In the five years it took from conception to completion of the debut Years and Years album Communion, frontman Olly Alexander did a lot of growing up. Part of this was the simple, pleasing physical experience of seeing huge success at close range. ‘When the album started I was 23,’ Olly notes. He will be 28 this year. ‘I’ve discovered a lot about myself.’ With Communion, Years and Years made a palpable new tribal impact on pop. They mapped out something of the treasure trail of pop’s special inlet, locating a loyal band of brothers and sisters for whom Olly meant more than someone to look up to, glistening on stage. He felt like a friend.
‘I had three years of mind-fuck, crazy experiences travelling around the world,’ he continues. It all came as something of a shock to Olly. ‘I genuinely thought that those things would never happen or that people would respond to a gay pop star slut-dropping on stage.’ When he stepped aside from touring the record at the end of 2016, he began to think a little harder and deeper about his purpose. ‘It’s changed my beliefs in what I am capable of doing.’
When he began performing, Olly used to take the magical leap of faith all performers must de facto rely on, that they might have a place up there reserved for themselves. ‘I always used to go out on stage and be a bit scared,’ he says. It was all guesswork at that stage. ‘I was nervous, connected to my experiences growing up as a queer kid at school. I was always wary of enemies, of thinking people were going to tear me down or hurt me.’
He felt the fear and did it anyway. ‘Going out on stage is a bit like putting on this armour for me. Applaud me now. I can do this.’ By the close of the album campaign, he’d very nearly started to believe it. ‘It started to change when I’d see so many queer kids in the front row. They were just having the best times of their lives, making friends with each other. I had never experienced anything like that until I’d become the singer of Years and Years.’
This summer, Years and Years will release their hugely-anticipated second album. All of Olly’s newly minted creative ambition will find its pure physical pulse. And already, at the early listening stage, it feels stuffed full of meaningful hits, a transitional leap from the lay-lines of the homespun pop majesty of Communion toward something of the crystalline magic that ran once through the Jackson family fingertips. Throughout, Years and Years have crafted their own special landmarks that feel intuitively connected to great British pop classicism while standing bolt upright on a world stage next to Drake, The Weeknd and Rihanna.
If there is a ghostly shadow sitting over the Minneapolitan strut of opening single, Sanctify, it is the 13-year-old Olly listening to Britney’s Slave 4 U in his bedroom and playing back the experience at full adult pop throttle. ‘Basically,’ he says, ‘every time I go into the studio I think "what would Britney or Christina have made in their heyday?" I want melodies as irresistible as that. They were both huge when I was 12, 13. I was obsessed with them but I knew that I couldn’t be too openly obsessed with them, as a boy. I kept them hidden.’
No longer. Olly Alexander knows that now is the time to repay the debt of confidence he’s been injected by his band of loyal dedicates. It’s time for the Pied Piper to start leading by song once more. ‘What I love so much about being in Years and Years is this fantasy that I’m allowed to live in. Anything can happen, everyone’s welcome and everyone’s safe. That’s the deal. So why not keep it going in that direction?’
In the time that’s passed since he first started to affect this true communion between what goes on stage and in the audience, in the safe space he’s sculpted in the pop stratosphere, a lot has changed in the world, too. On the one hand, the obvious acts of worldwide political vandalism that have begun to validate draconian value systems we once thought extinct. But on the other a fresh, youthful new dialogue that has thrown up the old rulebook of sexuality, gender and identity norms into the air to see where their shattered ashes might reform at ground level.
From his pivotal position in Years and Years, where the minority is always the majority, he’s seen it all first hand. ‘Wow, there really is a community out there,’ he says, ‘who want to support each other and is able to give one another all this confidence. Particularly for the younger kids, this just gave me so much faith in humanity. They’re going to grow up and educate each other and educate the rest of the world that it’s OK to be who you are. Seeing them made me feel like I had to cultivate who I am and be there for it all. I’m endlessly grateful for that.’
Olly’s specific creative reaction to all this has been pouring it back into Years and Years’ world. ‘That’s part of who I am as a performer. I’m not just singing. I’m trying to flex all of my creative muscles and do something that we haven’t seen before.’ The journey the threesome began with Communion has taken a significant upswing second time around. ‘As a reaction to the world around us, personally I want to create a new one and just play there for a minute, even if it is all just in our imaginations Palo Santo is a whole new universe created from the imagination of the singer. ‘Where can I be my freest self, not tied to a gender or sexuality. I’ll just create my own world where those things don’t exist, where anybody can be any gender and sexuality that they like.’ In this thrilling parallel universe, light years from here and now, a utopia has been sketched out. It will be revealed across all the media surrounding Palo Santo, in videos, narratives online and off, finally climaxing in every sense of the word onstage in the all new Years and Years show.
‘It came from loads of different ideas of what Years and Years is about and what I am about,’ he says, bristling with the excitement of inviting an audience along to take the ride into the unknown along with him. ‘I felt like creating that space and playing around in there would be a good thing to do. It has all my favourite things combined: sci-fi, spiritualism, performance and identity.’
If this all feels slightly out of character for the shy boy who found his confidence on the middle of a stage, that’s because it is. Palo Santo is a new frontier in every sense of the word. ‘I thought, why not aim as high as possible? You only get one life and one chance. Now it’s here and finished, I can’t believe we’re actually doing it.’
Olly Alexander understands more than most his responsibility as a pop star, as much to an audience that hang on his every word as those that might catch thirty seconds of it on the radio and have their ears pricked by fulsome new pop ambition. ‘I feel very fortunate to be in a place where I can do this but also to feel free enough to do it. I have the confidence and support to do it. I had to do something that really excites me and makes me feel creatively fulfilled. Just imagining what this world looks like, feels like and sounds like has been so exciting.’
The confidence that propels the new Years and Years album, the full-blooded fantasia of Palo Santo connects to where we are as a country, as a world, at a stark moral cross roads, between left and right, old and young, hypocrisy and truth, right and wrong. It is about pop music taking the reins, steering us out of the terrestrial universe and rethinking everything from the outside. It’s about outlier pop as futurism, once more, about offering solutions when the world is failing you.
Ultimately, it is driven by a deeply personal and only occasionally otherworldly lifeforce. ‘Now I’m not afraid of what people think of me,’ says Olly Alexander. ‘That’s a new feeling for me.’