Growing up, Olly Alexander was enthralled by the mythology and folklore of fairy tales. He grew up in the Forest of Dean, in South West England, and worked at Moonstones, a shop specializing in the sale of witches’ books and crystals. Over time, and through the influence of films like David Bowie’s Labyrinth, the Years & Years frontman took note of the way identity functioned differently in fantasy realms. “I think it's such a great way of storytelling because we all have a relationship to these creatures or these myths,” he tells The FADER over Zoom from London.
On Night Call, Years & Years' third album and the first since the band became his solo project, Alexander transforms into one of the fairy tale creatures he loved the most — the siren, whose voice could lure sailors to their demise on jagged rocks. Gone are Alexander’s days of writing himself into the role of the heartbroken and yearning victim; now he’s the one tempting less-than-ingeniuous men to danger.
Night Call explores the desire that builds up in forced isolation, where physical touch is impossible. Reuniting with Mark Ralph, who produced the first Years & Years record but had less of a hand in the second, it was obvious to Alexander that the freeing landscape of pure dance music was the key to building this musical world — a discotheque at sea. He pulled inspiration from the '80s records he listened to while on set for the series It’s A Sin (where he played Ritchie Tozer, an 18-year-old coming of age in 1981 London at the emergence of the HIV/AIDS epidemic) and the Disclosure-esque tracks that permeated the clubs he frequented in his early 20s. Below, Alexander tells The FADER about finding freedom in that amalgamation, toying with fantasy and escapism, and the process behind Night Call.
The FADER: There’s a really strong sense of confidence throughout Night Call. How did you let go of expectations – either from yourself or from other people – in order to tap into that feeling of escape and liberation?
Olly Alexander: Because that's really what I tried to create, and it was a step-by-step process. I didn't know where I was going until I [went there]. I'm not naturally that confident a lot of the time, but I really felt like, if I was gonna make music and put it out there, I got tired of writing songs that were about heartbreak. I mean, some of the songs are still about heartbreak, but feeling like I'd been just fucked over by guys.
Spending all this time alone, as well, made me reach for a part of my character that's quite minimal sometimes, but that you can really explore as a performer and as a writer. I was just mixing it all together and trying to find this character that was confident and expressed themselves in the music. It was so fun, then, to go to the studio, because I would inhabit this part of myself that felt quite new and really exciting and just see what happened. Then I was like, Oh, this is the number one thing, now I understand what the album's gotta be. When people hear it, they've gotta feel that for themselves. They've gotta feel like, yeah, I'm not ashamed to ask for what I want either. But it took a while to really figure that out.
What was the key to unlocking this headspace or state of mind to create this record?
I had a real meltdown, just feeling like nothing was right with the music I've been working on. Also, the entire world changed in 2020, so I felt like the music needed to change. I was spending so much time alone, like a lot of people. I live alone and I actually crave alone time, but so much of it made me really insular and made me not wanna do anything. But the music that I was listening to was, well, the music that I love — a lot of dance music. I don't wanna hear a ballad. I don't wanna take a breath in that way, I just wanna move around. Even when I'm at home, in my flat, just move around and try and feel good. And because I was just missing physical connection — I'd been single for a while and then I was just like, well, I haven't had sex for almost a year — just feeling really like I was missing all of those things. So I just put it all into an album basically to try and create it for myself.
When did the visual concept to become this siren-like figure take form and how did that fit into what you wanted Night Call to feel like?
I've always loved mermaids and sirens. I love the Tim Buckley song “Song to the Siren,” it's one of the most beautiful songs ever made. It's always stayed with me and I've tried to write songs similarly about sirens, but I became really obsessed with the character of the mermaid. She became a bit of a muse for the record, because I really related in many ways to her doomed nature where she's just alone on a rock singing, luring these men to their death. I imagined Night Call as a little bit of her revenge. It was just about her having fun with what she's got. They're endlessly fascinating as mythical creatures. I love the sort of intersection they sit at which sort of blends gender as well as land and sea.
Who are the artists who have inspired you in dance music? What do you learn from them?
Just before the first lockdown, I'd spent three months making It's A Sin, which was set in the 80s and it had such a great soundtrack. We were all listening to eighties music every day. I had lots of stuff like Sylvester, Hooked on Classics, Erasure and Pet Shop Boys present in my mind.
Dance music is so broad, obviously, it just encompasses so much. My clubbing days were my early 20s and at that time, stuff that was just getting played in the clubs was like Disclosure and Skbtrkt and Little Dragon. I love that music, but I returned to this music that made me feel good and the 80s music that just came back into my life, really, from It's A Sin. [I was] imagining what it would be like to be on a dance floor, or at a disco or a club, and you would hear Donna Summer "I Feel Love" and you would just completely lose your mind. And you might not hear that song again for months, you know, until the next DJ played it or until you get your hands on the record.
