YUNGBLUD is a 21st Century Liability, and he's not apologizing
Last year, U.K. native Dominic Harrison—aka YUNGBLUD—burst onto the scene armed with a joyous blend of hip-hop, punk and indie rock that was unlike anything else around.
Now with a new live album, a sold-out U.S. tour and even grander plans in the works for the rest of 2019, Harrison has world domination squarely in his sights. But YUNGBLUD is about more than just music: It’s the beginning of an emotional and political movement which, in the face of a world that’s becoming ever more divided, is all about coming together.
It’s a cold Monday afternoon in Manchester, U.K. Tonight Dominic Harrison will play to a sold-out crowd at the city’s Academy 2 venue. Below the room in which his musical persona, YUNGBLUD, is set to perform lies the University Of Manchester Students’ Union.
Banners drape the walls outside encouraging the college’s 40,000 students to vote in the upcoming university elections, while inside the atmosphere is vibrant, lively and youthful—exactly the environment in which YUNGBLUD thrives.
Upstairs, Harrison is eagerly anticipating the evening’s show. A gig already upgraded from the smaller Club Academy location before selling out of tickets again, it’s part of a U.K. tour the Doncaster native gleefully says has been characterized by his fans “jumping about and losing their minds.”
“It feels like something special,” he begins. “There’s something seriously happening with YUNGBLUD—it’s like I always dreamed of. It’s fucking nuts.”
A few hours later, as the lights dim and screams abound, YUNGBLUD enters the stage as a voice-over from Harrison rings out from the PA. “We’re all alone together,” the recording solemnly declares before shit gets real and YUNGBLUD launches into the title track from last year’s breakout debut, 21st Century Liability, sparking pandemonium in the process.
Waving a rainbow LGBT pride flag and strutting around with the swagger of a young David Bowie or Mick Jagger, no one inside Academy 2 feels alone for the next 90 minutes, as Harrison leads the 950 attendees through a cacophony of singalongs, the steam train halting just once so Harrison can jump from the stage and tend to a stricken fan who’s struggling at the barrier.
“Give her a fucking clap,” he implores as normal service resumes. Let it never be said that YUNGBLUD doesn’t care about his fans.
Harrison’s relationship with those who follow him has always been special. These people are more than just a fanbase; they’re members of the Black Hearts Club, a community akin to My Chemical Romance’s MCRmy or the Skeleton Clique that follows twenty one pilots.
Named after a pair of tattoos that adorn Harrison’s fingers, it’s a collective of music fans known for tolerance, empathy and activism—traits its leader possesses in abundance.
“This is what I’ve always wanted to create,” Harrison says of his following. “I grew up with ADHD, and because of that, a lot of people misunderstood my intentions. I didn’t fit into a box that society was accepting of. If you’ve ever felt like you’re outside of that box, you’ll know how awful it is—that feeling of inadequacy permeates your brain.
“I wanted to build something that would defy what was suppressing me, and that’s what YUNGBLUD is—it’s creating a community of people who are themselves no matter what,” he continues. “You are safe to be yourself here: Regardless of what the fuck is going on outside, for the length of the show or the time we’re connecting online, you can be you and forget about all the bullshit.”
The creation of this safe space, Harrison reveals, stems from those artists who provided solace for him during childhood.
“They’d know what I was thinking without meeting me, and I felt I needed to create something like that myself. YUNGBLUD is about connection—I just want to connect to people on a real level so everyone feels less alone.”
Growing up in Doncaster, a town in the English county of South Yorkshire that’s known for, well, not a lot, Harrison felt that isolation of which he speaks.
On the surface, it would appear as though he had the perfect upbringing for an aspiring musician: Guitar bands were foisted upon him from an early age courtesy of his father running a guitar shop, while his granddad also had a musical heritage, having once performed alongside glam-rock legends T. Rex.
It sounds like the ideal starting point for YUNGBLUD, but that’s not how Harrison remembers it.
“It was cool,” he states of home life when he was young. “But it was also hard growing up around musicians. Musicians are arrogant wankers who think they know best—that’s a fact! The pressure of that was horrendous: I really looked up to them, and now for me to have supposedly surpassed them with my career…a lot of people turned their backs on me.
