Years & Years: “Going solo was like a break-up”

Pop polymath Olly Alexander on new album ‘Night Call’, the impact of ‘It’s A Sin’ and how he shed two bandmates to go it alone

It must have been an incredibly intense 12 months for Olly Alexander. First, he starred in It’s a Sin, writer Russell T Davies’ vibrant and profoundly moving meditation on the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s, which became the most talked-about TV show of England’s third national lockdown. And then he weathered Years & Years’ transition from a three-member band to a solo project steered entirely by him.

Last March, it was announced that the third Years & Years album – later named ‘Night Call’, and now out today – would be “an Olly solo endeavour” because his bandmates Mikey Goldsworthy and Emre Türkmen had essentially stepped down. “The three of us are still good friends,” the trio said in a social media statement. “Mikey will be part of the Y&Y family and play with us live and Emre will focus on being a writer/producer.”

Years & Years
Credit: Hugo Yanguela

Still, any upheaval doesn’t appear to have dimmed Alexander’s natural warmth and sparky personality. When the London-based star appears on screen in a cosy-looking hoodie, he immediately cuts through any Zoom awkwardness by confiding with a smile that he hasn’t got round to showering yet. Alexander has shone in interviews ever since Years & Years cemented their breakthrough by winning the BBC’s Sound of 2015 poll and that year’s debut album ‘Communion’, and today is no exception. He’s thoughtful, surprisingly candid about his bandmates’ departure – more on this later – and, above all, really good fun.

‘Night Call’ arrives almost exactly a year to the day that It’s A Sin debuted on Channel 4 on 22nd January, 2021. This neat piece of near-symmetry feels even more fitting when Alexander says the album was inspired, in part, by the show’s ’80s club bangers. “Making It’s A Sin was like being completely immersed in the ’80s,” he recalls. “We would all blast ’80s playlists in our trailers and of course there was so much brilliant music on the soundtrack.”

Alexander is absolutely right to salute the show’s supremely evocative soundtrack. While his character Ritchie and his flatmates at their self-styled “Pink Palace” pad explore LGBTQ+ London, we hear everything from Bronski Beat’s era-defining gay anthem ‘Smalltown Boy’ to Hazell Dean’s Hi-NRG hit ‘Whatever I Do (Wherever I Go)’. ‘Night Call’ doesn’t sound retro – it’s a stylish collection of contemporary pop tunes, led by the Top 40 hits ‘Starstruck’ and ‘Sweet Talker’ – but it’s infused with a similar sense of sexual adventure and clubby escapism. Alexander has said he wrote it “from a fantasy-space” as the pandemic kept the country housebound.

“[With ‘Night Call’], I wanted to express myself in a way that I hadn’t before”

“I was really imagining the ’80s and hearing that crossover from disco coming out of these marginalised communities and then it kind of turning into dance music,” he adds today. “The birth of that [Hi-NRG] sound is so exciting to me and it must have been incredible to have heard it for the first time on the dance floor: all the energy and the freedom and the raw vocals on those records.” Alexander says It’s A Sin “really took me down a path” of listening to groundbreaking artists such as Sylvester, the androgynous disco icon whose seminal single with electro-dance pioneer Patrick Cowley, ‘Do Ya Wanna Funk’, appears on the show’s soundtrack.

Alexander has also said that many of the album’s songs are “patchworks inspired by random memories and hook-ups or men that I’ve met,” and this definitely comes through in his lyrics. “You come in and out of my dreams / Fuck with my head / Making me crazy,” he sings on the pulsingly seductive single ‘Crave’. “I keep comin’ back to the scene / Back to the bed / Been contemplating.”

Though Alexander didn’t necessarily set out to make such a sex-positive album, that’s what took shape when he began “stacking up” songs for ‘Night Call’. “I realised that I wanted the album to be about sex, but also just to have this, like, freedom of expression,” he says. “I wanted to express myself in a way that maybe I hadn’t expressed myself before. And so once I figured that out – that it was going to be uptempo and fun and music you could move your body to – that sort of helped me [put it together].”

Years & Years
Credit: Hugo Yanguela

When NME spoke to Alexander in November 2018, shortly after the release of Years & Years’ excellent second album ‘Palo Santo’, he said certain fans were “obsessed” with pigeonholing him as a “top” or “bottom”. At times, ‘Night Call’ seems to delight in subverting this binary categorisation of gay male sexuality. The strutting bonus track ‘Muscle’ has Alexander lusting over a ripped partner, but he doesn’t sound overpowered – he sounds in control. Was he trying to show that queer sex is more complex than the tired old trope of a “dominant” top fucking a “submissive” bottom?

