Olly Alexander: what a man. Chat to the Years & Years frontperson about music and it feels, sometimes, like he’s simply one of us who’s accidentally ended up fronting an internationally successful pop juggernaut.
“There’s nothing I love more than a massive pop banger,” is the sort of thing he’ll say when he’s talking about music. “I think that’s just the sweetest thing in the universe.” Asked for examples, he’ll supply two Little Mix songs: ‘Black Magic‘ and ‘Shout Out To My Ex‘. He meets BEAT today in the semi-swank conservatory area of London’s Hoxton Hotel but last night he went to see Alexandra Burke in the touring version of Sister Act.
Continue chatting with him and you realise that after only a few years on the job, Olly Alexander already experiences life in a way we plebs cannot. For instance: he’s in the process of buying his mum a house (“it’s quite Harry Styles thing to do, but I’ll be in her good books for a while”). For instance: he’s been writing new tunes with solid gold hitmakers Julia Michaels (Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez), Justin Tranter (Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani) and recent Adele collaborator Greg Kurstin (“I basically told them, I want to write a Donna Summer song”). For instance: despite hitting Number One with ‘King’ and enjoying huge global success with songs like ‘Eyes Shut’, ‘Desire’ and ‘Shine’, with the world waiting for a second Years & Years album Olly continues to grapple with self-doubt.
“Anyway,” he eventually says, after a significant amount of preamble. “Have you got any hard-hitting questions?”
So is the second Years & Years album finished, or what?
No. I’ve written a lot of songs and I think half will go on the album — but those songs aren’t finished. I’d say it’s 30% done.
Have you done any as good as ‘Shine’?
YES! Definitely one. But what’s good? Isn’t it subjective?
Looking at your Spotify plays, ‘King’ has about four times as many plays as any of your other songs. Is it difficult making new music when you know exactly what people want?
It’s an entirely new experience for me – you need to have a song that’s done well in order to feel stressed about repeating it. But I also think we’ll never have a song as big as ‘King’, so it’s fine. If I don’t say, ‘we have to top that’, I can feel a bit more chilled. We’ve done our big hit. I mean everybody only has, like, one good song, don’t they?
I mean, like, most acts. Don’t you think?
Have you told your label that you’ve already released your one good song?
They don’t know yet. I just think it’s impossible to know if something’s going to be a hit. We weren’t trying to make a hit in the first place, and we won’t try this time either. What I’m trying to say is that I think ‘King’ being a hit was an anomaly, in a sense. I just can’t imagine how we’d repeat that.
But having a Number One surely makes you more likely to have another — it’s not like winning the Lottery, where the odds are precisely the same the following week.
It does feel a bit like we won the Lottery though. I have no idea how it happened. That record was so tortured and drawn out and went through so many different phases. Now everyone’s like “oh, we always thought it would be a hit” but nobody actually thought that until it started getting played on the radio. It’s alright if you fuck up, though. I have to be okay with the fact that I might fuck it up. If you place super-high stakes on everything, which I definitely have done before, it can be quite mentally unbalancing. I’m more okay, now, with failure. And we’re all going to fail at something aren’t we? We’re going to die, that’s a failure if only of our organs. But I think I’ve made peace with that. Would you like some context?
Sure, let’s unpack some of that.
I think, if you’re someone who wants to be liked, and if like me from a young age you’ve invested in the idea of success and what that will do for you, then once you’ve experienced a bit of that and it doesn’t line up with your expectations, there’s… Well, there’s a schism. This time last year I was having major anxiety: do people like me, do they like the music, what do they not like? Will this be a success or a failure?
Men writing songs about love tend to follow a certain narrative and it’s interesting, perhaps, for people knowing I was gay to be able to see songs from a different perspective
So this was after you’d won the BBC Sound poll, after you’d had a Number One single and released an album – you were still thinking it could be a failure?
All those accolades, they reinforce the idea that everyone else is mistaken and you’re a fraud. That’s a common thing, right?
Presumably if you see big success as a fluke that’s out of your control, you have a sense that your ‘normal’ level of success is somewhere below that.
You’ve described it very well. When you are ‘up there’, it’s impossible to sustain that. Unless you’re Adele. People talk about peaks and troughs, but is it just a balloon that pops? I’ve really tried to make myself feel okay about that happening to us: being viewed in the future a lame band from five years ago.
If you’re prepared for the apparent inevitability of that, does that mean you don’t try as hard to do well, because you think it’s ultimately pointless?
I think it’s more a perception shift. It frees you up to try and be more creative, actually. If you’re less invested in the metrics of success then the only thing you can do is the stuff you love, and the stuff that makes you feel good.
You talk a lot about sexuality and mental health issues, and for that reason you’re asked about them a lot too. Are you concerned about being put in a box where it’s like “here’s Olly — let’s just talk about issues”?
