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November 2018
Cover Story

Declan McKenna: All eyes on Dec

After a string of brilliant tracks, Declan McKenna is finally delivering his debut album. Whisper it quietly, but it sounds like the work of a superstar in waiting.
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Published: 8:00 am, July 14, 2017
Declan McKenna: All eyes on Dec

Declan McKenna always knew he was going to make something of himself. Back when he was a little kid, he had his whole pop star future pegged. “Dec, what do you think about the car, d’you like it?’ asks his sister in the home video snippet that opens his debut full-length, to which our future indie icon replies: “I think it’s really good and now I’m going to sing my new album.” From there Declan’s path was set.

Sitting in a dressing room in Glasgow’s famous King Tuts on his latest sold-out tour, Dec is enjoying every minute of his rise. “Meteoric!” he jokingly cries when asked to describe the last couple of years. In a room adorned with gifts from fans, it’s clear that a lot of people are interested in Declan. He’s now officially A Very Big Deal. “Perhaps they can start again, and replace the names with mine when I become Bowie mk 2,” he laughs, talking about the venue’s famous staircase listing all the illustrious names that have graced their stage. He’s not there yet, but give him time. Just as easily able to laugh at himself as he is write whip-smart indie pop songs, Declan is on the cusp of something big.

“It’s happened really quickly compared to artists who have been doing things for years and years,” he explains, recalling that the journey began with him releasing his debut single ‘Brazil’ to almost instant global recognition. “I got signed when I was 16. Things picked up relatively quickly. The rise of my career is like when you haven’t seen your aunt for a while, and she’s like, ‘Oh, haven’t you grown! That was quick!’ You see yourself grow every day, so you maybe don’t notice it as much as everyone else.”

With each new release, Declan has established an identity as an artist unafraid to deal with big themes. From ‘Paracetamol’’s examination of transgender misrepresentation in the media to ‘Isombard’’s lamenting of police brutality and right-wing news, a strong theme of social responsibility runs through his work.

Part of Declan McKenna’s rise has been establishing himself as a vital young voice. With that, though, comes a greater responsibility. In the middle of the storm, it’s important to keep perspective. “You see so much written that you have to distance yourself a little bit,” he says. “You have to form your own opinion about yourself and ignore any other. The written word can be toxic whether it’s positive or negative. I look at that stuff less and less. Recently on social media, I’ve tried to ignore any opinion on me because you either end up with an ego or just feeling like shit.”

Declan’s switched on enough to recognise the pitfalls of being active online, as well as the opportunity to connect with fans. “It’s so silly; people can just be so mean and horrible.” He laughs as he recalls an incident of some abuse prompted by a typical Declan on stage prank. “The other day at a Manchester gig I wrote Marry Me on my shirt as a Morrissey tribute and people were like, ‘Oh, you’re just a rubbish Morrissey! Who are you! You’re shit!’ It was just a joke! If you talk about something people are quite passionate about like politics, it’s much more than just ‘You’re a shit Morrissey’ - people actually hate you.” Still, if Declan is winding up grumpy old Morrissey fans, then he’s almost certainly doing something right.

That sort of playfulness is at the heart of everything Declan does. He’s an artist who has a gift for being socially engaged but silly and playful at the same time. Take the album title for example. There was no way Declan was going to go for the tired old self-titled debut. ‘What Do You Think About The Car?’ is a very Declan title. Add in the striking artwork (either a homage to Mark Owen circa 1993 or the Monster Energy logo, if you believe Declan), and you have an altogether distinctive package. “I like interesting album names, and I wanted to do something that had a story behind it,” he begins. “If I were to self-title an album, it would have to be, ‘THIS is the Declan McKenna album’. Now, I’ve experimented a lot, and there’s a mixture of sounds. I’m not too fussed to say – this is what a Declan McKenna song sounds like. It’s an album, but it’s not the be all and end all of what sonically makes Declan McKenna.”

