Nine Songs: Will Young
The elevation of a covers album to more than just a tick-box on a career checklist comes down to two things: interpretation and ethos.
Will Young’s found the perfect convergence of both with Crying On The Bathroom Floor, a collection of ten songs that includes Muna’s sad disco anthem lending its name to the record, and the likes of Lykke Li, Robyn and Clare Maguire thrown into the mix. It’s a concise, sometimes leftfield nod to a canon of amazing artists that have defined the pop underground of the last 30 years, executed with both reverence and invention. “In a very unpatronising way, I feel like I’m taking on the work of these artists and championing it,” Young tells me. “It felt collaborative, even though I’m not dealing with any of the artists.”
Young explains that he'd always wanted to pay tribute to an iconic set of female artists - “We tried everything from Kate Bush to Joni Mitchell" - but getting Richard X on board as producer gave the record an extra dimension and further input into the choice of artists. “When we did Bat For Lashes, Solange and Lykke Li, we just started focusing on those kind of artists. It became obvious that there was a type of artist that I was enjoying and they all seemed to stand for something. They're all quite unique solo artists: pop but not mainstream.”
Crying On The Bathroom Floor isn't a lockdown album, Young stresses: “It was a delight, I think it helped me get closer to Richard too. I’ve done two records with him before, one of which (Echoes) was a defining record for me, and I think this record is almost as defining. After having a breakdown, I feel like I’m back in full flow again. Richard’s such a brilliant producer. He has such amazing taste and he’s so incredibly nerdy. He spends hours trying to get the right reverb sound. It’s astonishing.”
Young’s experience of making the record was also a learning process. “Working the Lykke Li track (“I Follow Rivers”) has given me the direction I want the next record - which I’m half way through - to take. I’ve found quite an exciting producer for that.” He also found working under Richard X’s direction helped him excel vocally. “I have a tendency to want to be Aretha Franklin. And he has to stop me. I respond well to that - because I have too many choices and I really like being told what to do.”
The iconic songs in Young’s life remain musical touchpoints that he speaks about with love and wonder - but none of them made it onto Crying On The Bathroom Floor. From Michael Jackson to Donny Hathaway, The Beatles to Annie Lennox, these are the songs that made Young who he is as an artist.
BEST FIT: When I saw Michael Jackson on here, my first thought went right back to school and seeing the cassette being passed around, like it was currency. I think a lot of people have that same relationship to that album.
YOUNG: "Yes, it’s so interesting. I bet you've got the same thing as I have - you can just see the cover so clearly, the writing in red, the black jacket. Do you remember the video?"
The Scorsese clip, yeah.
"I don't know where we managed to watch that video. I'm sure we’d only have been able to see it on Top of the Pops. We didn't have MTV - I think it had started at that point but we wouldn't have had it. But also I was at boarding school - a heinous, horribly abusive school. Music wasn't wasn't allowed apart from one hour on Wednesdays, an hour on Saturdays, and maybe two on Sundays.
"But we’d sneak in walkmans and things like that. It was basically Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince - they were the three massive pop stars of the time. I feel like they invented pop in the '80s. There was no-one bigger then and he was the biggest of the lot. I was probably ten and he was the number one pop star."
Every track on that record is pretty much a single isn't?
"Every song seemed like it was its own record. It was so varied as an album and that wasn’t lost on a ten-year-old. You just listened to it on repeat. I can see where I was, at my desk, opening up the inlay and singing along to the lyrics."
I forget how much fetishism there was around cassette inlays
"Yes, more than CDs - and there was a lot of daydreaming that went with it. I think I liked “Bad” because I really didn’t like the establishment at school and that played into it a bit."
I remember reading how the song was actually about this kid from a bad neighborhood who manages to go to private school and better himself - and then comes back to the old neighborhood during the school holidays and his old friends start giving him trouble.
"No! That’s so weird!"
It was meant to be a duet with Prince too but he had issues with the first line (“Your butt is mine”)
"That’s such good pop trivia! Bad is definitely the album that sums up those times for me."
BEST FIT: I’ve spoken to a lot of people over the years who cite this as the song they bonded with a parent over.
