Olly Alexander Is Finally Going It Alone, And He’s Happier Than Ever

Published: January 20, 2022

“I had been working on new music since 2019. We were touring Palo Santo still and I was trying to get songs for the next album but not really focused on it too much?” Olly Alexander says of his first attempt at writing Years & Years’ third album Night Call.

“Then I went to do It’s A Sin for like three months, came back to working on those songs then the pandemic happened. There was sort of a big…,” he jumps back to the previous thought. “…And then Years and Years became just me.”

A twist on the old tradition of singers leaving groups to go solo, in April 2021 it was announced that Olly would instead become the band’s sole member, with the Years & Years moniker being attributed to just himself.

“All of those events, one after the other all at the same time, I just thought, “‘Well I don’t like any of these songs anymore!’ I need to go back to the drawing board and start again.‘“

King Under Your Control

Formed in 2010, Years & Years broke through on a global scale in 2015 with their triple platinum-certified single, ‘King’; their debut album Communion going on to reach the number one spot in the UK album charts. The then three-piece (it was briefly five) along with producer Mark Ralph carved out a place somewhere between radio-friendly pop and the EDM/Tropicana house wave that gripped indie bands in the mid-2010s.

Communion’s lyrics were largely penned by Alexander and explore the dark grey areas of human relationships; temptation, obsession, and giving into desires, specifically gay desires. Alexander was candid and outspoken about queerness from the very beginning of their career — a rarity in 2015 when the advice was to get famous first and come out after.

Communion’s follow-up would come three years later with Palo Santo, its cover depicting Olly alone in a jungle, chain around his neck, face covered in mysterious symbols. Complex and experimental, The Guardian labelled it ‘ambitious’ and while it would make its way to the top five of the UK album charts it would also reveal a band in two, or perhaps three minds, about where to go next.

By the time the first songs for Night Call were written founding member Mikey Goldworthy and bandmate Emre Türkmen had left Years & Years, after over a decade of work in the studio and on stage. For Olly Alexander, this meant freedom from expectations about how a band should look or sound though now, more than ever, the pressure to deliver lay firmly on his shoulders.

Olly’s initial attempt at kickstarting a third body of work wasn’t a total disaster. From around twenty drafts, two would make the cut: ‘Make It Out Alive’ and ’20 Minutes’, the latter with all the hallmarks of another lead turned soloist, Justin Timberlake. These aside, it was a year of trial and error before connecting with a familiar face would give the record some momentum,

“Going back to Mark Ralph was kind of the key component of creating the album. I had been working with him on and off since Communion. Mark produced all of Communion and some of Palo Santo,” Olly’s face lights up mentioning his collaborator, “I love Mark so much, he just understands the sound of Years & Years so instinctively and intuitively. And he’s a great writing partner too — like if you really know someone, and we know each other so well, we can just hang out in the studio and mess around and it’s fun and we’ve created a bunch of ideas by the end of the day. So we did a lot of stuff us just the two of us, I think ‘Consequences’ came from that.”

I need to go back to the drawing board and start again.”

The album’s full-throttle opener takes us from Dua Lipa’s disco dance floor to somewhere more like a sunny festival field and is designed to be blasted from towering amps with rib shaking sub-bass. A thick four-to-the-floor kick is joined by an auto-tuned robotic voice booming the song title, with Olly’s signature melismatic vocals responding in the chorus, “You’re gonna have to suffer!” Sounding like a modern take on Patrick Crowley and Sylvester’s queer anthem ‘MENERGY’, it foreshadows many loving references to the ’80s sprinkled throughout the record. A fitting nod to Olly’s time as Ritchie in Russell T Davies’ drama It’s A Sin, set in 1980s London at the start of the AIDS crisis.

“We made a little family, then once you get into your groove, you know — the album happened in quite short space of time but it took a long time to get to that short space.”

Adding to their hot streak is ‘Crave’. Combining the slinky, breathy vocals of Kylie Minogue’s ‘Confide In Me’ and the edge of your seat production of Madonna’s ‘Get Together’, it’s a career highlight.

“It is a hard song to sing I can’t lie to you, it’s very high in the chorus but it’s just a slightly different way of singing,” Olly explains. “I remember in the studio Mark and [songwriter] Coffee, really pushed me to use my voice differently than I usually would.”

The Pop Companion

‘Sweet Talker’, Years & Years’ tenth entry into the UK Top 40, marks the only feature on Night Call with the honours going to Swedish masterminds Galantis. A sailing, cinematic masterclass in Scandinavian dance-pop; the collaboration brings out the best in both acts. With that said, you’d be forgiven for assuming they’d spent time in the studio together.

