Every so often, an iMessage notification chimes from Yungblud's end of our Zoom call. They're coming through from his mom, who better knows him by birth name Dominic Harrison: "Sorry, that's my mam," he laughs. "It's so funny. Every time I'm doing summat important, she's like, 'Ello Dom!' I was on Channel 4 yesterday and she's trying to ring me." Accompanied by his Northern accent, the momma's boy moments give a glimpse into the vulnerable boy beneath the wild red hair and thick glasses.
Jacket: Matteo Carlomusto, Blazer: John Lawrence Sullivan, Cap: Atsuko Kudo, Shoes: Margiela Tabi, Vest: Ashley Williams, Shirt: Avavav, Hip chain: Lilith by Sita
Harrison has had an unusual couple of years. Born in Doncaster, Northern England, the now 23-year-old released his debut EP Yungblud in 2018 after furiously penning tracks about everything from sexual assault to the working classes. Refusing to be watered down or silenced for a global audience, he maintained an aggressively British aesthetic, all punk motifs and Union Jack flags. Replete with brightly colored hair, smeared eye makeup, snarling lips and the occasional skirt, he modeled himself as a punk, much to the derision of older critics who questioned his legitimacy.
"As long as you know who you are and what you're doing and that you're not a bad person, people can say whatever the fuck they want about you. It's like school gossip."
Did he give a fuck? Of course not: "I've been scrutinized my whole life. I'm used to it. I grew up walking around Donny in a fucking skirt. As long as you know who you are and what you're doing and that you're not a bad person, people can say whatever the fuck they want about you. It's like school gossip."
(Left) Glasses: A Better Feeling, Suit: John Lawrence Sullivan (Right) Shirt: Dilara Findikoglu, Bracelets: Weird Brain Creations, Boots: Egon Lab
He followed Yungblud with a debut studio album, 21st Century Liability, that same year, and another EP, The Underrated Youth, in 2019. High-profile collabs like "I THINK I'M OKAY" with Machine Gun Kelly and "11 Minutes" with then-girlfriend Halsey and Travis Barker helped to catapult him to success: "It's been a dream come true. Travis Barker was on my bedroom wall since I was a young 'un. Travis Barker has seen me do naughty things through a poster. He watched me lose my virginity through that poster. So to be working with him closely now is mental," he says. An 18-month snowball saw Harrison winning awards, selling out Brixton Academy, and drawing love and hate in equal measure. He quickly amassed a loyal fanbase of misfits who seek comfort and community in Yungblud's world. Still, all of that came at a mental cost.
"This was the weirdest 18 months of my life," he tells me from the loft he recently bought in London's Shoreditch. "I nearly lost my mum in a car accident, we got really fucking big really quickly. I fell in love [with Halsey]. It was all over the internet. That didn't work out so great. That was all over the internet." He's found it hard to enjoy success. "I was on tour. We were playing the biggest venues ever. We were selling out shows internationally. But I had a knot in my stomach and I was depressed and I couldn't figure out why. Felt like I'd been kicked in the stomach and couldn't get it," he confesses, adding that it had taken a while for the UK to "get" him, but it's finally happening.
"I remember Brixton came around and it was sold out and everyone was texting me outside the venue two days before people were camping outside. Rewind two years earlier I was in a two-bed flat with my guitar player and my drummer with a bucket for the damp. We'd watch videos of Kasabian and Foo Fighters play Brixton. We'd look at each other and be like, you know what, if we got there that'd be fucking magic wouldn't it," he smiles. "Fast forward we're playing Brixton Academy sold out. We're doing what every fucker does when you sell out Brixton and you go backstage and get off your tits. My mum came up and said to me, you were so checked out that night."
"Travis Barker was on my bedroom wall since I was a young 'un. Travis Barker has seen me do naughty things through a poster. He watched me lose my virginity through that poster. So to be working with him closely now is mental."
His mom was right: he wasn't all there. He left the venue with someone, left them at four in the morning and sat on Primrose Hill looking over the city. It was then that the lyrics to the song "Weird!," what would become the titular track of his second album, came to him. "My fanbase gave me an opportunity to not hide behind this angry wall of naïve insecurity that I was throwing at everyone because I was finally being heard. I could actually talk about my emotions. I could actually talk about my feelings because if I put my heart on a silver plate and someone stabs it I know someone else is going to plaster it back up," he says, adding that the whole album hinges on this hope. "It's an album of optimism, of, I think it might be alright in the end even though it's been totally fucking confusing and bizarre and like I've been trying to catch smoke for the past two years."
