There’s dif­fi­cult sec­ond al­bum syn­drome and then there’s what Olly Alexan­der and co suf­fered over the last two years. Feel their pain.

Years & Years’ eu­phoric dance-pop was the break­through of 2015, scor­ing both a Num­ber 1 sin­gle and al­bum. Just as strik­ing, was singer Olly Alexan­der’s elo­quence on LGBTQ and men­tal health is­sues. The artis­tic sec­ond act is al­ways trau­matic, though. And it has been. Laura Snapes feels his pain.

Olly Alexan­der is in the base­ment of a Soho gallery look­ing at pho­to­graphs of a woman in the Las Ve­gas home be­long­ing to a for­mer high-fly­ing di­rec­tor of Avon cos­met­ics. In the pic­tures, artist Juno Ca­lypso poses like a cy­borg Step­ford Wife in Jerry Hen­der­son’s 1964 bunker, a pas­tel-pink pas­tiche of a 1950s home tricked out to sur­vive nu­clear war. The gallery has been styled to re­sem­ble the pho­to­graphs: fake fo­liage, trick­ling wa­ter fea­tures, a con­spic­u­ous ar­ti­fi­cial scent. “I love dooms­day prep­pers,” Alexan­der says imp­ishly. The con­cept be­hind Alexan­der’s band Years & Years’ sec­ond al­bum, Palo Santo (which was trailed by a teaser video fea­tur­ing a voiceover from Judi Dench, a pal from his act­ing days) also has some­thing of The Last Judge­ment about it. At the start of the promo for the sin­gle If You’re Over Me, for in­stance, mildly fore­bod­ing text ap­pears on screen ex­plain­ing that this planet’s “hu­man cabarets” are “at­tended by an­droids, all hop­ing to ex­pe­ri­ence real emo­tion.” It con­tin­ues: “Hu­man per­form­ers can find them­selves danc­ing the same rou­tines for weeks, months, years…” That sounds like a weary com­ment on fame. “That’s def­i­nitely part of it,” Alexan­der ad­mits. “Though it’s more am­bigu­ous: ‘Do I love per­form­ing? Am I forced to per­form?’ Cos it can feel like that.” Even to­day’s meet­ing feels a bit end-times. Ini­tially, we were meant to meet at Dis­ney­land Paris in trib­ute to the theme parks of Alexan­der’s youth – his now-es­tranged dad worked on the fairs in var­i­ous cities – and a life-chang­ing child­hood trip to the House Of Mouse that made him un­der­stand cos­tume’s trans­for­ma­tive power. Then the band’s sched­ule nixed that. Next best thing was Mar­gate’s lower-rent Dream­land, which was rained off. In­stead, we’re in Soho to look at art and eat salad while the thun­der pro­vides high-camp blasts of pa­thetic fal­lacy.

Per­haps it wouldn’t have made sense to meet at those places so tied to Alexan­der’s youth. If Palo Santo – and the last few years of his life – is about one thing, it’s break­ing free of old pat­terns and self-de­feat­ing be­hav­iour. Pre­par­ing for the worst is not re­ally his style. Do­ing every­thing he can to imag­ine a bet­ter fu­ture – the one he couldn’t see as a young gay man grow­ing up near Glouces­ter – is more like it.

By any­one’s met­ric, Years & Years’ de­but was a rav­ing suc­cess. Their eu­phoric dance-pop – the kind where there’s far more at stake than the next drink, more Pet Shop Boys than Zedd – won the BBC Sound Of 2015 poll and earned the trio a Num­ber 1 al­bum (Com­mu­nion) and a Num­ber 1 sin­gle (King). But their great­est tri­umph was per­haps Alexan­der be­com­ing the voice of a gen­er­a­tion on LGBTQ and men­tal health is­sues. At Glas­ton­bury 2016, the same week­end as Pride and days af­ter the Pulse night­club shoot­ing in Or­lando, he dressed in ra­di­ant tas­sels and urged the au­di­ence to “lit­er­ally shove a rain­bow in fear’s face.” He pre­sented an ac­claimed BBC doc­u­men­tary, Grow­ing Up Gay, in which he read from his teenage di­aries – pages scrawled with “I will not eat bread/ cakes/choco­late” – and cried with his mum, spoke with ad­dicts and at­tended the UK’s sole male-only eat­ing dis­or­der dis­cus­sion group to share his ex­pe­ri­ences with bu­limia. In a dif­fer­ent era, these ac­tions would have ce­mented Alexan­der as a very dif­fer­ent kind of star, but he knew he had to move quickly to sus­tain a sec­ond al­bum. Com­mu­nion was born into a chang­ing in­dus­try: as its eight sin­gles at­test, to­day’s pop stars are only as good as their last Spo­tify stat. Af­ter tour­ing, Alexan­der went to work with LA’s most cop­per-bot­tomed song­writ­ers, took a two-week hol­i­day (in­clud­ing a visit to the Taipei town that in­spired the theme-park vil­lage in Spir­ited Away), then came back and started work. “I have this real anx­i­ety where I don’t know what to do with my­self if I’m not work­ing,” he says, “and I also knew how long it could take.” It was harder than he thought. Writ­ing with ex­ter­nal par­ties (in­clud­ing Ju­lia Michaels and Greg Kurstin) put a cat among the pi­geons – namely mem­bers Mikey Goldswor­thy and Emre Türk­men. “We could never agree on what sounded good or what we liked. Then six months down the line, we still had no songs and the la­bel were re­ally an­gry and an­noyed,” says Alexan­der. Poly­dor pres­sured him to guest on dance bangers to buoy things be­tween al­bums; he re­fused (and was vin­di­cated when one song ap­peared fea­tur­ing an­other male singer and flopped).

