The Beauty of Eternal Heartbreak With Years & Years‘ Olly Alexander

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God Help the Girl wasn’t Olly Alexander’s first turn front of the camera—you might recognize him from appearances on Penny Dreadful and the UK teen sex drama, Skins. But God Help the Girl, the film written and directed by Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch in 2014, finally felt like a proper introduction to the creative polymath. Just a year later, Alexander released Years & Years‘ debut album, Communion, alongside bandmates Mikey Goldsworthy and Emre Türkmen. With the band starting their tour across North America tomorrow, Alexander is all about pursuing his career as a musician.

“I think having had a career as an actor has been helpful,” Alexander thoughtfully tells CR, calling from his manager’s office in East London. “I actually ended up using a lot of people I’ve met on the way as an actor when we first started making music videos. I was able to call in free favors and get friends in.…Somehow the stars aligned. I was meant to meet Dame Judi!”

It’s the trailer for Years & Years‘ newest album, Palo Santo, that Alexander is referring to. In a video narrated by Dame Judi Dench, Alexander encounters a futuristic society, sneaks off for an illicit kiss, and enters a dance competition. Given that he’s someone who believes in fate—or at least an extremely lose interpretation of the term—it’s a grand proof, a summation of aesthetic that the frontman has enjoyed since his time as a gay, drama-class loving kid obsessed with TLC, Christina Aguilera, and Irish girl band, B*Witched. It’s also an extension of the themes he has been mining since the first performance of his original music—at the ripe age of 11 years old.

“The song was about unrequited love,” he reveals of his first musical efforts. “Even then I was very firmly fixed on broken hearts. It’s been an enduring theme…I’ve been nothing if not consistent.”

Now 28, Alexander has fully leaned into those inclinations on Palo Santo, a title that’s both a sexual innuendo and reference to the holy wood. With writing assists from industry pop powerhouses including Julia Michaels (Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez), Justin Tranter (Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani) and Greg Kurstin (Adele, CHVRCHES), the album is a collection of drama-heavy pop hook, electro pop dance cuts, and meditations of religion, love, and—of course—the power of a broken heart.

“In some ways it’s about every breakup ever,” Alexander confirms. “The new album is kind of me reflecting on my previous relationships. The last two or three. It’s funny how patterns repeat themselves and if you’ve had your heart broken you can identify that feeling in loads of different situations. It’s a very rich mine of inspiration.”

That idea comes together in the single “If You’re Over Me,” an upbeat track in which Alexander confronts a lagging lover.

“You know when you think back on a relationship, you’re going through the breakup, it’s absolutely awful and you’re both raving at each other and going through the things, the checklist of you did this, you said this, this is why I hate you, this is why you’ll never—you balance the fucking spreadsheets of your relationship,” he says in one long breath. “That song is about all the things I never said, which maybe I had said at the moment. At peak argument, this is what I never said that I should have said.”

There’s a grain of truth to the story. Although he was in regular therapy long before Years & Years hit the public eye, Alexander is honest about the role music has played in maintaining his mental health. Having suffered in the past from self-harming and bulimia, he’s made the conscious effort to speak out, whether it’s during his recent GQ Awards acceptance speech (“Let’s let our men be happy, be sad, be trans, be questioning, be bisexual, be non-conforming, be feminine, be masculine!“ he declared), or in lyrics, where he’s never shied away from male pronounces or telling lines like “You don’t have to be straight with me/I can see what’s underneath your mask.”

“My therapist always bangs on about boundaries,” he laughs. “He talks about a container full of liquid. If you don’t have that container, the liquid just goes everywhere. So I’m still figuring out where the boundaries are and how tough they are. There’s always a part where I know I’ve got something to keep to myself. I think you can put too much out there and it can feel really overwhelming.”

A fiercely intelligent barrier-breaking frontman with a penchant for on-stage theatric? Much like the forthcoming Freddie Mercury biopic, Years & Years’ story seems custom-made for the screen, particularly in an era where pop is only beginning to accept that not all narratives need be heteronormative. It’s an idea that Alexander takes to with self-deprecating glee.

“Obviously, I’d want to play myself,” he jokes about the band’s future on the big screen. Who knows, Alexander’s acting days might not be over just yet. “Hopefully they’ll be some intense, anti-aging technology that will let me play me at all ages. I can’t wait to win all the awards for my performance!”

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