Declan McKenna – Interview 2017

There’s plenty of mileage to be had in analysing the youth of today. More than ever, it seems. Not just for the purposes of marketing and consumer preferences. Sure, reality TV and mainstream pop is (as it has always been) largely dominated by the youth. But, more than ever, they are literally going their own way. They are leaving the rest of us in our tracks. Metaphorically speaking. Look at what happened in the recent European Referendum, and the General Election. The youth (under 25) overwhelmingly voted to stay in Europe, and to enact policies that emphasised socialism; a collectivist vision as opposed to one proposing pure individualism. Hope over fear. The gap between the young and old is startling. In simple terms, it’s a deep divide between generations, and values. And there is very little sign that the older have any real understanding of what is really happening with the younger folk. Their world is literally being taken from under their feet.

Take the beginning of Declan McKenna’s video for ‘The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home’. The first minute or so is taken up with various vox pops, people of his generation. It is a snapshot, albeit perhaps a little contrived, in telling a general story.

“I feel like our generation is lost. We don’t know where we are heading. What makes me most uncertain about the future is having to carve my way in a world that’s being decided for me by people who don’t know me. I think the way we view ourselves is very different from the way other people view us. It’s not apathy, it’s just being disillusioned.”

Nothing new there, you may say. It’s all been said countless times. However, here is the clincher, “People don’t understand that we have so much power on social media, and we’re making a real change online, and educating ourselves“. That simple line is an unwittingly powerful analysis of how things are rapidly and profoundly changing, thanks to the development of the internet and social media in particular. The youth are talking to each other in quantities and ways they haven’t before. And McKenna is talking too. This album is in effect a love letter to the youth. What Do You Think About The Car? is an incredibly accomplished debut album, by an 18-year-old, one who wrote all these songs before he was even legally able to enter a pub and order a pint. There hasn’t been this much buzz about a very young male artist since Jake Bugg, an artist who can potentially act as a rallying point, or a focal point, for the disenfranchised, the disenchanted, and the plain confused.

For Bugg, it was Glastonbury that provided a massive boost to his career. While Bugg gained a slot and much exposure via the BBC Introducing Stage in 2011, McKenna won the Glastonbury Emerging Talent Competition in 2015, which earned him a slot on the William’s Green Stage. According to McKenna, it was all a bit surreal, and happened when he was least expecting something to happen with his nascent musical career. What was he doing at the time of entering the competition? “Honestly, not much! I was still in school. I wasn’t expecting much to come of it at all. But, I was just chancing everything I could at the time. It so happened that I got picked up for Glastonbury,” he laughs, “which is not what I expected to happen. A very weird time in my life. I was going through the motions of school and the music industry at the same time. But everything kicked off from there.”

Where does this competition actually take place? “It’s in Pilton, in the working men’s club. It’s a very small room.” And is Michael Eavis himself one of the judges? ”Yeah, he was. The first time I ever saw him was after my set. He jumped up on stage. I would not have recognised his face at the time. He jumped up on stage and said ‘well done’, and shook my hand for a while, and said some stuff to me that I can’t really recall. I didn’t know who he was. I just thought he was some random dude. Now just 18, this year was his third consecutive appearance at this most holy of festivals. “This year I was on the John Peel Stage, and the Left Field Stage. Billy Bragg… really nice dude.”

Not that it has all happened overnight for McKenna. He’s just released his debut album, and that will most likely tell us whether or not he’s got the legs, and the ambition to take it to the top. However all the signs are there, that here is a genuine talent, who loves nothing more than writing and perfoming. It’s something he has done since before he went to school. It’s in the album title, as Declan explains; “It essentially comes from a home video when I was about four years old, and one of my sisters was filming me with our new car. You can hear her say, ‘Dec, what do you think of the car? Do you like it?’ And my response, for some reason, was: ‘I think it’s really good, and now I’m going to sing my new album’. I think in the video I start singing a Busted song or something like that. It’s kind of an inside joke with my family. After a long while thinking what the album should be titled, that felt like a no-brainer for me.”

So, you’re basically a natural performer? “I guess so,” he laughs. “I would practice in front of my siblings (he is one of six children), and in front of my parents. I was quite loud as a child. I was always making, what I was doing, be heard. I’ve been at music for as long as I can remember, really.”

