‘Success is overwhelming’
Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander opens up on pop stardom and anxiety
Olly Alexander, the frontman of the British band Years & Years, has bloodred dyed hair. He wears a brass safety pin through one ear and sometimes grins so widely, so wildly, that the edges of his mouth seem to disappear around his narrow, fine-boned face. What soon draws the eye is a scar on his forehead. “I ran into a brick wall as a kid,” the 27-year-old says over lunch at a cafe in London. He touches the scar. “I was playing at being a Power Ranger. Ouch.”
These days, Alexander plays at being a pop star – and on the surface, at least, it seems like a game that’s going well for him. With the launch of their first album in 2015, Years & Years enjoyed a really remarkable few months. They were named BBC Sound of 2015 in January, promptly going to No 1 in the UK singles chart in March, and likewise topping the album chart in July. The band’s propulsive, 90s-nostalgic dance pop (like Disclosure or Clean Bandit, only up the randiness and add a little disco) caught on. And Alexander made a quick Meghan Markle-like ascent to something like pop royalty. “One of the most influential gay pop stars of this generation,” the Gay Times wrote. “All hail the King!”
Years & Years are a three-piece – also made up of keyboard and synth player Emre Türkmen and bassist Mikey Goldsworthy – but it has always been clear that Alexander is the band’s guiding force, their chief lyricist, a Gaga-like taker of risks when he performs and a political voice, off stage, who has an appealing, glitter-speckled sense of activism. A pithy and witty speaker on LGBTQ+ rights, Alexander has also opened up engagingly about his struggles with mental health. “A lifeline to troubled young people,” the Observer wrote of him, in 2016, around the same time that Years & Years played at Glastonbury. There, Alexander wore an oversized choirboy smock strung front and back with rainbow-coloured ribbons – it was Pride weekend – and made a widely admired speech about battling prejudice. “Shove a rainbow in fear’s face,” was how he put it.
Musicians must pray for debuts like this – to come over credible, commercial, with real-world clout. No brick walls clattered into, no obvious “Ouch” moments. Or were there?
Years & Years are almost done on their second album, due this summer, and from the demos I’ve heard the new music admits a brittleness and vulnerability in Alexander that wasn’t so obvious on the 2015 debut. He is still a fabulous and steely man when in pop-star mode (at the photoshoot, he prowls around in heels and a collared lace bodysuit that make him resemble a steampunk, space-bound Queen Elizabeth I), but he cuts a shyer and less certain figure at lunch.
He arrived with a cigarette pushed behind his ear, and smoked it outside with quick, jittery puffs. Now he hunches over a salad, an elbows-in kind of eater and a nervous giggler. Of his popmode confidence, he says, “I wish I carried that around with me in my day-to-day life. But I don’t.” He’s wearing a pair of dungarees that he likes, he says, because they feel “like clothes that give you back a hug”.
As Alexander eats, he talks about what happened in the aftermath of that famous Glastonbury performance, once he was out of public sight. The band had been cheered off, a career high. And once backstage, the musician recalls, he sat down and wept. Inconsolable, feeling lower than he’d been in months. “It happens,” he shrugs. “A falling off a cliff. The pendulum swings.”
“When I was younger,” Alexander says, “I thought that if you were famous and successful, it would mean that you just felt happy all the time. That you would become, like, this mystical creature that people just adored. And so you would adore yourself.”
Alexander doesn’t always make eye contact, and he addresses this next bit at the napkin dispenser between us.
“Obviously I realise how ridiculous that sounds. But it wasn’t until our album got to No 1 that I realised I still believed in it. We’d basically won the lottery. I felt like I’d won the lottery. And at the same time I still felt like the same person I’d always been. And all the things that I associated with my depression, and my anxiety, those periods of feeling really low, they were still there. And I was so annoyed at myself. ”
Alexander talks about first discovering the transformative, strengthening power of a good costume. It was on a trip to Disneyland, when he was nine. “The greatest experience of my life up to then,” Alexander says. “The pomp! The whole make-believe nature of that place. It was very powerful for me. People were all wearing costumes, playing characters. It was this other reality where fun things happened, more than →
At Glastonbury, the band had been cheered off, a career high. Once backstage, he sat down and wept, inconsolable. ‘It happens,’ he shrugs. ‘A falling off a cliff. The pendulum swings’
they seemed to in real life. And I just remember wanting to be a part of something like that.”
Theme parks were a big feature of his young life. Alexander grew up living next door to them, not one but three, first Alton Towers, then Blackpool Pleasure Beach, then Drayton Manor. His father helped launch and market new rides in these places, and the family moved wherever the work was.
He was born in 1990, the younger of two sons. His mother ran community craft groups. His father, while employed in the theme parks, tended side dreams of being a professional musician. Of his father he says, cautiously: “Quite a difficult man... Definitely not happy within himself.” Alexander is more explicit about his own early troubles. “I used to have hallucinations and hear voices and stuff as a kid. Which sounds alarming, but it’s just the way it was.” Also: “I had what would now be called sleep paralysis, from six years old until maybe I was 16. Terrifying dreams.”