What I struggle with sometimes is: in terms of representation, am I just perpetuating a system? When you’re a gay person you have Pride every year, and you go on a march and show your pride, and there’s a narrative that you’ve accepted yourself and everything’s great. BUT often the reality is that that’s not the case. If I use my platform to say “these are the negative things happening in my community”, am I seen as perpetuating negativity? Am I part of the problem I’m trying to tackle? But also, as much as I’d like one day to work for Stonewall, I am making music in a pop band. I need to do something that helps people, but at the same time I want to make something that’s also art. How much social responsibility should you have when you’re making music? I don’t know the answer to that.
A lot’s also been said about the way you write lyrics about gay relationships. Beyond gender pronouns, how do you feel that’s evident in your songs?
The only time I’ve definitely felt like I’m writing about a gay relationship was with ‘Take Shelter’ — and perhaps ‘Meteorite’ in a way — because it was about being fucked. It was about a guy fucking you. Which most straight men don’t experience unless they’re being fucked with a strap-on. There’s also something about the culture of masculinity: men writing songs about love tend to follow a certain narrative and it’s interesting, perhaps, for people knowing I was gay to be able to see songs from a different perspective.
Have you bought any furniture you can see yourself still owning in fifty years?
Yes. I’ve got some little stools that look like they’re from a school. I got them on Church Street in Stoke Newington — £90 for four stools! It was a fucking bargain.
I’d like you to talk about the time you performed a Steps song as a child.
It was our town talent show. I was about nine or ten, and my best friend at school, Joe, and I were both huge Steps fans. We did a performance of ‘Last Thing On My Mind‘ as a duet. In my mind I was Claire, but I think in Joe’s mind he was also Claire. We didn’t win, but the next year I went back and sang Bryan Adams’ ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You‘, and won. I’ve still got the trophy.
When did you last take revenge on someone?
When I went to see Sister Act last night it was actually a date. The guy was like, ‘do you want to come and see Sister Act with me?’, and I said yes. I didn’t hear anything after that, and by 5pm yesterday I still hadn’t heard from him so I texted him some sort of catty message like “FYI, for the next person you ask on a date, maybe you should tell them where to meet”. He called and said he still wanted to go. I didn’t want to go, but I really wanted to see Sister Act. So I went, I was quite rude to him all night, then I went home by myself.
Was Alexandra Burke good?
Honestly she was amazing. She can sing so well. She was actually incredible. It took me so long to get over the fact that Alexandra Burke was in it that I couldn’t tell if the show was good or bad. She was very sassy all the time, which is what people want. It’s what the public wants! Sassiness!
What do you think when you look at the moon?
You know when people say things like “ooh, look up to the moon, we’re all under the same moon”? I feel like it’s from Armageddon, even if I prefer Deep Impact. Anyway, that’s what I think: a half-formed idea of shared consciousness.
So what can we expect from the new album?
I want to do Pharrell/Timbaland-era pop. We haven’t actually got in a room together, the three of us, to work on stuff. We’re going to do that soon. Emre’s been working on… Well, another band he’s doing. Mikey’s been playing a lot of video games. And I’ve done eight or nine demos. I sent them to the other two a couple of weeks ago, and they didn’t respond for ages. I was like, “cheers guys”. But then today I spoke to them both, and we were picking songs.
That’s a bit weird isn’t?
You haven’t seen them, Emre’s doing another band, Mikey’s playing video games, they didn’t get back to you, you refer to them as ‘the other two’…
Does that sound weird? Maybe it is weird. Being in a band is the most intense relationship I’ll ever have. I can’t think of any analogy other than it being like a polyamorous relationship. It does quite strange things to you. But it hasn’t got to Fleetwood Mac stage.
Have you ever been in a polyamorous relationship?
No, but I’ve been in an open relationship.
How was that?
It was… [Pause] Definitely challenging. It worked quite well in my current situation because I’m away so much. I think I’m still trying to figure out what kind of relationship I want to have – we have an in-built shame towards multiple partners or anything that’s not monogamy because monogamy is the only thing that’s ever represented everywhere. It seems completely insane that that would suit everyone.
Do you not think it suits you?
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen on the internet?
I didn’t watch it but I heard it — when my friend tried to make me watch One Man One Jar. It’s where a guy puts a jam jar up his arsehole then it cracks and he’s pulling blood and glass out of his arse.
You can get jam in squeezy bottles now.
That would definitely solve the problem.
Years & Years headline the Sink The Pink mainstage at the Mighty Hoopla one day fest in East London’s Victoria Park on 4th June
This interview is taken from the Spring 2017 issue of BEAT get your copy here!
Stylist – Coline Bach / Grooming – Elaine Lynskey / Hair – Ben Talbot