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Declan McKenna


The singer songwriter chats to Ella Guthrie about confidence, being chronically online and what it means to be a ‘political’ artist who still finds space for joy. 

Most people will be familiar with Declan McKenna as being the young indie artist with an interest in singing about world issues. In fact, the single that propelled him to success — ‘Brazil’ — was written about the intricate problems with FIFA and corruption in football, showcasing a mature, creative lyrical approach. His new album, What Happened To The Beach, however, offers new forms of personal expression: its a much groovier, funkier sound which plays around with shorter, snappier lyrics that tend to look inwards instead of out. “The whole album really — sound, lyrics, whatever — is supposed to be a much free-er experience,” he says. “It feels like a very different world, or different energy; this whole feeling of just telling you to let go, enjoy yourself, be yourself. It’s meant to be a release. The other records have had a lot of lyrics, but [this time] the sentiments are simpler but hopefully more relatable, easy to connect with in the moment.” 

During the pandemic, McKenna was making lots of music for fun, “treating it like a hobby again and using it as an escape.” When producer Gianluca Buccellati (Lana Del Rey, Arlo Parks, Biig Piig) came onboard, he maintained this intuitive way of working, trusting the feeling of knowing when something was 'done'. “I had this fun sound world, just me in my bedroom, or in little home studios, just going with the first thing that came to my head and what felt good to me at the time,” says Declan. “The process of making the album was just kind of figuring out what I could just keep that as it was.” 

On the record, songs like ‘Nothing Works’ (which handles the Catch-22 of rising to other people’s expectations) and ‘Sympathy’ (the album’s lead single that boasts lyrics such as ‘If you don't speak your thoughts aloud, you just feel them forever’) are beacons of this accessible, euphoric sound. The jaunty, Brit-folk sound also comes across prominently on album highlight ‘I Write The News’ which takes aim at the cost of living crisis: ‘I know you can't wait to bail on the southern rent / And the crime is high and so am I /And the Labour kids shout, "To what extent?"’. 

Noting that the timespan in which the record was born certainly wasn’t “pure happiness and joy”, McKenna doesn’t shy away from the album’s slightly darker or moments in his quest for levity, but also pushes back on the idea that he has to “make the same record over and over” in order to remain authentic. 

“It'd just be disingenuous. I obviously have the same political thoughts and opinions, to some extent; I'm a little bit older now, but I still back the stuff that I've written. But to creatively repeat yourself? I'm not capable of doing that in a way that actually feels good. I think, if you're trying too hard to talk about something important then it stops being authentic, right? I'd rather pick my moments and actually get a point across when the time is right, rather than just doing it because that's what people want me to do.” 

In terms of the responsibility that other artists have to use their music as a platform for social good, McKenna feels that some degree of grace should also apply. “If someone is acting in a way that is adverse to progress, they can of course be criticised,” he says. “But I think there's some artists whose music literally just has always just been a release for people, and we should let that exist too. It's a hard one, because sometimes I do want to see more from people, but we live in a very desperate time, and it’s okay to have a little joy every now and then. Just let Ariana Grande be Ariana Grande, you know what I mean?” 

McKenna has known what it is to go viral, but the insular feeling of his new album also prompts questions about whether social media is really all it’s cracked up to be, and how artists are increasingly pressured to be ‘chronically online’. In Declan’s own words, he used to be “quite an internet person”, but queries if it’s the best place for artists to be spending their time. “You just kind of get into the cycle of just using it constantly. One moment I’m posting something just to promote what I’m doing, the next I’m fully addicted to TikTok. Do we have to be addicted to something like that to change the world? I don't think so; I think we should be kind of just wanting to do things, say things [with our music], rather than being compelled to be on these apps that are run by billionaires.” 

One thing Declan is excited about is showing off his new music on tour, backed by a full band. A noticeable graduation from the days of being one kid on stage with a loop pedal, this tour will be his biggest one to date, hitting Live At Leeds on 25th May and culminating with a headline slot at Alexandra Palace. For someone born and raised in Hertfordshire, it’s an achievement that is both literally and emotionally close to home. “Big venues can be a bit soulless, but Ally Pally has it all. It’s the last really beautiful big venue in London — Wembley and the O2 have always been a bit meh to me.” 

With several years of industry experience behind him, it’s easy to forget sometimes that McKenna was signed to a major label and touring the country at 16, forced to grow as both an artist and a person in public. In being in the industry so long and from such a young age, Declan has learnt a lot, grateful to “the people that I've worked with, the kind of producers that I've got to work with, and other artists that I've met”. And yet in trying to take any advice with a pinch of salt, he also knows that ultimately, the only person who really knows the kind of artist he wants to be is himself. 

“That's probably what I would say to my younger self, or to any musician who's trying to get into this,” he says. “If you have your own way of doing things that works, then don't change it too much. A lot of young musicians that I talk to are thinking ‘I'll never be as good as the professionals because I'm not recording in this studio’, but actually, people make a lot of bad records in those studios and are only successful because there's money behind it. You're much more likely to make an impact if you're just focused on making music on doing things your own way.” 

What Happened To The Beach is out now. Declan Mckenna plays Live At Leeds on May 25th.

Words by Ella Guthrie
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