His parents separated when Alexander was 13, a daunting and confusing period for him. “My dad had been very absent, even when he was there. Then he left the family and moved away. Our relationship, it feels to me, ended when I was 13.” With his mother and brother, Alexander relocated to a sleepy village in Gloucestershire called Coleford.
Part of Alexander’s conversational charm is that he’ll veer between the frank and sober discussion of the self-doubt and difficulty he experienced as a young man, into brilliantly catty and droll little anecdotes about his upbringing. Here he is, describing his first paid employment – a Saturday job in a Coleford shop called Moonstones. “We sold incense, candles, spellbooks. Um, bongs. Chocolates shaped like penises. Everything you’d need really – a one-stop shop.”
He wasn’t a popular teenager, and was bullied at his secondary school in Coleford just as he had been at his old primary schools. He marvels, thinking back, at his response to this. “I started wearing eyeliner to school. Nail varnish. Choker necklaces.” He put on a costume: a counter-intuitive form of self-defence. “I’d been bullied for years and all I wanted was for that to stop. But at the same time I had this sense that I was different, I was weird, and wearing makeup and crazy clothes was my way of trying to find an identity, in the face of people who were going to rip me apart anyway.”
What brought him out of his “goth phase”, as he calls it, was the music. Alexander chuckles. “I could never really get on board with the bands you were supposed to like.” He couldn’t shake the love for pop music he’d developed as a pre-teen, when pop bands would visit the theme parks his dad worked for. “Remember [the Irish pop band] B*Witched? They came to open a ride once. Then Steps – I got all their autographs.” So when it was time for the school talent show, Alexander chose to sing a TLC song. At home he obsessed over Christina Aguilera videos. He was pop through and through, and wanted to be a star in the mould of all these heroes.
Half by accident, he embarked on a different artistic career first. At 16, Alexander auditioned for the Channel 4 drama Skins, and was in talks about a role. The job didn’t materialise until he was well into his 20s, when he was cast as a creepy student photographer, but meanwhile his agent put him up for other stuff. By the time he’d finished his A-levels and moved to London, he was getting varied work – in Gaspar Noé’s Enter The Void and Laura Wade’s The Riot Club and a corporate video for Google, playing a confused consumer who didn’t know how much he needed the advice of a really good search engine. Probably his peak as an actor came in 2012 when he was cast in a Michael Grandage production, Peter And Alice, alongside Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw.
This West End run coincided, in Alexander’s breezy telling, with the busiest period in his romantic career. “Lot of sex.” He had known that he fancied boys from the age of about
10, though the concept of being gay was something only introduced to him via playground insult; he can remember drawing stick figures in a geography textbook, bewildered, trying to figure out how two men could ever even manage it. These days, Alexander says, “my sexuality is part of my music, part of my identity”, but this was a clunky journey in its early phases and it wasn’t until he arrived in London and got into a first relationship, with the brother of a friend, that he felt he could properly come out to those closest to him.
After that – whoosh. “I figured out that I could pull, basically. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be. I realised that, actually, everyone’s pretty horny, pretty desperate at times, and all you needed to do was maintain eye contact and be →
After he came out – whoosh. ‘I figured out that I could pull. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be. I realised that, actually, everyone’s pretty horny’
confident and that was kind of it.” Since then, he’s sampled romance in many of its forms, being single and shagging a lot, being single and not shagging so much, being in an open relationship, being in a celebrity relationship (with Clean Bandit’s Neil Amin-Smith), being in a quieter relationship with somebody unknown – that was the most recent, and it came to an end about 18 months ago. What has he learned? “That the longer you’re single, the more you notice how everyone else is in a relationship. But that’s a whole other thing.”
He says he finds it harder to pull in clubs without the freedom of anonymity he used to enjoy. “I’m having much less sex than I did in my early 20s, for sure.” He’s tried the hook-up app Grindr, but the men he messaged with wouldn’t believe he was who he said he was. “So that didn’t go very well.” After years of living with flatmates, he recently moved to live on his own, in a flat in east London. “The last few months I’ve been wondering, ‘Will I just be alone, for ever? And would I be OK with that?’ I want to be OK with that.”
Thinking of how ill-informed he felt as a kid, and of the anxiety he might have been spared had he only known more and known better, Alexander has resolved to be a public figure who is as vocal and open about his sexuality as he can be. As soon as he was asked, in an early-career interview for a blog, he said he was gay. (This was actually how his beloved grandmother found out: Alexander hadn’t yet got around to telling her.) Last year, he made a BBC Three documentary, Growing Up Gay, that is still on iPlayer and gets broadcast around the world. “I get messages about it at weird times of night.”
