The Big Interview: Will Young

Will Young in Cabaret
Will Young in Cabaret
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His 15 minutes of fame should have been over years ago, but as Nick Ahad discovers, Will Young was always destined to be bigger than a TV talent show.

Will Young is an unusual popstar. He’s a bit too intelligent for a start.

Not that he sees it that way.

“I think this notion of ‘puppeted pop acts’ is a little out of date,” says Young. “Pop stars are often a lot more intelligent than people give them credit for – the One Direction boys don’t seem stupid. They seem like very intelligent young boys to me and it also seems very apparent from how you see them conduct themselves that they are not the sort who are going to be pushed around or told what to do. A lot of people in pop know their own minds. I suppose there was a lot of processed pop in the 1990s, being made by quite vacuous people, but now? Someone like Lady Gaga seems very interesting and intelligent to me.”

While it would be going a little too far to credit Young with being the singer who led the charge and put the intelligence back into pop, it is fair to say that he seriously bucked the trend.

When he first came onto the scene, courtesy of reality show Pop Idol, there was a list of dos and don’ts for pop idols.

They were not supposed to be politics graduates.

They were not supposed to be upper-middle class (they’re still not – witness the opprobrium heaped upon Mumford and Sons for this heinous crime).

They were not supposed to be unattainable – the “tweenagers” to whom acts like Will Young were supposed to appeal generally don’t like their popstars to be openly gay.

A backstory of triumph over adversity was always a big help – being raised in a happy, healthy family who paid for Young to attend a good school and bought him a nice Golf to drive on his 17th birthday, did not fulfil this criteria.

Young was all of the above and the greatest crime of all was that he refused to be apologetic for any of them. He appeared to know his own mind.

For some, when it comes to music, popularity immediately makes you uncool. The very act of selling enough records to enter the singles chart is a marker that too many people enjoy your music for you to retain a certain status.

Cool means being an outsider and it generally requires an ironic sneer.

Young did not have that air. Even today, with his surprisingly soft voice and high pitched accent, he is enthusiastic and talks openly about the music world and the handful of artists like Morrissey, Jarvis Cocker and Damon Albarn who made pop music but managed to remain respectable and respected.

Young is not Morrissey, but he has retained credibility while gaining success. What makes it all the more extraordinary that he was able to do despite his greatest crime – the method via which he entered the public arena.

He arrived in the showbiz world through the door marked “reality television”. Nothing could have set him out on a path with less credibility.

In 2002 he won the inaugural Pop Idol, the precursor to today’s glut of reality shows, beating Bradford’s Gareth Gates, who most expected to emerge triumphant.

Some of Young’s early singles following his Pop Idol victory were like a slab of Wensleydale, but he went on to produce several albums that were both a popular and critical success. For the moment, the popstar is on a break from that world and is treading the boards in theatreland.

When we talk, Young has just finished a matinee performance of Cabaret, in which he plays the demanding role of the Emcee in the UK tour, a role which won Alan Cummings a Tony Award when he played it on Broadway in the late 1990s.

In between performances – he’s back on stage at the Manchester Opera House for an evening show shortly after we finish talking – he seems relaxed.

“Once you’ve been doing the role for a while, you can really concentrate on just completely enjoying it. It’s good to have nerves, and it’s not like I’m completely nonchalant, but I do enjoy it now,” says Young.

It’s odd to think of him suffering nerves at all really. His surprising longevity (Darius, anyone?) means we consider Young something of a seasoned performer.

“Doing a lot of pop concerts really helped train me for doing theatre. It doesn’t feel unnatural at all to be on stage for me. I actually think pop is a really good breeding ground for acting, full stop. It really helped me when it came to going on stage as an actor. But at first there were definitely a lot of nerves – it’s very different to what I normally do.”

It sounds very odd for Young to discuss his role in Cabaret, which has won him critical acclaim, as such a separate thing from his work as a singer, but they clearly occupy very different spheres in his mind.

“The thing about doing Cabaret is that I love working in a group of people and I like not being the boss,” he says, then appears to immediately realise that might sound a slightly odd way to describe the job of being a popstar. When one thinks of “the boss” in the music world, a Cowell-esque Svengali might spring to mind – not the act out front in the lights. Yet it turns out that Will Young is the master of his own destiny.

“I don’t have to worry if a light blows on stage, or if the curtain fails to go up – when I’m in Cabaret it’s not my job to worry about all that, with this I can just put all my energy into doing my part of the team work.”

In his musical career, Young is very definitely the boss – another trait that appears to set him apart from what we might think happens to acts who achieve fame through reality TV shows.

“I never felt manipulated, I always felt like I had a good deal of control. From the start I have been really happy with most of my output. Of course at the very start there were one or two songs that had to be rushed out, but apart from that I have been really happy with all the work I’ve done,” he says.

“But from my second record I absolutely went in the direction that I wanted to go. I am involved in every stage from working with the director on the videos to choosing the photographers I want to work with.”

Among journalists, Young has a bit of a reputation as someone who can be a little moody if you catch him at the wrong time. He is hoping to grab a bite to eat between the matinee and the evening performance and is interrupted while we are talking. But despite the demands on his time, he remains unfailingly polite and happy to chat about anything I ask.

He also feels as though he has been somewhat misrepresented in the past.

“Someone wrote an article that said I thought fame had wrecked my life. Fame has not wrecked my life and I can’t bear it when you hear people complaining about that. It’s lovely. I get free clothes, people are nice to me. Being famous is not the root of all happiness, but it’s not something that makes you miserable,” he says.

One of the reasons Young is able to speak like this is because, and he is very candid about admitting it, he has spent some time in therapy.

“As I get older it is about ever-increasing circles and I desire to learn about myself. It’s not easy and not everyone wants to face themselves, but I just want to keep getting happier and happier.”

This honesty appears to have arrived with playing the role of the Emcee and taking a temporary break from being a solo artist.

The pressure, it would seem, is off when he is not a sole performer.

“With acting, as opposed to music, I don’t write it, produce it or market it. I just show and do what I do.”

The chance to change down a gear is not, however, the sole reason Young is happy to be in one of the last century’s most successful musicals. Launched in 1966, within six years of its Broadway opening, the it had been turned into a film with Liza Minnelli immortalising the role of Sally Bowles. Set in and around a Berlin cabaret club, it tells the story of the rise of the Nazis in one of the most politically-charged musicals since Brecht and Weill combined for The Threepenny Opera.

“I have always wanted to do the show, and I have always wanted to play this part,” says Young. “When I am watching a musical I don’t want any lulls, I want the story to keep moving and this definitely does that. It also has this growing, impending atmosphere that just builds and builds. You are aware that while these people are enjoying themselves, the Nazis are rising to power outside.

“The universal nature of this play is amazing – it can talk to today about the situation in Syria, it talks about the widening gap between the rich and the poor. It reinforces that famous quote that what we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.”

Young then goes on to discuss Mein Kampf – Hitler’s deranged manifesto, the economic situation in post Second World War Germany, how Hitler was able to finance his rise to power and the global economic environment that allowed it all to happen.

Way smarter than the average pop star.

Cabaret, Alhambra Theatre, 
Bradford, Sept 23 to 28. 01274 432000, www.bradford-theatres.co.uk