Will Young: ‘I wanted to do a covers record for a long time but I didn’t want it to be ... sh*t’

Two decades after winning Pop Idol, Young’s latest work is a covers album full of experience

Will Young is having a good day, apart from one thing. "I've got a stye. I'm so boring," he says, half-apologetically. "I mean, it could be one zillion per cent worse, but because I'm a man I quite like complaining about it. My neighbour just told me that she wouldn't have even noticed it if I hadn't pointed it out, so I was a bit upset about that."

He suddenly perks up. “But I’ve got Gardener’s World coming tomorrow, so I’m trying to make the garden look nice today. It’s a bit like before you have people around for dinner; you think ‘Oh. I need to tidy the house’.”

It’s not quite the usual conversation-opener that you might expect of a pop star, but Young – a professional gardener in his pre-fame days, in case you were wondering – has never conformed to that mold. He is friendly, funny, frank: as likely to apologise for his snoring dog in the background as he is to go off on a tangent about radio presenting (when he speak, he is in the midst of sitting in for Jo Whiley’s BBC Radio 2 show).

As far back as the early noughties, Young was confounding expectations of what a 'Pop Idol winner' should do and sound like

Just look at his new album, for starters: Crying on the Bathroom Floor sees him covering songs by a variety of leftfield contemporary pop artists and bands, all female or female-led. With famed pop producer Richard X on board, he puts his own spin on songs by Lykke Li, Bat for Lashes, Solange, Robyn and Everything But the Girl, amongst others. "Well, I wanted to do a covers record for a long time, but I didn't want it to be ... sh*t?," he deadpans.

"I love doing acoustic covers for stuff like radio – but doing that for an album, I felt wouldn't necessarily be that interesting. So then I thought 'Well, I'll do female songs' and I started picking the artists. And once I did Bat for Lashes, it was kind of like 'Well, if I'm going to do Bat for Lashes, then I'm not going to go and do a Barbra Streisand song'.

“It was as much about the artist and what they represented, as it was about the songs. So it doesn’t really feel like the usual covers record; it feels like I’ve taken people’s material and made my own record, whilst being very respectful and inclusive of those artists. I’m kind of celebrating them.” He notes how he has already had encouraging feedback from at least one of the names on the tracklist, after American band Muna publicly praised his take on their song.

“I feel a lot more supported by the artists, rather than ‘Will wants a house in the Bahamas so he’s just done a covers record and doesn’t give a sh*t about any of the artists he’s covered’.” When it came to choosing the songs for the tracklist of the new album, he is experienced enough at this point to go with his gut feeling.

“It’s a bit like choosing a part for an acting job: sometimes you don’t need to know why you’re personally affected by it, or why you want to sing that song – but there’s something in you that wants to do it, and I don’t need to think past that,” he says.

“The hardest one to do, actually, was [Everything but the Girl’s] Missing – I think because I’ve lived with that song for the longest, so I found it really difficult.” As far back as the early noughties, Young was confounding expectations of what a “Pop Idol winner” should do and sound like; he points to his second album Friday’s Child, which spawned his signature song Leave Right Now, as an example of him working with different writers, music video directors and producers.

I have seen other people get various performances and gigs that I probably haven't got just because I came from a talent show

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of him beating Gareth Gates to the first title, but despite all he has achieved since, he has no qualms about revisiting that period or acknowledging how important it was to launching his career.

“To be around for twenty years in any business is great, full stop. I think because of the context of Pop Idol, it’s brilliant that I suppose people made a good investment,” he says, chuckling.

“I just look back on it really fondly, and still feel quite lucky. I really like thinking back to then, and remembering those times and how funny it was. Actually, yesterday, funnily enough, Gareth Gates messaged me and we were having a right old giggle about Pop Idol. I mean, look: basically, my dream came true. It was literally like winning the lottery, and that doesn’t happen to many people. It was pretty bloody amazing.”

Back in 2002, the idea of a reality TV singing contest still felt somewhat novel; these days, most people would admit that that horse has been flogged to death. There have been moments over the years, he admits, where it has felt more like a curse than a blessing.

“Oh yeah, definitely,” he agrees. “Because it did have quite an adverse reaction with people, as well. I mean, that was difficult to hear different people speaking about it and maybe not liking it – maybe people that I respected as artists. It was a bit like ‘Well, it’s not my fault, I just entered it.’ So that was tricky, and I think there was snobbery. And there probably still is a snobbery. I have seen other people get various performances and gigs that I probably haven’t got just because I came from a talent show. Some days that’s still frustrating, because I probably feel that I’ve paid my dues.”

His latest swerve into indie-pop won’t bleed into his next album of original material, however, which he is already halfway through and will be soul-based. He has been keeping busy with other non-musical undertakings in recent times, too; a new acting agent means that he is pursuing more work along that line, and his first book, To Be a Gay Man, was published last year, which addressed the topic of gay-shaming and kick-started a new creative love.

Two more books are on the way; a “sad but also very funny” novel about a real-life road trip that he took a decade ago, and a wellbeing manual. He enjoys writing, he says, because “it amuses me. Basically, I laugh at my own jokes when I write. It’s tragic.” It sounds like he is pretty content with life right now, I suggest.

“Yeah, I am, actually,” he says, revealing how he has finally managed to separate his career achievements and/or failures from correlating directly to his self-worth. “I think there’s a difference between happiness and contentment because happiness is a moveable thing, but contentment is a deeper thing. I feel like there’s something missing at the moment, and I don’t know if it’s because I don’t have kids ... but it’s a sense of a legacy.

“And I’m kind of working on that area at the moment; doing stuff that’s beyond me, that’s not about me. But otherwise, I really am very content. I don’t feel like I want for anything, y’know? I mean, I always want new plants, but that’s nothing new.” He pauses for dramatic effect before he returns to his beloved garden to potter around.

“Oh, and for this bloody stye to go away. But yeah. That’s all, really.”

Crying on the Bathroom Floor is released on August 6th

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy is a freelance journalist and broadcaster. She writes about music and the arts for The Irish Times