Declan McKenna: All eyes on Dec

Declan refers to himself in the third person a lot. Not because he’s got an inflated opinion of himself, but more because he’s aware of Declan McKenna, the creative personality. Declan McKenna, the performer. One of the best things about his growth has been the emergence of a genuine character with a reluctance to conform to expectations. He’ll always do things his way. This confidence in his own skin, though, is at odds with some of the songs on the album. While knocking it out of the park on the banger scale, they’re cloaked in uncertainty and doubt - a doubt that matches these uncertain times.

“There’s a lot of questions on the album,” he explains. “Two of the song titles are questions. There aren’t many considered themes. It wasn’t going to be a concept album in any way. What I have noticed is that the more I look at the songs, there are more questions than answers, especially to a lot of the stuff regarding my personal life and the stuff based on politics. A lot of confusion, questioning and a lack of certainty. It’s encompassed within the two or three years that I put these songs together.”

All the songs on the album were written over a three-year period. Despite his songwriting development though, it’s still important for him to have those older songs on the album. “I prefer the songs I write now compared to ‘Brazil’ that I wrote when I was 15,” he says. “But it’s my biggest song and loads of people found me through it. If I was a fan of a band and they had a massive song that I loved, and it never appeared on an album, I’d be annoyed cos it was difficult to get. It’s important to have them on there, even if my voice is different on the later songs.”

The songs Declan has been writing more recently highlight the different elements of his personality. “The album is about me being playful and positive about not necessarily happy topics,” he says. “That’s what I’m like as a character. I try not to be too distant from serious topics as well. The two go together.”

“I’ve talked about loads of things in songs,” he expands. “When you’re in a world surrounded by mad shit happening, it’s hard to ignore if you’re an artist. A lot of art is inherently political. It’s hard to avoid when you’re looking at the world around you, and you see injustice. It’s easy to let it out into art. It’s even more important now I’ve got a platform to talk about certain subjects and get people engaged in making their own art and doing things themselves. It’s always been a part of what I’ve wanted to do as an artist.

A key song on the album is ‘The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home’. It’s one that defines Declan, influenced by the light-hearted and the dark and heavy. Ending on a recording of his manager’s kids running riot in the studio, blowing raspberries into producer James Ford’s fancy eight grand mics, it’s a song that took Declan to the next level. “I thought, why don’t I write a song like Pulp?” he chuckles. Lofty heights indeed. The song went through a few stages, beginning when he was ill at a festival in Somerset, but finally coming together while Declan was in Paris on the night of the Bataclan attacks. “I was in Paris the day of the attacks, and I was very close. It was pretty scary. On the train home, I was trying to distract myself. I was confused and shook up. All that confusion and fear went into ‘The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home’ and I ended up finishing it that day. It all came together to finish the song.

“It was a statement against a lot of preconceptions about young people, trying to stand up against things that are happening in the world. It’s a serious song but is tackled in ways that are quite childish. Like, you don’t wanna come home if you’re playing outside after school. That’s what it sounds like to me, but at the same time, it’s quite powerful. It’s one of my favourites on the album. It’s fun and anthemic and feels like a big statement. I wanted to stand against misrepresentations of youth.”

Of course, we’ve just been through a period where there have been lots of misconceptions about young people that have just been shattered by Jeremy Corbyn’s staggering general election performance. Someone like Declan McKenna is a lightning rod for the kind of engaged youth who proved so vital in standing up against the government and making their voice heard. It’s a movement that’s close to Declan’s heart. He’s long been a campaigner for extending the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds. He’s still one of the kids that he’s singing about. We’re all in this together.

“The main thing is to think about who the politicians are as people and whether you can agree with them in what you believe in,” he begins. “It could be harmful to your future or really good for your future. That’s the main thing. People might think it’s too confusing or doesn’t have an impact, but it really really does. You have to be somewhat selfish and somewhat selfless in who you vote for, and think who is genuinely going to do the best for the most people in this country.”

