Headphones on, guitar in hand…This the way the 21 years old British singer spends his days. Born and raised in Enfield, Greater London, Declan McKenna has been brought in the limelight at the age of 15, with his song Brazil that he composed to denounce the corrupted elites and appalling poverty among Brazilian people during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. His meeting with the producer James Ford, who happens to work with the Arctic Monkeys, Gorillaz and the Foals among others, and then his signature with Columbia records led him to release two studio albums. Zeros, the third and latest one, is coming out on August 21st, 2020.
Numéro: Where are you at the moment?
Declan McKenna: I am locked down with two of my friends in North West London, where I live. We have been here for the past two months or so. There have been ups and downs, but it’s been okay for me. I feel good to have some space and a lot of things to work on at the minute.
You look pretty busy right now…?
Just trying to keep myself busy and to write a little bit of music whenever I got free time. I don’t think I really enjoy myself doing nothing. I like to be productive. At the moment, I am doing some music and get into painting to pass the time! Besides, I had so many projects that came up recently, such as performances on Facebook and Instagram, new alternative recordings of some of my songs. I think people really appreciate right now, as everyone is staying home.
In the race to provide more and more content on social media, some artists qualify their audiences as “starving”. Do you feel the same way about it?
Hum, not really! I guess it is not a priority for me at the minute! [Laughs.] My album Zeros is about to come out soon, and my band and I were focused on getting the songs Beautiful Faces and The Key to Life on Earth out there. It always feels like we are living through a strange time, but I try to take advantage of it in working on my music and trying to change the way I am managing the release of my album. I had to go back and change everything I am doing really, which is tough, but I am in this position where everything has to be put on hold. I feel really grateful to have a bit of space and be able to pretty much do my job, even if I would have liked doing it differently.
The release of your second studio album Zerosis postponed to August 21st, 2020…
Exactly! The album in itself is finished since last year. I would love to just have it out and share it with everyone. Everything had to be changed so much in a short amount of time that I have to be patient. I am just excited for it to get out and work on a new record.
You are productive to the extent that you are already planning on a third record?
Yes! I am just experimenting some things out at the moment. I am trying to work on my own production at home and see how to work on the third album differently than the one I recorded last year. I am at a very early stage, because I have been busy trying different live recordings for my Instagram. When I will be more available, I will try to put together some ideas for my next tracks recordings.
Declan McKenna - Brazil (2015)
You started in this industry next to James Ford, who is a major indie-rock producer. Would do like to collaborate with him again?
I would like to work with James Ford again! For the new album Zeros, I worked with the great artist Jay Joyce. James is pretty busy at the moment and we did not end up working together on my new album, even though I would have really love to. He is such a legend in London and the UK in terms of indie-rock! James obviously helped me a lot in various ways with my first album What Do You Think About the Car? (2017). He is just a really lovely guy! I would also like to produce more of the new records myself and take more control on them. I have gradually got more of a set of experiences in becoming confident in that.
What is your usual process of producing your music?
Generally, I write the songs on my own, then brought everything to the band to play them all together, keeping in mind the main idea I have. In short, we unfold the original version and try to get things work together as a band. Then we record of the bands’ versions and work with the songs more in the studio. I wrote a couple of tunes on my new album, and Jerry helped me a lot at the end of this long process. Jerry was really good at flipping all of the gigs out of his head or spot at something that was not working and replacing it with a better alternative. He had a good feel for what was necessary in the songs.
Which was your favorite track to record?
I remember Emily being fun! It is one of the rare songs we did fully play as a band – we usually record all the tracks individually. I have tried many new things musically with that song, such as playing some solo slide guitar or a two-part guitar at once to create psychedelic sounds. The track Eventually, Darling was interesting as well. Jerry had this idea to recreate a drum sound in the background, but we rapidly got a bit defeated by this thing he was chasing. We would wonder if it was really worth it. It took us some time to figure it out and, at some point, it just clicked… A nice mix of live drums and electronics
The music video direction of The Key to Life on Earth unveils a more intimate dimension of your personality. You appear along with the actor Alex Lawther, who follows you as an unruly alter-ego.
