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A conversation with Declan McKenna

Speaking with the industry’s brightest young songwriter

We’ve been on the tail of young and undeniably talented songwriter Declan Mckenna for over a year now since the release of his incredibly popular debut single “Brazil”. Over the past few months, he’s developed a reputation of one of the music industry brightest talents and a knack for tackling life’s tough subjects. From anti-FIFA feelings in “Brazil” to highlighting the hardships of young transgender people in “Paracetamol” to damning religion’s grip on war in newest release “Bethlehem”, his interest in the world’s flaw are evident.

The seventeen-year-old Brit was labelled as a Promising Artist a year ago following Crack in the Road’s spot-on discovery and a slew of agrees from some of our most influential users. The support for this emerging musician is clear, and so we wanted to ask Mckenna a few questions about what this rise to the realm of known music has been like.

I remember when I first heard your music, which was the song “Brazil”, and I thought “this is the best football-related song I’ve ever heard!”

[Starts laughing] thank you!

What sparked the need to write it?

It was a bit of a weird one. I generally come up with the melodies and guitar riffs before I come up with any lyrics, so first I had this guitar riff that I really liked and then I came up with the melody but didn’t have any words for it. Then it kind of just happened! I started hearing things about the FIFA World Cup and the corruption around it. I don’t really know why or how it happened, but I ended up writing a song about it and it turned out to be the one that I recorded and released. I was just seeing all this stuff around and like most songs, I was hearing so much about it that I couldn’t really avoid writing about it.

Well you say like most songs, but it’s a pretty unique subject!

I guess so… I mean the weird thing is that when I wrote it, I didn’t expect anyone to hear it! I just wrote what I wanted to. It was just me being like “hey, this isn’t right” and then writing a song about it.

I’ve seen that the YouTube video for “Brazil” has over a million views. Did you expect the song to be so successful?

Not at all. It’s crazy and I did not expect that to come from one song I recorded in summer at a university. I made the video for it with a couple of friends in Brixton, just because we wanted to and now you’ve seen the views - it’s like, what the hell! It’s amazing and I couldn’t expect that kind of reaction to anything I’ve made. Now, I get to go to loads of places and play shows, which is great!

We kind of have to mention the Sky News interview, which is pretty cool in itself, but one thing that stuck out to me was that you said “I want to be a musician”, rather than “I am a musician.” Does that mean it still feels like it isn’t official yet?

Well, that interview was quite a while ago. Of course, a musician is a person who plays music, but for me, it’s about being a musician in a career sense. Right now, I’m just the kind of musician who plays some instruments [laughs] I don’t see it as a career yet… I mean, it sort of is, but it’s still such early days. I feel like it hasn’t really hit me yet.

Obviously you’re seventeen now, but when your music first came out you were sixteen -

Fifteen!

Wow, fifteen? Okay! Well, do you think age affects the way that people perceive your music?

It can be quite patronizing a lot of the time, just the way that people assume things. It’s normally by accident and it’s not like people are being rude or anything, but it can be quite frustrating when everything is put down to your age. People might say, “oh, that must be because of his hormones.” [laughs] It’s weird how frequent I get stuff like that. I’m like, “really?! Do you not remember being a teenager?” That’s the thing, like yeah, I am a teenager, but my entire life doesn’t revolve around that fact. Being a teenager is something that I am, but that’s it! [laughing] It’s not really that deep.

Looking back again, last year you won Glastonbury’s Emerging Talent competition. How significant has that been to your career so far?

I feel like the initial audition process for that did a lot more for me. Obviously, the competition was great, and I got a write-up in NME, which I had never had before, but in the auditions the dude who was handling the letter D entries passed on my name to a load of people and I feel like that was one of the earliest things that started pushing my music, as opposed to the actual competition and the outcome, which was more public. Although, both of those things have done crazy stuff for me! I’m pretty glad I did that. It’s weird because a lot of musicians shy away from competitions, and so do I, but I feel like that one was cool because the prize was literally a Glastonbury slot! It was a great decision because a lot of this stuff wouldn't have happened for me otherwise.

You mentioned the NME review there that described the Glastonbury show as a great performance, so have you been playing live shows for a long time?

Well then I’d been playing on my own for a couple of years just with a loop pedal, but now it’s all changed. I’ve got a band, mostly as a four-piece, but for the last few shows it’s been as a five-piece. It’s been cool playing with a band, I much prefer that. I’m all about the live shows and we’ve been playing quite a lot.

Would you say that playing live is your favourite part of being a musician?

Yeah, definitely! It’s a lot less stressful playing as a group. I find that performances are the most fun part. Everything else feels like build up to shows for me.

A lot of people do talk about how the music industry relies on live shows now.

Oh yeah, because of streaming and people aren’t buying records as much. We need to have people at shows or buying merch in order to be actually making money from the industry.

Or be Adele, then you’re alright.

[Laughs] yeah, or that!

I was listening to your music and I think my favourite song of yours is “Brew”, simply because it shows a more experimental side to your music and those guitars in the first half reminded me of The xx. I was wondering, are you often compared to other musicians?

