2021 was quite a year for Olly Alexander. He stripped down his shiny stage persona to play Ritchie, the lead in the Channel 4 series „It’s a Sin“, the latest endeavor from „Queer as Folk“ creator Russell T Davis. He put that persona on again to perform at the Brit Awards alongside Elton John and released a single with Pop icon Kylie Minogue, all of that within his first release cycle as a solo artist, still under his former band moniker Years & Years. And now he’s kicking off the new year with a bang, releasing his new album „Night Call“, a wholehearted, extravagant celebration of Dance and House Music and the culture that comes with it. Due to the pandemic, being able to go out dancing has proven to be something that cannot be taken for granted, so dancing within your own walls has somehow become a necessity. „Night Call“ provides the perfect soundtrack for that, combining the feeling of a lush party with lyrics that are sensual and sexy as well as pensive and confrontational.
As one of Britain’s most acclaimed LGBTQ Pop icons, Olly Alexander is, of course, about the show, the costumes, the piercings and the glitter. But during our conversation via Zoom, he also appears to me as someone who is trying hard to understand the craziness of the world and to come to terms with what his part is in all of this, as a person as well as an artist. He is very direct and lovable and he is obviously looking for the same values in others that we all do: understanding and respect. „Gabi, I love you!“ he blurts out at some point, which is definitely a first for me. And I can’t help but give it back: I love you too, Olly!
So tell me, how has the past year been for you? You came out with „It’s a Sin“, you started working as a solo artist… can you even figure it out or is it all just one big blur?
It’s very surreal. 2021 has been quite a rollercoaster. I feel like big change has been the theme. Over the last couple of years, since the pandemic, all of our lives have been changed. Mine went through some really big personal changes. Just with my career, becoming a solo artist… all of that stuff. It’s been really wild, but amazing. I have these incredible highlights to look back on. To me 2021 felt like both an eternity, but also it’s gone by in a flash. I’m still trying to process it all.
I was wondering how the experiences you gained as an actor shaped your creative process as a musician. Diving into different characters and exploring their point of view, did that influence your songwriting? Or do you deliberately separate the two experiences?
No, I see it pretty intertwined actually. Getting to work on something like „It’s a Sin“, I think that project and that show is pretty unique, and for many reasons. I felt so lucky to be there at the right time. And also taking off time to do it, because I’ve been on tour and working on music for the past five, six years. Taking off the Olly-isms, getting my hair dyed back to natural colour, all my piercings gone and covering up my tattoos… it was funny, because it had me consider the character I’ve been playing for so long in Years & Years (laughs). Going back to that was really exciting. You know, that character is obviously me, but I get to explore different parts of my identity. I’ve always loved that so much about music, making music and performing. I had a really new appreciation of it, as well as the new appreciation of doing something like acting, a totally different discipline and challenge. So… Yeah. (laughs)
But is there one specific pleasure you would say you only get from making music?
Well, when I’m singing, when I’m on stage, performing… I think singing involves your body and your breath in a way that makes you so present. It really feels so liberating, because everything stops. It’s like a different reality, a different dimension or something. I love that feeling so much. I think that’s the most precious part of it for me. It’s transcendent! (laughs)
I listened to your record, of course. You appear so free on it! Especially the way you talk about sex, dating and intimacy. It feels so empowering. I became a huge Prince fan when I was 13 years old, and basically my whole perspective on sexuality and intimacy goes back to his lyrics. So I am always drawn towards artists who deal with these subjects in such a free and poetic way as you do.
Ah, Gabi, I love you. I love you so much! Prince is such an amazing artist. And I was listening to a lot of Prince actually. A few tracks in particular when I was making the album. But specifically the way Prince confronts sexuality, in a way that feels playful, confrontational and also sexy but also weird… he’s able to deliver all of that because he’s Prince, you know. That kind of style is just hugely inspirational for me as well. If I can put that into music, it kind of allows me to feel those things and be liberated in a way. Because you can say stuff in a song you wouldn’t say in real life, you express yourself in a way you might not otherwise. I enjoy that so much, and that’s the hope that if someone listens to it, they get to embody that as well. So that’s good. Thank you!
Plus, you put it into a gay context, which is even more empowering. I thought of some of my friends when I listened to the record, and I can assure you, you will make a lot of people happy with it.
No, I’m serious! Also, you seem to be a very committed person, very willing to give a lot of yourself.