But, not only does he write, he writes about important and meaningful stuff beyond the usual teen angst and lovelorn poetry. FIFA’s decision to award both the World Cup and the Olympics to Rio is the subject of ‘Brazil’, while the media’s representation of LGBT communities comes under the spotlight in ‘Paracetamol’. Then there’s the police brutality and law enforcement issue of ‘Isombard’, while ‘Humongous’ zeroes in on the media hype surrounding McKenna himself. It’s all startling stuff, especially when you consider that he wrote most of the album when he was 15 and 16. It succeeds because he manages to wrap a pop nous around these serious subjects. He is, in short, able to subvert a supposed teenage adolescence whilst shedding light on some of the many prevalent issues of today.

For instance, ‘Paracetamol’ was inspired by one Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teen who felt forced into suicide due to familial pressure to conform. As well as having the artistic vision to name the song ‘Paracetamol’ (that is, to draw a parallel between an everyday painkiller, and the tragedy of suicide), there’s an adventurous and detailed musicality built upon an isolated kick drum, bubbling synth lines and hard-hitting chords. Vocally, there are moments of the likes of Bob Dylan, Alex Turner and Luke Pritchard in there, a controlled yet loose sounding voice that is articulate and passionate. Then there’s the alt-pop wizardry of Bowie lurking in the background, an artist who more than anybody brought androgyny, and homosexuality, into the mainstream, whilst combining thoughts of fear, alienation, anger and hope into the mainstream. This potent mix created by McKenna is almost invariably uplifting via its building and climaxing constructions.

“I think for a long time I have written about whatever I’ve had to say, really. It’s not everything that happens in the world, but there’s a lot to pick from, to think about, and to create something from. It so happens that a lot of these big world wide topics have come into the tracks of my first album.”

Such is his musical precociousness that he started writing this album whilst still doing his GCSE’s. His early maturity saw him display a degree of uncertainty and questioning within his lyrics, but which he has coralled into song form. As he says, “There were a lot of changes, and I think you can hear that within some of the songs on the record. Quite a big part of the album is about change and being confused. A lot of the headspace I was in was trying to make sense of growing up in a world with loads of crazy things happening.”

How about your schooling, what happened there? “I had started doing my A-Levels; philosophy, sociology and English,” he says about the moment when he became a full time artist at the age of 17. “I only got three months into it.” Any thoughts about returning to that soon? “Honestly, I’m having the time of my life,” he laughs. “I’m not that bothered. I might be bothered at some point, but I just think at the minute I’m enjoying myself, and doing as well as I could imagine doing what I enjoy.”

So, it was an easy decision to make when you had to make one? “Yeah, it was an easy decision. There was going to be an American tour early last year. This was about the time I was touring with Blossoms in October, the year before last. I was either going to have to stay at school and not go on a US tour, or go on a US tour, and not stay at school,” he laughs. “That was at the point where I thought I might as well give it a rest, and enjoy myself.”

Whether or not he is actually enjoying himself, we can only guess at. Yet from the manner of his voice, and his relaxed bearing, it seems he is taking it in his stride, and enjoying all the new experiences that being an up-and-coming pop star imply, despite the unnaturalness of suddenly being in the limelight. It’s there on ‘Humongous’, one of the album highlights. One of the last songs he wrote for the album, he wrote (as so many of his songs are) on his sister’s guitar. “Normally I don’t have any of my guitars at home. I can’t be arsed to carry it to the van, or carry it through London on the tubes. I normally use my sister’s guitar to write songs.

“The name ‘Humongous’ came about from all the times there were these sensationalist comments about myself. ‘Declan McKenna is on the cusp of something massive’. Just seeing a lot of stuff written about yourself – which is what the song is about – the last couple of years. I guess it’s about understanding yourself in a different way to how people may see you via whatever form of media they see you online.”

Do you think ‘Humongous’ represents a bit of a turning point for you in terms of your songwriting? “Yeah, I just think I’ve learnt a lot about what I like about my own songs, and what I like to do with them. In ‘Humongous’ I exercised more actively than before what I want from my own music. That’s not to say this is leagues above anything I have ever done before. I think I just understand what I want to do now.”

Jeff Hemmings