Will Young. Pop Idol winner. Multi-platinum selling artist. Gay icon. Movie star?
Opposite no less than Dame Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins, Will has made his silver screen debut in Mrs Henderson Presents. And taken his clothes off – on screen and stage, simultaneously.
Just a few days before the movie’s UK release, his third album, Keep On, hits the shops. This is a busy boy; but wasn’t Gareth Gates meant to win that show?
Will seems anything but rushed off his feet as I edge in to a room resplendent with plates of biscuits and jugs of orange juice at his label’s London office. Dressed in sportswear and looking svelte and athletic, he seems relaxed and is reclined. He firmly shakes my hand as I ask if he minds a few words on the film as well as the album. “It’s fine. It’s my time,” he states matter-of-factly.
He’s a singer. Why is he in a film? Surely being one of the most successful British solo male artists of the last five years is enough? “It happened because I was really wanting to do some acting and George Fenton (composer of the Mrs Henderson Presents soundtrack) suggested me to (director) Stephen (Frears), actually,” he narrates. “And I went through about eight auditions that were horrendously scary and I hated them!” His story is punctuated by self-deprecating laughs and put-downs – he seems to want his listener to enjoy his words rather than simply hear them. And he’s a natural storyteller.
“There is nudity, yeah. With Bob – and all of us! We all get our kit off!” – Will Young hard sells Mrs Henderson Presents…
“In the end I managed to con Stephen into thinking I could do it. We got on really well.” Scarcely a breath and he’s off on a tangent – “I didn’t know he was the director until the last two auditions! We just kept on going for coffee and I just thought, what a lovely man – we’re getting on really well!”
Frears, whose CV includes Dangerous Liaisons and My Beautiful Laundrette, might have scared off pretenders with his reputation alone. Not Will. “I’m pretty illiterate with films actually – I’ve always been more into music. I was going to go to acting school when I was younger – it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.” He tells me he finds it easier to speak to people before he finds out how good they are.
What does he make of his own acting talent and the resulting film? “I’m really happy – I need to see it again, I think, two or three more times. With Kelly, who I saw it with, my… co-star? I was her co-star?” Kelly Reilly has also been busy, starring opposite Johnny Depp in The Libertine this year too. Will’s plainly keen not to talk himself up as a bigger star. “She said you need to see them two or three times. And it’s the same with stuff that I do. There was so much to take in, it being my first film.”
His co-stars, naturally, come in for praise. “I was so impressed with all the people in the film, as I hadn’t seen all their scenes. And when you’re acting with someone you don’t always see what’s really going down on the camera. I was so impressed with Bob,” he says, “so impressed with Bob. Judi is amazing, but I think as I had more scenes with Bob I just thought… waow!”
Mrs Henderson of the title presented nude revues in wartime London, countering the Blitz in her own eccentric way. So… is there nudity in the film? “There is nudity, yeah. With Bob – and all of us! We all get our kit off!” Do we see everything? “You do actually! That’s just the way it is… I found it quite funny personally! In the context of the film it works…”
“I think my writing has definitely developed. I think I’ve managed to weed out what’s crap!” – Will Young minces no words…
In the Friday’s Child video, Will spent most of the shoot clad only in Speedos and was asked at the time if he’d used a stunt body. He’d hotly denied it, asserting that his own attributes were sizeable enough for the job. Thus it seems here – he’s completely unfazed by the prospect of cinemas full of people gazing at his body. “They were wonderful people to do it with,” he affirms, reclining again.
Will he switch to acting? “It’s made me want to continue acting. There’s been some really interesting things coming in.” He’s had more offers? “Yeah I have, which gives me confidence.”
Before I steer the conversation to the album, Will helpfully does it for me – deftly. “This is what I’ve been concentrating on for the last year and a half and it’s been horrendous at times and I’m very pleased it’s all finished!”
