Former Pop Idol who became nation's darling

THE last time Will Young played Kenwood House, he felt strange to be singing across a lake. The Pop Idol winner found the bucolic setting somewhat quieter than previous rip-roaring gigs where he has shared the stage with the likes of Elton

Bridget Galton

THE last time Will Young played Kenwood House, he felt strange to be singing across a


The Pop Idol winner found the bucolic setting somewhat quieter than previous rip-roaring gigs where he has shared the stage with the likes of Elton John, Burt Bacharach James Brown and Queen.

"Last time I was singing more to the ducks than to the audience. There was a really funny moment when I told a joke and no-one laughed, and then there was this big quack from a goose. Even the geese had started heckling and I was dying on stage. So this time, no jokes."

Young is, of course, the pop star who eight years ago proved you could emerge from prime time reality TV with likeability, humour and dignity intact.

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Within days of becoming the first ever winner of the now worldwide Pop Idol contest, he came out as gay, exhibiting a relaxed honesty that would characterise his future relationship with the media.

Blessed with a soulful, tremulous vocal timbre, he has gone on to enjoy a credible pop career selling eight million albums featuring hits like Leave Right Now, Who Am I, All Time Love and Evergreen.

But the public school-educated, university graduate has also presented the more thoughtful face of the music business, invited onto Question Time and to speak at the Oxford Union, as well as articulately championing several charities including those for mental health and domestic violence.

The Notting Hill-based performer has also dipped his toe into the acting waters with some success, appearing opposite Judi Dench in the movie Mrs Henderson Presents and playing the lead in Noel Coward's The Vortex at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre.

Relaxed about the onerous business of talking about himself to journalists, seconds into our chat, Young is gently teasing me about my name and insisting he still loves the business.

"This year was meant to be a quiet one, but it's ended up not being so quiet," says the singer who released his The Hits album last October and recently duetted on a Groove Armada dance track.

"The last tour was very much the greatest hits, which is great for the audience. I always give the audience what they want at a gig but outdoor gigs are a bit freer and it's fun to play around with it. That's part of the creative process, working out what kind of vibe, and what kind of covers can change things around. Sometimes I throw in a new song or an interesting cover. People respond to that because that's part of live music, otherwise you might as well put on a CD."

Kenwood concert-goers, he reveals, may be treated to a cover of a John Martyn track.

"These outdoor gigs are so much more relaxed. You get the changing of the light as night descends and it's all natural and chilled out."

The 31-year-old is infectiously enthusiastic about live performing.

"I love it more and more as I have got older. I used to be really hard on myself if I missed a note but I have got more confident on stage. I started learning my craft a bit more. I have a new singing teacher and I feel a lot more accomplished as a singer."

He also takes regular dance lessons and pilates classes. So he's not complacent about himself as a performer?

"I do take it really seriously, that's what's so wonderful about my job, there is always so much more to learn about performance," he says earnestly.

"It's about having that artillery to hand and the different disciplines aren't mutually exclusive. I do acting as well and as quite a nervous person I never knew what to do with my hands. It took me three years to stand with my feet apart with my arms out by my side not clutching a mic."

In fact he sees the gigs as part acting, so if he's having a bad time, it doesn't necessarily mean the audience is too.

"It's more of a service. The art is to look as though you are relaxed and enjoying it even if you are not. My prime responsibility is for the audience to have a good time - but I do enjoy every gig. I still get really excited just singing into a microphone. I love sound checks, they go on for hours."

Young says growing up in Berkshire, he wanted to be a pop star "from day dot".

His mum had "really good taste in music" and he would listen to her Joni Mitchell and Beatles records as well as buying his own - memorably Michael Jackson's Thriller.

"I remember putting it on the turntable with that picture of him lying down in a black suit with white socks, and I would sing along. There were no moves, a more mal-coordinated man you wouldn't find."

After making a pact with a childhood friend to become a famous singer, he nurtured "a stubborn belief" that that's what he was going to do.

"You have to have that kind of belief and weirdly it goes very contrary to my character, but in that field I have been very driven and I think the reason I enjoy it so much now and haven't lost my love of the job is because I didn't have it for so many years and it was such a quiet passion."

Once he got his foot onto the Pop Idol stage, Young's enthusiasm just exploded onto the screen.

"I enjoyed every minute, I was like a kid in a candy shop. I couldn't believe it."

Afterwards he says he didn't feel pushed around by his handlers. (He is still represented by Simon Fuller's 19 Management.)

"I did feel in control. There was a bit of illusion that people would force me to do things but I was very aware it would take time to work out what I was doing and I was extremely lucky that Simon Fuller gave me a lot of space. If I didn't want to do something, I didn't do it and he was respectful of that."

The only time the good-humoured Young bridles is when I ask whether he writes his hits. It turns out he pens around half of his material.

"My writing has got much better but I love singing other people's songs," says Young, who has enjoyed considerable success with covers of pop classics.

"I have never been ashamed of singing other people's songs but a lot of people are and it's bizarre. That's why I love singing jazz. You can sing all these covers that people have done over time but people get funny about having a career like that as though there is some sort of false credibility in saying "I have written that". It isn't about that, it's about delivering the song. If you have written it that's amazing. If you haven't, it doesn't matter.