Years & Years
‘Palo Santo Tour’
With Cyn, Tunde Olaniran
Thursday, Oct. 11
The Lincoln Theatre
1215 U St., N.W.
Olly Alexander is slightly out of breath when he gets on the phone. The out frontman of the British synth-pop group Years & Years has had a busy few months promoting the group’s latest album “Palo Santo.” The band isn’t stopping anytime soon as they embark on a North American tour, which already has sold-out dates including the Lincoln Theatre on Oct. 11.
Years & Years, which rounds out its trio with group members Mikey Goldsworthy and Emre Türkmen, first hit the music scene with its 2015 breakout hit “King.” Since then, Years & Years has continued to pump out danceable hits including “Sanctify” and “If You’re Over Me” (which hit the top 10 in the U.K.) from “Palo Santo,” which hit No. 3 in the U.K. and No. 1 on the U.S. Top Dance/Electronic Albums Billboard chart. A short film, narrated by Judi Dench, about a dystopian world controlled by robots, also accompanied the group’s sophomore effort.
Alexander has also been busy as an advocate for mental health and LGBT issues. The 28 year old opened up about his struggles with mental health problems, which he began to experience as a teenager, to the public. He’s also been candid about being an unapologetically gay pop star. Always on the move, Alexander caught up with the Washington Blade and talked about the new wave of LGBT pop artists, his love for Rihanna and his thoughts on masculinity — all while hailing a taxi in London.
WASHINGTON BLADE: Years & Years’ sophomore album is called “Palo Santo.” The first album is called “Communion.” What is it about that spiritual/religious imagery that connects with you?
OLLY ALEXANDER: I guess it’s always been something that fascinated me my whole life. When I was a kid my family moved around a lot. We moved to a house that was right next to a church and I used to play in the church yard. I think it was a way in to spiritual imagery which I think is so powerful. From my own life, I’m not religious. I also worked in this shop when I was 14 that sold spell books and candles and gem stones. So I’ve kind of always been fascinated by it.
BLADE: “Palo Santo” has the same upbeat pop beat that was on “Communion” but the lyrics are darker. Did you intend for the album to be an emotional release or did you only see that when you finished the album and looked back?
ALEXANDER: Making music is always an emotional release for me. Throughout the songwriting process I don’t really have much of a gauge on the overall themes. It wasn’t until the album was done that I realized looking back it had this more confessional and angrier tone to it than the previous stuff I’ve written. That happened naturally, I think. When I think about it I was 19, 20, 21 when I was writing the songs on the first album. Everyone changes over the course of however many years. The music on the second record was from 26, 27 and you’re always growing as a songwriter.
BLADE: The album seems very personal to you, specifically. Did you have to convince your bandmates to let you take the lead on this?
ALEXANDER: I’ve always been the lyricist and I’ve always written songs from my perspective. So we’re used to working that way. Although, I’ve definitely had a few conversations with Mikey and Emre where I’m like, “Look this is the way I want to do it. This is how I think we should make the song.” We have a few arguments but then they usually back me up.
BLADE: What’s one thing you learned about yourself after completing the album?
ALEXANDER: One thing I learned is I had all this pent-up anger. I would never describe myself as an angry person. I avoid confrontations at all costs. I always practice peace and kindness. I realized I had crushed all this anger inside of me and it was kind of like clawing to get out. That was mainly towards ex-boyfriends, my dad. All the big ones. I learned I’m not quite as good at letting go of my anger as I thought I was.
BLADE: The video component of “Palo Santo” looked like it could have been an episode of “Black Mirror.” On the flip side, what would your utopia look like?
ALEXANDER: Full of trees and nature. We’d all live in harmony with animals. We’d have equality and world peace. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen “Zeitgeist” but in one of the “Zeitgeist” movies they have templates for Utopian cities. There’s no money and everyone has their own role in society. They grow their own food and it’s like local and sustainable. Oh, and dolphins. We could swim with dolphins and they’d talk to us.
