Interview: Years & Years on the world of 'Palo Santo', the difficult second album and Dame Judi Dench.

How do you follow up a smash hit album that, in your native country alone, sold over a quarter of a million copies, spent two weeks at Number 1 (and didn’t budge from the Top 40 for over a year), spawned both a Number 1 (which itself sold just shy of a million copies) and a Number 2 single, and earned you four Brit Award nominations? With a bit of time and patience, it seems – or at least that’s how Years & Years have done it. The London-based, British-Australian trio’s second studio album ‘Palo Santo’, the follow up to 2015’s banger-filled, world-beating debut ‘Communion’, which put singer Olly Alexander and multi-instrumentalists Emre Türkmen and Mikey Goldsworthy on the proverbial map, has just been unleashed onto the world and currently boasts a handsome score of 82 on Metacritic, a 14-point increase on their previous offering. They may have, by their own admission, suffered from a little Difficult Second Album Syndrome, but the numbers don’t lie – their patience in crafting this record has absolutely paid off.

In reality, it’s not been an inordinately long wait for Years & Years fans, just three years, almost to the day – shorter than we were made to wait for recent sophomore offerings from Lorde, HAIM, Sam Smith and London Grammar. We meet for our interview on the third anniversary of the release of ‘Communion’, four days after ‘Palo Santo’ dropped, on the afternoon of the London instalment of the brief run of gigs across Europe and North America that are serving as the album’s launch parties. Despite being in the middle of a mad release week, packed with media appearances and album promotion, there’s little sign of fatigue from the band. The mayhem of the day hasn’t yet gotten to Emre, who has the clarity of mind to quickly fix an issue with our Polaroid camera, nor Olly, who is supposedly on vocal rest ahead of the performance, but voluntarily sings lines of ‘Sanctify’ as we snap our pictures. With his hair freshly re-dyed red, he’s in a chipper mood. “We can’t wait to be inside you,” he offers as his message to fans in New Zealand, before rethinking his contribution: “Bit weird.” Similarly cheeky humour comes from the stage late in that night's set: “I’m really wet,” he tells the adoring crowd, adding, “Sign of a good night, if you ask me.” There’s no shortage of banter on this promo circus.

If the magic took a little time to return during their writing and recording sessions in the British countryside last year, you wouldn’t notice from listening to ‘Palo Santo’, a record that manages to capture an unmistakeable Years & Years sound, while also pushing them into new territory. There’s particularly noticeable progress in the lyrics: whereas on ‘Communion’, the tracks often sounded as if Olly was writing them while looking directly into the eyes of their subjects, ignoring all surroundings and speaking purely from the heart, on ‘Palo Santo’, the lens is widened and we’re given more context, as well as a greater sense of space and time, to aid our understanding of each of these relationships and encounters. This advancement is particularly evident on 'Lucky Escape' (in which a bitter scroll through an ex’s Instagram leads to a disparaging sense of relief at having ended things) and the title track (about the complicated experience of being the third party in an open relationship), each about different, yet fully-realised romantic partners.

This lyrical evolution is also apparent on first single ‘Sanctify’, the tale of a fling with a straight-identifying man, suggesting that a discrepancy in two partners’ confidence in their respective sexualities can lead to an interesting power-play in the bedroom. Despite the erotic thrill of the track, Olly's writing manages to remain sympathetic to a man who "lately life's been tearing [...] apart." "I know how it can hurt / being cut in two and afraid," he discloses, with surprising depth and warmth for a song so carnal. He's a lyricist of great heart, trying to make sense of troubled men who are in turn trying to make sense of themselves, even if the romantic relationship he has with them doesn't extend beyond the bedroom.

Olly’s background as an actor has gained new relevance with the release of ‘Palo Santo’, which sees him take a lead role in the accompanying short film and reteam with co-stars from his years on stage and screen. Before Years & Years properly got going, it was for supporting roles in films like ‘God Help The Girl’, ‘The Riot Club’ and (as Mikey teasingly reminds Olly during our interview) ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ that Olly became a recognisable face. He even featured opposite Greta Gerwig, the future Oscar-nominated director of ‘Lady Bird’, in the tiny 2011 indie ‘The Dish and The Spoon’, and could often be found on the London stage, turning in a string of critically-praised performances in plays between 2010 and 2013. The final play in which he appeared was John Logan’s ‘Peter & Alice’, which imagined the meeting between the two real life inspirations behind ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Peter Pan’, played by Dame Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw respectively. In cutaways to the fictional world created by J.M. Barrie, Olly played Peter Pan, fighting for his right to exist despite the wishes of his non-fictional counterpart, Peter Llewelyn Davies, that his life hadn’t been stolen from him by Barrie.

