Like many young people, Olly Alexander had dreams of stardom from an early age.
“I grew up loving artists like the Spice Girls and Britney Spears — artists who seemed to live this fantasy lifestyle, and I remember always wanting to join these fantasy people in that world,” he says, slightly embarrassed. “But as I got older I began to think, Maybe I really could be a singer or musician.”
Today, the 25-year-old Yorkshire native is living that dream together with his band mates, Mikey Goldsworthy and Emre Turkmen, as the synth-pop trio Years & Years. It’s a reality that began taking shape when the group’s breakout hit, “King” — an infectious track that perfectly captures the feeling of one wanting to escape the confines of a possessive love — shot to number 1 in the U.K. and cracked the coveted Billboard U.S. Mainstream Top 40 this spring. The track’s music video, which has racked up more than 67 million plays on YouTube, is a testament to the power of the spell this British band has cast, and it shows no sign of fading anytime soon.
The release of the band’s debut album in July, Communion, has continued to propel the group’s rising star; topping charts around the globe including Billboard’s U.S. Dance/Electronic Albums chart.
Nevertheless, Alexander is taking the band’s early success in stride. “I don’t know if there’s ever a point where you go, ‘Oh, I’m successful now. Look at all this great stuff I’ve done,’ because I don’t think it can be tangible in that way,” he says. “Maybe that’s because I’m still not used to any of it and it still feels strange and that kind of numbs things, like when [I hear one of our songs has] 67 million hits on YouTube. It’s so difficult to comprehend that many people. I try not to think about it too much.”
On the surface, Years & Years’ success story doesn’t appear to be much different than that of any other breakout band. However, Alexander’s decision to live as an out gay man in both his private and public life has made him a rare find in today’s mainstream pop music landscape. But it’s his insistence on using male pronouns in two of the album’s tracks that has secured the singer’s spot as a trailblazer.
“Growing up, many of my favorite songs were mainly ‘you and I’ type of relationship songs that weren’t gender-specific, and I loved those songs because they were universal, but it was important to me to get some male pronouns in there on this album because we don’t have enough songs like that,” he says. “I feel very lucky because there was never, to my knowledge, anyone standing in the way of that, and I don’t think I could’ve worked with anyone who did. But my whole team has been really supportive.”
Alexander says he was emboldened to reference his sexuality in his music after witnessing the way in which crowds embraced Sam Smith when Years & Years toured with the out singer throughout Europe last year. “After touring with Sam I realized most of his fans are women, and they didn’t care in the slightest that he was gay,” he says, brushing off the old misconception that heterosexual female fans would lose interest in out artists. “So why [would my being out] change the way our female fans treat us?”
He suspects his comfort level with being out in the public eye is due in part to the unconditional support of his mother — who was so unfazed by her son’s sexuality, he had to come out to her twice.
“It’s funny, I came out to her once on the phone when I was 19 and living in London,” he says. “I remember telling her, ‘I’m having a terrible time living in London, I hate everything, and I’m gay!’ She just listened, said, ‘Cool,’ and then we talked about something else. Then a year or two later, when she asked me what I was up to one day, I told her that I’d just got back from Paris and I was seeing a guy. She said, ‘Oh, are you telling me that you’re gay?’ and I had to remind her, ‘Um, I’ve already said this to you, Mum.’”
He stops and laughs before continuing. “I come from a single-parent family and my Mum is super liberal. She had gay friends when I was growing up and I was aware she had gay friends, so I always knew my Mum would never have any problem.”
But while Alexander isn’t afraid to live an authentic life in the spotlight, he says he was terrified the first time he played a song he’d written about his boyfriend — Clean Bandit violinist Neil Milan Amin-Smith — for his muse.
“I wanted to crawl in a hole and die,” Alexander admits. “It was really horrible because I didn’t care if anyone else liked it or not, and I know he would’ve said he liked it, but it really mattered to me whether he truly liked it or not. But he did, and I was so relieved.”
His love is not the only one who approves of the song. “Shine,” the third track on Communion, has proved to be an excellent follow-up single to the band’s smash hit “King,” claiming the number 2 spot on the U.K. Singles chart and landing comfortably among the top 50 of Billboard’s U.S. Hot Dance/Electronic Songs. “I have an intense feeling for all the songs on the album, but I feel really attached to “Shine” because it’s the most positive track on the whole album, and it was quite difficult to write a song like that,” he says. “I never did anything like it before, and I’m so glad I was able to pull it off.”
Nevertheless, Alexander hopes the day isn’t far away when men openly singing about the men they love will no longer be a rarity, and he’s working toward a future where LGBT youth will have more than straight female pop divas to look up to.
“I’m a big believer that if you want things to change you have to embody that change,” he says, “and that’s what I’m trying to do.”