Festival return is child’s play for Pop Idol winner
“IT’S going to be a bit like a kids’ party,” says Will Young.
“IT’S going to be a bit like a kids’ party,” says Will Young.
The singer, who shot to fame as the winner of Pop Idol in 2002, is talking about his forthcoming appearance at this summer’s Henley Festival.
He will be headlining the floating stage on July 10. And it’s clear he can’t wait.
Speaking ahead of our interview, he said: “I’m really very excited to be closing Henley Festival on the Sunday night. I had such fun playing there last time. It’s such a beautiful setting on the banks of the river Thames — not to mention headlining alongside one of my favourite people, Sir Elton John.”
“Last time” was in 2010, when Young headlined the festival’s opening night. Being something of a homecoming gig, it’s an occasion he has fond memories of.
“Well, I know Henley well because my father’s family are from Henley. My dad’s side of the family were actually Brakspear — the old Brakspear brewery — so I have quite a strong heritage in Henley and Wargrave.
“So I grew up around there, and not miles away in Berkshire — Hungerford — and the last concert that I did there was just brilliant, really good fun.
“Because, I think, of the personal connection, and because I know the family who organise it.
“That was the first time I’d played Henley and it was such a fantastic atmosphere, with all the people in their boats on the river behind the stage.”
Now 37, Young was born in Wokingham and has a twin brother and an elder sister. He was educated at Horris Hill preparatory school near Newbury and Wellington College in Crowthorne.
He went on to read politics at the University of Exeter, graduating with a 2:2 honours degree before becoming a scholarship student at the Arts Educational Schools in Chiswick, taking a three-year course in musical theatre.
He was just 23 when he won Pop Idol, memorably beating the bookies’ favourite — and Simon Cowell’s favourite — Gareth Gates in the final.
Since then he has released six studio albums — four of which reached number one and the other two number two — plus two well-received greatest hits collections and a bestselling 2012 autobiography, Funny Peculiar. He has also had four UK number one singles.
Other career highlights include being nominated for an Olivier Award for best actor in a musical for his performance as the Emcee in the 2012 London revival of Cabaret. He lost out to West End veteran Michael Ball but won London newcomer of the year at the What’s On Stage Awards.
In May last year he released his sixth studio album, 85% Proof — a reference to the alcoholic strength of moonshine, and supported the album with a 22-date autumn tour of the UK — his first in four years.
So what can Henley expect from him this time around? Is it going to be a greatest hits set?
“Well, it’s going to be a different show to the theatre tour. And it’s going to be sort of — I love doing outdoor gigs because they’re a lot more free, so I always like keeping the outdoor shows quite sort of free. So it’s going to be a bit like a kids’ party.
“And I quite like starting shows now with a finale. I just turn the show on its head a bit, so, you know, you don’t need to sort of slowly wind up to a big finish — just do the big finish at the beginning. And then do another one at the end. Have two big finishes. And then the songs, music-wise, it’ll be — the great thing about having six albums now is that I can choose more and more songs that are well known and all the singles and then mix and match.
“We always rehearse more than we do on the night, so it means that we can kind of chop and change dependent on the atmosphere.
“We’ll have a running order and then I always like to keep a couple of times in the set where we don’t actually know which song — the band don’t know which song we’re going to do until I tell them. And I think it just keeps it, all of us sort of on our toes.
“We always have that in the set and then outside that we always have a circle of songs that we can just sort of break into. You know, I might go, ‘Right, okay, let’s not do this now, we’ll jump five songs forward and do that...’ dependent on the atmosphere, because every audience is different.”
From the sound of it, Young’s approach is effectively to DJ with his own songs.
“It’s got to be like that because it’s got to be about the audience. It’s not about me just carrying on and singing whatever I want to sing, it’s about how the audience are reacting and whether it’s working or not, which is basically people having an experience.”
In both his live work and in the studio, he is helped by having a band of seasoned, long-standing collaborators.
“Yeah. I mean, you know, we chop and change again a bit, dependent on how available people are, but I’ve had the band now for 10 years. Loads of the guys play with this band that play on The Voice. And they’re brilliant, they’re absolutely brilliant.”
Although Young’s first single, Anything Is Possible/Evergreen, featured songs chosen by the Pop Idol producers, he was quick to break away from the template of the manufactured pop star. “Yeah, I mean, I started writing right from the beginning and now it’s sort of something I don’t really even think about. You know, another album starts and...
“I used to be very scared of writing but I don’t feel scared of it any more. It feels like a very natural, kind of fluid thing, and it used to feel a bit sort of jerky.
“I think a lot of that is because I’ve done a lot more writing, just sort of as a journalist and as a blogger.
“And, you know, I wrote an autobiography and all those things, and I started writing scripts, so all those things help. So now I’m not really scared of songwriting, I don’t think. Which is good.
“But also, I don’t mind — you know I’m quite happy to sing other people’s songs. In fact, you know, I’m at my happiest when I’m singing covers. I love singing covers.”
Does he have any in mind for his festival appearance?
“We’ve got two on the go for Henley. I’m not going to say who they’re by, but I’m quite excited. It just came to me the other day, actually, and I emailed the band saying ‘This is what we’re doing...’ ” Right from the off, Young has never been afraid to be his own man. Within weeks of winning Pop Idol he came out as gay, telling the News of the World: “It’s totally no big deal, just part of who I am. For me it’s normal and nothing to be ashamed about.”
He has since gone on to front a campaign for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights charity Stonewall, whose slogan is “acceptance without exception”. Has he ever been a victim of prejudice himself?
“I don’t think in the music industry I’ve come across prejudice. It’s a pretty liberal industry and sort of, you know, space. So I can’t think of any time, and I think that if that had happened I don’t think it would have taken root for a second, you know?
“I don’t think it would take root but I mean certainly prejudice, my gosh, you know, there is prejudice out in the world and I have come across it.
“Not for a while, actually, I have to say. I haven’t experienced something for the last two years, but I think that’s probably because also I’m a bit older and I think people probably just know that it’s — they probably sense that I wouldn’t really put up with it.
“I mean, I really wouldn’t put up with it, you know? I’ve walked down the middle of Oxford High Street shouting, pointing people out for everyone, going ‘These people are being homophobic towards me.’ Shouting at the top of my voice.”
You called them out on it?
“Yeah! And every time they came near me I just kept on shouting. And then people started attacking them.
“People were quite appalled, actually. Me being able to say ‘These people are being homophobic’ and for that to have some kind of credence, some kind of shock value, is a sign of how far we’ve come.”
One last question, for all the Pop Idol fans out there. Is he still in touch with Gareth Gates?
“I’m not, but not out of any hostility. It’s just the way life goes.”
Okay, one more. The Rolling Stones currently have an exhibition running at the Saatchi Gallery. It seems pretty clear that they’re never going to formally retire. Would Will be happy to follow in their footsteps in that respect?
“Yeah, I think... oh, no, I’d want to be sitting in the sun.”
You’d rather have your feet up?
“Yeah, I’d rather be in the South of France or Los Angeles.”
• Will Young headlines the Henley Festival’s floating stage on Sunday, July 10. To book tickets, call (01491) 843404 or visit www.henley-festival.co.uk