“It was weird having my dad and granddad tell me, ‘Don’t go into music—you’ll fail.’ But at the end of the day, they worked in a guitar shop—they weren’t full-time musicians. It was hard for me to see that and hear them say those things because music was all I wanted to do.”
Harrison maintains that, overall, his parents were “very supportive” of him, but at school, people weren’t so accepting.
Disliked by teachers and parents (“I’d tell my friends’ moms if I thought their beans on toast was shit”), those in authority would encourage others to avoid him. A reputation as a troublemaker began to follow Harrison around.
But, like the socially conscious music he now makes, this wasn’t rebellion for rebellion’s sake. Even at a young age, Harrison knew the world he wanted to be a part of.
“I remember how one year my school didn’t want to take part in [nationwide U.K. fundraiser] Red Nose Day,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘You fucking what? Why?’ I rallied up all my mates and was like, ‘Fuck this, we’re going to see the principal to sort this out. I’m not getting in fucking trouble for wearing a red nose for charity.’
“I got 10 friends to agree to come with me, but when I turned up at the principal’s office, only two of them went through with it, which fucked me off. But I was that kid, you know?”
School came and went, and at the age of 16, Harrison made the decision to move to London to pursue his musical dreams, enrolling at ArtsEd, a performing arts college whose alumni include several notable U.K. TV actors, but just the one young punk from Doncaster.
It was there, in the bright lights and multiculturalism of London, that YUNGBLUD was truly born, but this was no easy journey from stage-school to stardom. In fact, Harrison considers his time at ArtsEd to be one of the darkest periods of his life.
“I felt lost,” he remembers. “I suffered from anxiety and depression for the first time, and I was so alone. Everyone around me did so much fucking better than me at art school because they stuck to the rules; the teachers loved them, but they never liked me.
“That was when I first had thoughts about suicide. I’d wake up early with a knot in my stomach, and I didn’t understand why. One minute everything would feel amazing, and the next I’d be second-guessing everything in my head.
“Going to London was a big coming-of-age thing for me; it was the first time I couldn’t turn to my parents. I began to question my sexuality, and I tried drugs for the first time. I bottled things up until I got to a really dark place, but then I started writing music again, and that was the moment when YUNGBLUD truly began.”
Prior to the YUNGBLUD epiphany, Harrison had met with a management company that wanted to turn him into a pop star, but there was a condition: He couldn’t sing about politics, and he certainly couldn’t sing about depression and suicide.
“That would never get played on the radio,” the company told him. Essentially, if he was to take the pop star route, Harrison couldn’t write about how he truly felt, and for a man of his convictions, that was never going to happen.
So the pop plans were shelved, and he plowed on alone until a chance meeting with his current managers sparked him to dig himself out of the rut he was in. But even then, playing music he didn’t truly believe in, the seeds of the YUNGBLUD phenomenon were being sowed.
“I was playing an acoustic night, singing some fucking shit, poppy love song I’d reluctantly written,” Harrison says. “But I was rocking out and jumping on the speakers. My now-managers knew it didn’t make sense.
“They came over after I played and asked what I’d grown up listening to, and I was like, ‘The Clash, MCR, Eminem, Busta Rhymes.’ And they said, ‘Well, those artists and what you’re playing now don’t add up.’
“After that, I went off the radar, didn’t shower for weeks, probably smoked all the weed in London and had a period of self-discovery. I figured out I wanted to wear pink socks, spikes and stripes. I decided what I wanted my band to be and what I wanted my songs to sound like.
“It was very much a representation of how out of the darkness there will come light; I was at the darkest I’d ever been, and someone handed me a lifeline. For anyone in the same position, I’d say this: All you’ve got to do is grab that lifeline because it’ll pull you out of the rut. If you’re depressed, there will be a rope hanging in front of your face somewhere: Don’t fucking hang yourself with it. Grab it and climb it.”
In the face of adversity, Harrison climbed that rope all the way from a shitty English town via the hedonism and self-discovery of London and into the hearts and ears of thousands of Black Hearts Club members the world over.
