Olly Alexander is intimate, utterly disarming and charmingly candid. ASOS Magazine sat down with the star to talk LGBTQ+ rights, trans activism, meeting Dame Judy Dench, his dad, white privilege and dating. And, of course, to discuss Palo Santo — the new album from Olly’s brilliant band, the deliciously disco-pop three-piece Years & Years. Read a portion of the interview below, and for the full feature, grab your copy of the latest ASOS Magazine here.
STYLE AND CULTURE
OLLY ALEXANDER'S STYLE FILE
September 13, 2018
Where did the name Palo Santo come from?
[You burn palo santo ("holy stick" in Spanish) to] release good energy — it dispels evil spirits and negative energy. I went to stay with a friend of mine and his boyfriend, and we had this sort of strange love triangle going on for, like, a minute. He was burning palo santo in his house and I was like, “What’s this?” and he got me some. Anyway, I ended up writing a song about the experience and it became a metaphor for the album.
There are a lot of references to same-sex love in the album…
When I was first thinking about everything it was a really conscious decision not to make something that was ‘a statement’. But I think gay people are inherently politicized, just because of our identities. That’s why I think there is value in speaking your own experience. What else can you do really?
Does the pressure of being a poster person for the LGBTQ+ community weigh you down at all?
Well, I feel good about speaking on the things I care about. Having a platform and being able to share is a privilege. People listen to what I have to say, and I’m held accountable for things I say, which is right, but it makes me think how dire queer representation really is. We’re starting to see a lot of queer identity celebrated, which is great, but there’s still a disconnect between understanding what "queer" means, and hearing from actual queer people, or getting queer work made, put on television, put on stage, in music, in art. There’s a long way to go.
Someone asked me, "Do you really feel like your skin color might have helped you get to where you are?" and I was just like, "Yes! Of course! Of course I do," and [the interviewer] was quite taken aback. Like, I am a cis, white, gay guy. Uzo [MNEK] has become a good mate of mine and obviously he's so smart and so talented and has been in the industry for 10 years already. Just being able to have conversations with him and get his perspective is so important. Because that's the thing about privilege — I'm not going to know when my privilege is in play, so you need to listen to people.
Another topic you cover in Palo Santo — both implicitly and explicitly — is fatherhood…
Honestly, I’m still trying to work out how I feel about the whole thing. On some level, I’ve been trying to write songs about my dad all my life. And now I finally see how it’s filtered through my songwriting with this album. His presence has influenced a lot of the stuff I’ve done. It feels like you have to go towards the pain and darkness to try and reconcile yourself with it. There are so many other things to talk about. I’ve been through bulimia, self-harm, periods where I’ve been super-depressed or anxious and I hope — touch wood — that I’m on the other side of most of that stuff. The stuff with my dad, it’s still happening, I’m still working it all out.
What advice to you want to give to young people going through similar issues?
I want them to know that you deserve help and deserve to feel good about yourself. You can have a great life but to access the help, you need to start speaking about what you’re going through. Speaking to someone you trust is the first step. If you don’t trust someone who’s around you, phone someone up, like the Samaritans or a mental health charity like CALM or Mind — vocalizing is the first step. We tell everybody, all the time, “Don’t cry, don’t cry,” but no, let it out. Let your tears free. You have to feel s**t to start to feel better.
And, finally, what do you hope to achieve with this album?
I wanted to make something I can be proud of. It doesn’t matter if it’s successful or not. I find my peace in that. Being able to stand by the stuff that you do. I mean, how many times do you get to have a second album? Only once.