“When I’m putting together a look I like to look like a gay witch,” Olly Alexander says to me over Zoom and we both instantly start laughing. Uncensored and candid he elaborates on his aesthetic by saying “I have magic powers but I’m still a little sexy gay witch that’s my sweet spot.” But for his new album Night Call, he set aside the witch in lieu of a sexy mermaid luring listeners into an alternate universe of contemporary pop inspired by ‘80s hits.
A lot has changed for Olly since his last album Palo Santo in 2019. He still uses the moniker Years & Years but now as a solo artist parting ways with his former bandmates Mikey Goldsworthy and Emre Türkmen. He starred in the critically acclaimed UK television series It’s a Sin, performed with Elton John at the 2021 Brit Awards, collaborated on a song with Kylie Minogue, and headlined BBC One’s The Big New Years & Years Eve Party. He’s loved as an actor and artist alike and while he acknowledges he has to wear different hats for each, the two are inextricably linked to his identity. So is vulnerability, he openly discusses topics others of his stature shy away from—dating, mental health, and sexuality. But Night Call doesn’t just talk about sexuality, it celebrates it as Olly sings about the joys of going out and casual sex over synth sounds and pulsating dance beats. The playfulness of his music is ubiquitous in our conversation as he laughs about performing on top of Elton John’s piano and gushes about Kylie Minogue’s NYE performance.
Below, we chat about the mermaid muse on his album cover, vulnerability as an actor and artist, all things Kylie Minogue, and the advice he would give himself 10 years ago.
As a newly solo artist, how did Night Call come together, and how does it differ from your previous albums?
First, I started writing songs in 2019 but the world changed so much in 2020 and I went right back to the drawing board. The situation within the band, we’d been talking for a while about maybe going separate ways and how we were going to make the future work so we needed to have that conversation. There was so much change going on and in the midst of all of that, I rediscovered dance music and how much I love ‘80s dance-pop. I was like, “okay well that’s what I’m going to make.” It took me a while to figure that out and every album is different but this one definitely came from all of that.
What helped you tap into the fantasy world of Night Call when you were working on the album?
I had just come off this TV show It’s A Sin set in the ‘80s and that whole period was immersed in ‘80s music. It helped me rediscover a lot of songs that I loved but hadn’t listened to for ages and artists that really broke the mold like Pet Shop Boys and Sylvester. I was listening to a lot of that in lockdown and I listened to the stuff that I hadn’t listened to since I was going out in my early 20s like dance music in the UK. Even Madonna’s Ray Of Light album, I loved it so much so I just tried to throw all of those influences together and that was my escape.
What inspired the idea of a mermaid muse for the album cover?
I really love mythology and mermaids as a form of storytelling [laughs] I had been thinking about ideas for music videos and I wanted to be a mermaid in one of them but it costs a lot of money to pull that off in the way that I wanted to. But I had this idea of this [mermaid] character and she became this inspiration because she’s the siren out at sea and her voice lures these sailors to their death. She’s this tragic but beautiful figure and I found her really inspiring as a way to take ownership of this because Night Call is meant to take place at night. It’s meant to be the best night of your life where you’re free to express yourself however you want [and] I felt like the mermaid was that for me.
You recently hosted BBC One’s NYE party with Kylie Minogue & Pet Shop Boys, what was the most memorable part of the night?
Having that slot on BBC One in the UK was such a big deal. To have Kylie and The Pet Shop Boys come and perform on the show was breathtaking- I can’t believe it was real. I was inside of a dream that I’d had once, do you know what I mean? Kylie got introduced and it was her silhouette and she turned around on the revolving stage and began singing and I was like *gasps* [insert mind blown emoji] just such a moment.
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You have a song with Kylie called “Second To Midnight,” how was it collaborating with her?
Again like a dream come true, she has been an inspiration to me since I was 7 years old and our paths have crossed a few times over the years so I know how amazing she is. Getting the chance to work with her was so cool, we did it in lockdown so we did it remotely but she was doing everything by herself at home like recording all her vocal takes [and] sending different ideas. She’s the ultimate pro as well as being the most brilliant pop star ever.
What was the best part of performing “It’s A Sin” with Elton John at the Brit Awards last year?
Just that I got to lie on top of Sir Elton John’s piano [laughs] that was the first thing I said I was like “I have to be lying on the piano” [laughs]. I loved the outfit so much too, Harris Reed made that beautiful outfit. It was like [a] superpower outfit you know?
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What is the relationship between mental health and music for you?
For most people, I would say [it’s] such an intimate part of their lives from a young age ‘cause when you’re down you listen to music, when you’re happy you listen to music, it’s literally the soundtrack of your life. But for me personally, I’m so lucky to be able to make music ‘cause it helps me with my mental health. I get to make things that make me feel a bit better about myself or the world. I think anybody can understand when you make something that feels like oh I did that and that’s how it is with music.
You’ve previously said, “vulnerability is the greatest power of all.” What does vulnerability as an artist mean to you? Does it differ from vulnerability as an actor?
I love being an artist because I get to produce, direct and write the stuff that I put out there and it’s like you’re a character but you’re also yourself. This is what I love about artists: they’re being themselves, whoever that is, and they have this sort of [pauses] authenticity that means something different to everybody but something that draws you in.
Acting is totally different because you have to throw all of that away and try [to] be someone else [laughs]. I didn’t expect it to make me feel as vulnerable as it did because if you’re playing an emotional scene you had to use experiences from your own life and being vulnerable and emotional in front of all these people you work with is hard.
How do you deal with the pressures of the spotlight and being a role model while staying grounded?
It’s good to sometimes try and forget about all of that stuff but I have a few values I try and live by. One of them is: does it feel creative? And another one is: does it feel helpful in some way to a community or myself? Then I have a reason to do something. I do feel [it’s] a privilege to be in this position and when you have people that are going to listen to what you have to say you may as well say something that you believe in.
How would you explain your current situation to your ten-years-ago self?
This is weird because I have been obsessed with this TV show lately called Dark it’s all about time travel and I used to write in my diary when I was a kid like oh I want to be a successful singer and I want to do this. If I could have gone back [in time] I could have said something that would have encouraged me. I thought the stuff that made me an outsider or different from other people was my flaws but over time you realize that stuff really becomes your strength and is fundamental to who you are and if I could give myself a little bit of encouragement in that direction I would [laughs].