Jump forward five years and these three co-stars are reunited in another fantasy world in which Olly is a different kind of exceptional boy at the mercy of older powers, striving to assert his individuality. Dench is now the cryptic “mother of Palo Santo,” and Whishaw, who also appeared in one of the earliest Years & Years videos, for ‘Real’, makes a fleeting appearance as a hologram, giving an announcement to the city’s inhabitants. The film, shot in Thailand, is wild and ambitious in a way that, away from the output of the Beyoncés and Gagas of the A-list, pop often isn’t anymore. It also gives Olly the chance to sink his teeth into a role beyond just a dialogue-less, short-form music video. His character, also named Olly Alexander, is made to perform repeatedly for audiences, before growing tired and dismayed with being exploited and finding a way to explore his emotions away from the control of others.

Tonight, it’s on another London stage, a couple of miles north of the one they previously shared, that Olly and Dame Judi are reunited. Her voice is woven through the band’s live show at Camden’s Roundhouse, just as it is through the film. The iconic 83-year-old Oscar-winner’s narration has become an integral part of this project, but those hoping for an appearance from the Dame herself tonight are left disappointed, but probably not surprised, at her absence – she remains a formless, floating voice, just as in the world of Palo Santo.

But what does ‘Palo Santo’ actually mean? Despite its placement as the penultimate song on the album, the title track is the record’s centrepiece, a meditative and powerful cut more mature than anything found on their previous LP, on which Olly cries out, “You’re the darkness in me, Palo Santo.” In its most literal sense, the title comes from the name of the thick, wooden incense blocks that the party in the open relationship with whom Olly was involved was burning during their time together. The direct translation is, somewhat amusingly, ‘holy wood’, and their vapours are said to purify the air and cleanse it of evil and darkness.

But such is the expansive universe that the three-piece have built around this two-word term that it now carries several possible interpretations beyond the literal. Alternatively, ‘Palo Santo’ could be a moniker for this man himself, and the short-lived love triangle relationship, which perhaps represents a time of darkness for Olly.

Given the double use of ‘Palo Santo’ as the title of the record and of the futuristic, android world of the accompanying short film, a couple of further, more meta readings avail themselves to us. ‘Palo Santo’ the album could contain the darkness in Olly, with many songs, such as ‘Lucky Escape’, ‘All For You’ and ‘If You’re Over Me’, depicting him at challenging moments following a break-up, as he attempts to power through and come out on top of love rather than be defeated by it.

The world of Palo Santo seen in the film also has a strong connection to a possible darkness within Olly, as it explores the intersection of disconnect and emotionlessness with sensuality and performance. “The divine, amazing and incredible Olly Alexander”, as he is introduced by the Showman character, is one of very few non-androids in Palo Santo, and the androids, as we learn from the Star Wars-esque pre-scroll in Fred Rowson’s film, “desire nothing more than to experience real emotion,” which feels resonant with Olly’s outspoken discussion of his own mental health struggles. When taken alongside songs like ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Rendezvous’, which tell of rather non-committal sexual encounters, we see the same topics in ‘Palo Santo’ that Olly explored last year in his BBC documentary ‘Growing Up Gay’, of how struggles with mental health are sadly pervasive within the queer community.

In the live performance, it’s during ‘Palo Santo’ that Olly, donning a sparkly robe of almost ten metres in length, is raised up on a platform in front of a huge moon, a star ascending across a dark night. It’s a triumphant, almost unbelievable moment of spectacle meeting emotion. There may be “darkness” in this album, but it’s notably never in the form of sadness, and almost entirely hidden in joyous moments of pure pop. In their live show, Years & Years take the chance to show this overcoming of difficulty and adversity through a visual metaphor that literally grows before the audience’s eyes, and it’s an awesome sight to behold.

Despite being a Palo Santo Party, their setlist is equally balanced between their two albums. The newer cuts – such as the snappy ‘Karma’ and thumping ‘Hallelujah’, both just days old to fans – are received ecstatically, and the familiar hits bring some of the night’s most notable moments. Olly is briefly distracted by his front row devotees during ‘Take Shelter’ and stumbles to the end of a verse, before later bringing out an Italian fan who, thanks to the Make A Wish Foundation, gets to sit with him at the piano as he plays ‘Eyes Shut’, leading to one of the night’s biggest cheers. It's when MNEK returns to the stage for the encore, following his spritely support set, for the debut of a new duet called ‘Valentino’, that the night hits peak gay, much to the fans’ delight. A Latin-flavoured bop telling of an infatuation with a boy “from the outskirts of East LA,” it owes a generous debt to Lady Gaga’s ‘Americano’ (a 2011 album track which opens “I met a girl in East LA...”), as well as the best of 90s girl-band R&B. Fingers crossed we get a studio version ASAP.

