Telegraph Interview 31/07
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Aug 1 2015, 07:13 AM
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Will Young: 'I had so much pain. I didn’t know if I was going to make it'
The singer opens his heart about his breakdown, the ''hellish'' two years that followed - and how mindfulness has saved him
By Anna Tyzack
7:30PM BST 31 Jul 2015
Will Young asks me to imagine that he is wearing a suit of armour. It is a strange request but I humour him. “There’s a door over my heart,” he says, touching the pocket of his shirt. “Which opens from the inside and I can choose to open it or not.” Around him, he says gesturing, is an imaginary glass box. “I’ve put up these boundaries for self protection. We should all have them in place.”
Young, if you haven’t already guessed, has been in therapy; the past two years have been hellish for him. Over the next hour, in a dimly-lit cafe in West London, he describes the emotional breakdown that left him unable to recognise his own face in the mirror. “A breakdown can’t really be anything but excruciating. It’s like tearing muscles and you have to let them heal in the right way,” he says. “I had so much pain. I honestly didn’t know if I was going to make it.”
It is a shocking admission from Young who, despite the fame and fortune that followed him winning the inaugural Pop Idol 13 years ago, has always seemed sure of himself and his talent. Who could forget that moment when, told by Simon Cowell that his performance was “distinctly average”, he coolly retorted: “I don’t think you could ever call that average”. Later, he risked his fledgling career as pop’s latest ‘‘hearthrob’’ by announcing he was gay. But his ability as singer and songwriter was never in doubt. At 36, he has had four number one UK albums and sold 10 million records, won two Brit Awards, and a Laurence Olivier Award for his role in Cabaret. Yet, until recently, he thought he’d never write another song again.
The truth is that Young has always battled self-doubt and first saw a therapist in 2004. “I was really insecure in work, I had low self esteem, I thought I was useless,” he explains. “If I got a job, I wanted the next one, I never lived in the moment, I was always comparing.”
He was determined to prove himself after Pop Idol. He became, as he puts it, “Mr Perfect”, always wanting to be the best, to have the best – the highest of achievers. “I thought if I get this house, this boyfriend, this car I’ll be content,” he says. “But buying a Ferrari doesn’t bring happiness.”
This is despite a secure and privileged, close family background. Young, who has an older sister, Emma, 40, and twin brother, Rupert, was born in Berkshire to parents, Robin, an engineer, and Annabel, a plant nursery gardener. He attended prep school and then, with his brother, went to Wellington College. It may be therapy talk again but the pain began, he says, when he was born six weeks premature and separated from his twin. “I’d come into life with him and then [it felt like] he left,” he says, sadly. Afterwards he went to an “awful” boarding school, where aged nine, he realised he was gay and did his best to disguise it. He came out at Exeter University where he read politics. “The fear and pain was locked in. And as we get older it defines our behaviour and character.”
For a time, the flashy, showbiz lifestyle proved to be a great distraction from his problems – and it was dangerously affordable. By 2012 his net worth was estimated at £13.5 million. He spent thousands on living it up and on houses. He has bought homes in London’s Holland Park and Dalston, Brighton and Cornwall. “The thing with addiction is it’s not just alcohol and drugs and sex.'' he explains. ''It’s shopping and thought addictions, too. If I fantasise about this or that person for example it will take away the pain.”
A breakdown might have happened much earlier, he says, if he hadn’t adopted mindfulness – the practice of observing one's thoughts and living in the moment. It was in 2009, during a bout of depression that his therapist suggested he attend a workshop run by Texan clinical psychologist Randy Berlin. It was from this point on that Young says he began to see life differently. “It was all about boundaries, which I didn’t have,” he says. Dr Berlin encouraged him to draw up imaginary boundaries to protect himself from the public. “People would get really close and say things like ‘I don’t like that new song’, or call me ‘faggot,’ which would always really hit home.”
In time he learned to let the abuse bounce off him and was able to observe his own self-critical and negative thoughts for what they were. “I realised my thoughts don’t define me; they actually have nothing to do with my true self,” he says.
In his private life, though, he was still terrified of revealing that true self. “I wasn’t mindful. If I was feeling nervous, I’d become aggressive.” Part of the problem, according to Young, is that he didn’t have an authentic speaking voice; he’d always expressed himself through singing, ever since he was a chorister at school. “My speaking voice was buried behind so many different behaviour and thought patterns,” he explains. It was only when he started voice coaching sessions while starring in Cabaret in 2012 in the West End that he realised his voice wasn’t as “namby” and high pitched as he’d imagined it. “I thought, ‘wow, my voice can resonate; I’m a powerful person. It was a step towards finding my authentic self.”
And then, despite this progress in that same year, came the breakdown. Young stopped writing music; he couldn’t bear even to listen to it. “I was saying to myself ‘I think I’m having a breakdown,’ and then it carried on and I was like ‘I am having a breakdown.’” He was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, depersonalisation and derealisation (a loss of recognition and sense of context). “It was horrendous, the brain shuts down, some people never recover,” he says. “I’m fortunate that I had the time and the finances to say ‘I’m taking two years off work’. But I’d rather have no money, no career, than go through that.”
He spent 6 months at Khiron House, a trauma centre in Oxfordshire. “It was intense and some people didn’t make it through the experience, which was hard but it changed my life. It gave me a life.” Last autumn, he started writing again and released an album, 85% Proof, in May this year. “I don’t know how I managed it. But I guess it helped that I could recognise my face in the mirror again.”
One song includes the lyric “I’m a brave man, not scared to feel the pain”. This sums up the new Will. He will tell you if he’s feeling nervous; he will let you know if you’ve hurt him. “A friend of mine recently asked me where I’d taken someone on a date and when I told her she said ‘that’s a funny place to go’. It really got to me. So I took it up with her and it turned out she’d been really nervous at that particular dinner party; it was fear manifesting itself as aggression – I understood then.”
We should all be less afraid to set out our boundaries, both mentally and vocally, Young says. “We’re the most passive-aggressive people in the world, but if you don’t tell someone something, how the hell are they going to know what’s going on?” And we should be less afraid of admitting when something is wrong. “I was Mr Happy and Mr Funny but I never told anyone I was also desperately insecure, anxious and unhappy.”
Young, who is now working on a ''life manual'' and hopes to give a TED talk on the subject of mindfulness, admits his life, though immeasurably improved, isn’t one of constant peace and harmony; he has to work at being mindful, at setting boundaries. But he’s happier than he has been for many years.
“I’m back in it,” he says grinning “Yesterday, when I got in to my Mini and started singing along as I drove I thought ‘it’s really nice that I’m doing this again’.”
Will Young: Using Mindfulness to Find Your Voice, Boundaries and Your True Self is one of a series of workshops run by NOW Festival of Arts and Mindfulness at Wilderness Festival, August 6-9 2015. www.nowliveevents.org/wilderness-2015
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