The first album, From Now On, featured a bulk of material made for whoever won Pop Idol, while the second, Friday’s Child, was a thing of two halves – what felt like banker hits combined with a little more confidence from Will as he moulded out his own sound and style of music. Keep On is far and away his best album yet. Wildly varied, it takes in everything from electroclash to latino beats, cinematic soundtrack moments and romantic ballads. Along the way to making it, has Will matured as a writer as well as a performer?
“Yeah, I think so,” he says. “I’ve co-written seven of (the tracks) and I sing five other people’s songs. One cover – Shaun Lee’s song (Happiness)… I think my writing has definitely developed. I think I’ve managed to weed out what’s crap. I look at the songs this time round and there are half as many as there were last time and they’re twice as good. I’m getting better at doing at it, in my opinion.” From Will this doesn’t sound like arrogance; rather confidence that he’s made the right choices.
“I was carting demos around places and people don’t really see that. People just see you arrive on a TV show, they don’t see everything you’ve done before.” – Will Young on making your own luck
What is co-writing? “Well I don’t play instruments really. I play piano a bit, but not to any degree, so I need to write with someone that’s got beats and rhythms and can play all the instruments.” Somebody comes along with the music and…? “No, we normally write together. Actually, it’s so different for each one.”
I find I’m being steered forward again to another talking point – the involvement of the mercurial multi-instrumentalist maestro Nitin Sawhney. “Home started from a string part which Nitin recorded in India. But for Switch It On it was a guy who my producer knew in America who’d just started with a whole load of beats. He sent them over to me and I wrote the melody to that beat and then we added in the guitars…”
Lavish praise is reserved for Sawhney. “He’s amazing. I always say to him, Nitin, I’m not going to call you if I feel like I’m under-achieving. You would have done an article in The Observer, written a play, done a workshop for the Sydney orchestra… you’re too good. Go away!”
It remains unclear how much of Home was penned by Will. “It was what was in my head at that time,” he says. “It’s not the most happy of songs, but I love (it).” Why? “It took a lot of time because we felt like it needed to move on and we didn’t know what to do with it for ages and then… we did this… pause, like a film moment, where the camera goes around the person, and he (Sawhney) plays this wonderful piano and does this speaking on the mic and… it’s just beautiful.” Cinematic, even. “It’s really cinematic,” agrees Will. “I guess because Nitin does a lot of scores for films, and it’s strings based as well…”
Home was the only Sawhney collaboration to reach Keep On, but the two collaborated on other material too. “Four songs I wrote for the last album are on this album,” says Will. “I kind of like that whole melting pot of songs and I can just choose to go back to them.”
“People forget you very quickly. Look at Kim Wilde. She became a gardener.” – Will Young on celebrity shelf life.
I ask him why he decided to cover the song Happiness. When he sings the line “Happiness is being gay,” I suggest, it perhaps has a second, hitherto unintended meaning… “I think it’s kind of obvious really,” he laughs. “I really wanted to do a latino-y song. Everything I was doing was pants and a friend of a friend suggested Happiness and I thought it was brilliant.”
Another highlight of the album is the Jamie Hartmann-penned second single, All Time Love – set for release for Valentine’s Day 2006. “When you’re singing someone else’s songs you need to believe in it,” says Will. “And that’s an amazing song – I think it’s really sad.” Hartmann’s previous credits include work for Joss Stone.
Certainly, I say, All Time Love contrasts with the beats and bounce of Switch It On, with its riff straight out of George Michael‘s Faith. “It’s based on a Bo Diddley riff,” says its co-writer. He runs through a litany of what people think Switch It On sounds like: “I’ve had Beverly Hills Cop, Dolly Parton, George Michael, Eurythmics…!”
The album’s title track has been around rather longer. “That was a song I wanted on the last album but I didn’t feel people were ready for that sound of Will Young… I’ve just performed it on a couple of TV shows and it’s amazing to perform. I like what it’s saying,” he enthuses. “I feel that I’m at a place that I’ve been trying to get to for the last four years. That’s what that song’s… well, the lyrics were written about something else, but they allude to that.” What were they originally about? “I’m not going to tell you,” he says airly, playfully. “You can make up your own mind. I think it should be left open.” He beams that famous smile.
