Glastonbury isn’t very fun when you’re not there. I figure this out when iPlayer freezes just as Declan McKenna starts his set and I have to stop myself from throwing my computer halfway across the room in a brief rage blackout. Managing to contort myself into the best seating position to ensure maximum internet connectivity, I spend the next hour absolutely hooked to his Glastonbury set. Kitted out in what could possibly be the coolest jacket I’ve ever seen and with a face covered in glitter, Declan wows a packed John Peel Stage, marking his return to where it all started in 2015 when he won the Worthy Farm festival’s Emerging Talent Competition.
Flash forward two years and the eighteen year old is getting ready to drop his debut album, What Do You Think About The Car?. Eleven tracks of sparkling alt-pop, the record is a bold and brilliant offering from the Hertfordshire-born singer. Already being hailed as the voice of Gen Z, the lyrics radiate with beams of hope and inspiration as Declan calls out the bullshit that young people don’t care with smart, engaging lyrics about our current social and political world. All delivered up in pop bangers, of course.
Sitting down with him after his Wonderland shoot, he is every bit the colourful and captivating pop star that his music and lyrics evoke. We start chatting and as conversation flows from the election to the pros and cons of stage diving, it’s clear that maybe the future isn’t so bleak after all…
So how did you first get involved with music?
It’s always been something that I’ve enjoyed. From when I was very young – I had five older siblings and all of us played music and were into different instruments – I’ve always been surrounded by music, and I’ve always been into singing and stuff, so it was kind of a progression from that and just enjoying music as a whole, and then starting to play the guitar. So I’ve always enjoyed it and I started writing songs from a very young age, probably about six. I was writing terrible little songs, but songs nonetheless! I haven’t really had a point where I’ve stopped since then.
You’ve always wanted to be a musician then?
I wanted to be a lot of things; I wanted to be a musician, I wanted to be a chef, I wanted to be an actor… I wanted to be loads of things, but music stuck out in a lot more ways than others. I think that expressively it felt the freest than any other form of art. I got into a lot of different art forms, but music stuck out the most. When I was younger it took a long time for me to realise that music playing-footballer-chefs don’t really go down too well!
If you weren’t, what do you think you would you be doing?
Probably somewhere between an actor, chef, and a football player – I don’t know! I’d probably be in some other form of writing, some kind of creative writing hopefully. I’d like to do something creative like write children’s books or something, that would be cool. Something like that.
Music was obviously a good decision – your debut track “Brazil” has had a massive response! What’s that been like?
Still ongoing! It’s weird, I released that song when I was like 15, so three years ago nearly. It was only like three weeks ago that it got onto The A-List on Radio One and all that stuff. So it’s kept building and building until now which is great. The initial response was cool, it kicked off in a nice way where there wasn’t too much pressure on me to start out with. It got a lot of industry types interested, but not in a way where I had a massive amount outside of that little bubble of, like, any kind of hype, so I was able to take my time and make a lot of decisions because I didn’t really know what I was doing. So I think that was a good thing.
It was crazy seeing a lot of stuff happen off of the back of that song. It was still very hectic but I got a chance to think about it. People often see it as you were there and now you’re [makes a rocket sound], but it’s not really like that. I always use this analogy, but it’s like people always see a lot of things kicking off and then it’s like when your aunt hasn’t see you in a couple of months and she’s like, “Oh haven’t you grown!” but they haven’t seen that every day progresses kind of differently.
In comparison to where you are now, how do you think that you’ve changed as a musician since releasing “Brazil” three years ago?
Loads! I think I’ve learned a lot about songwriting, and I’ve learned a lot about using my time efficiently – even though I still don’t really do that! It’s just altogether like a different kind of song writing, when you have no pressure whatsoever, compared to actually having a responsibility to do something because it’s a job in all technicalities, as much as you try to make it not seem like a job.
It’s different because when I wrote “Brazil” it was like one song I had finished, out of about three or four that year. I mean, I did a couple of little projects where I wrote a couple of songs in like a day or whatever, but they don’t really count. Now it’s like I actually have to finish a bunch of songs because there are a bunch of people who want to hear an album. It’s still really fun but you have to push yourself to not just sit around and wait. I used to do that a lot, just sit around and wait for ideas, but you have to make them happen.
