Olly Alexander, lead singer of British electronica-pop band Years & Years, sounds like the guy you meet at the coffee shop who talks to you in a soft-spoken tone about the book he’s currently reading. He gives no indication that Years & Years has won an mtvU award for “Artist to Watch” this year, has millions of views for their music videos on YouTube, and that this is their second-sold out show in D.C.
Years & Years, consisting of Alexander, bassist Mikey Goldsworthy and synth player Emre Türkmen, has been making waves on the music charts with their single “King” reaching number one on the U.K. Singles Chart and their new single “Shine” has already shot to number two. Alexander, 25, met Goldsworthy and Türkmen after they had decided to form a band and became the group’s lead singer and keyboardist. Now, the group will be playing a sold-out show at 9:30 Club on Sept. 19.
Calling from New York City, where Years & Years is preparing for a show before their 9:30 Club appearance, Alexander talked to the Blade about his sexuality, boyfriend and his re-found love for New Age gem shops.
Washington Blade: Lately you’ve been speaking up a lot about how you feel that gay singers should use more same-sex pronouns in their songs. Why do you think that’s so important?
Olly Alexander: Well I think popular culture influences culture. It influences everybody and we should be showcasing different kinds of relationships in our mainstream culture. Not just male and female but male and male and female and female. I think we live in a world where we all know that there are different dynamics. And I think pop music should reflect that and I think why not? Also, I just think it felt empowering personally so I think it could be empowering for other people to do it too.
Blade: Do you make a real effort to try and include same-sex pronouns in your own music?
Alexander: Yeah! I don’t want to dictate how anyone writes a song, that’s not my job at all. But I think I wanted to include it in my own lyrics so I did it in a few songs and it felt good to do that.
Blade: You’re also very open about your relationship with Neil Amin-Smith from the band Clean Bandit. Do you ever worry about people’s reactions to you as an out gay couple?
Alexander: I don’t worry in terms of like a homophobic level. That was never a consideration. I feel like that would be living in fear. I’m a big believer you should never live in fear or shame. Largely the response has been really wonderful and lovely. I think it’s been really kind of humbling for me to meet people who are so welcoming. They’re really grateful that we’ve been open about our relationship. The difficult thing is, you can imagine having a relationship that’s somewhat in the media can have its own pressure regardless if you’re a gay couple or not.
Blade: Were you ever concerned about being out and the lead singer of a band? Did you ever consider not publicly addressing it?
Alexander: I didn’t really consider that. I mean to be honest with all the music and when we made the music video for one of our earlier songs “Real,” you know the song was quite obviously about a boy and we made the video that I thought reflected kind of non-heteronormative sexuality. That was really obvious to other gay people that I was gay that I was singing about a man. So it was so much apart of the music that I would never, ever hide that. It would seem ridiculous to even try and do that.
Blade: This is the second sold-out show that Years & Years has had in D.C. But you haven’t received too much radio play in this area. Do you think that your popularity came from the Internet? What do you think about the Internet’s impact on music artists these days?
Alexander: I think definitely it came from building a following online. The Internet I think has changed the way we listen to music. It’s changed the way we all live and consume music. I think maybe radio and commercial radio used to really determine the acts that kids gravitated towards. Now I think if you can build a fan base online you can go to these places and still have people show up to your shows. It’s kind of amazing.
Blade: When Years & Years first started your sound wasn’t quite as electronic/pop as it is now. What brought about that change?
Alexander: It was just a natural evolution really. When we started we were just using instruments that we had. That was mainly guitars. We gradually began using more synthesizers and making more beats and producing on a laptop. Our tastes were changing and over a few years we discovered what music we enjoyed making and it was kind of electronic sounds. It kind of just came together gradually.
Blade: You’ve also done some acting in television and movies. You even co-wrote the screenplay for the film “The Dish and the Spoon.” Any plans for more acting or screenwriting?
Alexander: I haven’t gotten any plans at the moment. But you never know I might do it again some day in the future.
Blade: A lot of the roles you have done have been straight roles. What made you choose those particular roles?
Alexander: I just really took what I was offered. I just wanted to make some money.
Blade: You’ve mentioned before that your first job was at a New Age gem shop. Are you into New Age things like astrology or tarot cards?
Alexander: Wow, I love that you know that! I’m not so much at the moment. I used to be really into all of that kind of shit. But I went into a New Age-y kind of shop recently and bought a couple crystals. And I felt good about that.
Blade: Have you ever heard a lyric and wished that you had written it?
Alexander: Oh yeah all the time. There’s a really good Jeff Buckley lyric from a song called “Gunshot Glitter.” And the lyric is “I wanna be your lover/Lipstick my name across your mirror.” I really love a Joni Mitchell lyric in “Case of You” I remember that time you told me you said ‘love is touching souls’/surely you touched mine/Cause part of you pours out of me/in these lines from time to time” I really like that one too.
Blade: What do you want people to take away from your music? What do you think makes audiences connect to your music the way that they do?
Alexander: If they take away anything that’s kind of a win for me or make people feel a certain way. But I suppose to move someone and make them feel good or sad or make them think about something. That’s a bonus for me. We have always believe the song has to be like a good song. That’s a certain kind of science we’ve been obsessed with creating, making good hooks and structures. But apart from that we’ve really tried to do everything as authentically as possible. We write all of our own music and write every lyric and every melody. We’ve always been open and honest about that and I hope that connects with people too.