Earlier that day, we spoke to Years & Years about developing their songwriting for ‘Palo Santo’, avoiding sadness on a break-up record, when they expect they’ll finally be coming to New Zealand, and much more…

COUP DE MAIN: So it’s three years today since ‘Communion’ came out.
EMRE TÜRKMEN: Is it?
CDM: It is, happy birthday to it! How has release week been different this time around?
OLLY ALEXANDER: It’s similar in the sense that I can’t remember much of it, because we’ve been so all over the place. I guess this time round, you’re…
MIKEY GOLDSWORTHY:More of a veteran?
OLLY:
Yeah, I guess. First time around, I felt like I was hit by a truck. Not in a bad way, not in a negative way, just because it’s so overwhelming. But I think now I feel more grateful that fans have stuck around and that people like the new music. Because you can never take it for granted, can you? What about you guys?
EMRE: The first time felt more intense, actually, I seem to remember. Because you know what to expect, in a certain way, it’s less mental.
MIKEY: We’re doing similar things. We did [BBC Radio 2 show] Chris Evans last time. We did three countries in one day.
CDM: Did you have a big launch show like this one?
MIKEY:
Not a big one, it was in a little club near Oxford Street.
OLLY: We didn’t do anything in America though, did we? I think this time, we tried to do Palo Santo parties, like, East Coast and West Coast America, Berlin and here, so in that sense it’s been way more ambitious. Generally, I think we tried to be a bit more ambitious this time around.

CDM: There seems to be a real progression in your lyrics on this record. They’re more precise and specific than they were on ‘Communion’, and even involve some clever wordplay, particularly on ‘straight’ and ‘mask/masc’ on ‘Sanctify’. Did you approach writing lyrics differently this time around?
OLLY: Yeah. Songwriting, especially lyrics – the more you do it, the more you uncover and the more you learn about your own process. The stuff that you write when you’re 20 is going to be different from the stuff you write when you’re 25, which is going to be different from the stuff you write when you’re 27. So I think, by its very nature, it develops and changes. But just as a human being, I feel more confident to write the shit that I actually have in my head. Not that it felt like I was stopping myself before, but I think it made a difference feeling more confident in myself this time around.

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CDM: I think my favourite song on the album is ‘Karma’, which grapples with whether what you’ve done in the past will lead to good or bad fortune in the future. (“No I can’t tell what’s right or wrong / Is there a consequence for all I’ve done?”) Was there something you were trying to answer about the role that guilt has in your life, and whether it’s worth holding onto?
OLLY: I guess there’s some specifics that I relate to my own life. Some of those are to do with relationships, some of those are to do with my childhood, and generally about morality and, like, is karma real? And that song, the beginning of the session, I was writing with my friend Sarah Hudson who’s amazing and she’s very like witchy and into like occults and esoteric stuff, and she did a reading for us at the beginning and one of the cards was called ‘karma’ and we were like, “Oh, yes! Let’s write a song called ‘Karma’.”

CDM: How was the experience of writing with Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter on ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Preacher’?
OLLY: Oh, good! It was kind of intense because they’re songwriting royalty. I had the head of our label call me up before the session, because everyone was freaking out. They think if you put people in a room, you’re going to come out with a number one song, and there’s so much pressure on it to be good. So I was quite nervous to meet them, but they’re so warm and so inviting. Julia’s a legend too, but because Justin has had such a trailblazing, queer career and because he’s such a queer force in songwriting and in pop music, I was really humbled to be in his presence. And it was fun, you know, it was nice to work with them because you get to see into another writer’s process. I had no idea if my ideas or the stuff that I’ve been doing as a songwriter was any good, and then when I worked with them, I realised that they do similar things, and I was like, “Okay, this is nice, to be able to do this.” And we got a good song out of it!

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CDM: ‘Palo Santo’ seems to be very much a post-relationship record, with ‘If You’re Over Me’, ‘All For You’ and ‘Lucky Escape’ – as well as the Kele Okereke song that you featured on last year, Olly, ‘Grounds For Resentment’ – detailing how an ex can continue to occupy space in your mind and life once the relationship is over. It’s kind of lacking in heartbreak, unlike most break-up records we hear. Were there sadder songs you wrote for the record that didn’t make the cut?
OLLY: I’m trying to think now.
MIKEY: There were slower songs. I don’t know if they were sad.
OLLY: We had a lot of songs, and then whittled them down. The ones we put on the album felt like the strongest ones. It wasn’t until I saw them together as a group like that where I realised the theme did feel like looking back on a relationship and trying to sort of dig through the shit that happened and feeling sort of angry and frustrated about that, but in a place of empowerment rather than feeling destroyed by it.

CDM: Olly, you’ve described ‘Lucky Escape’ as a petty song. Do you think that pettiness is a necessary, or helpful, part of the post-break-up experience?
OLLY: Kind of! I think that I really, really bite my tongue in arguments with people, and I never say the thing I wish I’d said. But in a song, you have way more time! <laughs>
MIKEY: It’s annoying when you have an argument and you go back and you’re like, “Ah, I should’ve said that! I would’ve sounded so smart!”

