Forever Will Young
As millions of us tune in to The X Factor, Will Young is the original talent show winner who's sold eight million records and seems impossible to dislike
Published 01/09/2011 | 13:20
It's hard to remember a time before Will Young was famous. That's not because he's an era-defining musical wonder - even he wouldn't argue that were true - but down to the phenomenon that thrust him into the limelight.
In February 2002, he was crowned Pop Idol, winning the TV competition that kicked off the Noughties' golden age of TV talent shows.
The Berkshire boy was just 21 when he stepped in front of Nicki Chapman, Neil Fox, Pete Waterman and Simon Cowell to deliver a shy, almost apologetic version of Blame It On The Boogie.
"Slightly cheesy" was the panel's verdict but, nevertheless, he sailed through and just as calmly won over the voting public. Contrary to stories at the time, Young wasn't the underdog at any stage, leading the phone-voting figures from the off.
Considering the attention now lavished upon Pop Idol's successor The X Factor, it's interesting the talent show genre's most creatively successful star appeared so early on.
"It's all changed so much since my day," begins Young, smiling.
"Saying that, I'd still do X Factor. It's what you make of it, isn't it? It's a chance and a massive leg up, but you have to pick up the baton and run with it.
"Watch Pop Idol now and it looks like you're watching a show from the Eighties. It's very weird, innocent and genuine.
"When something becomes a success, it goes into the mainstream marketplace and it's hard for it to seem genuine again. We had no agenda then - and the judges are the biggest stars now, not the talent."
To hear how far Young has come since his early auditions covering soul classics, you only need to listen to his new album Echoes.
Sophisticated, measured and perfectly written, it's easily his best work.
"It's been a long time coming," he says. "Some of the songs I started about five or six years ago, others 18 months ago.
"I wanted to work with Richard X, who's done amazing things and really made it sound like a body of work," he says, referring to the producer who specialises in the grown-up pop of Goldfrapp, Roisin Murphy and Sugababes.
"I know that's a cliche, but it is true. I wanted to do an electronic, upbeat album with programmed drums, and it was Richard that really pulled that together, made sure it didn't go too far in any direction and balanced it all out perfectly.
"I didn't want it to turn into, 'Will does club bangers' or anything, but I have a newfound love of electronic music from remixes that have been done, and the Groove Armada track I sang on.
"I really enjoyed my voice on those tracks and noticed the lyrics more than I had done before. There's almost more space for them, so I knew this album had to be about simplicity."
At its beginning, Echoes sees Young explore his more melancholic side on tracks such as Jealousy, Outsider and Lie Next To Me.
Things pick up towards the end, however, finishing with upbeat trio Happy Now, Good Things and Safe From Harm.
"That dichotomy of melancholy lyrics with upbeat music is interesting to me. I'm inspired more by sadness than happiness, but that's not to say I'm an unhappy person.
"If ever I'm feeling low, sad or insecure, then writing a song is a good way to get it out. Heartbreak informs most of my favourite music, and it's hard to write happy songs without sounding evangelical."
With that, the sound of a siren whizzes past the open window of the café we're sitting in. He seems distracted by it and we start talking about the recent rioting in the country.
For the next 20 minutes or so, he talks passionately about the work he does with youth charity Catch 22, possible causes for unrest and even solutions.
Young, who has a degree in politics from Exeter University, believes advertising is largely to blame, "for making people feel rubbish if they don't have the right possessions".
"I'll give it 'til the end of the year, see how this album does and then jack it all in for a life of politics," he jokes, although if his sensible Question Time appearance in 2009 was anything to go by, the voting public could do a lot worse.
"Doing Question Time, debating at the Oxford Union, having a South Bank Show special, going on Top Gear and so on, it's all because I'm more comfortable getting the real me across," he explains.
"In my early 20s, all I knew is that I'd always wanted to be a pop star so I was determined not to screw it up.
"Now, I'm 32 and I've just made an album I love, I've been working on an amazing TV special, I have a huge tour coming up, more acting work and hopefully some theatre work for the end of 2012.
"I've spent the last five years working out who I am, personally, and what I want from life. And now I've found it. I couldn't be happier."
EXTRA TIME - WILL YOUNG
:: William Robert Young was born in Wokingham, Berkshire, on January 20, 1979.
:: After completing a degree in Politics at the University Of Exeter, he enrolled at the Arts Educational Schools in London, but dropped out after winning Pop Idol in February 2002.
:: His first single was a cover of the Westlife song Evergreen, which became the fastest-selling single in chart history, selling almost 500,000 copies on the day of release, and 1.7 million in total, making it the 11th best-selling UK single of all time.
:: His 2003 single Leave Right Now won an Ivor Novello award, and was nominated in the 'Best Song Of The Last 25 Years' category at the Brits in 2005.
:: Young's acting career includes Mrs Henderson Presents, alongside Dame Judi Dench, Sky series Bedlam and guest roles in Skins and Marple.
Will Young plays the Olympia Theatre Dublin on October 31st