“It was all virtual! Depending on the type of collaboration you’re doing it can either help or hinder the work you’re doing,” says Olly. “But with Galantis it was a really great sort of situation. Because I had ‘Sweet Talker’ as a song that I made with Mark [Ralph] and another songwriter Max [Wolfgang], and it was good but it just lacked, I don’t know, but it was definitely lacking something.

“I was looking for someone to come to feature on it when Christian Karlsson from Galantis, who was working with Mark at the time, heard it and then he went ahead and just — he didn’t even say anything — he just went and recorded a whole string section! He sent the video of them recording [the strings] live and it just blew my mind.”

I lift up my hand and rub my thumb against two fingers, “Expensive.”

Olly cackles, “There goes the album recording budget!”

With the lead singles and duets with our Kylie already out in the world, there is still plenty to discover on Night Call. ‘See You Again’ could live comfortably on Robyn’s Bodytalk while the album closer, ‘Reflection’, invokes her early collaborations with Röyksopp. One of Night Call’s most inspired moments is ‘Strange and Unusual’. With a spikey arpeggiated bass synth (ala Nine Inch Nails) leading the verse, the song seamlessly unfolds into a lush wavy chorus; The song’s bridge putting Olly’s shimmering high register on full display, sounding not so dissimilar to Darren Hayes of Savage Garden.

Night Call is truly a testament to the 31-year-olds knowledge and love of a genre that is admittedly pretty hard to define.

“Pop music has really been a companion for as long as I can remember. Like six years old, hearing ‘Wannabe’ for the first time and my life was forever changed,” he swoons. “For me growing up… there was a time prepuberty, of an unabashed love of pop, of all the pop girls like Britney and Christina that just started happening as I got to my teenage years. And then it became very uncool to like that music if you were a boy.

“So I kind of hid that for a number of years while I was at school and didn’t really come back into it until I was a bit older. And I think a lot of queer people understand that where can kind of reclaim a bit of the youth they might have had to sort of, live differently from how they wanted or hide their tastes because it was, ‘too gay’ or whatever. So this kind of return to pop music in that sort is me reclaiming that.”

I mention my undying love of Liberty X and Daniel Beddingfield, and how gratifying it was to see Little Mix give a shout out to all the girl groups like Sugababes and All Saints when they won Best British Group at The Brit Awards 2021.

“Yes, it’s not a guilty pleasure, it’s just a pleasure. And also pop is such a broad term, it really encompasses so much. You can call Kate Bush pop music, so is Liberty X and I love both, they mean different things and it’s okay. And I just really dislike music snobbery, “I don’t like that because it’s too popular,” like sorry, what, it’s bad because lots of people like it?”

So having found joy again in music and a thriving acting career to boot, I ask, what are the consequences of being Olly Alexander? He replies, tongue firmly in cheek: “Very damaged hair from constant bleaching, colour and straightening!”

“Pop music has really been a companion for as long as I can remember.”

I threaten to make the headline for our interview, “Olly Alexander: Damaged and straight!” And we’re gently wrapped up by the marketing team. After three years in the making, there is still plenty to do ahead of release day in just a month from when we talk. It’s a long time coming for the songwriter who, like all of us, had had our world and plans turned upside down by the middle of 2020.

“One thing the pandemic made me really question is why am I doing anything?” He says. “What’s the point of anything? That put me in a place where I felt quite depressed for a minute…But then I sort of came back around to really appreciating the position I’m in and loving music as much as I do and trying to just focus on stuff that made me feel good and that’s how Night Call emerged.”

It’s as much a personal discovery as it is the overarching theme on Night Call, time and time again reminding us to seek out and fully immerse ourselves in moments of ecstasy, fantasy and joy whenever we can.

From Morcheeba, Disclosure and The Pet Shop Boys to Britney, Brandy and Shakira, it’s Olly Alexander’s genuine love and palpable enthusiasm for creating shamelessly uplifting pop that makes Night Call such an uncompromising success. With Night Call, Olly finds his conclusions to those ‘ambitious’ propositions posed with Years & Years’ first two records and in doing so transcends them both while bringing early fans along for the ride.

Night Call is one the most well-executed pop albums in recent memory — the remaining member of the band fully embracing the responsibility and the freedom that he now has.

Night Call is out now through Universal Music Australia. 

Brendan Maclean is a queer music maker and biannual music journalist for Junkee. Follow Brendan on Twitter.

The post Olly Alexander Is Finally Going It Alone, And He’s Happier Than Ever appeared first on Junkee.

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