Declan McKenna: All eyes on Dec

Declan feels part of a movement of more engaged voices, leading the charge against an out of touch government who don’t really care about young people and their concerns. “The Tory government we have doesn’t really want young people to vote, and doesn’t encourage it the way it should,” he muses. “I never heard about voting at school. All the education I’ve had has been through family or friends or researching online. In school, there’s barely anything. It doesn’t happen because of the government we have. It’s down to artists to try to encourage fans to get out there and make their voices heard.”

Despite his platform, Declan is wary about being seen more than just someone speaking his mind. “The voice of a generation is a flattering thing for someone to say, but at the same time I just don’t think it’s true,” he laughs. “The generation I’m in is so complex, and there are so many different types of people from all over the place. I think because I’m vocal about politics, I’m an easy person to call a voice of a generation, but I’m kind of just doing my bit. I’m just a cog in a generational wheel. There’s so much going on and so many intelligent people that don’t have the same platform or opportunities that I’ve had.”

There’s an assurance about everything Declan does right now. He knows who he is as an artist and knows what he wants to do in the future. Every new experience is an adventure. See, for example, his blinding debut appearance on Later with Jools Holland last year with his newly formed killer band, or even going back to performing on American late night telly barely five minutes after he was signed.

“I’ve always wanted a band,” he says. “We’re getting better and better all the time. It’s important to have a great show and enjoy it yourself. You do get tired on the road, especially if you don’t enjoy playing the set. You don’t want to put all your energy into repetition. Having a high energy live show is quite rewarding. It’s taken a lot of effort, but we want to make it more of a show.”

One of the most exciting experiences was working with ex-Vampire Weekend whiz kid Rostam. “He was really fun and helpful. It was awesome considering I was a fan since I was young,” he says. The song they co-wrote was the last song on the record, ‘Listen To Your Friends’. “The last line on the album I wanted to be quite poignant. On the first St Vincent album, the last line is ‘I’m out of here’, that’s the perfect end of the album. The last line on my album is ‘Trust in me’. It’s like, it’s a confusing time, but I’m holding it together. It’s a double meaning. I think it’s cute.”

With a lot of the songs being a few years old now, Declan is already looking to the future, and the album’s opening track is the song that suggests what comes next. “‘Humongous’ is the last song I wrote for the album,” he reveals. “It’s a good word. It encapsulates a lot of the stuff that’s happened to me. It came from laughing about pieces saying, ‘Declan McKenna is going to be massive’. It’s looking at how people see Declan McKenna the artist, compared to actually being a human being. In that sense, it sums everything up.”

There are few other artists as switched on as Declan and, despite the hype surrounding him, he’s aware of the darker side of fan culture. “I’ve been thinking about modern fan culture. It’s helped me get to where I am today, but at the same time, I find it kind of scary. If you want to love an artist, then do it, but don’t trust them. Don’t think I’m perfect.”

As he sticks on the green cap that a fan gave him Declan embarks on one of his little anecdotes that make him such an endearing character. He tells a tale of a friend who knew someone receiving some odd fan mail. “Bob Plant was an old geezer, who might be dead now, and lived on my friend’s nan’s road. He always got sent loads of fan mail for Robert Plant. He’d get loads of people’s bras and stuff sent to him when really it was just this old geezer who lives in Shoreditch.” Perhaps there’s a Declan McKenna somewhere in Essex receiving a big sack of baseball caps and fan mail every week.

There’s a lot on the horizon for Declan. In the immediate future, his ambitions are a bit simpler, though, as he drops a big dollop of chilli on his trousers. “I’m getting a new pair of trackies! That’s ruined my day,” he laughs. “My ambitions are I want to keep creating and come up with something completely different to do next. I’m trying to think ahead beyond this album. It’s going to be a hectic year. There are no songs on the album from when I was 18. There’s so much I want to say now.”

There’s no doubt that, once he gets it down, it’ll be worth listening to.

 Declan McKenna’s debut album ‘What Do You Think About The Car?’ is out now.

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