Yeah, I get Jake Bugg a lot, which I don’t really understand. It’s like people think seventeen-year-old from the UK who plays guitar - Jake Bugg! Or Jamie T, which I also don’t get, because he like half raps and I’m not even close to that. That was one of the things about releasing my second single, to be completely different from the first one, because I just hated being compared to these other artists. Then people were like Vampire Weekend! It’s an odd one being compared because sometimes you get really good ones too. I once got Jeff Buckley, that’s such a compliment! My entire life and career is based around Jeff Buckley.

My entire life and career is based around Jeff Buckley.
Declan Mckenna

That actually brings me on to my next question, because I was going to ask you which artists have been most prominent for you?

Jeff Buckley is everyone’s musician, but also more importantly he’s a musician’s musician. All musicians are inspired by Jeff Buckley, and it’s the same with David Bowie who is probably one of my biggest influences in music. The Beatles too, who I love. I guess these days some more modern bands are St Vincent, TV On The Radio, Sufjan Stevens.

Oh I love him, especially Carrie & Lowell.

That’s an amazing an album! My favourite album of his is The Age of Adz, which is this really crazy industrial one.

There were the State ones too.

Yeah, he did Illinois and Michigan.

I prefer Illinois.

Yeah, Illinois is better. It has that song “Chicago” on it, that’s such a great song. I feel like that song inspired so much music after that. Bands like Elbow and even Coldplay were massively influenced by that one song.

And yet not enough people know about Sufjan!

Yeah, again it’s like he’s a musician’s musician or people who are really into music are really into Sufjan Stevens. Outside of that I don’t even know that many people who like his music. He headlined End of the Road last year which was pretty cool, which is wish I could have seen.

To go back to your music and to the track “Paracetamol”. It’s an incredibly catchy song, but with a really serious message, so why were you drawn to this struggle of young transgender people?

It was this story that was really prominent on social media, which as a teenager is something that’s quite prominent in my life. It never really got any mainstream media coverage and I was just like, why?

That was Leelah’s Law?

Leelah’s Law, yeah. There’s so much depressing news going on and although that story was sad, the message which Leelah gave in the Tumblr post that she did was very hopeful, and it wasn’t covered anywhere. I wanted to say something about it. It took a couple of months to figure out exactly what I wanted to song to be about, but once I had the idea for that, I pretty much wrote it in a day and then played it at a gig on that night. It wasn’t the finished product of the song and I came up with a couple of other bits afterwards, but yeah it was another one that happened quite quickly once I figured out what it was.

The video focusses on two fifteen-year-old protagonists trying to find their feet and their position in life, do you think it’s important to give a voice to young people and teenagers with your music?

This is something I’ve been thinking about recently. There’s not a lot of young artists who actually represent young people in a genuine way, and not in a way that’s exaggerated or overdone. In the last few years we’ve had a couple, like Earl Sweatshirt who is a role model for young and mixed-race people, and all the stuff he talks about is so honest, so relatable for people who are in similar positions to him or people who have been oppressed because of the way they are. Also Archie Marshall and his project King Krule, which I feel is a lot closer to home for me. However, I feel like right now at this moment, there’s not many artists who do that. I think it is important, not that I would compare myself lyrically to either of those artists. Loyle Carner is one that is definitely, definitely a voice for young people, even if a lot of his stories are about his personal life, but he’s very inspiring. Of course it’s important for young people to have a voice, to be given a voice and to tell stories about young people that aren’t patronizing or overdone and from the perspective of people who are actually young rather than it being written by a forty-year-old or whatever.

There’s not a lot of young artists who actually represent young people in a genuine way, and not in a way that’s exaggerated or overdone.
Declan Mckenna

I guess even if they try their hardest, it risks coming across as patronizing.

Exactly, it’s never real. In some ways there is a surge in young talent coming up, but I’d like to see more of it and more of it that’s genuine and represents me and other kids like me.

One really young artist I can think of is Billie Eilish, who was thirteen-years-old when her song “Ocean Eyes” came out.

Wow! I don’t think I’ve heard that. That’s insane, I’ll have to check her out.

So, what theme - political, cultural or otherwise - would you like to take on next?

I don’t know… there’s so much going on! There’s just so much to write about that now I feel like I have the problem of choosing something. I feel like I need to write a song about George Osborne because he’s such a prick! Maybe something more English this time round, because I tend to write about events that have happened in other countries and I haven’t done anything about home politics yet. There’s obviously a lot of stuff going on at the minute with that, you know, Corbyn and Cameron giving it large. Honestly, I’m not sure, because I generally just go “okay, I’m going to write about this” and I do it in like ten seconds. I guess we’ll see, although I’d like to write a kind of happier song. Most of my songs tend to be quite hopeful but with dark undertones, so I’d like to write something slightly happier.

You’re right, the songs don’t necessarily come across as unhappy, although the subject matter might be quite serious. They’re not really depressing in any way.

That’s one thing I’ve taken from The Beatles and David Bowie, because they write songs that sound really happy but actually have a serious undertone. Songs like “Oh You Pretty Things” by David Bowie and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” by The Beatles are quite child-like and playful, but are genuinely good songs and serious.

Finally, can we expect a debut record anytime soon?

Early next year. I’m going to say that, but honestly, I can’t say exactly when because I don’t know! I’m going to finish recording it this summer though.

This article is written by Hannah Thacker and was published 10 months ago.

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