Words: Will Stroude
It's fitting that Billy Blond's debut EP is entitled Glow Up, because in all the ways that matter - mentally, spiritually, artistically - that's exactly what the British singer-songwriter has being undergoing over the last few years.
It wasn't so long ago that Billy was on the verge of breaking through into the mainstream, but in a pre-Sam Smith world the soulful and sparky musician fast found his queer identity at odds with the music industry's narrow conception of what it means to be a 'commercial' artist.
Health issues and personal struggles eventually led to Billy taking a break from music altogether, leading him the queer seaside enclave of Margate, Kent, where he began to rediscover his voice free of restriction.
Now back to launch a fresh and independent assault on the industry on his own terms, it's clear from tracks like the empowering 'Glow Up' and soaring new single 'Free Love' that Billy's new material is a form of catharsis for an artist finally putting himself first, and letting the world follow.
As Billy releases a new live acoustic video for 'Free Love' - which we can exclusively premiere below - we caught up with the singer from his home in Margate to talk sexuality, spirituality, and starting over...
How did the alias of Billy Blond come about?
I had a big break from music because I was very unhappy – not just because of industry stuff but a lot of stuff in my personal life. I was on tour and I found that I couldn’t really see in the dark, and I found out I’ve got a hereditary, degenerative eye condition which will mean I’ll eventually lose my eyesight. For now, it’s tunnel vision and really sh*t night vision. But it was really hard for me, so I ended up taking a bit of a break to deal with that. I thought I wasn’t gonna make music but I just felt the need to write again.
Has your diagnosis affected the kind of music you’re creating?
Absolutely. I feel like there’s a silver lining for anything and with any struggle, any f**ked up sh*t you’re going through, you learn so much. There’s a knowledge that comes with it. But it has affected my music and I think it’s made my music better. I look at the world differently.
You’ve always had a soulful element to your music and this new EP does address themes of faith and identity – would you describe yourself as a spiritual person?
Definitely spiritual. Not religious, but spiritual for sure. You grow up and lose people, experience death, but you start to realise people are still around. But I’ve always been a spiritual person, even as a kid: I’ve always felt connected to something bigger than me.
There’s a real intimacy and authenticity to the lyrics from what we've heard so far – is that something you feel like perhaps you weren’t able to have to have when you first started out in the industry?
I think it’s a very different time now. There’re so many people that have come through and people are just more open. There’s this whole conversation about mental health, there’s a conversation about identity… I think when I was coming through before that wasn’t there. And I came from nothing, so it was always like ‘You’ve got to do this in order to make it’, and you start to compromise because you think ‘If I don’t make this work then I’m f**ked’. My life had always very much been an open book, so that was hard for me, to play the game a little bit, and that’s what made me fall out of love with the music industry. But what’s made me fall back in love with music is writing songs, writing my stories down. So now there is so much of my life [in the songs]. It’s all there in the music.
It does feel like things have come a very long way in a short space of time in terms of having out mainstream artists being unapologetically queer in their music, whether its your Sam Smiths or your Olly Alexanders…
Well, I would disagree. I think yeah, there has been progress in my time, but this is why I get pissed off with record labels [because] I would meet [with them] and people would say to my manager ‘Ooh, I’m worried that he’s clearly gay and he won’t appeal to little girls’. But look at the history of music! The best artists were queer artists, you know? David Bowie, Elton John, George Michael, Boy George – there were so many, way back when. So I don’t understand how we went backwards, but there’s been a fight against it and now we’re coming back again.
Are there particular conversations you remember having with music and industry execs about your sexuality?
Loads. Loads. So much sh*t has been said to me and you just think ‘Wow’. But I’m sure that will goes on now.
Did that affect you in a way that was deeper than just your career? Did it affect your own sense of self-worth?
Definitely. I think most musicians or artists will tell you it’s hard to separate the two. [Because] it is a personal thing. And I’m an insecure person. It’s personal when they’re saying ‘You’re not good enough if you’re like this’, and you start to internalise that. So I took some time out, and thought ‘F**k this, I’m not going to feel like this’. But it's all good now.
In the first couple of lines of ‘Glow Up’ you immediately touch on your sexuality and your relationship with your father – what was your journey like growing up?
It’s not always been easy and I’ve not always been accepted. My dad’s very much a ‘man’s man’, and I always felt like I was the problem. When I grew up I realised ‘Actually, you’re the f**king problem’. It’s hard to look back at all that stuff because I’m so much more positive now. I’m so much freer and more comfortable in my skin.
What’s been your process songwriting process for this new EP? Do you tend to start with lyrics, a particular mood?
Usually lyrics. I know exactly what I want to say, and I’ll have sentences going round in my head until I realise what the whole song is. And I usually have a title as well. From that, I know what it’s going to sound like. I have synaesthesia - which is weird because I’m losing my eyesight – but I’m a very visual person and see sounds in colour or with imagery, so that helps to shape the sound. It’s hard to explain through because there’s no formula.
Are you someone who constantly has a notebook with you to write down idea? Would you describe yourself as a neurotic songwriter?
I always think if it’s any good then I’ll remember it! I’m quite free. I’m like ‘You know what, if I can’t f**king remember it then it can’t be that good’ [chuckles] I just write naturally in my head.
What does your new single ‘Free Love’ meant to you?
This track is the first one I wrote for the EP, not even thinking of it being anything. I’d been writing a lot of dark songs – I’d lost a friend to suicide and there was a lot of sh*t going on, I was really struggling - and then I fell in love. And I just wanted to write a beautiful, simple love song. I was also hanging out with this girl who was a stripper, and she was talking about how she didn’t want to go and dance, she just wanted to be with her man. And I thought that was really f**king cute. When I fall in love I forget everything and fall head over heels, so I related to that. It’s just about giving your love to someone unconditionally. And that sort of inspired the rest of the music. I’d say this EP, while there’s darkness in there it’s quite romantic and loved-up.
Some people might say that being in a dark place can help inspire art, buts someone who's taken time out to prioritise your own happiness and mental health, do you it's untrue to say artists have to going through personal turmoil to create?
Yeah, I think when I was younger I used to think if I'm depressed I can write a song, but I don't want to f**king write sad songs - I want to write about the good times! That's just where I'm at in my life. When shit's going on in your life, you think 'Whe the f**k's this gonna get better and you can't always see a way out. But there's always a way out it.