There’s ample praise too for producer Steve Lipson, Will’s long-time musical collaborator. “Steve has just done the best production,” he says, “particularly on Switch It On and Keep On. He’s just got the balance perfectly.”
“I’m not that interesting. I just get parking tickets and wear stupid clothes!” – Will Young
All in, it sounds like Will is at least as pleased with Keep On as with Mrs Henderson Presents. Does he think it’s better than his last works? “I think it definitely is. I don’t think that can really be questioned actually. The last album was an album of two halves. It had a half that was quite poptastic, and a half that showed some depth, and I always preferred that half. I wanted this one to be a complete work. That’s why we started working on it as soon as we finished the last one. With the success of that album I felt I could push it a bit, and if this works then I’ll do the same again.” He sounds very focused. “It’s been doing my head in sometimes!”
As the original Pop Idol winner, what does he make of the celebrity-obsessed world in which we live? Is it any easier for talent show contestants now to cross over to be genuine stars as he has done? “It depends on the person. The Pop Idol I was in I do think stands alone from other shows… (it had) the nation in such a fervour. But I don’t know that even with that show whether (anyone thought) these people would have careers afterwards. Now the impetus is on the show and I don’t know how much impetus is on the afterwards…” He sighs. “They just have to work.”
Will’s own work ethic could be a beacon for those who desire to be famous, I suggest. “For me it wasn’t about being famous, it was singing for a career,” he points out. “So if someone wants to go and be famous, then follow someone else, I think.”
This is a driven man who knew what he wanted well before Pop Idol, after all. Something like a life plan was already in progress when the show scooped him up. “I’d moved up to London, I’d finished university, I was at a musical theatre college,” he says. “I don’t think I was going to go in to musical theatre in my mind. I’d worked at Sony… I guess I did have a plan, and the plan was to get where I am now. And then the show came along and I thought, hang on, this could give me a real head start.”
He wasn’t waiting for luck to fall in to his lap. “At the time I was carting demos around places and people don’t really see that. People just see you arrive on a TV show, they don’t see everything you’ve done before.” But he won it, announced to the world in general that he’s gay on the front page of a red top tabloid, “and I had to readjust and make a plan to get to where I wanted to be musically. I started with a song I didn’t like that I had to sing from the show. So I thought, I’ve got this… how am I going to get that? and just set about doing it. I don’t know that it’ll work, but it’s nice to have the confidence. I’ve got to a level and now I can move on.”
Following Friday’s Child’s multi-platinum success, does he feel under pressure for Keep On to peform as well? “You become a victim of your own success,” he muses. “I don’t know if I’ll be gutted if it doesn’t sell as much. I’d be gutted if it didn’t sell any, and I get dropped, and it’s all over – I don’t know what I’d do after that!” What would he do? “More acting…? I’d like to think there were more things I could do, but I’d like to think I’d always stay singing. And if I got really bored of singing I’d do something completely different like… conservation. Why are you laughing?”
For a moment the prospect of Will not singing seemed absurd – saving whales instead more so. He corrects me. “People forget you very quickly. Look at Kim Wilde. She became a gardener. She won an award at something…” Surely the papers would pick him up? “They’re not too bad with me. I’m not that interesting. I just get parking tickets and wear stupid clothes!”
But there’s plenty more of a musical nature to get on with. Will had been to a Scissor Sisters gig at London’s Forum a couple of weeks before. “Their songs, their vibe – they’re great, and I think we’d work really well together,” he gushes. There’s been Will & Grace – why not Will & Jake? “I just think their album’s fantastic. It’s going to be hard for them to emulate the success of that album.”
We’re at the end of our time, and it seems a shame – Will Young seems less like a star with diva pretentions and more like a good mate, someone who’s fun to have around and easy to talk with. The sun is setting, and his day of promotion is over. “I’ve made all these plans and now I don’t want to see anyone,” says this charming interviewee. With a third album and first film done and dusted, the boy most likely to deserves some R&R, but he won’t be resting on his laurels for long.