YOUNG: "Yes, my mum particularly was a big fan and my sister too. I actually came across that song because it was on one of those compilation albums you see advertised on TV. I think it was called The Love Album and it had other stuff like Minne Ripperton’s "Lovin' You" on there. I can see the cover in my head from that commercial.
"It's actually my number one song, my favourite song of all time. I think it's the perfect song because it never goes back, you know? It goes verse one - bridge - chorus but it never goes to a second verse... instead the strings come in, and then the sax. But those opening lines are perfect - “I am not in love / But I'm open to persuasion / East or West / Where's the best / For romancing."
"I started listening to her other records, which are all really brilliant - songs like “Willow” and “Down To Zero” - and then I saw her in concert. She told a story once about she met a guy with HIV and it helped her write a song (“Everyday Boy”) as if she's singing to the man's mother and she’s so kind about her. I didn't know the song was about that. I had my own interpretation. And it was one of the times when I realised that you're allowed to have your own interpretation of a song. It doesn't matter. I got to meet her once and I was quite starstruck, actually."
I always felt she never had the acclaim that someone like Joni Mitchell had. She's a bit of an unsung hero, and more of an artist’s artist?
"She’s quite shy. I just feel like that song was the introduction to all of her other music. I had an amazing moment when I was 17, living in Cornwall. I was a very thoughtful 17-year-old and quite often I would be thinking about what my morals were. I was reading King Lear. And I did a lot of thinking.
"I was listening to one of her albums, getting up early and going to the beach each day, and I had such an amazing sense of peace. Everything came to me, I just got what life was about: Being a good person. But that realisation was accompanied by this record, as I sat on the beach and listened to Joan Armatrading."
YOUNG: "It’s pretty curveball for the biggest band in the world to open a record with a song about taxes.
"It’s interesting that I went on to do politics. I would have been 14 when I heard “Taxman”. It’s quite a jolly song but it’s a protest song, a political song. I really bought into it. I’d never heard anything like it, actually. It's like a quiet protest song. It's not what you'd think, is it? Imagine if it was a protest song now?
"That record (Revolver) and Abbey Road were the two CDs we got when they were first coming out. I remember we went on this holiday and that’s all we played in the car. It’s nice because it’s a sharing memory with my family."
BEST FIT: I was trying to think about some sort of thread that ties the songs you chose together and what I came up with is that most of them are relatively commercial songs, but they're really pushing an experimental envelope in terms of structure and lyric and melody to see where pop music can go?
"It’s clever and it’s funny. I really loved their comedy. They’re funny! It’s that Monty Python thing. Those albums have always been with me. They’re one of my staples but it’s the family connection as much as anything else.
"I was also fascinated by the idea that my parents were teenagers when The Beatles came to fruition. It’s quite special to have a tie to the '60s and understand what that time was. So it opened up a lot of conversations: about Radio Caroline, about how the BBC only used to play orchestral covers of certain pop songs."
Paul McCartney never quite gets the credit he deserves as a vocalist, does he?
"He's one of my favourite male vocalists. He’s just this incredible rock and roll singer and I think things like his vibrato have influenced me quite a lot. Even though it might not be obvious to others, it is to me. These people are like your teachers growing up: Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Annie Lennox. You sing along and it’s basically doing singing lessons. It’s your own version of Stars in Your Eyes."
BEST FIT: Annie Lennox appears a lot in these conversations we have about favourite songs.
YOUNG: "There’s so many reasons for this choice. I would go and listen to that song at boarding school. She lived with my sadness of being in such a horrible, horrible place. I just sort of bought into that melancholy, you know? I was a very melancholic child, because I really didn't want to be there. I hated it and she kind of got me through it.
"The song in itself is astonishing - and not the obvious choice for your first solo song. They wanted "Walking on Broken Glass to be the first single, or maybe even “Little Bird” but she came back with that.
"She's been a massive influence on me in how crisp her singing is. She’s clear as day. And then there’s the production - Stephen Lipson who worked on Diva and did stuff with Grace Jones, went on to produce my second record. So it was a whole weird arc of things, but I lived with that album for years. I remember driving to a friend's house in my mini when I was 18 and having that on during the summer."
She really excels in these songs that inhabit the extremes of rejection and despair but it's so fantastic.
"That's part of her isn’t it? And very different to The Eurythmics. But that record was a difficult time for her and she doesn't shy away from it. The visuals were incredible too, with the Sophie Muller videos, just everything about it.