Last year’s debut LP, 21st Century Liability, was a runaway success, catapulting YUNGBLUD onto the biggest playlists and the most-listened-to radio stations.
Ska-infused tales of young love on a council estate (“I Love You, Will You Marry Me”) met with new-age protest punk (“Machine Gun (Fuck The NRA)”) and lamentations on suicide (“Kill Somebody”) across a riotous blend of punk, pop, hip-hop and everything in between.
There was even a track, “Polygraph Eyes,” which garnered YUNGBLUD the appreciation of those parents who used to hate him, its lyrics a powerful attack on men who take advantage of drunk women on nights out.
Building on those foundations, Harrison’s new live album, Live In Atlanta, finds him giving his fans the opportunity to “experience a gig in their headphones” before he embarks on a sold-out U.S. tour which kicks off May 3.
About 90 percent of the tickets went in the presale, with the remaining few snapped up minutes after going online, leaving many fans disappointed at missing out, social media awash with accusations that bots purchased tickets at the expense of genuine YUNGBLUD devotees.
Having fretted over the issue since it first came to his attention, Harrison is keen to offer reassurances to his fans regarding the live shows.
“I’ve seen people saying the tickets were bought by bots,” he outlines. “And I want to clear this up: The vast majority of tickets were sold in the presale, so that’s why people struggled to get them after that.
“But I’ll say this to fans in America: There’s another tour coming in the fall. We undersold this May tour on purpose; with everything getting bigger, I wanted to cram the first people to get tickets into the smallest venues and then tackle the bigger rooms later in the year.
“I remember being pissed off as fuck when I didn’t get tickets for Arctic Monkeys as a kid, and I know some of the tickets for this run will have been bought by scalpers. That will always be a thing, but I’m gonna try and scrape them up if possible and then release them again.”
Evidently, YUNGBLUD is hot property right now, something only furthered by the successes of the recent singles “Loner” and “11 Minutes,” the latter of which features Halsey and blink-182 drummer Travis Barker.
The two songs are wildly different: “Loner” is a Britpop/indie-rock guitar anthem straight out of the Oasis School Of Songwriting, while “11 Minutes” is the sound of alternative music in 2019.
Cutting edge and genre-defying with an emotional story at its heart, it’s everything the young Harrison aspired to achieve with his music. You can’t pin YUNGBLUD down to a single sound, nor can he be labeled or placed in a box like those at school and performing arts college tried.
Genre, as far as YUNGBLUD is concerned, is dead, and we’re better off without it.
“It’s about the message with me,” Harrison says of his approach (or lack thereof) to genre. “YUNGBLUD is what I’m saying and the stories I’m telling. It’s about real social issues. My community is a bunch of people from different walks of life—it’s modern equality.
“The dream for me is 90,000 people from varying backgrounds in every city in the world coming together at YUNGBLUD shows. It’s funny about the whole genre thing, though. The fans who come to me for the hip-hop stuff end up falling in love with the rock shit and vice versa because I do it in a way that ties everything together.
“When you listen to 21st Century Liability, you think, ‘That’s crazy, but that’s YUNGBLUD.’”
When asked about the inspiration behind “11 Minutes” specifically, Harrison reiterates his belief that story and message are more important than sound.
“It’s about a car accident, but more than that, it’s a comment on love in modern society,” he explains. “Right now, we’re so focused on what’s next because there are so many distractions in this world. We don’t realize how much we need, love or care for the things we hold dear until they’re taken away.
“‘11 Minutes’ is saying, ‘Take a fucking breath and focus on today.’ It tells the story of two young people who break up because they believe success is more powerful than love. That’s today’s society in a nutshell. The lovers eventually realize that love trumps greed, and they want to get back together, but she gets into a car accident on the way to see him. It’s a modern tragedy.
“People are hearing it and saying, ‘YUNGBLUD’s sold out—he’s written a love song,’ but I don’t care about the criticism. I get off on people saying I’ve sold out. Everyone’s waiting for me to sell out, but you shouldn’t fucking worry about that.
