“Oh my god, there’s a boy genius! He just wrote a catchy pop song!” Teenage pop misfit Declan McKenna reacts modestly and vivaciously in reference to the label-bidding war he spurred just aged 16. “It’s so unusual to get picked up off the back of one song, I hate to say it but I think I was just very lucky”.
Luck it may have been, but less than two years on and we are sat backstage at the first date of McKenna’s debut headline tour – a few days after a Coachella festival announcement and a supporting slot at Brixton Academy with Kentucky alt-rockers, Cage The Elephant. Luck, but perhaps also a refreshing take on monotonous politics and a splash of McKenna charm.
It was Declan’s self-released debut single ‘Brazil’ which catapulted him into the industry’s fine eye line and led him to be ferociously fought over by labels. After topping Glastonbury Festival’s Emerging Talent Competition in 2015, the year he began his GCSEs, McKenna was haled straight into the whirlwind of the music industry, all before he was even old enough to drink a pint at his own gig. “They wanted to sign me to things that I didn’t really understand, so I just kind of went along with it for two years.” McKenna comments that he didn’t have a chance to think much about what he wanted to do, adding that it’s only now that he feels he’s had time to analyse his position. “I can now look back and go, wow, I was doing exams and getting signed by Columbia records”.
It is clear that the eruption of his career took him completely off guard. “What happened to me was so unusual. This never felt like a project to me, it’s not a band, it’s literally my name, the title of my life!” Despite maintaining a maturity about him when talking about the industry, it is clear that this is something which may have come with being fired into it at such a young age. “I wanted to be a chef, musician, footballer, all those things at once… like yeah, I’m going to run the world! Obviously that could never happen, though, unless you’re Donald Trump”.
McKenna talks as though he’s always been ahead of his years, his political stance on song writing something which has perhaps made him more appealing to industry professionals than ‘just another teen making indie-pop’. “It gets highlighted a lot more than I expected it to be when I started out, but it’s nice to express things I think are important”, Declan comments on his breakthrough single ‘Brazil’, a track where he presents a clear criticism of FIFA, and their failure to recognise extensive poverty in their decision to award the nation the World Cup. “For at least my teenage years I’ve always written about somewhat political things, even if my understanding at the beginning was vague”.
Despite producing a collection of important singles which have seen him compile a miscellany of coverage, including the likes of synth-led adrenaline track ‘Isombard’, and ‘Paracetamol’ – a bruised-yet-optimistic pop ballad on the misrepresentation of transgender teens, it is McKenna’s latest release that is described as his favourite. “It [‘The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home’] just feels more ‘me’ than anything else I’ve released. It’s sort of a step in the direction that I’m headed”. The video for McKenna’s new release features a group of teenagers – some his own friends – cycling and strolling around Barnet, North London. “As cheesy as the concept of the song and video is, it’s just about gathering a group of people – just normal kids, none of the acting or big production or anything – and letting them talk”.
Even though McKenna’s musical USP appears to rely on his political posture, there is nothing pretentious about him musically nor personally; completely down-to-earth in both his delivery of music and discussion. “I could make an artsy video with some kind of deep meaning behind it, but the song is about wanting to have young people’s views highlighted, so I just thought: fuck it”. “I feel like it’s all about having a concern and wanting to voice these things but feeling a slight fear and a slight inability to do so”.
McKenna’s still very much getting to grips with the fame aspect of producing popular music, and this becomes particularly evident when we discuss his early influences. “When I first started writing I was listening to Mystery Jets, who I managed to tour with. They’re just lovely guys. It’s so weird. You Idolized someone from the age of 10, and then you meet them and you’re just like… fucking hell, you’re just like normal human beings!”
“I’m not really sure where I am headed, I can’t be like ‘yo’ my name’s Declan McKenna and I make *this* kind of music, at age 18’, can I?”
As a fresh-faced eighteen-year-old taking the industry by storm, McKenna, despite a professional aura, naturally exhibits a Christmas morning excitement about life on the road with his band and rightly so, really, as he’s recently been announced for Coachella. “It’s just really badass, I’m getting to play one of the biggest festivals in the world out in California, it’s sick!”
Declan’s charisma as both a performer and character means that he manages to appear both mature and critical whilst remaining young and brash; a combination which works most definitely in his favour as a young musician smashing through indie-teen stereotypes. Despite countless triumphs and having caused a huge stir amongst record labels, he still remains with a level head and with his modesty firmly intact. “I was trying and I still am. I don’t think my writing is the most intelligent, insightful stuff”. McKenna seems to maintain an awareness of a need for development and musical growth. “I think I’m going to release slightly more conceptual stuff but it’s not going to be Declan McKenna. Not not released as Declan McKenna, but just not where I am now, I’ve got a couple of ideas”.
As he picks off the remains of his chipped black nail varnish, it seems not only evident but essential that this Hertfordshire eccentric should be in it for the long haul: “I’m not really sure where I am headed, I can’t be like ‘yo’ my name’s Declan McKenna and I make *this* kind of music, at age 18’, can I?”
Declan’s debut album is due out this year. He plays The Garage March 23rd.