Oh, definitely. I struggled, if I’m honest, to know what this album is going to be, especially in the beginning. Because I had been working on all this material, and then the lockdown happened, the pandemic happened. I felt like I had to go back to square one. What was really present in my mind, was all the stuff that I was missing. I live alone and I wasn’t with anyone at the time. I really was missing intimacy and feeling lonely. Going back to dance music that I loved growing up and also had kind of rediscovered while making „It’s a Sin“… so all those influences were going on in my head. If I’m gonna make something – I love that word ‚committed‘ – I’m gonna be super committed to giving it my all. It’s such a unique position to be in, so I think well, you got to make the most of it.
Does that make you vulnerable, to be so open? And isn’t that scary sometimes?
It definitely makes me feel vulnerable. Because it’s so exposing at times. At times I go – wow, this is a lot! It can feel super overwhelming. But it’s also its own armor as well. Being able to be on a stage, under the lights, with the outfit, with the words, with the music… it is kind of its own forcefield, you know. So it kind of works both ways sometimes, it’s interesting… I’m still trying to figure it out, Gabi (laughs).
I also love what you address in „Consequences“. I feel like these days, especially with the pandemic, the unwillingness to take responsibility for your actions has been really perverted. People are so busy with being themselves, they tend to forget that their actions have consequences, not only for themselves.
That song was really fun to write. I was quite angry at a lot of things (laughs). Some abstract things, some personal things, some relationships I’d had… that song is so direct! Like: you’re gonna have to suffer the consequences you deserve (laughs). That’s again something I only feel empowered enough to say in a song. That was an important one for the album. It felt really bold.
That boldness – do you also try and use the music as a means to one day embody it in your everyday life?
Oh yeah! (laughs) It’s so hard. I really believe in ‚fake it til you make it‘. And then after a while the boundary between faking it and making it gets a litte blurred and you end up in some ways more the way you wanted to go. But yeah, it’s hard. What a crazy world!
Do you think you would have written the album the way you have, if we weren’t in a pandemic right now?
Definitely not. It was almost directly influenced by everything that happened in the world. Once the pandemic started, I had all this time to work on music, and initially I was really optimistic I would be super productive. And then, like a lot of people I think, I couldn’t seem to get anything done and my mind was totally taken up with everything that was going on. It was a very confusing time. And I definitely fell out of love with all the music I had been making previously. I thought for a long time, if you’re going to put music out there in the world, you could literally put anything out. What is it going to be? And I found that question really hard to answer. What’s the point of doing anything right now? What’s the point of Pop Music? But I really love music, and I love Dance Music. And I wanted to put a bit of that energy back into Years & Years. Most of the music is quite uptempo on this record. I was listening to a lot of Disco and House and I suppose it became a bit more poignant, because clubs were shut, we couldn’t go out, there was no nightlife. That had been such an important part of my formative years and I tried to make something that kind of celebrated it.
Can you pin down the greatest thing that happened to you in the past year?
That’s really hard, because I had some amazing, amazing things happening to me. Definitely „It’s a Sin“ coming out, that born into the world and all the response from that. Performing with Elton John at the Brits. Amazing! I always wanted to perform at the Brits and Elton John is such a mega, mega star. He’s come into my life this year and I’m just obsessed with him. He’s such a nice guy, besides being one of the most legendary performers and songwriters ever. And working with Kylie Minogue, too! I just love her so much. So, there’s been some good moments (laughs).
But you know what I am wondering? Having these amazing moments, and then having everyday life on the other side, especially during the pandemic, with all the restrictions going on – isn’t it hard to cope with these ups and downs? Do you sometimes feel life is shit and then feel guilty, because you have all these amazing moments you should be proud of? Because I can tell you, I often feel just like that.
It’s human nature, isn’t it, to feel that way? No matter who we are or what our circumstances are. And for me – you work so hard, and you have all this anticipation built up, doing a performance or even a song coming out. You have these big moments, and then there is always the aftermath. Nothing lasts forever, people’s interest goes elsewhere, you move on to something new… I think everyone knows what that kind of anticlimax feels like. And I totally have felt that as well. I’ve come to understanding the past year that my inner self critical voice is very persistent. It has tricked me into thinking that it’s not even there, but it is (laughs). I just realised I’m so hard on myself. And that can really get in the way of your enjoyment and with being present. I’ve definitely been up and down in that way too mentally, sometimes feeling just over the moon and then I’m just like ugh, I can’t cope with this. It’s like that, I suppose. You have to ride the waves.