Meet Declan McKenna – voice of a new generation

Singer, songwriter and Gen Z icon Declan McKenna interviewed by his fans

Declan McKenna has always had plenty to say. The singer-songwriter blasted on to the scene aged 16 when he came out on top in Glastonbury Festival’s Emerging Talent competition, his knack for writing a good hook with a strong message finely tuned before he could sit his GCSEs.

The Enfield-born, Hertfordshire-raised youngster followed up with hit track Brazil – which took aim at Fifa bosses for corruption and the displacement of poor Brazilian communities – with an acclaimed debut album, 2017’s What Do You Think About the Car? and secured his place as both a commercial smash and one of British music’s most interesting commentators. An avowed left-winger, Jeremy Corbyn borrowed his star power to try and give his campaign a boost. “A brilliant young artist,” the ex-Labour leader tweeted after meeting him at Labour Live 2018, “it was a pleasure to meet him.”

McKenna, now 21, is the poster boy for Generation Z’s refusal to accept the establishment line. But he is forging new territory for himself as a politically driven artist in a turbulent world – never talking down to his listener at a time when many rush to speak out well before they have something to say.

The toughest issues facing society today make up the fabric of his critically acclaimed work – dealing with the treatment of transgender teens in his song Paracetamol, criticising the British arms trade in British Bombs, or shining a light on xenophobia and police brutality in Isombard.

And this month he’s preparing to launch second album Zeros into the world – a confident indie romp with the ambition of Bowie and the expansive sounds of The Killers, its finger firmly on the pulse of what matters most to people in 2020. Where What Do You Think About the Car? told stories from someone watching the world’s injustices take place, Zeros speaks from the heart of the action.

And it sounds arena-ready to boot. Latest single Be an Astronaut, which could conceivably be a noisy reimagining of a Lennon and McCartney number, promises to catapult him into the alt-pop stratosphere.

Now, sat in the sunny garden of his London home, the singer would be forgiven for seeming impatient. Zeros was mixed and mastered in December, but pushed back as a result of the pandemic to September 4. But he greets The Big Issue – via Zoom – as a grateful young talent eager to lift the lid on the most exciting work he’s done to date.

And who better than his dedicated fanbase to grill the indie star? We asked you for your questions for McKenna, and we were inundated by fans hungry for details on his next moves. Read on to find out what it’s like to release an album during a pandemic, how politics plays into tour plans, and whether McKenna is Team Albarn or Team Gallagher.

Can you describe your music in four words? Callum, Kent

Retro futurist indie rock. Can I say that? If you like big guitars and shouty vocals, I’m your man.

How was the writing of new songs in lockdown? Corey Lewis

I’ve had to create. I’ve had to come up with new ideas, I’m the kind of person who doesn’t have a choice! I found that isolation can be quite inspiring. Being left to your own devices can lead to ideas you surprise yourself with. At the start of lockdown I was writing bits and pieces and being quite free with it, but as we worked out what was going to happen with the album release it all got sidelined. And once you’re out of the flow of it, it’s really difficult to get back to it, especially considering how strange it is just to navigate life right now.

Has having longer with the album changed your view of it? Katie, Nottingham

I don’t think so. It does make me a little bit nervous. But recently I’ve been able to do a few interviews and get to work on rolling the release out, which brings you back to reality. It’s easy to think, “this song should’ve been on the album that wasn’t” or “this bridge should’ve been different” – having too much time in the run up to a release is horrible for that. You can end up feeling like an absolute fraud sometimes. But now that I’m getting to talk to people about the record, I’m back to feeling really confident about it.

It has definitely been a challenging time to release a piece of work. Some of the songs are out already, which helps, but you can never really capture an album with a song. That’s what I want to get out there – it’s a whole album. There are so many layers to it that I put so much time into, and it really is best understood as a whole.

You have always written songs with pointed messages and criticisms of politics and society. What is your inspiration for doing this? Clara McCourt

That’s always been a part of what I do. Even when I was 12 or 13, I knew there were things I observed about the world that I thought were unfair. As I realised more and more of the artists I was listening to were lacing their work with social commentary, it inspired me to keep planting those little seeds in what I put out into the world.

On the first album, people’s understanding of what I was saying tended to be quite literal. People take one thing you say and turn it into what the whole song is about. I’ve tried to subvert that a little bit on the new one. I’m still observing and commentating on what I see, but I wanted the focus to be more on the music and the storyline, and for that to translate into many different kinds of lives.

It’s different to a song like British Bombs which is really direct. This album’s at the other end of the spectrum – it’s more character-based. There’s a world there that tells all of those stories and explores those morals rather than saying, this thing is happening and it’s bad.

I’ve tried to take things that have been on my mind – like environmental issues which have been really pressing – and sprinkle that throughout the album. And it’s a lot about the way people understand, or misunderstand, each other.

A lot of it involves the internet because I spent an awful lot of time online when I was writing. A lot of it is in that world and thinking about where that technology is going, and how isolating it can be.

I don’t necessarily think everyone with a platform is well placed to be a spokesperson and I don’t have a huge problem with that. But I do think there’s a certain level of responsibility to do what you can.