Suit: Custom Betsy Johnson and Luis De Javier
He caught the smoke, and despite some less-than-favorable reviews, Weird! has hit home with the audience it was intended for: Yungblud's young, out-of-place fans. Traversing 13 tracks and almost as many genres, it plays with punk, Britpop, emo and old-fashioned love songs, a reflection of the ricocheting pinball nature of Harrison's ADHD brain. He wanted to capture the wholly British, unapologetic energy of the artists he admires, like Amy Winehouse and David Bowie. "I don't give a fuck about hiding my accent," he grins, but that much was apparent. "It's such an English album. I've been all over the world and I missed my home." Hollywood, where he was recording his album, didn't sit well with him: "It's full of a lot of people who talk shit. I'm not very good at it. If someone says like, do you like my sweater and I don't like it, I'll tell you. Not in a nasty way. I'm honest and I missed fish and chips and Yorkshire tea and cigs and walks in the rain."
That intense, over-the-top commitment to Britishness almost borders on a bit at times, tilting towards self-parody. But in conversation, like many of the things about Yungblud that make critics question his authenticity, it actually seems to be utterly sincere. Oscillating between political rants and stories of being a glass collector in a pub chatting up older girls in Doncaster, Harrison doesn't shy away from any aspect of who he is, which is what drives critics from him and draws fans to him. It's not the attitude or the bluster or the fishnets but the empathy underneath it all that makes him unique: he really seems to care about the fans that he wrote this album for.
Shirt: Richard Quinn, Cravat: Atsuko Kudo
"I wanted to create a community. I finally belong somewhere," he says, adding that the pandemic isn't the only "weird" things he sees right now. "I wanted to write an album for the weirdest years of our lives. In terms of sexuality and identity and drugs and gender and love and heartbreak. Every single fucking thing we go through. I wanted to write an album about life that would tell the complete truth." His fans, it's clear, mean a lot to him, and he attributes his success to them: "I owe my fucking life to the people that I sing to. It's not me singing to them and them giving nothing back. This is a conversation. Yungblud is a culture. Yungblud is a movement. I don't give a fuck if I sound arrogant, like I created this, because I didn't. Something just happened where a load of people came together and we're growing every day because that's what it's about."
"It's an album of optimism, of, I think it might be alright in the end even though it's been totally fucking confusing and bizarre and like I've been trying to catch smoke for the past two years."
When we speak, Harrison is clearly exhausted, having stayed awake until 7 AM hand-signing personalized CDs for his legion of fans. "I feel so lucky because I get to hear people's stories and I get to see what's going on in people's lives," he says, and a lot of those fans are young members of the LGBTQ community. Harrison himself came out as pansexual earlier this month, attributing his realization to ex Halsey. "I figured out I'm pansexual six months ago, maybe I won't be in five months or maybe I'll be gay in five months or bi in five months," he says candidly. His own playful experiments with gender presentation have in part helped to draw a loyal fanbase.
Harrison is passionate about those issues, writing Weird! track "Mars" about his experience meeting a young trans girl from Maryland who used his show to articulate her identity to her unaccepting parents. "The parents came, they saw people like her and they accepted her as their daughter. I'm so proud. So proud to belong somewhere and be in a community that makes people happy like that and has a genuine effect on their life. The music is second to me," he gushes. Harrison spends a lot of energy on his fans, talking to them across the world directly, prompting them to be comfortable with who they are: "People come together for a reason, because they feel like outside no one understands them. But in this place, everyone understands them."
2020, we agree, has been a pivotal year for fighting oppression. "I think what this year has provided us is a second to reflect and especially for our generation to go, you know what, there's a lot fucking wrong in the world," he says. "You've just got to look at everything this year, from the BLM movement to oppression against the LGBTQ community to climate change denial and how my generation and how a lot of us have dealt with it and spoken so loudly because we've had a second to actually read about it and talk. I think it would be naïve of anyone to say there hasn't been a change in energy and defiance this year." There's action behind his words: he spent four days protesting in LA this year with Black Lives Matter.
Clothing: Walter Van Beirendonck, Hat: MISBHV
For Harrison, it's clear that the music is secondary to what Yungblud is really about: bringing people together. The loud, imitation punk aesthetic and strong opinions held together by diverse influences baffle older audiences, and Harrison is insistent that "no one understands" the project. It's clear, however, that the thousands of young fans who credit him with their sanity are getting it.
"I wanted to write an album for the weirdest years of our lives. In terms of sexuality and identity and drugs and gender and love and heartbreak. Every single fucking thing we go through. I wanted to write an album about life that would tell the complete truth."
"My first record was a phone number to a load of people going, 'Is there anyone out there like me?'" he recalls. "Fuck me man, it turned out there's a lot of people out there like me." Maybe he's not so weird after all.
Glasses: A Better Feeling, Suit: John Lawrence Sullivan