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Mandatory Credit: Photo by Richard Isaac/REX/Shutterstock (88561
Photograph: Richard Isaac/REX/Shutterstock

Olly Alexander talks queer pop music and Years & Years’ upcoming album

The U.K. pop darling and Years & Years frontman tells us about his creative process before he hits NYC's Terminal 5

Written by
David Goldberg

Known for its sensitive, gender-neutral lyrics, beautifully choreographed music videos and frankly fabulous-looking lead singer Olly Alexander, British pop trio Years & Years have quickly influenced the evolution of pop music. Before Years & Years hits the Pride Island music festival on Saturday, June 24, we spoke with Alexander about performing at Gay Pride, his writing process and the new album.

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to Gay Pride in NYC

With Halsey’s new bisexual duet “Strangers,” it feels like queer lyricism is becoming more common in pop music. What role has Years & Years played in this evolution?
It’s important to recognize the many queer artists who have been making queer music for a long time. The conversation is: Why does it feel so shocking that Halsey releases a song that’s primarily about two women who are romantically linked to each other, when Rufus Wainwright and Perfume Genius and countless other queer artists have been doing it for a long time? But this one has broken through to the mainstream. The mainstream artists that are queer tend to be sanitized, straightwashed versions—if you like. I suppose I’m interested in how it still feels transgressive for a woman who identifies as bisexual to sing about another woman who identifies as bisexual. The pace of progress can be pretty slow, and can go backwards, too. I don’t know if this is a moment in history, or if we are bending towards a much more tolerant and accepting place of identity. I think we are, but I still feel like it needs to get introduced [to the mainstream]. There’s such a long way to go. With Years & Years, we had a quiet breakthrough in terms of our queer message. It was very embedded within us since the very beginning, and it’s become kind of more explicit as we’ve grown.

Does being labeled as a queer band make you uncomfortable?
No, I feel very honored to be among the pantheon of queer performers. But I suppose the larger conversation around labels and identities can feel limiting. I’m in a band with two straight guys, and we’re constantly grappling with these different identities, especially because we have a queer mission statement. There’s not much you can do once people start to perceive you in a certain way. I love being seen as queer artist. I’m happy with that label.

It’s been two years since Years & Years released its first album, Communion. How have you changed? How has the band evolved?
I feel like two seconds ago we were releasing our first album, and everything went crazy. Now, I’m approaching the other side of my twenties, with some of these songs that I wrote when I was 19. As an artist, it’s quite strange to still live with what feels like a very young identity to your music. And the pace is frustrating because we want to get new music out, but everything takes so long, and getting stuff finished is difficult. I didn’t really write any new music when the album came out for a good chunk of time, and when I came back to it I felt like: Oh, maybe I don’t remember how to write music. But I wrote so many songs, and it felt like it was coming out pretty naturally. Now when I listen to the first album, I think it just sounds like a different part of my life. I’m eager to get new material out. The cycle of a musical artist is quite bizarre in that way. You have to live with these old versions of yourself constantly.

Do you feel like you’re clear on what the new album is about?
Oh, no. I have no idea. It’s good to always be questioning and in a constant state of panic and despair. I still don’t really know how this album is going to turn out until it’s actually finished, and then I’m sure I’ll just move on to the next thing in an equal state of confusion. But that’s how I like to work.

Are you exploring similar themes from the first album?
Well, a lot of people picked up on the first album being lots of stories about heartbreak, and songs that were kind of sad. But to me, all songs are about heartbreak and sadness—even if you think they’re happy songs. All the best pop music has a crying soul at the heart of it. So that hasn’t changed too much. If anything, I’ve become more confident in my songwriting. There’s all these hidden messages and codes I put to myself in the first album, because I wasn’t strong enough to say what I wanted to say, but I feel like maybe I’m strong enough to go ahead with it this time ’round.

What should we look forward to at the Pride Island show?
We’re not going to be able to bring our dancers with us, so I’ll just try to get as naked as possible so that people don’t feel shortchanged? But the music will be really good! I’ll dance around, maybe hook up with someone from the audience? I don’t know. It’s all fair game. I’m single, just saying!

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