“Oh my gosh – yes! I love this question!” he replies. “You know, being an artist is definitely a strange experience, because when I put a song out, I have no idea how it’s going to be taken – and sometimes I can be surprised. People commenting on how you have sex is quite surreal, I suppose, but I’ve made my peace with it now.”

So much so, in fact, that Alexander now enjoys “playing with people’s expectations” a bit. “Take ‘Crave’, for instance,” he explains. “I thought there was something really empowering about going to this potentially really humiliating place and asking for someone to hurt you. I’m deliberately playing on the kink and [its] dom-submissive dynamics. It just amuses me.” This is a definite progression from Years & Years’ 2016 single ‘Meteorite’, when Alexander snuck a song about bottoming onto the Bridget Jones’s Baby soundtrack by wrapping it in an astrological metaphor: “Hit me like a meteorite!”

years years nme cover interview
Years & Years on the cover of NME

“It’s been an unconscious process, I think – when I look back now, I definitely see how much more relaxed and at ease with myself I’ve become,” says 30-year-old Alexander. “Obviously, the songs I wrote when I was 22 or 23 are different to the ones I’m writing now. I think in the beginning, I was really quite scared. Putting the word ‘boy’ into a song – it felt like there was quite a lot of jeopardy there. Like, it felt risky in a way that it just doesn’t now.”

Encouragingly, Alexander says this “risk” has diminished not just because he’s “grown into himself”, but because “times have changed” since Years & Years dropped ‘Communion’. He believes he and other LGBTQ artists are already benefiting from the “fearless” way that rapper Lil Nas X has channelled an unapologetically queer artistic vision into proper global superstardom.

“Making It’s A Sin was like being completely immersed in the ’80s”

“Even just a few years ago, I’d get comments about my show like: ‘It’s not really family-friendly; we can’t broadcast this [on TV] in the daytime,’” Alexander recalls. “And it was literally just because I’m gay and had my nipples out or something – there was nothing [sexually] explicit going on. People would get a bit scared, but now, after Lil Nas X, that just doesn’t happen. I don’t think it can.”

So has Lil Nas X finally obliterated the reductive idea that being openly queer somehow makes an artist less “marketable”? “I do think [he] has completely changed the game, if I’m honest,” Alexander replies. “I think there’s a ‘before Lil Nas X’ and an ‘after Lil Nas X’. It’s so undeniable, the success he’s had, that it’s like the industry is now trying to catch up with [him].”

Years & Years
Credit: Hugo Yanguela

The rapper is undoubtedly a once-in-a-generation game-changer, but Alexander also deserves credit for pushing out and proud queer energy into the mainstream. In the closing minutes of 2021, he took over BBC One for The Big New Years & Years Eve Party, a joyous and subversive live show featuring duets with Kylie Minogue and Pet Shop Boys. While performing the ‘Palo Santo’ hit ‘Sanctify’, Alexander draped himself suggestively over his male backing dancers.

“It felt like such an invasion,” It’s A Sin writer Russell T Davies tells NME. “That New Year’s Eve slot is normally [for] a comfortable, established act bashing out a few classics. But Olly’s show was wild, bold, visual and hilarious.”

Interestingly, Davies also suggests that Alexander possesses a rare and perhaps slightly contradictory quality that enables him to gay up the mainstream in this way. “Olly’s incredible because he can be so dangerous and yet so friendly at exactly the same time,” he says. Dismissing the 179 complaints received by the BBC afterwards as a “tiny” and “irrelevant” number, Davies adds: “Olly invaded and conquered, as he always does, and left the space transformed. What the hell would you do if you’re [the artist] booked for December 31st, 2021?”

“There’s a ‘before Lil Nas X’ and an ‘after Lil Nas X’. He completely changed the game”

NME speaks to Alexander a few days before it was reported that the show attracted these complaints, including some claiming it was “overly sexualised”, but he had already picked up on the very small but vociferous negative response. “In the last few years I’ve seen this change where me just being on the BBC is fodder for someone’s ‘culture war’,” he says. “They’re like, ‘Why are my taxes paying for this shit on my national broadcaster?’ It’s so interesting, because you’d get people who didn’t like you before, but I don’t think it would be weaponised quite as quickly into part of someone’s argument in the culture war.”

Still, Alexander remains bullish because he knows “we put on a really great show”. “If I’ve pissed off some homophobes,” he adds with a playful flash of defiance. “I feel like I’ve done a good job.” He also pretty much dismisses the idea that it’s sometimes difficult to be a pop star and a queer role model at the same time: “I feel very lucky and amazing to be a pop star, and I want to do the [LGBTQ+] community proud – I do have that in my head at all times and I do want to like, not fuck things up. So if I can try and push things forward at all, I will do that.”