"She’s one of those artists that embodies the idea of 'How do I think one should be as a pop artist?' and it's basically Annie Lennox! Just remember she dressed as a man at the 1984 Grammys. People think Christine is doing something new, but Annie was on the front lines of it."
YOUNG: "I got the album on cassette when I was either 12 or 13. It was summer and I would just sit in the bath and play Tracy Chapman from beginning to end on my parents ghetto blaster. And that would be my life, every day!"
BEST FIT: I saw her performance of this song on Late Night With Seth Meyers before the election last year and I was amazed at how intact her voice is. Nothing's changed at all.
"It's weird because even though I was 13, every song really got me - from “Revolution” through to “Across the Lines” to that song about domestic abuse “Behind the Wall.” It got me. “Fast Car” was one of the songs I really didn’t understand that much to be honest, but whenever it comes on I take a breath. There’s an amazing mixture of real melancholy and a peacefulness about it."
It’s incredibly fleshed out for a debut album.
"Yes, and I think that’s why it has to be in my top ten records. She’s still a brilliant writer, but she’s very private. She doesnt say much live. She’s a bit of an enigma."
BEST FIT: I’d completely forgotten he changed his name when I was looking for this on Spotify.
YOUNG: "Yes, he’s called Sananda Francesco Maitreya now."
This isn’t an obvious choice; I hadn’t heard this song before.
"I think this album (Vibrator) is a bit of a musician's album. It wasn’t a big success commercially even though he did have a hit with “Holding On To You”, which was the lead single. He shaved his head and bleached it, and on the cover he’s wearing wings. I remember listening to his first record (Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D'Arby) in my mum’s car, along with Lisa Stansfield and The Eurythmics. But this record came out, I think, in my GCSE year and I remember seeing him on Top of the Pops.
"He was incredibly beautiful. He was topless on that performance. And I bought the record. It was in the days where you’d buy five or maybe ten CDs a year maximum. A friend of mine called Neil, who I always really fancied, loved it as well. It always made me slightly hopeful he was gay. And we’d come back from lessons and listen to it. I was really into athletics and I’d listen to the album to psyche me up.
"It's a crazy album and I don’t think I would have given it the time of day if it was the way things are now. I think he played all the instruments, he was he was amazing musician."
BEST FIT: I often think about D’Angelo in the same breath as Terence Trent D’Arby.
YOUNG: "Yes, I think Vibrator was around the same time as "Brown Sugar". R&B pop was massive and we had MTV at home and would watch MTV Base with Trevor Nelson. I remember the video first of all, which was so cool. He was another beautiful human being to look at and it was so cool that this was in the pop world. He was probably one of the biggest influences on me and the group I was friends with. We all liked R&B pop - everyone from Angie Stone to Boyz II Men to Mary Mary, Lauryn Hill, it just went on and on.
"He had amazing musicians, like the bass player Pino Palladino. He’s another one where his band is like the band. I think he was with Angie Stone at that time, she did some writing on that record. That album was just massive for me."
It was five years before his next record I think.
"Voodoo was a bit wacky. but still so amazing. It's a little bit like Vibrator - you had to work hard to get into it. And then he did Black Messiah about five years ago which is incredible. D’Angelo is just one of those givens and such a big influence to me."
It’s quite a small body of work to put out over almost 30 years.
"I think he had quite a difficult time in his personal life. There’s no-one else really like him either. It’s not like he’s the best singer in the world - there’s better musicians - but the whole thing is just really unique."
YOUNG: "I didn’t know a lot about Donny Hathaway but a lot of the guys in the first band that I played with came from church. They taught me a lot about soul music and that era, especially Teddy Pendergrass and Donny Hathaway. It was an amazing time and that’s why I picked this song. I was around a lot of musicians and songwriters for the first time and it was like blotting paper, just soaking up their suggestions.
"At the time I was like 'This guy's obviously the best thing on the planet', you know? I would religiously listen to all his licks and runs, and try and sing like him. It was like homework, basically. I would say that he moved my singing on quite a lot. At the time I was still quite limited in certain ways. He was like a dissertation for me."
Have you found the same thing as a writer, soaking up influences from other writers when you wrote To be a Gay Man?