BLADE: One of your last tweets said that “It’s been 107 days since I met Rihanna.” Is that how you measure your life now?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, exactly. I have B.R. which is Before Rihanna and then A.R. which is After Rihanna.
BLADE: Is there anyone else that you haven’t met yet that you’d freak out over?
ALEXANDER: Plenty of people. Mariah Carey. Definitely Beyoncé. I would be a nervous wreck. Also Janet Jackson for sure. Joni Mitchell as well. And Stevie Wonder. Those are all my heroes.
BLADE: You’ve mentioned that you’re a book worm. Any recent reads that have inspired you?
ALEXANDER: One of the books I found super inspiring recently is “Aliens & Anorexia” by Chris Kraus who wrote “I Love Dick.” I was like “Wow, this woman’s voice is incredible.” I just wanted to read more and more. That kind of inspired me lately. And “The Vegetarian” by Han Kang is amazing.
BLADE: You’ve been very open about mental health and your sexuality. When you first started Years & Years did you want to be an advocate for LGBT and mental health issues or did it just happen?
ALEXANDER: I really had no idea that would be something I would end up doing. It did just kind of happen. Luckily, I’d already been through an intense mental health journey before I was in the public eye. I learned some tools to cope with my emotions and things I was going through. One of those tools was to be very honest about almost everything. So I just applied that to being in interviews and being with fans. Then I saw the response that me being open about my mental health had and it had such an intense reaction. I realized that people were so desperate to speak out and once that started happening I realized that this started feeling really meaningful. I want to be able to help in some way and make some change. I was like, “This could be a way that I could do this and help some people” so it just kind of snowballed from there.
BLADE: Is it ever strange to know so many people know such intimate things about you? You’ve mentioned issues with your father and coming out.
ALEXANDER: It is quite strange but I think it’s worth it. I’ve felt like I’ve built this foundation at super speed to withstand the attention especially around my personal life. But I feel much more like I can withstand that sort of attention now. And seeing firsthand how being open about stuff encourages honesty in other people, I feel like it’s worth it in the end. Sometimes it’s a bit weird but then life is weird for everyone isn’t it?
BLADE: I attended your concert at 9:30 club in D.C. a few years back. I remember people in the crowd kept saying they loved your dancing which you do on stage and in your videos. What is it about dancing that’s so integral to your performances?
ALEXANDER: I’ve always loved being that boy at the school discos who is dancing when no one else is. When I was in my early 20s going out the club I lived for going out and the weekends. I would meet so many new people and see my friends out. It was like a gay initiation in lots of ways. It was a real scene and I knew everybody. I think that kind of gave me a love for dance music. Also, just as a performer I start to respect actual dances. I’m wishing in another life that’s what I would have pursued. It’s such a pure form of expression.
BLADE: At the British GQ Awards you made a powerful speech about masculinity and gender stereotypes. For you, what’s your definition of a “man”?
ALEXANDER: I guess I’m trying as much as possible not to define what it means to be a man. I know that sounds like a cop-out. I think we have to be so careful around language because words are all we’ve got. It’s kind of essentialist to think there’s one definition because there’s just so many. I would encourage people to figure it out for themselves.
BLADE: There was a time a few years ago when LGBT artists weren’t as prominent as they are now. There was maybe Tegan and Sara and that’s it. But now there’s you, Troye Sivan, Kim Petras, Hayley Kiyoko. Did you ever think this would happen or did it shock you?
ALEXANDER: Well, I think it’s a bit of both. I could never have imagined a pop landscape that included queer options. I never could have imagined that would exist when I was a teenager because I had no reference for it, really. Now, it does feel like a new wave of queer artists coming through. We’re seeing so many talented artists. I’m excited to see what happens next and how all these artists are going to continue to grow and inspire other people. I think we’re still in the early stages of the queer influx of artists. Ones who are able to be out in the beginning of their career. So I’m excited to see how it continues.