Not only did he feel as though the al­bum was never go­ing to hap­pen, but that it was sink­ing his life with it. Out­side, light­ning bleaches the street white with im­mac­u­late tim­ing. While the doc­u­men­tary was a pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence, it brought trau­matic mem­o­ries to the sur­face and un­re­solved is­sues with Alexan­der’s fa­ther. The la­bel didn’t hear a sin­gle. The band were war­ring. “It was a night­mare. I felt so mis­er­able and I was so an­gry be­cause I’d worked so hard to be in this po­si­tion, and it’s very weird to feel like you’re in this fairy tale that’s go­ing wrong and you’re des­per­ate to put it back on the right track.”

hen Alexan­der was 13, his dad aban­doned the fam­ily. “He was quite an un­well per­son who would say that he loved us and then dis­ap­pear and do re­ally weird things,” Alexan­der says. They’d al­ways had an ad­ver­sar­ial re­la­tion­ship: “Daddy said I never could win,” he sings in Karma, ref­er­enc­ing

Whis fa­ther once pick­ing him up from an Out­reach the­atre group – a rar­ity that saw him ar­rive two hours late. “He must have been an­gry be­cause we ended up hav­ing a fight. I said, ‘I’ll just quit the the­atre group.’ And he was like, ‘You’re al­ways gonna throw in the towel, you’ll never get any­where.’” The pair had hardly spo­ken un­til Alexan­der, Sr started tweet­ing his son a few years ago. Years & Years fans spot­ted the mes­sages and started re­ply­ing. That was the end of their in­ter­ac­tion. Alexan­der checks to see if the ac­count re­mains ac­tive: it is. He spoke about their re­la­tion­ship for the first time re­cently and won­dered if his dad might reach out. “I don’t think I wanted him to get in touch – but then, maybe part of me did?” he asks. “To be to­tally hon­est, I just don’t know.” One song from an early ad­vance copy of the al­bum has dis­ap­peared from the fi­nal prod­uct: DNA, a des­per­ate bal­lad that seems to al­lude to a vi­o­lent in­ci­dent, Alexan­der pledg­ing to break with the past. It’s about a trau­matic child­hood ex­pe­ri­ence that he doesn’t want to go into. “And I so didn’t want to be re­lated to my dad, I just wished I was some­one else.” Alexan­der de­scribes his fa­ther as “the big male fig­ure in my life in a Freudian sense”, and won­ders how that af­fected his per­sonal re­la­tion­ships. Af­ter two re­la­tion­ships dur­ing the Com­mu­nion era, he started dis­sect­ing his past, look­ing for pat­terns. On Sanc­tify, Alexan­der crys­tallises the dy­namic be­tween a gay man and a straight man – partly to dis­til his frus­tra­tion at be­ing used, but also to in­ter­ro­gate his im­pulse to re­peat­edly en­gage in these ex­pe­ri­ences. There’s a safety cap; self-pro­tec­tion. “It’s like when you meet some­one on hol­i­day. You have the most overblown, dra­matic re­la­tion­ship be­cause you know it’s got an end­ing so you can go to all these places that you might not nor­mally go to,” he agrees. “It al­lows this emo­tional free­dom and in­ti­macy, re­mov­ing the ac­tu­ally very dif­fi­cult, mun­dane re­al­i­ties of re­la­tion­ships with an­other gay man. It ex­ists com­pletely out­side of re­al­ity.” He did no­tice traces of his fa­ther’s be­trayal re­peat­ing it­self, dis­cov­er­ing that

“It’s very weird to feel like you’re in this fairy tale that’s go­ing wrong and you’re des­per­ate to put it back on the right track.”

cer­tain boyfriends hadn’t been hon­est. It made him doubt en­tire re­la­tion­ships. That’s the key change in per­spec­tive be­tween Com­mu­nion and Palo Santo – from pup­py­ish devotion at any cost to bit­ing, de­fi­ant re­but­tals of dis­hon­esty. “That was quite a rad­i­cal shift for me per­son­ally be­cause I never felt like I could em­body some­one who was ac­tu­ally a bit ‘fuck you’,” he says. He re­alised how hos­tile he was feel­ing in his ther­a­pist’s of­fice. “I was talk­ing about some­one I’d been on a date with, and I was like, ‘I’m just an­gry at men! I think I’m an­gry at all men!’ He was like, ‘There you go, keep on writ­ing about it.’” Alexan­der was sur­prised by how an­gry some of the songs ended up – al­most em­bar­rassed, liken­ing them to the peak of a fight, “when you’re so mad, you just want to lash out,” he says. “I al­most feel the same way about song­writ­ing. The songs come from a very in­tense, emo­tional en­ergy, but in re­al­ity every­thing is way more com­plex and mul­ti­fac­eted, so when I lis­ten to some of the songs, it throws me. But it’s as hon­est as it can be.” Per­haps a song, like a hol­i­day ro­mance or a pre-capped fling with a straight guy, is an­other kind of con­tained emo­tional bomb. “Ex­actly!” he says, point­ing his fork.