“I don’t want people to know what I’m gonna do next; once people know my formula, I’m fucked. That’s the exciting thing for me—if people know what I’m about to do, the game isn’t fun.”
Undoubtedly, Harrison is in many ways having a blast playing the YUNGBLUD game.
As his band members stroll past the room where he’s talking to AP, he asks them, “We’re having fun, aren’t we, lads?”
“Oh yeah!” is the enthusiastic bellow from one member of the touring party. There’s a clear desire to ensure the on-the-road YUNGBLUD experience is a positive one for all involved, but despite the fun being had, Harrison doesn’t shy away from the fact that, sometimes, his mental health suffers.
His lifelong struggles with ADHD, depression and anxiety—key lyrical components of much of 21st Century Liability—are well-documented. Harrison states that, right now, his mental health might be “the worst it’s ever been” before remarking that “then again, it’s never been that good!”
Such openness about his struggles is one of the reasons why the Black Hearts Club is growing at such a rapid rate, and that growth has prompted him to change his songwriting approach for his yet-to-be-titled second album.
For 21st Century Liability, he had 19 years’ worth of experiences to draw upon. This time, he’s barely got two, and so Harrison is looking to his fans for inspiration.
“It’s so fucking different,” Harrison says of the new material he’s working on. “The first album talks about my struggles, what I’ve seen and what I feel; it’s very ‘me, me, me.’ But the more this community’s grown, the less the music has become about me.
“There’s a song coming out about how I have a lot of LGBT kids at my shows, and only now do I feel like that community is starting to be truly accepted and made to feel ‘normal.’ It’s called ‘Mars,’ and it talks about a person who told me that my track ‘Kill Somebody’ helped them come to terms with the fact that they wanted a sex change, and how that blew my mind.
“My fans having the confidence to be themselves is the reason I do this—I’m not doing it for money and platinum records. Yes, I want to be as successful as I can, but what matters most to me is the strength of this community.
“It’s like with My Chemical Romance,” he continues. “I find it amazing when people compare me to them because Gerard Way was a massive influence on me. He implemented himself in my brain and made me feel like it’s—pardon the pun—OK to not be OK. My Chem’s approach to music is a very integral part of what I’m doing.”
Their attitude toward songwriting isn’t the only means by which YUNGBLUD is taking influence from MCR, however. Harrison detects similarities between the New Jersey legends and himself in the way in which both acts seek to look after the communities they create.
Like the MCRmy before them, the Black Hearts Club isn’t about putting Harrison, Gerard Way or anyone else on a pedestal. This is all about seeing the qualities inside ourselves and creating a movement where all are safe and all are equal.
“It’s not telling people what to think,” Harrison argues. “It’s about empowering them to find happiness within themselves. If you feel like everyone around you is better than you are, then fucking put your headphones on and look inside yourself.
“My fans are so fucking cool, man; they make amazing clothes and art, but then they say to me, ‘I don’t feel good enough.’ And I’m like, ‘Look at that fucking picture you just drew! It’s insanely good—I could never do that.’
“They ask me how I feel so confident, but it’s them that give me the confidence, and I’ll always need to remember that,” he stresses. “Without them, I’m nothing. I ain’t some fucking angel—I’ve just got a bigger mouth than most people.”
Harrison is certainly opinionated when it comes to current affairs, both in his music and interviews, and it’s a trait that’s given him the kind of platform most activists could never hope to achieve. A YouTube search of “YUNGBLUD interview” quickly reveals a near-half-hour feature Harrison had on Sky News, one of the U.K.’s biggest news networks.
During the conversation, he’s asked for his opinions on mental health, gender identity, Brexit and a host of other topical issues. It’s an opportunity most of rock’s biggest names would tear an arm off for, but it’s the energy and passion with which Harrison speaks that means that it’s he, not the old guard, who’s being invited to share his views with the public.
The YUNGBLUD approach to political activism is about much more than telling the establishment to “fuck off.”
Slamming his hands down and becoming noticeably more animated, Harrison outlines why he has such faith in the youth of today’s ability to make a tangible difference to the current political landscape.
