Will Young has the breezy air of a man whose best-laid plans have turned out well. A spell in a West End production of Cabaret followed by change of record label and management company seem to have left the 36-year-old singer viewing his career in new and more expansive terms.
“Yeah, I think it would be fair to describe it as a fresh start,” says the one-time Pop Idol winner when discussing the three-year period of change leading up to his sixth studio album, 85% Proof. His most varied record to date, its warm reception by fans and critics alike has clearly been a matter of some satisfaction to its maker.
He talks of his new deal with Island Records “working out fantastically”, his “great” new management and being “dead chuffed” that the album went to Number One in the UK charts.
“I think the key thing is to always come back to the music,” he reflects. “I think there can be distractions around my job that would take me away from what it is that I do, which is the music.”
Where previous albums have taken on average 18 months for Young to complete with his songwriting team of Jim Eliot and Mima Stilwell, the songs on 85% Proof were rattled through at a creative gallop.
Instead of starting out with a clear idea of where they wanted the album to end up, as they did with its predecessor Echoes, this time they went where inspiration took them. He laughs when I ask if the new approach gave room for experimentation.
“You’d think so but we wrote it in 10 days, so we didn’t really experiment at all,” he says. “It was slightly terrifying because I always prefer to have a definite focus, I think it makes it easier, but really with this one it was all coming out so easily that it really did just sort of happen.
“I think a lot of that was because I’d had a long break and also I hadn’t written with Jim and Mima for quite a few years, even though we’d seen each other because we’re friends, so I think we were all just excited to be back.
“There’s something that happens with us for some reason. Those kind of magical things don’t always happen but we’re just on the same wavelength, as people and creatively, so it just happened. And it’s a very eclectic album in comparison to the last one.”
The album’s title was suggested by Young’s twin brother Rupert, who had seen a documentary about moonshine. Young was intrigued by its nautical association and the way that sailors were paid in rum in the 1600s. “To test the percentage they’d light it, they’d put it with a little bit of gunpowder, and I just loved that image, the idea does the gunpowder flare up or does it not? I just thought the fermenting process of alcohol is similar to the fermenting process of an album: you don’t really know what you’re getting fully.”
If the songs on this album are more “inclusive” than his previous material, Young says that has much to do with a change of perspective in his mid-thirties. “I think definitely in the past I’ve been more navel gazing. I feel a lot more outward-looking as a person and I think that’s to do with age. Now I feel safer and settled as a person I can open my eyes as to what’s going on the world.”
He thinks it ties into the fact that he is “doing a lot more for other people”.
“I write for other people, I’ve taken on a lot more of an active role in gay rights, I mentor young people. I want to start putting more of myself out into the world and it’s wonderful because I just had a text this morning from one kid that I’m mentoring, she’s finding it tough at school and she’s had a great day today and I’m really chuffed. That means so much to me.”
The recent single Like a River addresses the subject of bullying, something Young suffered in his teens. “It’s funny, actually,” he says of the song. “It wasn’t difficult to write because I think it was something I’d addressed in my life so it was more a putting to bed, actually, in many ways, in a very sort of empowering way and writing it into a very interesting story.”
The artily shot black and white video that accompanies it explores the Greek legend of the Minotaur. Video is a medium that Young has long been fond of, and from an early stage in his career, he’s done what he can to be subversive. “I’m such a fan of the subversiveness of art,” he says. “I think art can do so many things in one sitting, as it were. You can have a video that looks very frothy and colourful and fun and then you can take it at that value or not.
“It’s all about layers, like layers of a cake, you can just scoop off the marshmallows on the top or you can delve in deeper. I think great plays, great music, great songs, great paintings they all have layers if you just scratch beneath.”
Looking back on how TV singing contests have developed since he beat Bradford’s Gareth Gates on Pop Idol in 2001, I ask if he is grateful to have been guided by the management of Simon Fuller rather than Simon Cowell, with whom he clashed when he was a judge on the show. He answers diplomatically. “I think it’s more general than that, really. I’ve been very fortunate, there have been some key people. I still have the same day-to-day manager I’ve had for 14 years. There were people like Steve Lipson who produced my second and third records, he gave me a career. There was Eg White that wrote Leave Right Now that gave me a career. There have been all these wonderful video directors, all these wonderful stylists. There are so many people that aren’t seen.
Perhaps uniquely for a former talent show contestant, Young has said he is interested in being an intellectual. A graduate of the University of Exeter, he has even mooted that he would like to go back to academia one day.
“I think through thought and learning we find out more about things and that just excites me and that’s never really left me,” he says. “I’m fascinated with human behaviour, I’m fascinated with psychology and sociology and that’s what I would like to study more because I find it so enlightening. It’s enlightenment, really, and I think it’s something that’s just always interested me, learning.
“A lot of my work is spent thinking about me as a brand and speaking about me. I went and did an arts programme about Magritte and it was just wonderful to talk intelligently about something else other than me. I am a narcissist so I can talk about myself but even for a narcissist it gets boring.”
Young has managed to put his politics degree to use as an occasional panellist on Question Time. Latterly he’s been unafraid to stand up to politicians, such as Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, on the issue of homophobia in schools.
He was reportedly unimpressed by her response but is optimistic that he can help effect real change on the problem. “Yes I am because I’m confident in my unfaltering belief in other people and my belief is that people are better than people are allowed to be. For example, with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues in schools you just need to educate children and I don’t understand why it doesn’t happen.
“People are not born narrow-minded, people are not born afraid of difference. In fact, we’re all different so why don’t we all embrace our difference rather than trying to look at how everyone should be the same?”
On a lighter note, he admits he still has one unfulfilled ambition. “I want to be on Oprah [Winfrey]’s Book Club, I’m just not sure how yet,” he says, adding with wry humour that his choice of tome would be “a self-help book”.
Will Young’s album 85% Proof is out now. He starts his Love Revolution tour at York Barbican on October 29. For details go to tickets.yorkbarbican.co.uk