Alexan­der fi­nally landed on the con­cept for the al­bum: palo santo, a mys­ti­cal, South Amer­i­can tree that’s of­ten burned to re­new “en­er­gies” and en­hance cre­ativ­ity. (Plus it trans­lates as “holy wood”, a fit­ting pun, and harks back to his first job in a hippy shop called Moon­stones.) If the record has an over­ar­ch­ing theme, it’s that peo­ple aren’t al­ways trust­wor­thy and that’s hard to deal with – but if there’s any con­so­la­tion, it’s that hon­esty is its own fu­ture-proof­ing in­sur­ance pol­icy. “That’s the rea­son it all be­came quite mys­ti­cal-themed,” says Alexan­der. “It felt like this rit­u­al­ism of burn­ing some­thing and be­ing cleansed. More than ever I’ve wanted to do that in my per­sonal life – get rid of all the neg­a­tiv­ity and the dark­ness in­side me.” He worked things out with Goldswor­thy and Türk­men, who agreed to sup­port his vi­sion. They’re all well ther­a­pised and good at pro­cess­ing emo­tions and dis­putes: “Ul­ti­mately, we do love each other.” The next part is hop­ing that the world un­der­stands his vi­sion. Af­ter read­ing a tweet that said, “Olly Alexan­der al­ways has to chat about be­ing gay or sing about be­ing gay”, he de­cided, “Fuck you, that’s ex­actly what I’m go­ing to do” and made the most sen­sual record he could. Years & Years made their live come­back at Ra­dio 1’ s Big­gest Week­end in Swansea in late May. It was an epi­curean per­for­mance laced with sym­bol­ism, writhing dancers and a 20- me­tre-long sil­ver cape that dropped from Alexan­der’s torso to re­veal a green se­quin jump­suit. Af­ter the show – broad­cast live on TV and ra­dio – a BBC em­ployee joked to Alexan­der that they would have had to crop out cer­tain parts, which seemed cal­lous given that this imag­i­na­tive dis­play fol­lowed Liam Payne bend­ing a dancer over and thrust­ing at her from be­hind. Alexan­der was crest­fallen. “I did hear a cou­ple of com­ments call­ing it ‘saucy’, which is such an old-fash­ioned term. It is quite sen­sual and it has an erotic el­e­ment, but peo­ple find that way more trans­gres­sive than, I don’t know, Demi Lo­vato and her dancers.” It’s hard to rec­on­cile the im­age of the bold sprite on­stage with Alexan­der’s ad­mis­sion that he didn’t want to be front­man when Years & Years formed in 2010. He knew how ex­pos­ing it could be and didn’t think he could han­dle it; he finds old videos of him hud­dled against the mi­cro­phone painful to watch. His per­spec­tive changed when he was once asked which mem­ber of Fifth Har­mony he’d want to sleep with – a pretty rank ques­tion. He laughed it off: “I wouldn’t, be­cause I’m gay.” The jour­nal­ist moved on but af­ter the in­ter­view some­one from the ra­dio sta­tion of­fered to cut it out – “a Slid­ing Doors mo­ment,” he says. He told them to keep it, then went home and cried. “That mo­ment spurred me on to be more open about my­self, more di­rect about my sex­u­al­ity.” He took to the front­man thing beau­ti­fully – gen­er­ous with his vul­ner­a­bil­ity, gal­vanis­ing in his spirit and per­for­mance – but felt a gap emerge be­tween his stage and pri­vate selves. “You start think­ing ev­ery­one loves this per­son who’s so shiny and glamorous and you feel your in­te­rior di­min­ish be­cause you could never live up to some­one so fan­tas­ti­cal.” For a mo­ment, the two wouldn’t match up. “But then I fig­ured out that it’s all part of the per­for­mance – peo­ple project onto you what­ever they want. There’s re­ally noth­ing you can do about that.” He’s still “tak­ing leaps of faith ev­ery time” he goes on­stage, he says; never not reach­ing for a brighter fu­ture.

“I so didn’t want to be re­lated to my dad, I just wished I was some­one else.”

Rain­bow war­rior: Olly Alexan­der re­veals his amaz­ing tech­ni­color dream­coat, Other Stage, Glas­ton­bury 2016.

“The next Bond? I’ll put in a good word, but...” With pal, Dame Judi Dench.

“Ul­ti­mately, we do love each other”: with Years & Years band­mates Mikey Goldswor­thy (left) and Emre Türk­men.

The “mys­ti­calthemed” Palo Santo, Years & Years’ new al­bum.

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