“All the old people did not like me on that!” he beams when talking about the Sky interview. “But I believe in my generation because we’re so fucking smart. Yeah, we’re a bit arrogant, and yeah, we’re a bit gobby, but that’s because we’ve got to be when you look at what’s going on around us: Brexit, Trump, war, privatized health care, racism, gender inequality, homophobia.
“We know the future we want to be a part of, and this isn’t it. We’re being held back by old ideologies that don’t understand us, but we’re gonna get that future we want to see. I have faith in us, and I always have.
“Just five or 10 years ago, people of the same gender getting married was wrongly seen by a lot of people as disgusting, and look at it now. We’ve changed that—that’s why I believe in us.”
Pin him down on the issues and Harrison’s more than willing to go into detail about society’s ills. Brexit and the presidency of Donald Trump are two things he’s particularly concerned about, and he’s fighting for change.
“[U.K. rock band] Shame tweeted recently saying, ‘For Lent, I’m giving up my ability to live and work in 27 countries,’” Harrison offers. “I thought it was a fucking brilliant way of making a point about Brexit. A sense of unity is being destroyed—division is an old way of thinking.
“My version of punk isn’t about dividing people; it’s not about going, ‘Fuck you, we’re fine on our own.’ It’s about coming together because love will outdo hate every fucking day if we allow it to. Hating things is such a boring attitude.”
And what about Trump?
“It’s dangerous how powerful he is,” Harrison warns. “He’s got that power because he’s essentially a reality TV show—people who aren’t clued-up follow him. Why are we building border walls in fucking 2019?
“There are families being ripped apart at the Mexican border. Abortion remains effectively illegal in some states. His priorities are wrong, and I feel the same way about [U.K. Prime Minister] Theresa May. Kids can’t go to university without putting themselves in thousands of [dollars] worth of debt. Sick people can’t get the operations they need.
“The priorities of our leaders are wrong. It’d be easy for us just to say, ‘Fuck Trump, I fucking hate him,’ but that’s a naive way of behaving because if we act like that, then we’re the same as them.
“[Activist] Emma Gonzalez is a great example of that,” he continues. “She speaks with a passion that isn’t divisive. We need to remain informed, remain loving and speak up—that’s how we’ll change things. That’s how we move forward, by having a voice. God—or whatever you fucking believe in—gave you a voice. And you should use it because it’s the most powerful thing you’ve got.”
YUNGBLUD is about doing things differently. The political aspects of the music aren’t just there to appear edgy or relevant: They’re the genuine observations of an individual who believes we can change the world.
His music isn’t chasing trends; it’s breaking down the barriers of genre and changing what it means to be an alternative artist.
Even in Harrison’s approach to the business side of music, things are different. Throughout AP’s lengthy conversation with him, interviewer and interviewee are left entirely to their own devices; there’s no manager or label figure quietly observing, waiting to jump in for fear of Harrison saying “the wrong thing.”
Harrison won’t allow it. In an era of media-trained artists subject to control-freakish levels of scrutiny from labels and managers, it’s a refreshing rarity.
“I killed that stone-dead as soon as it started,” Harrison says of outside influences interfering with his press duties. “I’m not interested in being managed—I’d rather be dead than ‘cool.’ I ain’t gonna feed you some manufactured bullshit to give you what my team would consider a good article. I’m an open book. I always have been, and I always will be.”
Openness, honesty and respect for the fans are all traits that define Dominic Harrison and what he’s building with the YUNGBLUD movement. He won’t be controlled, his art won’t be diluted and he’s adamant that he won’t be stopped until YUNGBLUD headlines London’s Wembley Stadium.
He’s out to change things for music, for himself, but most importantly, for you.
“YUNGBLUD is never self-deprecating and never divisional,” Harrison concludes. “It’s unifying. It’s about empowering people and bringing them together. Ultimately, music, politics and everything else aside, this is about connection.”
YUNGBLUD on tour
Harrison will be touring extensively in the U.S. and Europe for the remainder of the year. Tickets for upcoming shows are on sale now, available here.
This feature originally appeared in AP issue #369 with cover star YUNGBLUD, which is available here.