"No, it’s different. Doing it with an ear is different to writing a book. It’s more immediate. I’m doing a novel right now actually, but I don't think I ever read anything and think, 'Right, can I emulate that?' It would feel inauthentic.
"But it does happen with singing sometimes. I was trying to sing a George Michael song the other day in the car and I was just doing an impression of him. There's a difference between doing an impression or honing a craft and being able to do it in one’s own way. There’s some Donny Hathaway songs where I know I would just be trying to do an impression of him - and I can't do that - but taking his technique is something I can do."
YOUNG: "I picked him because I heard this record when I was in Germany, doing something for a pop magazine, like their version of Smash Hits. This is when I used to do things internationally, and was between my first and second records. Then I was doing these Saturday shows in Italy at various ampitheatres - like an Italian version of Saturday Night Takeaway - alongside amazing artist's from across the world, like Skunk Anansie, Roots Manuva and Garbage. And then Robin Thicke played at one of them.
"I emailed Simon Fuller, my manager, and said ‘I need to write with this man!’ He didn't write very much with other people back then, and he wasn’t a big artist. But he’d sound like Micheal Jackson one minute, and The Beatles the next, and then Marvin Gaye.
"I did get to write with him and I was terrified. He’s really straight you know - a lad - and I was not. And I was not so confident then either. I don’t know if he liked me or not. I’m not sure if I liked him to be honest. But I knew he would get me something interesting and we wrote a song called “Very Kind” which appeared on my second album, and it's just such a great tune.
"I also liked the fact that he wasn't like all the other pop writers writing at that time, because you just go with the same old fucks, and he wasn’t, and he had soul."
BEST FIT: How was the experience?
"He worked with a guy called Pro J - so handsome - and he had quite a fancy house. I think his dad was a gameshow host and he came from a showbiz family. He had a very glamorous wife who was lovely, and he had brilliant sounds, that were more R&B sounds. I wrote with quite a few R&B people but it never worked out, because they weren’t pop enough. He seemed to be at the right level. It was a bit of a gamechanger for me actually. I was quite proud of hunting him down. It didn’t get me a massive hit, but it definitely brought something in."
He doesn’t seems like an obvious choice as a collaborator for you.
"I quite like working with people that other people don't work with, who aren't necessarily the obvious ones. I don't like working with the obvious ones, even though they might get me a hit. It just feels so unimaginative.
"I think after that he did some stuff with Robbie and he worked a lot with Pharrell Williams and Justin Timberlake on the side. He was in that world, which I found hysterical, because I was just so square, but I think he respected my singing. And that record is amazing."
Why that song?
"Because it's so unique. I don’t know what bracket you could put it in, it has many different influences. They did a reworking of it actually, because then there was the film called Shooter that they used it in. It starts off with such a brilliant bassline, it's so unique and I can hear all the different influences, from Stevie through to The Beatles. There’s everything in that tune. It's not necessarily the best song on the record, but it's a really interesting song."
Did you follow him after that?
"Well, he had a big hit with his second album The Evolution of Robin Thicke. I'd come back to LA and it was fucking everywhere, he was on Oprah, it was everywhere. And he’d done a song with Faith Evans (“Got 2 Be Down”) and it was an amazing ballad... and then he did “Blurred Lines” with Pharrell.
"Sometimes people as writers and artists, they can be very different as pop stars. I just knew him a writer, even though I'd seen him play in Italy. And then there was the big backlash for that song, and also because of the Marvin Gaye thing. And then the Miley Cyrus thing happened at the MTV Awards, and I think he had an affair."
I have to admit, I’d forgotten the exact nature of the various things he’d done that led to him getting cancelled.
"It’s quite interesting, isn't it? Before you arrived today, I was reading a thing on Beenie Man. I really like Trevor Nelson's radio show and I was listening to it on the way back from town last night. I was like: 'Mental note to self, wake up tomorrow and check out how homophobic Beenie Man is.' And I was reading up on him… should his music be played on Radio Two? I just don't know. Because he said some awful things.
"But my personal history with Robin Thicke is when I was quite young and I was quite proud of it. Because I was very nervous to write with big, American, very straight writers. It was not necessarily a pleasure, but I’m pleased that I did it."