It’s crazy how you wrote that song three years ago and you’re still only 18! Do you think your age has impacted you within the music industry at all?
A lot of musicians start out young, but it’s good because it means that I can kind of do whatever I want and it’s not ruining anything. If I have a completely different project in five years, people aren’t going to be like, “Oh yeah, but when you were 18 you did this!” People don’t really care about that, and I have so much time. The music industry can be a little ageist in terms of older musicians, so I think having time on my side and being very young means that I actually have loads of time until the industry decides that I’m too old!
With your songwriting you call up quite a few issues – on social media you were active about the general election. Do you think that it’s important to use your platform, as a musician, to speak out about that stuff?
Yes, and no. I like to do it, I want to spread some kind of positivity, but there are different answers to different things, and some projects just aren’t meant to be like that. For myself, I want young people to be influenced by the right people. That’s why it has been cool with this election because you’ve seen artists promoting voting and promoting politics, and actually doing something.
Well, wanting to inspire young people clearly made a difference…
Yeah exactly. If people want to use their platform, whether people do that in the way that I do or whatever way, as long as they’re not spreading negativity, they can do whatever is right for them.
So your debut album, What Do You Think About The Car?, is out on the 21st July! How are you feeling? Nervous? Excited? A bit of both?
I’m feeling pretty good, definitely a bit of both though. I’m just more relieved to just get it out there. I’ve got a bunch of songs that I’ll play at shows that people don’t really know, so it’s going to be nice to say like “Here’s a load of them!” I mean it’s not loads, it’s only like 11. But it’s going to feel kind of like a new page. I can move on from working on all of the anal details of making an album which have been plaguing my life for the last six months! So I’m really excited to just get it out there and stop worrying about it, work on something else, and just have fun with whatever the next couple of months do.
Is there a particular song that you’re especially looking forward to people hearing?
I was really looking forward to releasing “Humongous”, and to do a video for that, so I’m glad that is out. I like a lot of the songs on the album to be honest.
I guess asking you to pick one song is kind of like asking you to choose between your children…
Yeah, it is a little bit! The last song I guess I’m excited about, “Listen to Your Friends”, which is the one I co-wrote with Rostam [Batmanglij] from Vampire Weekend. So I’m looking forward to that as it’s the only co-write on the album – it’ll be cool to see what people think about that.
Were there any main inspirations or influences when you were writing the album?
I wrote it over a long period of time, so there a lot of different influences. When I first wrote “Brazil”, it was sort of a lot more of an indie influence, and country as well. It kind of started like something that came from the Radlands album that the Mystery Jets did, because I was listening to that a lot. But now with “Humungous” and the last couple of songs it would be more like George Harrison and David Bowie and stuff like that. More straight up pop but I guess more classic pop as opposed to modern dance pop, and in a folky kind of rocky way. I spent a little bit more time understanding what I wanted to do with the songs as well, so a lot of the songs that I made towards the end of the album are a lot more rounded and a little more thought through.
After the album comes out, you’re off to do a load of festivals. What’s your favourite thing about performing?
I’m a fan of crowdsurfing. If there is something that I can hold on to I will. One of my favourite bits is getting to the venue or the festival and spying out the area to see what you can climb on!
I remember seeing this band a few years ago at Reading and one of the guys climbed up the stage and fell off and broke his leg, so be careful!
I’ve had a couple of injuries though so I’ll try and avoid that!
Do you have any wild on-stage moments that you can tell me about?
When I supported Blossoms in Leeds, I jumped off the stage and when I tried to jump back on stage I didn’t realise how high it was and I couldn’t do it! I jumped once and I fell back, I jumped again and I fell back, and the third time slammed onto the floor and dropped my mic. I managed to get back up but it was quite embarrassing!
What else have you got planned for the rest of the year?
Kind of just touring for the whole summer, and then I’ll probably have a little bit of time off in September, but then I’ll be pretty much straight back into touring the album. Obviously we’re releasing the album in July so we’ll have to do album tours for the UK and Europe and America in August, which is exciting! So it’s just going to be lots of touring and hopefully getting some sleep…
Photography - Elliott Morgan
Fashion - Kamran Rajput
Grooming - Jason Crozier
Videography - Iolo Lewis Edwards