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Will Young: "Music has helped me defeat my demons"

Will Young never was the typical TV talent show winner. Rhian Jones asks him about political activism and musical reinvention

Kelly Clarkson Former telemarketer Clarkson auditioned for the first season of American Idol in 2002 after her flat burned down. Thirteen years later and she's sold 45 million albums, scooped three Grammys and 12 Billboard awards. She recently released her sixth studio album.

Girls Aloud Today they're pop royalty, but 13 years ago Cheryl Cole, Nadine Coyle, Sarah Harding, Nicola Roberts and Kimberley Walsh were mere whippersnappers with good bone structure and aspirations of joining Simon Cowell's gang. They went on to enjoy an 11-year pop career, as well as diversifying into lucrative advertising contracts, X Factor judging and fashion lines.

Jennifer Hudson Arguably the most multi- talented of all the American Idol alumnae, despite not reaching the final. Now an acclaimed film star as well as power balladeer extraordinaire, she's won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe. Despite tragedy in her personal life she continues to ride high with roles in US TV dramas.

Rebecca Ferguson An X Factor runner-up in 2010, satin-voiced Ferguson has outshone winner Matt Cardle with a clutch of soulful albums. She may not have quite shaken off her talent-show cheesiness but the music itself has been impressive.

Will Young is painted white with black netting clouding his vision, fighting a creature with the head of a bull on the body of a man, the Minotaur. Such is the scene that plays out in the video for his latest track, Like a River, representing Young's ongoing battle with his demons. "It's what art should be about, it teaches you so much about your life. And the better the art, the more depth that's behind it," he says.

It's a haunting accompaniment to a song with a dark backstory: Like a River was inspired by bullying during his days at prep school. "It was very archaic, it was not nurturing or nourishing at all," he says. "It really affected me, but there's also a beauty to it, I'm like, 'You need to go, I need to let you go'. It was really empowering."

The former Pop Idol winner has always been one of the most interesting talent-show graduates. However, with the album 85% Proof he has now distanced himself even further from the pack. It "definitely involved more lateral thinking" than his previous releases, he says, and bears a creative daring that's partly down to his new "zen" demeanour and record label, Island.

President Darcus Beese allowed him the time and space to make the music that he wanted to make and so Young went away, with long-time collaborators Jim Eliot and Mima Stilwell of electro-pop group Kish Mauve, and came up with an eclectic mixture of songs with no unifying sound. 85% Proof features R&B, 1070s pastoral folk, country music, disco and a piano ballad. It's the result of carefree experimentation thanks to a new approach to songwriting, where the lyrics, about joy, love, and the world around him, would be written before the melody.

Young switched to Island from Sony at the end of his 10-year contract in 2012. In that time he enjoyed three number one albums and more than nine million record sales. He doesn't feel the weight of expectation from Island to match those achievements and he's laissez- faire about the release of 85% Proof. "You can't be scared, it's just like playing a game of chess, you've got to deal with things as they come along," he says.

Young hasn't always been so self-assured, however. He battled depression during a dip in popularity in 2009, when the single releases from his fourth album failed to reach the top five in the charts. And he had what he deems a "crazy year" in 2004 when he starred in BBC film Mrs Henderson Presents, "got a bit insecure" and "rude" and was micro-managing all aspects of his career - going into meetings at Sony and doing presentations on how he thought his album campaign should go.

In fact, he faced career difficulties from the very beginning. When he won Pop Idol, he was the surprise victor - beating Simon Cowell's favourite, Gareth Gates. A feud between Cowell and Young played out on screen during the series and remains raw - Cowell labelled Young "obnoxious" in an ITV talent show documentary in 2012.

He signed to Cowell's label after Pop Idol, but the Spice Girls' manager, Simon Fuller, took charge of Young's career. Fuller moved the artist into another of Sony's sub labels, RCA, after his third single, where he stayed until 2012. Was he ever worried Cowell would sabotage his career? "He'd go in the press and say things, but I never worried because I said to Simon Fuller, 'Is this man going to destroy my career?' Simon said, 'Not with me around'."

The singer likes Island for taking a "360-degree approach" to his career and encouraging his work as a political commentator and campaigner. Young recently made headlines for describing the general election as a "wet fart". Gay rights is top of his agenda. Earlier this year he stood outside the house of Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities, with a sandwich board revealing some eye-opening statistics after she failed to respond to his tweets.

"The board said 23 per cent of young gay people try and commit suicide, 52 per cent will self-harm and 98 per cent find the derogatory use of the word 'gay' offensive. They are not doing anything about it and it f***s me off. I had this hysterical Twitter rant which said, 'Hi Nicky Morgan' and kept on going, then I copied in The Sun, The Independent and The Times, and got a reply within half an hour. I said to her, 'I want to address this, it's insulting'."

He adds: "She glossed over it, then she wouldn't make the meeting we had set up, this went on for another month. I finally said, 'I've had enough. I'm coming to stand outside your apartment'. And I'll do it again, but I need to go about it a different way."

In the video for Love Revolution, the first single from 85% Proof, Young is an evangelical salesman selling products to his brain-dead followers. Its anti-consumerist message wasn't accidental. "It's all about labelling and presentation," he says. "And that can be seen in music, you can have a lot of fluff around some music but there's nothing in it, it's just about selling it, it should be about putting something out there that's part of you as the creator."

85% Proof'is out tomorrow

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