As Will Young prepares for his headline set at The Henley Festival next month, he talks to Exclusive about why it’s an event close to his heart.
There are few, if any, TV music talent show contestants who have enjoyed the longevity that inaugural 2002 Pop Idol winner Will Young has. But his enduring popularity is not all down to his music – phenomenally successful, though it’s been – or his rivalry with music mogul Simon Cowell. He’s also an acclaimed actor, presenter, writer, even a teacher.
It’s his first love, however, that brings him back to The Henley Festival six years after his last performance there, and the area holds a particularly special place in Will’s heart. Related to the Brakspear brewing family (‘I’m very proud of that connection,’ he tells me), the festival’s organisers are also family friends and he even met up with his much-loved school cleaner when he last performed there in 2010!
A lot has happened in the intervening years, including him taking some time out while he sought help for a breakdown. But, suffice to say that 37-year-old Will is back to his best with his latest album, 85% Proof. Described as ‘eclectic, hugely confident and startlingly human’, the album shot straight to number one in the charts – making it his fourth number one album. It was written in just 10 days, which was ‘unusual for me’, he admits. ‘It was intense because I hadn’t done it in a long time, so it all just came out.’
Henley is one of a host of festivals and shows in Wokingham-born Will’s summer schedule, and when asked if he has a particular routine in the lead-up to a performance, he replies with a laugh: ‘Oh no, I just sit around and eat Haribo!’ He adds: ‘I don’t actually think about it, which I find is the best way of preparing. If I were to think about the whole thing then I would get nervous and a bit paralysed, which doesn’t serve me well. Instead I just concentrate on how fun it will be. I do the same with acting as well, particularly with TV. Now I find that clearing my mind is all about trust; trusting that I’ve done enough.’
This new way of thinking extends to what Will is dubbing his ‘new resolution’ to help him avoid burnout. ‘Because I love what I do, I can forget that it is work and, just like any job, it can be extremely tiring,’ he tells me. ‘So I now only do two hours of emails each day, and I’ll have two phone calls with my manager each day when I answer all the questions that need to be answered, then I can get on with doing other stuff. I’ve decided that any more than that stops me from doing anything else properly. It chips away at everything. If you have this blurred line of emails, texts and phone calls, the office is with you the whole time and everything becomes more guilt-driven.’
So, of all his ventures, what makes him the most satisfied and what’s left to achieve? ‘It depends on what mood I am in, but I love teaching,’ says Will, who has spent time teaching performance and songwriting in schools. ‘It’s all about the music and it’s very much in a bubble. I like the nurturing aspect of it and it’s sort of more “pure”, I think.
‘As for new things, oh my God, there are loads of things I’d like to try. I just texted my friend yesterday saying: “We have to go and do that upholstery course in the Lake District.” I sound like the definition of a rich, bored housewife!’ Determined, talented and extremely astute, Will is also surprisingly honest and so I’m intrigued by the musical acts that inspire him. ‘I love singers that make a real effort with everything to do with both their songwriting and performance,’ he says. ‘A good example is the band Years & Years, who I think always do an interesting performance. It’s all about what you’re saying as an artist, what’s the point.
‘Someone I really admire is Rihanna. I don’t love her lyrics – although I think they are getting better – but there is always thought behind her performances. There is always an interesting style reference, from the fashion, to the haircut, to the style of music, to the lighting. Those are the people in pop who I like. I don’t like people who leave me thinking: ‘‘What’s the point, how is this changing anything in my life?’’’
It’s this emphasis that Will places on both his performance, as well as his songwriting, that is destined to make his Henley Festival set one to remember. ‘It’s going to be a bit of an explosion,’ he says, smiling. ‘Imagine a six-year-old child, and you’ve fed him ridiculous amounts of sweets, given him a dressing-up box and gone: “Right, run around on stage.” That is basically it!’
See Will at The Henley Festival, which runs from 6–10 July.