CDM: Olly, you gave Rihanna the first LP of ‘Palo Santo’ after you appeared with her on The Graham Norton Show. So say she’s scouting for new writers for her next album, and just one song from the record could be your calling card, which one would you want her to listen to and think, “I want him to write for me”?
OLLY: I’m trying to imagine myself as Rihanna and think what she would like. Maybe ‘Palo Santo’. I’m just proud of the song and the songwriting on that. It’s quite unusual for a pop song. I guess you can argue, "What the fuck is a pop song?" But maybe that one. I feel like she might vibe with that.

CDM: ‘Palo Santo’ is so ambitious and high-concept, in a way that you don’t see many other British artists attempting or getting away with. It seems to come more naturally to American artists like Janelle Monáe and Halsey. Do you think there’s something about British culture that makes it easy to ridicule or be cynical about these sorts of ideas?
OLLY: There’s some truth to that, I expect.
MIKEY: David Bowie was British and did a lot of that kind of stuff.
EMRE: I mean, I think the first concept album of all time was The Beatles. <laughs> Pink Floyd springs to mind…
CDM: I guess I mean more in the present.
OLLY:
But you’re right, I agree.
MIKEY: I know what you mean, Americans seem more confident with not caring what other people think. British people always seem to scrutinise other British people. Australians have inherited a little bit of that culture, as well. Especially in Melbourne.
OLLY: Brits can be cynical, but I like that about being British. I guess you could say Americans definitely go for bells and whistles and big statements, and are generally considered more ambitious.
CDM: Was there ever a concern about people not getting on board with it?
OLLY:
Yeah, I was worried all the time. But I realised that I was the best salesperson for the project, so I was telling everyone it was going to be so amazing. I went into the label and gave them a PowerPoint presentation about how everything was going to look and all the videos and the merchandise and the live show. I compensated feeling a bit nervous about the whole thing by being extra, extra, extra confident on the surface. <laughs>

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CDM: You’ve reteamed with your former co-star Judi Dench for the narration on ‘Palo Santo’, which is quite abstract – did she have much of an idea of what it was she was saying?
OLLY: Yeah! Well, I said to her that she was the queen of androids. She’s sort of like the mother of Palo Santo, so she’s like this omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent – all three – character within Palo Santo, but she’s also kind of serving a poetic Beyoncé voiceover in ‘Lemonade’. So I told her all of that, and I think she was a bit like, “What the fuck?” But she loved it. She was like, “Are you telling me I’m old? Like an old android?” And I was like, “No!” So she was a bit upset about that. But she killed it!

CDM: Back when you were acting, Olly, you played quite a few innocent or corrupted boys dealing with something traumatic, however your character in ‘Palo Santo’ is more powerful and strong, even though he’s in a subordinate role. How much of an impact did being cast in those sorts of roles have on how you saw yourself, and are you trying to push back against that image of yourself now?
OLLY: I mean, you put it in a really good way, actually. When you’re acting, you’re just taking the world that you’re given and you don’t really have much choice in the matter. In that sense, I found it quite creatively stifling, because you’re just doing someone else’s work and you’re playing [roles] other people are putting you into. But even when I look at the music videos we did for ‘Communion’, like ‘King’… I guess by the time we got to ‘Worship’ it had shifted, but in all our music videos, I’m getting thrown around, or beaten up, or in ‘Shine’ a building collapses on me. I got more and more dissatisfied with being passive, and I think part of the reason I wanted to make a film of ‘Palo Santo’ was so that I could embody a character I would want to be.

CDM: The film has a pretty ambiguous ending, with your character onstage, unable to sing. Will we get to see more of this world, will it be expanded?
OLLY: Yes, it will be. As soon as the label give us more money! <laughs>
MIKEY: It’s expensive, Palo Santo.

CDM: When can we expect to FINALLY have you play in New Zealand? Because there was the whole situation in 2016 with the cancelled shows…
OLLY: I know… It wasn’t our fault!
MIKEY: Wait, what happened with that again?
OLLY: It was the Ellie Goulding support slot. [The band had to pull out of the Australia and New Zealand leg of Ellie Goulding’s Delirium tour due to logistical difficulties.]
MIKEY: Oh, sorry, yeah! My family bought tickets, so I owe them all, like, a hundred quid. There’s talk of next year. I mean, don’t quote me on this, which you will. <laughs> But there’s talk of Oceania/Asia vibes next year. That would make sense. I can pretty much 100% say we won’t be in New Zealand this year.
OLLY: I really hope when we go that we get some actual time to spend there, and not just, like, one day.
MIKEY: Yeah, it’s beautiful. One of the best-looking countries.

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'Palo Santo' is available now. You can watch the accompanying short film below: