Yungblud has one request before this interview begins. “Please, please don’t ask me about when I first discovered music,” groans the 21-year-old in his soft Yorkshire twang, facepalming and sinking his cheek onto the table while his hair, a complex structure of gelled, colliding strands, almost knocks over the coffee.
Seconds later, his frown splits in two, making way for a wide, angelic grin that sits as incongruously beneath his kohl-smudged eyes as the bright pink socks peeping out from his all-black attire. “Come on, ask me a question and I’ll answer it honestly,” he says, rubbing his hands together so vigorously sparks could fly. And then, without irony: “Because you know, I’m just so real all the time.”
Born Dominic Harrison, Yungblud grew up in Doncaster around the corner from the Arctic Monkeys, and has taken alt rock by storm with his rebellious, sweary Britpop that, between invigorating guitar riffs and slinky hip-hop beats, treats thorny issues from gun violence and politics to depression and rape to a monthly listenership of 6.5 million streams. At a time where opinion has become something of a hot potato, ready to send Twitter feeds up in smoke and careers along with it, Yungblud’s debut album 21st Century Liability, which he says was for “today’s misunderstood youth growing up in confusion, anxiety and fear”, set him apart as one of the few remaining voices to cut through the beige. If anyone could talk about being "real" without sounding insincere, this is your guy.
When did you become so outspoken?
From a young age I was always very transparent, and that’s why the kids' mums didn’t like me. I would tell you if I didn’t like your beans on toast. I remember talking about a Mozart song during a music class at school, and I said, ‘I wouldn’t have done it like that’. I didn’t like the way the chords moved. And my teacher told me to get out. I wasn’t saying it was bad. It was a perfectly incredible piece of music. f*ck me, he wrote it at 13, that’s insanity.
Whose mum didn’t like you?
Georgia Mattison’s mum. f*ck, you’re going to print that. Fine. I would always tell her when I thought she was wrong. And she confronted me in the playground about causing disruption in the classroom. People didn’t understand me because young people were in a box then. But that’s been totally obliterated now. We are so f*cking intelligent. People get offended because opinion is a very controversial thing nowadays. People are scared to have a strong opinion because, with social media, almost everyone lives the life of a celebrity.
Your opinions are on trend though. You’re ‘woke’.
A lot of people say things just because it’s trending. And you can tell. You can tell the difference.
Are people more intolerant in Doncaster compared to London?
There’s a lot of neglect up there. There’s still a small minded mentality.
Did your parents vote Brexit?
No, they voted to remain. Thank f*ck. I’d have to disown them. They couldn’t come to my shows anymore.
Why did you move to London aged 16?
I wanted to go to art school for a bit. The North can be quite suffocating, especially for a creative person. My dad owns a guitar shop. Everyone always says, ‘Oh so it must have been easy for you’. But no it’s the contrary, because you want to get away from it.
Does your dad play the guitar?
No, he’s just obsessed with them. When I put a guitar in his hand he looks at it like it’s a f*cking artifact. I smash my guitars up on stage and he cries. He weeps.
No, not really.
Why do you smash up your guitars?
I don’t know. But it’s just a surge of energy. And anyway, I f*cking paid for it. It just feels good.
Wouldn’t it be better to give the guitar to someone who needs one?
I do, I give the little pieces of it to the crowd at the end.
But wouldn’t it be better whole, so that they could play it?
Your music is often called protest music. How does that sit with you?
It just puts me in another box. I hate it. They’re not protest songs, they’re just f*cking real. They’re just about real sh*t. I just think about gun laws and abomination so I’m going to sing about it.
Your song, "Machine Gun," about a mass shooting, feels very pertinent right now.
God, yeah. It’s crazy, and everyone always says it’s just America. Well, [the New Zealand massacre] shows it’s not. That song was inspired by a trip to America when I was 18. I was like, "What, so I can buy an assault rifle, but I can’t buy a can of Stella?" It was around the time of the [Parkland,] Florida shootings, on Valentine’s Day. I was there for the march, in Atlanta. It just gave me real faith in my generation. But I can write about anything. "11 Minutes" was about love. I could write about that plant over there if I wanted to.
That needs to be on your next album.
It will be. I’ll make it about legalising marijuana.
Why did you decide to write about gun crime rather than knife crime, which feels closer to home?
It’s true, I remember people strapping on a knife when going out in town. In any working class industrial area this happens. The conversation around guns and knives needs to change. People ask, "How are we going to stop it?" You are never going to stop it.
What we can do is we can talk about it and provide outlets for people who feel like they are going to do that. Obviously we can ban guns in the USA. But here it’s about relating to people. We patronise gangs. We look down on them. There is so much aggression towards that part of society. I know a lot of these people from those backgrounds. It’s very easy for people to sit up there and look down on them. But they feel oppressed, neglected and ignored, so they crave this sense of power that they can only obtain in a gang. That’s a fact.
We seem to have moved away from using drill music as a scapegoat now.
Thank God. When that came out, I was like, Jesus Christ. That is such a snooty, white person thing to say. "Let’s blame it on creativity!" It’s so easy to stereotype things and blame them.
Your music is very sensitive, particularly on issues such as mental health. Do you struggle with your mental health?
I’d been living with anxiety since I was 16 but I didn’t realise I had it until I met my guitar player when I was 18. His mum realised that he had it because she had it.
How does your anxiety manifest itself?
I would wake up in the morning with a knot in my stomach. I would stay in bed all day. People around me in art school idolised someone that was close to me, and that made me feel so irrelevant. I went through phases of thinking I didn’t fit in. I didn’t fit in at home, I was supposed to fit into art school as an artist but I didn’t. So I thought, "maybe I’m gay," because I’ve been called a poof by my whole life.
All this sh*t was going on in my head to try and obtain an identity. I got depressed. I wanted to kill myself. It’s so odd that mental state you get into. It was like I was watching myself on a reality TV show. That’s what I’m trying to do with my music. To say it’s OK to think this. And to give someone a place to belong. If you’re scared, so am I.
Did you see a therapist?
No, I found Yungblud. I found music. I found a manager who saw me playing s--- pop music. I even did a Disney show [The Lodge, 2016].
How difficult is it to express these kind of feelings as a man?
Well, depression and suicide is the biggest killer of men. My song "Kill Somebody" is about that. People said, "Oh is it about Theresa May? Is it about Donald Trump?" No! It’s about me. I’m talking to myself in the mirror. The other night, I was on stage in Bristol, and I cried my eyes out on stage, because I saw this kid who would normally have been making fun of me.
I was wearing a dress, while he was wearing a bucket hat, an Adidas tracksuit, sunglasses – an outfit straight out of the Nineties. He was the kind of guy that would make fun of me for looking like Harry Styles. But he was holding his girlfriend and crying his eyes out at my show. And it made me cry on stage because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter where you’re from and what you’re wearing, everyone is in search of identity. I was helping him.
The conversation about male mental health isn’t moving fast enough.
That’s so funny you say that because that’s what I’m writing about on the new album.
Your music was used on the controversial Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, about a young girl’s suicide. What did you make of the show?
It was wicked. I think it was very important.
You don’t think it romanticised self-harm?
I hear you, but for me, it didn’t romanticise anything, it does what all good art should do, which is educate people on a subject they didn’t know about. I suffer from anxiety and depression. And yes the show was uncomfortable and triggering at times, but you know what’s more uncomfortable? Someone who doesn’t understand you. Someone who tells you you’re going through a phase and to have a cup of tea.
It was a debate that I wrote about recently around the rise of 'sad rap' and the melancholy music of artists like Billie Eilish, which sometimes leads fans to feel competitive over who suffers from worse mental health in her YouTube comments.
That’s her fans, not the artist. She can’t control them or how they represent her. I love Billie, we’re good mates actually. I agree it can come across like her music romanticises sadness, but that’s just the way she talks. That’s how she expresses herself. And I know Billie. The songs wallow because that’s what she's going through at the time. Not every song can be "Live Forever" by Oasis. That’s why people had a problem with Kurt Cobain.
But then again Lil Peep did glamourise the use of Xanax.
I know he did. But that’s how culture was. And that was his view on the world. I do not condone that but what right do I have to say that he was wrong? That’s his opinion. It’s a fine line but it’s his opinion. I always make sure I stay clued into culture, so that I can write about it. I remember once, in my English class, I was writing a GCSE essay about the desert. And my teacher said, ‘Why are you writing about the desert. You’ve never been to the desert.’ And I realised he was right. So I wrote about Kampsell fish and chip shop, about how the stale vinegar frazzled my tongue. And I got an A*.
Was your song "Polygraph Eyes," about rape and consent, inspired by what you saw back home?
Yes, I would see drunk girls stumbling out of nightclubs with boys that weren’t nearly as drunk as them. The messed up thing was I didn’t realise how wrong it was until I moved to London. That’s why I wrote "Polygraph Eyes," which is about a girl who got taken advantage of by a boy who drugged her and kept getting her drunk. The boyfriend couldn’t understand, because he thought she cheated on him. It’s so funny to see when I introduce the song at a show, the number of lads wearing Fred Perry or Hollister shirts going ‘f*cking yes!!!’
There’s a lot of controversy in music at the moment, what with the sexual abuse allegations against Ryan Adams, R Kelly and Michael Jackson. Do you believe we can separate art from the artist?
Absolutely not. Music is a part of someone’s soul. Music is a feeling for me. And if that soul is evil, then I don’t want anything to do with it. Why would I want to listen to the opinions of a paedophile? I wouldn’t watch a Hitler speech and get off on it, would I? It’s the exact equivalent. Art is a view on life.
So you won’t listen to Jackson ever again?
Was he an influence on you?
Not really. I had a massive respect for what he did though. But let’s talk about the Lostprophets. [The lead singer Ian Watkins was sentenced for sexual abuse of minors in 2013]. I loved "Rooftops" when I was 12. I used to paint my nails because of that song. But if I hear that song now I turn it off because I’m ashamed. That was a person I confided in, that I believed in, but he was truly evil. And that is my bad.
What about someone like Kevin Spacey in House of Cards? Would you watch that?
That’s different. Because he’s playing a character. I might be turned off by it but that character didn’t pour out of them. It didn’t pour out of their heart and their head and the way that they think.
Have you ever been caught up in the grey area of consent?
No, not really, man. Because I’ve got two younger sisters and my mum was really strong on it. She said "You never touch anyone if they don’t want to be touched. Not even just sexually. If someone doesn’t want to talk to you, by staying there, you are abusing someone."
Would you intervene if you saw any of your friends being inappropriate?
I’d f*cking kill them. I am bad for that. I had anger when I was younger. Look at my lips. [He pulls down his lower lip to show his battle scars]. That’s why they’re so big. I look like Mick Jagger. [He winks.] I would get aggressive if I saw someone getting pushed over or something like that. Because I think of someone doing that to my sister and I get mad. It might be a bit outdated now; a bit over masculine. But I had a lot more girl friends growing up. I’m actually quite feminine. I’m a mummy’s boy.
How did you realise you weren’t gay?
To put it bluntly, I just really loved kissing women and having sex with women. But you know, if the right opportunity comes along... I have been attracted to guys. I’ve just never had sex with a guy. I’m quite a sexual person.
Where did you meet American singer Halsey, your collaborator on "11 Minutes?"
In LA. In a cool bar which I’m not giving away because it’s our little secret.
What did you talk about?
We’re from basically the same place but from other sides of the world. She’s from the Doncaster of the USA [Edison, New Jersey].
Did you know of her before she reached out to you on Instagram a few months ago? [With a DM that included a black heart and her phone number].
Yeah, I had always admired her as an artist. We had a lot in common, instantly. There was a f*cking ignition between us.
So she is your girlfriend?
[He grins and leans back in his chair.] I don’t know what you’re talking about.
So you just have ‘platonic ignition’?
Yeah, chemistry as artists. [He smiles cheekily].
I don’t believe you.
She’s wicked. She makes me smile. A lot. I’ll let you have that.
What is "I Love You, Will You Marry Me" about?
It’s about two lovers in the North of England. About a young man called Jason who met a girl Clare on the Park Hill Estate, which is a really run-down estate. I grew up 20 minutes from there, and whenever I went to see the Arctic Monkeys I would go past it. It was gorgeous in the Sixties, and if you were posh you would live there. But by the Nineties it was so run-down and lawless. The police wouldn’t go up there because there was so much drugs and prostitution.
They fell in love and he wanted to propose to her. So this estate’s tower blocks are held together by bridges, and one night Jason suspended himself over the bridge and spray painted, "I Love You, Will You Marry Me?" So it’s a lovely story.
However, she had kids, and Social Services said he wasn’t fit to be a father. And then she died of cancer and he became homeless. So property developers redeveloped the apartments and used that story as a selling tool. They put it in neon lights, put it on T-Shirts, and a brewery nearby even made an "I Love You, Will You Marry Me" beer. It was even on the sofa pillows inside the flat.
Jason asked for them to take the sign down because it was so painful to be reminded of it and the developers said no. And so, because he was homeless he said, "OK, will you give me a flat, since you’re making so much money off this?" And they said no. It’s my comment on corporate companies taking advantage of something as precious as love.
How do you come up with these ideas?
I don’t know. I was in London, and my mate was on the phone and I asked him where he was and he said he was by Park Hill, and that’s what gave me the idea. I remember getting out my notebook and writing down the lyric.
Do you always write with a pad and pen?
Yep. The proper way.
Do you write a diary?
No that’s too scary. I’ve got video cameras following me around all day anyway.
Where do you live in London?
Nowhere. I’m a wandering boy. I live on my tour bus.
Have you had anyone famous on your tour bus?
Oh yeah. Loads of people. We did the Vans Warped Tour so we were all over each other’s buses. I drink alcohol but I don’t really party that much.
Do you let fans on the bus?
God no. That’s a strict no. Anyone could come on the bus, and then want to bring you down. They can say anything. "He locked me in tour bus and verbally abused me" ...or anything. And anyway I don’t have a house so that bus is our safe space. But you know what, I love touring. Some of these f*cking hipsters are like, [puts on a very convincing posh London accent], "Oh my God, touring is so hard, it just really takes it out of me." f*ck off. It’s me and two best mates playing music, traveling the world, and talking about what we believe in. It’s the best thing in the world.