Music

Olly Alexander Gets Candid on Years & Years's Second Album

Cementing what is already a triumphant year for the queer community in the arts, Years & Years returns with cathartic dance pop at its purest. Photography by Christelle de Castro Fashion by Rika Watanabe

Underneath his sparkling outfits and stratospheric pop songs, Olly Alexander is an unassuming star. Tentative, awkward, and self-deprecating in person, he saunters into the coffee shop in East London where we agree to meet. “You’re not going to ask me about Russia or anything, are you?” the 27-year-old frontman of Years & Years jokes as he sits down, ruffling his new head of beet-red hair and fumbling with the sleeves on his T-shirt.

Not quite. Instead, we’re here to discuss the moment pop music fans the world over have been waiting for. Years & Years’ forthcoming album, Palo Santo, is the British group’s followup to the wildly successful debut Communion, which sold over a million copies worldwide and transformed Olly into an overnight queer pop favorite. This time around, the list of people they’re working with includes Greg Kurstin, Julia Michaels, and Justin Tranter—a trio of writers who have previously spun pop sounds into solid gold for the likes of Adele and Justin Bieber.

 

[Olly wears jumpsuit Boss, shirt Amiri, t-shirt Burberry, socks American Apparel, sneakers Puma, jewelry Olly’s own]

“I’d ask myself, Would Britney or Christina want to do this song? And if I thought they’d say yes, I knew it was worth doing,” he says of his musical approach to this second album, reminiscing about the beauty of early-’00s pop and bearing his gap-toothed grin. But on a human level, Olly feels for them, too. He recognizes them as two women who transformed their sexuality into shameless and brilliant mainstream music—a goal he shares—but who also struggled to make sense of their identities as the tabloids took over. “They had very fragile, battled narratives,” he says, pointing out the parallels between the way fame and growing up gay can mess with your identity. “[The gay community] all felt for them and wanted them to succeed.”

Negotiating such narratives played an intrinsic part in the making of Years & Years’s new record. Going straight from a tour during which they sold out arenas into writing sessions for round two felt like “pushing an elephant up a hill,” confesses Olly of the album’s first steps. “It was like we’d never get there. I was really angry at ex-boyfriends and my dad. A lot of the frustration with the album was channeled into that, [but it] became a catalyst for writing more—and it worked.”

 

What came out of that creative exorcism is a collection of limb-jolting and anthemic pop, cleverly steeped in queer and religious imagery. Songs like “Hallelujah” and “DNA” celebrate the brilliance of the human body and owning your identity—important things for a pop star with a reputation for championing LGBTQ+ rights and the importance of safe spaces for queer people. The latter, Olly says, are the places he feels most empowered, but he speaks about gay clubs in hindsight. “When the music was right and I was with the right people, I felt invincible,” he says, his eyes a little glassy. “Sometimes, I wanted to hook up, and I felt like if I was in a good place I could do that! It could feel empowering one minute and confusing the next; [experiencing] other queer bodies being around me, where it felt like anything could happen.” Fame, sadly, has changed that for him. Olly says fans are rarely intrusive when he’s spotted in a nightclub, but nevertheless, he’s forever going to be seen as ‘Olly from Years & Years’: “Now, there’s an element of being on show, and that’s not what I want from a messy night out!”

Nowadays, pop stars are expected to be omnipresent on social media; Olly is one of a handful who, on the surface, seem to get that — proven by the fact he boasts over half a million loyal followers across his Twitter and Instagram. “I always feel like I’m failing at it!” he laughs. “Like I’m not saying the right thing, or not being funny or hot enough. I look at people like Troye [Sivan] or Dua Lipa, and it seems like they constantly have this really intimate connection with their fans. Whenever I try and do that, I feel like it messes my head up a bit. I’m not sure if I’m doing it right!”

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Palo Santo Album Cover Art

He tries his best to inject a sense of humor into every standard thing his label makes him tweet. Take, for example, a recent festival announcement that saw Years & Years grab a sub-headline slot under a certain handsome teenage pop sensation. “life goal achieved!” Olly tweeted gleefully in response, “we’re underneath Shawn Mendes!!!”

I relay that brilliant work of Twitter mastery back to him; he bears that gap-toothed grin again, blushing at the fact he’s now wound up “tweeting sexual innuendos towards pop stars who ignore [him].”

Since he’s already out, Olly can avoid that strange echochamber that likes to scrutinise the sexual identities of the world’s biggest stars. In the days before our interview, tabloids and die-hard stans have been having a field day, trying to align the song lyrics, fashion sense and mannerisms of their favourite singers with who they might be sleeping with. “I get it, but like… there are already gay pop stars! Maybe focus on us — we have to be gay!” Olly laughs, in response. “I’m all for expressing your sexuality in whatever way you feel most comfortable. Straight guys have a rough ride in the sense they always have to be straight, 100% of the time. That would be dull as fuck!”

For all of his humor, there’s no denying that Olly Alexander is defined by his emotional candor: his battle with mental health is something he’s spoken about openly in the past. We talk about tears on three separate occasions and about how bottling up sadness (“I’m always taken aback by people who say they haven’t cried in 10 years!”) seems strange to him. Instead, he says, we need to be more honest. “As a kid I was bullied, but I still went into school wearing eyeliner,” he laughs, remembering his teenage years. “I wanted to nail my colors to the wall and show that I was different, but I had epic levels of self-hatred, too.”

At this, Olly gazes out of the window. For the sake of his music, how often does he look back? “I like to remind myself of how far I’ve come,” he admits, “[and] for a while I didn’t, because I wanted to erase it from my memory, but you can’t forget these things.” He turns back around, breaking from his melancholy. “They come back to bite you on the arse if you do!”

 

Years & Years's second album, Palo Santo, drops on July 6. 

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