It was a really fun moment! I was working with Will Hooper, who directed the first music video of the album as well, and with whom I have been collaborating a lot. Many people from the shoot were the same people present for the shoot of Beautiful Faces early on. It is nice having that environment where we all support each other. We laughed a lot with Alex, it was hard keeping a straight face while shooting. It was casual, but also a little bit intimidating because I was trying to play along someone who is a very good actor and for who going into characters is an easy thing to do. His acting added so much to the final result of the video.
Declan McKenna - The Key to Life on Earth (2020)
How did Alex Lawther and you meet?
We don’t know each other for a long time actually. I wanted to get in contact with him for some time, and we first met by the start of last year when he was in London – he lives in Paris most of the time. It was cool to hang out with him. We are both into similar stuff and it is interesting to share our experiences as singer and actor in this industry.
It seems like having a community you can rely on is important for you, especially as you start at a pretty young age in this industry. In your case, your first track Brazil (2015) was released as you just turned 15 years old.
Obviously, I had not started putting out anything else at that point, but it started really early on for me. It feels good to have people you can trust around you and with whom I can share my feelings. When you meet people, it is lovely to know that you are all the same boat, that you have the same kind of struggles and also that you can share a lot of ideas.
Back at that time, did you already know that you wanted to make music your career or did the track Brazil was more a way for you to say something alarming about the political situation?
Both, I think. I knew I wanted to perform, because I basically spent my whole life working on music. I wasn’t really expecting something to go out of it, but the essential aspect of music has always been quite natural, even when I was younger. I think I wanted to feel that I was saying something that had a little bit of purpose at the time, especially at such a young age and ignoring the codes of the industry. It kind of developed from there and, still today, I write about what I am passionate about, whether it is personal or speaking to everyone.
Where did your confidence come from at such a young age?
Actually, I have always been performing. I was doing some acting at school as a kid and started doing some little acoustic gigs locally and in London when I was 13 and 14 years old. I think it is quite challenging to break into any scene in London, but I never had a problem with performing, I just wanted to get that! [Laughs.]It was back when I started performing with a looper pedal and had to focus so much on what I was doing that I started thinking about how I was performing and who was watching. As I grow older, the pressure gets bigger, so I have taken away some of the musical aspect in a sense, all being dependent on me being a performer and an entertainer on stage. Changing for that role was a little bit hard at first, but the more pressure you have on you, the more you attract people’s attention, I guess.
You are calling for the type of an indie rock audiences like. What are the artistic and musical inspirations that led you on that path?
Actually, when I wrote Brazil, the songs that inspired me were by the Mystery Jets. My brother got me into their music growing up. In terms of being a vocal musician, I have been inspired by so many different artists, like Bob Dylan. I think it is a very rich thing for musician to have a sort of shared identity and view of world, and to place the belief in peace and love at the center of everything. You don’t know exactly how it goes, but you are contributing in that dynamic in many ways being observant of the world and of how we treat each other. I think it is pretty subtle in music and a lot of people can see some moral or story being told in it, if you are listening closely.
Not only are you a great performer on stage, but you also like to perform on TikTok!
It is a very interesting app! So many corners to it… then you gently realize that you are all on it… [Laughs.] I have done a lot of it for some video projects, but also to have fun and ironically “make fun” how we look at the TikTok world in general. It also reminds me when I was 13 and was taking few minutes to make videos and post them on the internet – then, people were saying “oh no, this is so great!”. It feels weird thinking I was doing that while working on an album for three entire years. [Laughs.]
During lockdown, some people are obviously getting more and more creative on that app!
I guess some innovate on TikTok, even if others are just repeating things. Some of them are even making useful content, such as stock financial advice! [Laughs.] The format is so easy to use that people get very attracted with it. It addresses young audiences in a very interesting way that you can miss at first glance, even if it can come across as very superficial.
Zeros by Declan McKenna available on August 21st, 2020 (Because Music).