Richard Starkey was born on July 7, 1940 in the front room of his house at 9 Madryn Street in Liverpool's Dingle Area, possibly the roughest area of the city. His parents were Elsie and Richard Starkey Sr. He was an only child. He was called Ritchie. When Ritchie was only three years old, his parents parted, and except for about three occasions, Ringo has not seen his father since. However, the...
I don’t want people to not know who I am. I don’t want to be pigeonholed as the new George Michael, or the guy that won the reality TV show, or Mick Hucknall for the Noughties, or whatever nonsense gets said. It’s just me and it’s about having a bit of self-belief and turning up the volume a bit” – Will Young, in a café by the Thames, November 2005
Hold onto your trilby… In fact, take off your trilby and jump all over it… Will Young is back more confident and at ease with himself and his music.
In less than four years he’s won two Brits, had four Number One singles, two Number One albums, and sold out his last tour in 30 minutes. His first single was the fastest selling chart debut by a male artist. Aged 26, the boy from Berkshire is sharper, funnier, more confident, and all growed up. He’s got a bit of perspective and he knows how TV, celebrity culture and the pop sausage factory work. But all of that is necessarily two-dimensional. Will Young isn’t.
He understands how and why people might have fixed opinions about his tastes. “Here’s a perfect example”, he laughs. “I went to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And this fan came up to me and said, all shocked: ‘Will Young! What are you doing at a Chili’s concert?’ I’m like, I’ve been listening to the Chilis for fucking ages!’ It was very telling, people thought I shouldn’t be into stuff like that.”
Of late, Will’s been having a bit of a fight. With himself, with the voices whispering “stick to the ballads”, and with his music. His new single is called Switch It On. It’s a party come tumbling out of your speakers. There are mad drums and dirty funk and raw, throaty vocals. It is, in a very good way, all over the place, – and it’s definitely louder.
“That track took us a year and half to write!” he exclaims. That doesn’t mean Young and his collaborators fussed and tinkered over it all that time, they just kept having ideas to make Switch It On madder, and bolder, and more brilliant (where ‘brilliant’ means something that ‘shines hard’). They threw these ideas into the mix and wrestled them into line.
Switch It On is Will’s defiant response to “feeling really shit about myself”, and to the image that he felt was being portrayed of him. “It felt like I wasn’t being true to myself. There’s the line, ‘I’m in a three-piece suit and shoes that don’t fit me’. Which is basically saying that people shove you in all these categories. It’s like, fuck off! And I looked around London and saw all these fake people just obsessed with how other people are viewing them. And I was obsessed with how people were viewing me. I felt like I’d lost the core of me. I felt that I’d gone back to being 17 again, and a lot of it was because of the job…”
But now, things have moved on “I’ve ‘evolved’, ha ha,” he says laughing and sticking the quote marks round the word ’cause he knows how poncey it sounds. But still, it’s true. “So obviously I wanted to come back with something that demonstrated that.”
The new album is called Keep On, and one of the key songs on it is the title track that recalls the lascivious groove of George Michael’s ‘I Want Your Sex’. Keep On and Switch It On come from a similar place. We might call that place “an explosion in a carnival factory”. They’re songs that sound like they might collapse into a sweaty heap on the dancefloor any second. But they don’t; they veer off, surefooted, in thrilling new directions.
“We didn’t think about it, that was the key. That’s why those songs are so good. You know,” Young reflects, “maybe people are fed up a bit with songs. A well-crafted song is great. But there seem to be so many about where you can almost hear the writer thinking, ‘right, now we’re gonna hit them with the chorus at 40 seconds ’cause that’ll get played on radio’… Well, that doesn’t have any soul in it. I’d just got to the stage where I thought, I can’t do that.”
Will Young, of course, knows The Well-Crafted Song. He’s made a bit of a career out of it. Leave Right Now, the lead single from Friday’s Child, was spellbinding, glorious and exquisite. For those in any doubt, it emphatically revealed Young as an extravagantly gifted and soulful singer. It helped Friday’s Child on its way to sales of over 1.5 million copies in the UK, and in 2004 Leave Right Now won its writer, Eg White, the Ivor Novello award for Best Song Musically And Lyrically.
There’s another Well-Crafted Song on Keep On. It’s called All Time Love. It’s an elegant ballad, and may well join Leave Right Now as a modern standard. Young nailed the lyric in one take – he knows how to sing songs like that.
Going brazenly off-message, he admits that there was a body of opinion around him that wanted All Time Love to be his comeback single. He says he said “no way”, and he dug his heels in. “I just felt I had to move on and do something that was punchier, and was saying more. I just feel very different from two years ago, I’ve got different things to say and I think Switch It On really shows it. It was a slight uphill battle to get it as the first single but I don’t mind that – if you’re forced to justify what you’re doing, it makes you see if you really believe in it. And,” he says, letting loose that Joker-like smile, “I’ve definitely been forced to see if I believed in that song.”
Around the same time he began filming his first acting role, in Stephen Frears’ Mrs Henderson Presents. It’s the story of a pre-War dancing girls show in London. He plays a choreographer and performer, alongside Bob Hoskins and Dame Judi Dench. He gets to sing All The Things You Are, the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein number that Frank Sinatra made his own.
The whole experience boosted his confidence (he’d always thought he’d like to act but hadn’t done anything beyond am-dram while at Exeter University). It introduced him to a new creative world outside music, and opened his ears to new ideas for his new album. Recruiting some fresh writers along with noted string arranger Anne Dudley, and regrouping with the songwriting team he’d built for Friday’s Child – Lipson, White, Karen Poole (formerly of Alisha’s Attic), Blair Mackichan – he worked on songs that were a bit more… lively.
Think About It is one of his favourites. “It’s quite sultry, then the chorus just rips out.”
With Dan Carey (Kylie’s Slow) he wrote All I Want, “a great psychedelic Sixties song, it’s really rough.” With Mackichan (with whom he’d done Your Game, the soulful, gospel single from ‘Friday’s Child’) he did Ain’t Such a Bad Place To Be, “another rough one. I’m not Mr Tough or anything,” he laughs, “but I did need to be tougher.”
He also wanted songs that had more emotional teeth. “I went through quite a tough stage last year,” he concludes, “but in that period I wrote some really good tunes that have stuck around. I don’t know, maybe you have to be a bit more angsty to produce believable, true, honest work. He hooked up with Nitin Sawhney, and together they came up with Home, a song born out of personal experiences. “It’s wonderful, the lyrics are beautiful… It’s all about resolution, about something being the way it has to be but that doesn’t make it necessarily a good thing.”
“You know,” he shrugs, “I’ve predominantly sung songs about love before and, if I’m honest, I didn’t understand them. And just because I’ve lived a bit more, seen a bit more of life, it was like taking off sunglasses and just going, ‘ah, this is what goes on…’ I just saw so much more in films and painting and plays and music. I had a revelational moment. ‘Now I fucking get it!’ And it’s just a real shame that in life to have those moments you have to be really badly hurt.”
So it’s time for people to get used to the real Will Young. He won’t eat liver. He gets a bit claustrophobic. He overheats easily. And he knows who he is now.