At the same time, I’ve always been somewhat outspoken as a person, which is why my music’s like that, so it would be a bit unfair of me to point fingers and say someone isn’t writing the right kind of songs or saying the right kind of things when they might just be different.

A lot of the time people reflect culture in a way that isn’t directly political and I think that’s valuable too. Plus it’s important that people just have fun. Sometimes people expect me to be quite militant about it and say we should be campaigning all the time – but everyone needs an escape.

Everyone needs pop songs, everyone needs love songs. It’s important to be responsible when you have a platform, absolutely, but I’m not going to be out here calling people out for not being quite so direct.

What has been the hardest part of lockdown for you? Janet, Belfast

It’s been difficult being distant from everyone and as a musician not being able to collaborate with people in the same way. You have to get really good at doing things remotely, whether that’s writing or just keeping up with mates. It’s been a whole new way of doing things in most aspects of life.

What’s your favourite song on Zeros and why? Maggie Rogers

I love them all for different reasons. There are a few that took an extra amount of love to get right, like Eventually Darling – there’s an electric drum pad part on that which gave us hell. That was one of the first tracks I wrote for the record that felt like something really fresh.

I also love Be An Astronaut. I wrote it quite quickly on a piano, this big epic song that was exactly what I was going for at the time. I wanted to expand and make something a little more intense than what I had in the past, really embracing the ’60s/’70s pop I’d been listening to. And Twice Your Size – it’s such a good road trip song.

How do you try to look after the environment as a working musician? Nathan K

Being a musician isn’t the most ideal career in terms of having a low carbon footprint, I’ll admit. But there are certain silly regulations in terms of packaging that we’ve been trying to get around. Like, wherever possible, we’ve been trying to get rid of plastic shrink wrap on the albums, and printing the sleeves with vegetable and soy-based inks.

We’re also trying to set up a scheme for future tour dates that will allow people to swap out tickets for a show closer to them and reduce their journey. It feels a little bit strange to try to be this bastion of environmentalism, because you do end up flying a lot. But you have to try.

We performed for Extinction Rebellion last year too. Those are people I can really see forcing change, because the stuff they do is absolutely outrageous. Seeing London held at a standstill like that – it’s what’s needed to get the message out there. Good old-fashioned protest. Things are already changing very quickly – record low and high temperatures, record rainfalls, all around the world.

Everyone’s been talking about switching your lights off for years but ultimately we need to put pressure on the systems that are failing us. Everyone is aware of climate change now but the damage is still being done. It’s a very difficult to shape the world for the better if you don’t have structural power. I’m trying to spread the message as positively as possible, though, because it’s easy to be a bit doomsday about it.

Do you think that you could ever visit Russia? Eva

We have to pay attention to what risks are incurred by going to certain places and what we’re supporting by going there. If I can’t guarantee the safety of the group of people we bring on tour with us, or that the money made there won’t go to a gravely oppressive system… It’s something we think about a lot that has definitely impacted what festivals we’ve played and where around the world we’ve travelled.

It’s a shame, because you want to reach music fans everywhere, but you have to weigh that against the risk of what you’re supporting. Corruption exists all over the world of course but there are certain instances that are very direct and concerning as an artist. I can’t support a regime that opposes the causes I’m outspoken about. And at the end of the day, a lot of it is the safety of me and my band. If we’re not going to feel safe or accepted, we won’t go. 

Blur or Oasis? Anna Mellor

Definitely Blur. They’re a wicked band, one of those where everyone’s contributed something so cool. There are still bands that come out sounding like Blur, all these years later! They were always developing and always interesting, there’s a lot more there for me to dive into.

What are your favourite albums that have come out this year? Howl Howl

Sorry’s album 925 was brilliant. It’s a bit of a lot of things but it’s really considered at the same time. Crack Cloud’s Pain Olympics really excited me too. Times like this can be interesting for art. White Denim’s album [World as a Waiting Room] is such a cool thing –  they decided to start and finish an album in 30 days during lockdown. I Don’t Understand Rock and Roll is a brilliant song. 

It’s cool to hear bands change the context of their music, and do things quickly – that’s often when the magic happens, it’s not overthought and your restrictions make it what it is. 

Does it feel like there’s more freedom for younger artists to be themselves, being open about things like sexual orientation and gender identity? Clare, London

I think it’s a real thing. With the way the internet is evolving, people appreciate individuality. It’s actually easier to create a community for yourself, building your own platform on social media, than to lose your independence as an artist sometimes. People are becoming much more open and accepting. More diversity is something that’s increasingly valued in the music industry.

The internet, for all its downsides, has created a much more open space for a lot of industries. If someone has a camera or a microphone, they can find their own footing and if people like it, they like it. Looking around at my peers, I do think it’s something that’s happening. I mean, it’s been happening since the Sixties, slowly but surely. I’m sure we still have a long way to go.

Do you ever feel like you’ve missed out on some experiences after becoming so successful at a young age? The Big Issue

I’ve certainly thought about it, but it’s all about balance at the end of the day. I’m very careful that my music only makes up one part of my life, that I can still be me outside of that world. And like a lot of 21-year-olds I’m having fun living with my friends.

Zeros is out on September 4 on Columbia

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