The freedom and the spirit of liberation in that music is just so inherent to its creation, and that was very inspiring to me. I just thought, I wanna make my own little version of that, just really about expressing yourself. Like Prince. I mean, I know every fucking artist is referencing Prince, but he really was amazing. When I listen to a Prince song, I just get taken away on a journey. That blend of his lyrics, like religion, magic, sexuality, assertiveness, vulnerability, I think that's so inspiring.
What is it about that particular brand of pop that feels most liberating to you?
I guess I associate it so much with a communal experience. Dance music, it's meant to make you move. I discovered so much about myself in clubs and going out and just a lot of the soundtrack to those moments was dance music. Even being a musician, you get to do the songs live, you have that connection with other people in the audience. That communal experience can be very transcendental. It's a language, not to be super corny, but it really is. It really is a language that everybody can speak. And it's so important to every culture, every subculture, it's just there within. Each one has its own expression, it's beautiful. And dance music really is such a broad church for so many marginalized communities throughout history. It really just congregated and created the most incredible dance music. I think it's that blend of electronic and acoustic and BPM and genres that just feels exciting and draws people to it.
When writing an album inspired by encounters with other people and reflecting on those moments, what do you reveal or learn about yourself?
You have to be careful what you say in a song sometimes, because it's the power of the words. As soon as you say it, the words are out there and you can be really accusatory in songs. But when I look back at my lyrics from my older songs there's all these hidden clues. I know where they come from or a lot of them are words that I like and I'll have used it for another song. I saw I was often in songs really just pleading for the other person to resolve the situation. I felt like it was just much more of a passive dynamic that I was writing about. That dissolved a bit and I didn't wanna write like that anymore. I just had something new I wanted to say. When it felt different, I was like, oh, well that's good. If it feels different, I'll do that.
Working on a television series is a much more communal process than writing an album, which can become quite solitary in its nature. And with It’s A Sin in particular, that role required you to tap into something really visceral and emotional. What do you take away from creating on a set like that that you later carry into your music?
Like you say, they're both such different experiences. So that alone, I really valued being able to experience both in such an intense way. Making It's A Sin was such a profound experience. The fact that I had been on the road touring, singing in Years & Years, that made me a much more confident performer and I felt like it helped me be able to play Ritchie. I was taking off all my jewelry and my nose ring and dying my hair brown and becoming this character and then when it finished, it was like, okay, I'm gonna dye my hair red and put on my jewelry. And, I guess I'm playing this other character now.
But they both have similarities for me in the sense that when I'm making music or I'm on stage singing, it's like I slip into a different state of reality. The time feels different. I'm really addicted to that feeling, it's very calming. I'm totally turned off from distractions., I'm in the moment just making music or singing. And acting is the same, hopefully, when it's right. Because you're just in the moment playing a different character, the time feels different. It also reveals stuff to yourself about your identity in a way that you're like, huh, does that come from me? Or does that come from a character? That's interesting. I hadn't thought about that.
Especially in turning someone's creative vision and idea into this profound thing that spoke to so many people, and drew attention to something that's so important... We lost so many of these pioneers in music and fashion to the AIDS epidemic. Having that connection must feel special.
It was the most profound experience of my life. I learned so much and put my own upbringing into a context I hadn't realized before. It is such a deep shadow, um, for many people, this moment in history. It's so misunderstood and so much happened in silence, so much was brushed under the carpet. It's not surprising, but obviously there's a deep need to bring it out into the light and talk about it even though that is so painful for many people. That was really the takeaway, just how meaningful it can be to and how long of a shadow it had left for so many people and it still impacts us all today. It's not over, but this opportunity unlocked something in the people that watched it and I'm still processing it.
What are you most proud of in having shaped the identity of Years & Years in such a way that, even in the split, it became so inseparable from your own that you couldn’t just carry on as Olly Alexander?
At so many points along the way, I felt like I can't do this. I look back and I was just so uncertain at so many junctures. It's easy to think, oh yeah, I was just so sure of myself and in some ways I was. I really stuck to my, guns about just being as gay as possible. There were many, many times where it would've possibly been a smoother road if I had been a little less outspoken about my identity. But it really helped me understand the kind of art I wanted to make and the kind of person I wanted to be. I didn't really understand that at first. I was just like, oh, I'm gonna be honest about myself. And I think that's a really good policy, usually. I get really overwhelmed and I look at other artists like, how do they cope with this? But obviously everybody struggles. I get the same thing and I'm like, I shouldn't be an artist, it's not the right place for me. But then I'm like, no, no, no. I'm so proud of what I've done and I'm still here doing it.