! I think for £50 you get my mobile number. But to be honest, it’s gone for way cheaper!”
There’s a neat encapsulation of Will Young there – his self-deprecating humour, tinged with a little camp playfulness. He’s clearly getting into his day now. And despite playing it down, he’s done a lot of charity work over the years, from Catch22, the Children’s Society, gAID, Mencap and Mood Foundation to Oxfam, the Prince’s Trust and Women’s Aid. By way of further example, there was last November’s cover of the Bacharach and David classic What the World Needs Now for a World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature awareness campaign. And wasn’t he involved in the BBC’s Comic Relief too?
“I did Celebrity Bake-Off and synchronised swimming for Sport Relief. Both were hysterical. But I’m focusing a lot on young LGBT rights this year.”
I was coming on to that. This openly-gay performer has campaigned a lot on homophobic issues in schools for Stonewall, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights charity. Is the message getting through?
“Good question. I’m really impatient, and the latest study found 34% of young LGBT people will try and kill themselves at one point, in comparison to 18% of heterosexual people. So that’s almost double. And when young LGBT charities are closing at twice the rate of other charities and the Government are only giving £2m to homophobic education in schools, I think they’re failing to see the epidemic.
“I don’t know if they’re blind to the numbers, and don’t understand why they don’t do more about it. I think it’s perhaps that it’s not a sexy issue now. I get very frustrated and hot under the collar about that. I won’t stop though, and don’t care what politicians think of me. I wrote an article about it recently and the Education Department slagged me off. I don’t care, because I’m a grown-up, but I care about the people I can’t protect.
“I’m vehemently passionate about it. I’m not quite sure what my next step is, but I’m sure it will be completely inappropriate, whatever it is! You see websites being set up about kids being brainwashed, going off to Syria, but I’d love to know the percentage of those children in comparison to the percentage of attempted suicides, among any young people. I’m not saying that’s not an important issue, but it’s a prime example of a Government following the immediate issues of the day that are pushed in the paper, reacting to them.”
His position made, Will then pulls back and changes tack again, going for a lighter tone.
“Anyway, I won’t be campaigning on stage. I just dance around and have a laugh.”
Will remains proud of his work on 85% Proof, released a year ago now, that album becoming his fourth No.1 LP and seen as his most accomplished work to date, the record described as ‘eclectic, hugely confident and startlingly human’, and ‘mature pop’. Was it more the real Will than any LP that preceded it?
“No, I just think it was a snapshot of where I was at that point. As long as I put something out that I’m really proud of, that’s kind of all I can do. Every time it’s like opening a shop. It’s always a bit nerve-racking, but as long as I can continue to do this, I’m happy.”
People get this cliched idea of manufactured pop acts, but I can’t imagine anyone trying to mould you in this day and age. At which point do you feel you finally had proper control over your career?
“I did feel it at the beginning, although there were stresses then and I suppose I forget that now, being a lot older and more of an old hand. The way I came into it was quite explosive. I was on shaky ground and I was probably pushed more than I would have liked, looking back. I can completely see why someone at 16 can go off the rails. I mean, I was 22 and with a degree. It’s very hard to trust people. Luckily I had good established friends …”
And he has a brain on him, this fella with a politics degree who talks so eloquently on issues, whether it’s tackling celebrity at the Oxford Union, blogging for the Huffington Post, or speaking out on various issues on BBC One’s Question Time. He’s also the published author of Anything is Possible (2002), On Camera, Off Duty (2004) and his autobiography Funny Peculiar (2012).
“Well … a bit of a brain. I think people just think I’m brainy because I’m posh! I only got a 2:2. I had enough life experience, but I could have lost the plot, I guess. But somehow I managed to keep on going, and had a couple of great people that kept my feet on the ground in the industry.”
So is your proper home in East London or East Cornwall these days?
“I actually moved a few years ago and I’m now between London and Cornwall, where I am at the moment.”
Not so far from Bodmin Moor, I believe.
“That’s right, and I’m currently looking out over the moor, and so content.”
Is that a good writing environment for you?
“Yeah, I got a fair amount of my book written down here, but it’s more a place where I leave work behind. Yesterday I was just digging up the garden, collecting logs and things like that. It’s pretty kind of basic, and I like that.”
He’s certainly picked an area to live that inspires this blogger.
“I find nature very inspiring, but this is something separate from my work. Anything I do down here – like the artwork I did yesterday – is very much for me rather than the music, which I keep separate.”
There was the 2013 London revival of Cabaret that brought a Laurence Olivier Award for best actor in a musical. And only recently I re-watched Will in his sole film role, playing Bertie in Mrs Henderson Presents alongside Dame Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins and co. Has he been too busy for more roles like that recently?
“Well, no – I just don’t get the parts! I could lie! I get the occasional audition, but I’m in the melting pot along with most of the other actors. I either get it or I don’t. But there’s a lot of TV work knocking around at the moment, and I’m waiting to do a pilot on one show. I’m writing two shows and there’s another in the pipeline. Then there are a couple of theatre projects, so it all kind of ticks along quite nicely.”
The moment you arrived on our national radar via Pop Idol must seem a long time ago now. Is there still a future for the TV talent show format after all these years? Are we, for example, likely to see you pop up as a judge when The Voice switches channels?
“I think they’ll always exist and have a great place, although the agenda behind them varies from show to show. I don’t think some are as nurturing as others, and in terms of being a judge or mentor or whatever, it would have to be the right kind of thing really. Otherwise I don’t think I could really do it. I’ve got to feel there’s a bit of substance in the show. I really like watching The Voice though.”
Incidentally, despite what I said earlier about talent shows, I admit to a few hours taking in The Voice. I guess it’s because – all the pantomime antics and public vote and judges’ tension aside – it’s all based around something I can relate more to – whether someone can bloody sing or not.
With an abundance of more superficial variety shows, it’s easy to think all those new star acts have a short shelf-life, but Will’s clearly proved his talent over the past 14 years. In short, eight million album sales worldwide after six studio LPs, with four reaching No.1, plus four No.1 singles (and 11 top-10s) and numerous awards and accolades – including two BRIT Awards – suggest he’s definitely the real deal. But does he find he has to try to prove himself even more – at least in the eyes of some – because of the way he broke through in the first place?
“Well, it’s very kind of you to say that, but ‘no’ to your question – because the person I needed to prove it to the most was myself, and I feel I’ve done that now. I try and operate not from a place of fear, because that’s where creative juices are stifled. I just kind of plough on … pretty much basically with my head in the sand!”
Statement from event promoters Cuffe and Taylor: “It is with sadness that we have to announce that two concerts of the weekend’s Symphony At The Tower event in Lancashire have had to be cancelled. Will Young and the Symphony Spectacular were due to take place on Friday July 1 and Sunday July 3 respectively. However, the torrential rain this week has made the Hoghton Tower arena site unsafe and, after taking health and safety advice, we have regrettably taken the decision to cancel both Will Young’s concert and the Symphony Spectacular. We are pleased to announce that Joe Bonamassa’s Symphony At The Tower concert will go ahead on Saturday July 2 but will now be moved to Preston Guild Hall due to the Hoghton Tower arena site being unsafe. Anyone who purchased tickets for Joe Bonamassa’s Hoghton Tower concert will be able to attend the concert at the Guild Hall. Sadly we cannot reschedule Will Young’s concert or the Symphony Spectacular. Customers who booked online, or by telephone, will receive an automatic refund, of face value of their tickets, within 14 days.”
Meanwhile, for a full list of Will Young’s summer shows and how to get hold of tickets, head to his website live page and follow the links.
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