Soon after our lunch, he’s due to give the keynote address at an annual Stonewall event. He hasn’t written his speech yet, and is still toying with points of view he might want to get across: that LGBT-inclusive sex education should be compulsory in schools; that LGBT support groups need more government funding than ever; “that yes, we can get married now, but that’s not the end of the story, that’s not gay rights done.” When the event does take place, Alexander will speak about how, as a young actor who went through media training, he was told it might be best not to speak about his sexuality at all. (“I ignored advice.”)
Alexander made an interesting choice, in 2013, when major labels started showing an interest in Years & Years. He entered therapy, specifically in anticipation of what a frontline music career might do to his fragile emotional state. Polydor were still six months from formally signing them. He knew fame was coming, though – that early?
No, he says. But if there was a chance of the band making it, however slight, he reasoned he’d better be prepared. “And I’m grateful I made that decision. I’ve been seeing the same therapist through the whole process.” Through the band’s kick-starting anointment as the BBC Sound of 2015, then their smash No 1 single King that spring, then their No 1 album Communion that summer. “To go from zero to 100. To have an idea of what success is, your entire life, and then it happens to you. It’s overwhelming. There’s a lot of noise. And people start talking to you differently.”
Alexander laughs, frowns – speaks at the napkins again. He starts talking about his dad, with whom Alexander went through an awkward episode after Years & Years topped the charts. By then, father and son had no relationship to speak of, Alexander says. They hadn’t said a word to each other in seven years. “And, um, my dad started tweeting at me.”
A pause. “It’s hard for me to talk about. It’s a hard issue, because it’s tied up with my family, and also his new family. I want to be respectful.”
He doesn’t sound sure whether his father even knew whether what he was doing was public; but anyway, he messaged him over Twitter, in full view of social media. “And it got really, really messy. There were some Years & Years fans who started tweeting him back, trolling my dad. He was talking back to them. It was a real head-fuck.”
However clumsy the timing and the method, was a part of Alexander gratified that he got in touch?
“The best way I can describe it is that when me and my dad last knew each other, when I was 13 or 14, that’s frozen in time for me,” he says.
And back then, he continues, he couldn’t have imagined any better future for himself than becoming a pop star and having his father want to be a part of his life again. “But then he did get in contact with me. And it was then I realised that what that 13-year-old wanted, that wasn’t actually possible. Not any more.”
What did the 13-year-old want? “I realised that a part of me wanted to be successful in music because my dad wanted to be a musician. That a part of me thought, if I became a musician and I did well, he’d be proud of me. Or he’d, y’know, be so sorry for not being the dad I wanted him to be.”
But that’s not how it felt?
No, he says. When they did come together, Alexander noticed that, “I’d become something that my dad was sort of intimidated by. →
Yes, we can get married now, but that’s not the end of the story, that’s not gay rights done
I’d been wanting to be successful, in part, because I wanted to prove something to him. And when that happened, I realised it didn’t feel good, it just felt like… like I’d tricked somebody.”
Listening to demos from Years & Years’ new album, there’s a sense that fatherhood has been much on Alexander’s mind in the aftermath of this episode. Person-to-person, the musician says, he and his father “have very, very minimal contact” right now. But a dad figure stalks the new work. On one song, Alexander sings about breaking with his DNA. On another, it’s as if karmic retribution is being summoned and directed at a “daddy [who] said I never could win”.
Yeah, he says, his father was foremost in his thoughts when he wrote that one. But he’d been thinking, too, about past relationships, those various boyfriends he’d dumped or been dumped by. Alexander sees a clear thread running through it all, from parental to romantic difficulties. “I guess at its heart it’s just not really being able to trust someone who says they love you. If that’s something that’s ingrained in you, then I think it’s hard to get past that.”
We’re finished with lunch. Having travelled deeper into his psyche than he expected to – “normally I would have these mental conversations alone with myself, in my flat” – Alexander starts to wonder about another cigarette, and pats the pockets of his dungarees. I tell him that, yeah, I can see why he might choose to wear clothes that feel like they hug. He smiles.
Before we stand up and gather our things, he asks to add a couple of “bookends” to what’s been discussed. That he experienced a lot of love and support, growing up, from his mother and grandmother. (“I feel I have to say that: My mother loved me! She tried her best!”) And also that he’s profoundly grateful to music, to his band and their followers, to the rainbow smocks and lace bodysuits and the whole pop palaver, for the release-valve it has offered a troubled mind.
“There’s a lot of quite raw emotion inside me,” Alexander tells me. “Obviously. And most of the time it can only come out in these tiny little cracks. One of those cracks – that’s the music.”
Years & Years new single Sanctify is out now. Their second album will be released in the summer on Polydor Records
‘A part of me thought, if I became a musician and did well, dad would be proud of me’
Top: Late Night With Seth Meyers, 2015. Far left: at Glastonbury in 2016. Left: with bassist Mikey Goldsworthy
Clockwise from top: in The Riot Club, 2014 (on far left); in his documentary Growing Up Gay; and with fellow Peter And Alice cast members