Will Young is being the familiar self we know from TV, charming and informal, confiding that he’s enjoying talking to me because it delays the wrist-melting chore of signing 3,000 copies of his new album. Light pours into his spacious south London home from the high windows behind his face, framed in the Zoom screen that he continues to favour over in-person meet-ups. So it’s surprising when, halfway through the conversation, his face crumples a little and he says: “I’m having a dreadful day today.”
I offer to continue the interview another time, but he explains that work commitments tend to help with the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with which he was diagnosed following a breakdown in 2012. “To be boring and scientific about it, when you have PTSD or are triggered by past emotions, that affects the back of your brain. But this kind of thing: ‘Hello, I’m Will, I’m 42, I’m talking about music,’ brings the prefrontal lobe back on board. Luckily for me, work actually really helps.”
Work at the moment, as well as reassuring journalists and giving himself repetitive strain injury signing vinyl, has recently included filling in for Jo Whiley on Radio 2 and writing two forthcoming books: “One a wellbeing guide and the other a novel sort of based on life events.” They follow his book, To Be a Gay Man, published last autumn. His album’s PR blurb portrays him as an artist of vast breadth, calling him “an activist, author, singer, songwriter, radio presenter, DJ and performer”. He was the co-host of three seasons of the popular Homo Sapiens podcast, and has been nominated for 10 Brit Awards (winning two) and an Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his role in Cabaret (losing to pesky Michael Ball).
He’s a little more restrained when I ask him what he tells people he does, in the unlikely event they haven’t been aware of his varied career since he became the first person to dare to talk back to Simon Cowell in a TV talent show (“I don’t think you could ever call that average,” he countered), winning the first series of Pop Idol in 2002. “I’m a singer and a performer. And an actor. And a writer,” he says. “But if I’m in LA I normally tell people I’m a gardener, because they don’t know what to do with all that information.”
Singing comes first again for the next few months. Young’s eighth album, Crying on the Bathroom Floor, is the first time he’s sung solely cover versions since Pop Idol. Back then, he was plonked somewhere between soul and swing, singing old favourites including “Beyond the Sea”, “I Get the Sweetest Feeling”, “Ain’t No Sunshine” and that smooth Latin rework of The Doors’ “Light My Fire” (actually a cover of a cover, updating José Feliciano’s version of the song from the Sixties). He introduced himself to the viewing public at his first filmed audition by singing The Jacksons’ “Blame It on the Boogie” in baggy jeans. Four months later, the nice middle-class politics student from Wokingham in Berkshire had triumphed over the more conventionally pop starry Gareth Gates and Darius Danesh, selling more than a million copies of his debut single “Evergreen” in a week.
Now the songs he has chosen to interpret are far less obvious, so much so that plenty of fans think the singles so far are his originals. Most people will know “Missing”, a platinum hit for Everything But the Girl in 1995, and “Strong”, London Grammar’s biggest single from 2013. Otherwise it’s a roll call of songs by cool female artists that didn’t sell spectacularly in their original forms: “I Follow Rivers” by Lykke Li, “Indestructible” by Robyn, “Losing You” by Solange, “Daniel” by Bat for Lashes, and more. “I wanted to do poppier versions of these songs – make them a bit more radio, basically,” he says. “Because that’s what I do. I operate in that mainstream world.”
Not only do his choices display impeccable taste, but it was also important to him that they were all songs by women. The simple fact of him being a gay man singing these words gives a new slant that might not have been permissible a while ago. Think of The Crystals singing “Then He Kissed Me” in the early Sixties, which The Beach Boys changed to “Then I Kissed Her” two years later. Whichever way you look at it, the man was in charge of that situation.
“I’ve never written a song with a man’s name in it before, so it was nice to sing ‘Daniel’. But I think even five years ago, people would have been like, ‘Ooh, he’s singing about wearing a dress,’ on ‘Crying on the Bathroom Floor’,” he says of the title track, which is by the queer Californian pop-trio MUNA. “But I do wear dresses – or skirts, actually. So I could very well be in that position, crying in a dress on the bathroom floor.”
He mentions an issue with his record company in 2009, when he made a video for his single “Let It Go”, in which he danced with a male mannequin. “They had a major problem with it.” Even in 2016, when he was briefly a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing, he says there was never a conversation about whether he could have a male dance partner. “So yeah, times have changed a lot. It’s brilliant that so many kids now are growing up feeling so much more empowered and can make their own choices. Things like the England football captain wearing a rainbow armband are so powerful.”
He first came out to friends and family while at university in Exeter, and again to the public just after winning Pop Idol, in an interview with the News of the World. While the information was received positively, and it didn’t seem to be the forced confession inflicted upon Stephen Gately of Boyzone just three years previously, there were other newspapers sniffing around and it wasn’t a situation fully under his control either. In his book, To Be a Gay Man (on the cover of which he is, indeed, wearing a dress), he digs deeply into the feelings of shame that have tarnished most of his life, even as an out, hugely successful pop star.
It adds to the impression that Young is literally an open book, as long as it’s on his own terms. When he quit Strictly after three weeks in 2016, he said it was for “personal reasons”. The following year he chose a mental health podcast to explain in detail how sick he was at the time with PTSD, which he traces back to being separated from his twin brother Rupert when they were premature babies. He also revealed that he considered breaking his own leg to get out of the show, and estimated that at that point he had spent around half a million pounds on therapy, including a long stay in the trauma centre Khiron House in Oxfordshire.
When we speak, the subject of Rupert is still understandably off limits. Having suffered from depression and addiction for many years, his younger twin died by suicide last August. I try to lighten the mood by asking after Young’s four dogs, and it turns out that one of them has died after being run over in the road outside his house. “It was awful. Probably the worst single event that’s ever happened in my life. I was like, ‘Really?’” he says of his reaction to this on top of everything else.
No doubt he’ll talk about his brother in public when he feels ready and has something of real value to say. Having helped so many LGBTQ people younger than him simply by being a visible gay man in public life, he’s now speaking more and more about mental health and helping to remove that stigma too.
“There are things that I don’t talk about, and maybe I will in the future, but my rule is to own it for myself,” he says. “I will throw something in deliberately, to normalise it and show that I’m not ashamed of it. I’m talking to you while I’m majorly depressed today, but I’m still turning up and doing it. It’s about trying to change the narrative of what it is to have an illness, or have difficult emotions.”
What’s clear is how strongly he feels that there is far more to this job than singing some nice songs. “Sometimes I worry that I’m too honest. Should I be thinking more about my ‘brand’? Has it become too much ‘Will gets mental health problems’? There is a lot more to me. But I just talk on what interests me at the time. I do think that’s part of being an artist. It’s probably the best way to be.”
Crying on the Bathroom Floor is released on Aug 6 on Cooking Vinyl. Will Young is on tour from 1-8 Sept. willyoung.co.uk