‘Singing in the shower got me the job’The London multitasker is putting Hollywood on hold to front his band’s brand of soulful dance-pop
Steel drums drown out Olly Alexander’s voice as he answers the phone to talk to The Red Bulletin. He’s in the studio working on Years & Years’ debut album, following 12 months in which their electronica with a heart has earned them a major record deal, support slots for Sam Smith and Clean Bandit and love from unexpected corners of the world.
Alexander has given up a lucrative acting career to be here. His CV includes TV shows Skins, Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, and films including last year’s British drama The Riot Club. But the decision was an easy one for the 24-year-old: frontman is the role he most wants to play.
THE RED BULLETIN : Is Years & Years your first foray into the music world?
OLLY ALEXANDER : No, I wrote a song when I was 10 for my school assembly, embarrassingly. I think it was called The Leaves Are Falling and it had an autumnal theme of heartbreak that really set the tone for the rest of my songwriting life. Then I was in a band at school playing covers of TLC and Hanson and Destiny’s Child. And I sometimes performed alone, just me and a keyboard.
How did the band come into being?
I moved to London five years ago and met Mikey [Goldsworthy, bass and synths] at a house party. He told me he was in a band with Emre [Turkmen, beats and synths] and basically I forced my way in. I begged. Then he heard me singing in the shower and I knew that would swing things in my favour. I can’t remember exactly what I was singing, but probably the Fugees or another one of my shower songs.
People will recognise you from your TV and film work. Do you miss it now you’re focusing on music?
I started acting when I was young; it just sort of happened. I dropped out of school to work around the world, which was amazing. But I never had this burning ambition to be an actor, I always felt uncomfortable in that role. You’re doing what other people tell you to do. When it looked like the band had a real shot, it was an obvious decision. There’s nothing better than being able to create something yourself, to write music with your friends and perform it. I still find that amazing.
How would you describe your sound?
We started with guitar-based stuff, with vocals and piano. Then we gradually became more electronic, with synths and Emre doing production on his laptop. We make electronic soulful pop music. We’re all really nostalgic about late ’90s and early 2000s dance music, garage and R&B. But there are lots of different elements to it. We all have different tastes, which mix to make a strange but delicious cocktail.
Are your lyrics consciously melancholy?
It comes down to what inspires you to write a song. For me that’s usually painful emotions or feeling like I’m not good enough. Emotional honesty is really important to me when I listen to artists that I respect. Throwaway pop songs have their place, but I wouldn’t want to be in the music industry unless I was making some emotionally honest statement.
Is going on stage as a frontman different to being in the spotlight as an actor?
I’m amazed by how different it is. As an actor you have a character and lines to hide behind. You’re not exposing anything of yourself, really. So when I started performing as a singer, I found it really hard to judge, I just didn’t know what to do. I still get really nervous before a show, as it exposes you, you’re vulnerable. But then I think you should be: you’re trying to communicate stories about your life.
What’s been the most surprising thing that’s happened to Years & Years in the last year?
So many things: people from all corners of the world, as far as Colombia, saying they’re listening to our music; getting signed; getting played on Radio 1. Appearing on Later… with Jools Holland was insane, so surreal. Mikey and Emre had this joke that they’d quit once they got there as it couldn’t get than that. But they’re still in the band, thankfully. I felt physically sick with nerves. I grew up watching that show. I’ve kept a diary since I was 11, and afterwards I just sat down and wrote this epic entry about it like an emotional teenage girl.