Will Young: ‘I feel like I’ve made ten new friends’

Will Young’s eighth album is the first where he has had no input in the songwriting. Instead, Crying on the Bathroom Floor features interpretations of ten songs by originally recorded by female artists.

Will Young. Picture: Matt Holyoak

“I think that brought something interesting, maybe without me consciously thinking about it,” says the 42-year-old singer, actor, broadcaster and writer who first sprang to fame in 2002 by winning the TV contest Pop Idol.

“Once I’d done a couple of songs that really helped, because I wanted singers that would tie in with each other. By doing Bat For Lashes, I thought I can see Clare Maguire and Robyn ties in – they’re not necessarily mainstream pop, so then the artists almost then started picking themselves, in a way.”

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Hence the work of pioneers such as Everything But The Girl and Natasha Khan of Bat For Lashes rubs shoulders with lesser-known names like Muna and Cam. Young argues that they have all found their niche somewhere, citing the example of Swedish singer Lykke Li who “certain audience might not know, but then you go and watch the song on YouTube and it’s got 300 million views”.

“It’s interesting that they occupy that kind of space, a lot of those artists,” he says. “I think they’re all very true to themselves and I would say most of them are quite pioneering women, you can’t really get a repeat of any of them, they’re all unique. It’s interesting for me to then do my take as a singer and as a performer on one of their songs. It’s like taking a lot of mini scripts, it’s almost an acting job, which is very freeing and I can find my own attachment to each song.”

It was also interesting to explore a different gender perspective, he says. “It would be a bigger story possibly ten years ago but now having a song called Daniel being sung by a gay man actually makes sense, even though it was written by a woman,” he says. “Actually that song was written about Karate Kid, it just goes to show. I think it was Joan Armatrading who said it’s down to the listener to find their own attachment to a song.

“Then the Muna song, which is the next single and the title of the album, the lyric is ‘crying on the bathroom floor/tearing off the dress I wore’. Again as a man it’s a nice, interesting, perhaps slightly different image. Maybe I wouldn’t have written that but it’s a very palpable lyric and one I can really imagine and it allowed me to really engage in the song immediately.

“There’s a different imagery that comes up – a man crying, tearing off their dress – and a really interesting one.”

Will Young. Picture: Matt Holyoak

Despite the fact that Crying on the Bathroom Floor was largely made at home within the past year, Young says he doesn’t see it as a lockdown album. “It’s just another album, really,” he says. “There were some technicalities to get around but really the only difference was that I didn’t have to drive so far. That was really nice but I don’t think it made any difference to my performance either way, it was just another set-up. It wasn’t as complicated as people might think or certainly maybe I would have thought.”

Producer Richard X, from Sheffield, was in his element setting up a makeshift studio in the singer’s London home. “He’s great,” says Young. “I would say we got the closest as friends on this record. We had a lot of laughs. He’s really funny, he has a very dry Northern sense of humour and I love that. I love having a giggle and a chat. Also, he’s an artist in his own right and I really wanted to let him know that even more on this record, for some reason.

“He has done quite famous interpretations of other people’s songs and he is an artists, and I really respect that and wanted him to feel like that, or at least know that I see him as that. It was very collaborative in a very different way to perhaps if I’d brought songs that I’d written to him. I don’t feel as precious. I was really interested in the stuff he was doing and it made it really fun.”

Working from home allowed Young to spend more time with his dogs and develop an interest in gardening. But he says the main difference was the lack of travel because he “can’t bear the traffic in London”. “It just gave me an extra two hours of not being in a car, which I find very boring.

“But to be honest,” he adds, “I’ve said for years if we’ve got all this technology why do I have to travel across town to have a meeting, why can’t we just do it over Facetime or Skype? I’ve always felt it’s rather pointless travelling so far, why don’t we just use the technology we’ve got? So I love Zoom.”

Although the songs on this album are all covers, Young has described it as a piece of work that is “truly me”. Today, he reflects: “I felt like I identified with the pieces, and maybe that comes back to being an actor as well. I will fall in love with a script and a character. I was hearing a talk the other day by Tom Wilkinson, the actor, he was saying that he can read something and he will know instantly that he can play it, that he can do it well, and that was the same with the songs. It was a real sense that I think I can shine doing this, not in an arrogant way, but as a performer I want to be doing my best work, so I almost wouldn’t analyse and question why a certain song would be moving me in that way.

“It might be the melody in one, it might be the lyric is another, quite often it’s things that are subconscious and one shouldn’t analyse it – well, I don’t because it can take away the beauty of doing it. Get rid of the thought and just let the body do the work, follow the natural places that I would want to go with a song. I feel like I’ve made ten new friends – the songs – and that’s quite a nice way of thinking about it.

“I don’t know when it changed but suddenly covers were seen as a bad thing. Maybe it was in the realm of late 90s processed pop, and I can get why people would think that, but it’s just the same as I know other people have played the MC in Cabaret, but for me the MC is mine, and I feel the same with the songs, they’re mine, it doesn’t matter that someone else has written and released them. All I can live for and connect with them is my personal relationship with them, so that’s how I feel.”

Young’s autumn tour of intimate venues, which includes a date at Leeds City Varieties, is, he says an opportunity not only to promote the album but also to get out of the capital. “I think people are so bloody London-centric,” he says. “I’ve done a couple of these types of shows for the last album and I thought it would be nice to pick off some place outside London. I knew I wanted to do a small acoustic show because I enjoyed it when I did a couple last time round. Then it’s more of a build-up to next year, which is 20 years since I won Pop Idol, that’s when I will go on a proper big tour and do lots of interesting and fun events to celebrate it.”

In the meantime Young’s book How To Be a Gay Man has just come out in paperback. He is heartened that the book, in which he discusses issues such as gay shame and finding self-acceptance, has prompted “some really amazing messages” from readers, adding: “That’s wonderful and very moving. Some of them have been from people that I know, that I’ve worked with over the years, and people that I didn’t know who were working through stuff and perhaps wouldn’t have shared that with me if they hadn’t read the book.

“That’s what the book is about, really – giving people permission and people not feeling alone. Those two things are crucial for anyone looking at any kind of self-analysis or dealing with anything that can be tough in their lives, so for me that’s a real gift and has certainly brought me closer to those people and have even more respect for them. It’s been a really great thing to do.”

He’s now working on a novel but is keeping his options open about where his future career lies. “I don’t limit it,” he says. “I just think ‘I’m enjoy it, I’ll do that’. I think people often want to polarise themselves but I never feel the need to do that because it would feel restrictive. I just feel if I can do it all, why not?”

Crying on the Bathroom Floor is out on Friday August 6. Will Young plays at Leeds City Varieties on September 5. www.willyoung.co.uk