Alexander clearly loves pop music and understands what makes a great pop star. Back in 2018, he joked: “If I don’t get fucking guest list for the Spice Girls tour, I’m quitting the music industry.” Today, he sums up the unique appeal of Kylie Minogue – his collaborator on a ‘Starstruck’ remix and October’s disco-flavoured single ‘A Second To Midnight’ – as well as anyone else ever has. “She is such a rare gem of a legend because she is glamorous and iconic and a superstar, but she also feels like a friend and like someone we could be close to: someone who would understand us and not judge us,” he says. “Like – oh my God – how many people have that [combination]?”

Years & Years
Credit: Hugo Yanguela

Because Alexander is such a pop connoisseur, it’s a little sad to hear him say that “pop was like a dirty word” towards the end of Years & Years’ time as a three-piece.

Alexander, Goldsworthy and Turkmen co-wrote every song on the band’s 2015 debut album ‘Communion’, home to the shimmering number one hit ‘King’ and even better Number Two hit ‘Shine’, but his bandmates were credited on just two tracks from 2018’s ‘Palo Santo’. He recently said that the second album was “not loved by everyone in the band”, something that presumably led to Alexander carrying out most promo assignments solo. By this point, his profile had grown so much larger than his bandmates’ that this didn’t look strange – or at least, not too strange.

“We could never really agree on what we liked in the music and what direction we wanted to go in, so that made the songwriting process difficult,” Alexander says today. What did the three of them disagree on? “It was never lyrics; they would never touch lyrics. It was just, like, general direction: how ‘poppy’ something was gonna be. Pop was, like, a dirty world, which is a little crazy.”

“I love the music I made with my ex-bandmates, but it always came with complications”

He lets out a sigh. “Arguments over music can really help you make something good, and I think it did with us,” he continues. “Like, I really love all the music we made, but it always came with its own complications.”

Goldsworthy will be joining Years & Years when they next tour, something Alexander says isn’t as “weird” as it might seem. “It’s actually so sweet [and] nice, because touring was always our favourite thing to do,” he says. “Mikey’s just the best person to have on the road because he just plays his Switch and has bants with the lads. You know, it’s like having your bro back.” Have both he and Turkmen heard the new album? “I think so – Mikey definitely has. I don’t know if Emre’s listened, but he will do soon!”

Still, Alexander admits he didn’t realise life as a solo artist would be such a “huge adjustment”. “You’re kind of in a relationship when you’re in a band,” he says. “I mean, I’m still in a relationship with these people, but it’s just a different one now. It was like a break-up, and then you have to speak about it in interviews.” He also says he had to adjust to the new level of fame he gained shortly after It’s A Sin premiered a year ago. The five-part drama didn’t just become Channel 4’s most streamed show ever; it also led to a spike in HIV testing, a sure sign Davies’ deeply poignant story had hit home.

Initially Alexander was shielded from the extra attention by lockdown; like everyone else in the country, he was spending most of his time inside. “But then when I started to go outside I remember being terrified because it felt like everybody knew who I was,” he says, adding that strangers would call out his character’s It’s A Sin catchphrase: “I’d be walking by the canal and people would be running past me shouting, ‘La!’. I’m sure Adele and Justin Bieber have this all the time, but in my experience, it’s very intense for a short period of time after you’ve been on TV.” He adds: “But then, it just kind of chills out and people don’t recognise you or care as much.”

Years & Years
Credit: Hugo Yanguela

It’s easy to forget Alexander made strides as an actor before he found fame as a pop star. He appeared in episodes of classic teen drama Skins and horror series Penny Dreadful and starred in 2014’s God Help the Girl, a musical film written and directed by Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch. However, It’s A Sin was his first acting job in six years, and he doesn’t seem desperate to book his next one. “I love being Years & Years and being able to, like, direct, produce, write and star in the stuff I make,” he says. “I’ve gotten used to that, so to give up all of that for [an acting role], it would really have to be the right thing.”

Though his sensitive and compelling performance in It’s A Sin has earned him a prestigious Critics’ Choice Television Award nomination – in the same category that John Boyega won last year – he believes there’s a relatively small pool of roles available to him: “There’s a lot of good stuff that gets made, but good stuff that gets made with gay characters that I could possibly play? Not so much.” Then, as if to lighten the mood a little, he adds: “Basically, for me to be interested in a role, it would have to [someone] sexy with magic powers. I basically want to play some kind of erotic superhero.”

So, if Years & Years is the focus for the foreseeable future, what does he want people to think when they hear that name? “‘Ooh – fun!’” Alexander replies. “Like, ‘I bet their show is fun’ or ‘I bet his new song is fun’. I guess I want people to feel excited or just intrigued.” There’s no doubt Alexander is already achieving this – and a lot more on top.

Years & Years’ ‘Night Call’ is out now.