‘Voice of a gen­er­a­tion? It’s just sen­sa­tion­al­ism’

He­wowed Glas­ton­bury at 16with his po­lit­i­cal songs, and Lon­don singer-song­writer Declan McKenna tells Steve Cum­mins that pick­ing your po­lit­i­cal points doesn’t come easy

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - MUSIC - What Do You Think About TheCar? is re­leasedthrough Sony Columbia on July 21 st. Re­viewi­son page12. De clan M cK en na plays Elec­tricPic­nic, Strad­bally, CoLaois, Septem­ber1st-3rd

Artists and mu­si­cians get crit­i­cised for be­ing ig­no­rant or not un­der­stand­ing the real world. I think it’s im­por­tant to show that a) you care, and b) try and get the people who lis­ten to your mu­sic to en­gage in cer­tain is­sues

Declan McKenna laughs mod­estly when I men­tion he’s the lat­est new tal­ent to be sad­dled with the “voice of a gen­er­a­tion” tag. “It’s just sen­sa­tion­al­ism,” he says. “When­ever any­body is say­ing re­ally, re­ally nice things about you, or re­ally, re­ally hor­ri­ble things, it’s just sen­sa­tion­al­ism.”

None­the­less, there’s some weight to the la­bel be­stowed on the imp­ish-look­ing English teenager who this week re­leases his de­but, What Do You Think About the Car?

When, aged 16, he first emerged af­ter win­ning Glas­ton­bury’s Emerg­ing Tal­ent com­pe­ti­tion two years ago, McKenna was marked out as a po­lit­i­cally pre­co­cious tal­ent. His breezy de­but sin­gle Brazil, writ­ten aged 15, tack­led cor­rup­tion in world foot­ball and how con­struc­tion work at the 2014 World Cup dis­placed lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. He fol­lowed it up with Paracet

amol, in­spired by the story of Lee­lah Al­corn, a US trans­gen­der teenager, who killed her­self af­ter her par­ents sent her for Chris­tian con­ver­sion ther­apy. Sub­se­quent sin­gles have ex­am­ined re­li­gious in­tol­er­ance ( Beth

lehem); the ex­clu­sion of young people from po­lit­i­cal dis­course ( The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home); and po­lice bru­tal­ity, xeno­pho­bia and the right-wing me­dia ( Isom­bard).

All are chan­nelled through bright bursts of melodic in­die, in­di­cat­ing a de­sire to party as much as to preach.

“A lot of the time, artists and mu­si­cians can get crit­i­cised for be­ing ig­no­rant or silly or not un­der­stand­ing the real world,” McKenna tells me back­stage af­ter a per­for­mance at the Academy in Dublin. “And I think it’s im­por­tant to show that a) you care about a lot of things, and b) ac­tu­ally try and get the people who lis­ten to your mu­sic to en­gage in cer­tain is­sues.”

In per­son, McKenna’s de­meanour can be­lie what’s go­ing on un­der­neath. When we meet, he is dressed in a grey track­suit, younger-look­ing, if at all pos­si­ble, than his 18 years. That night, he’ll take to the stage for a tri­umphant, sold-out show in front of a young, fa­nat­i­cal au­di­ence singing back ev­ery word.

There’ll be bal­loons and con­fetti dropped on the au­di­ence, while by then he’ll have added make-up and lash­ings of glit­ter to give off a non­cha­lant, pop-star look. Out of such ju­bi­lant scenes, passersby might as­sume McKenna to be blase, even cav­a­lier, about the is­sues he writes about.

“I’ve never seen my­self as a strictly po­lit­i­cal song­writer in a sense, but I think in the world that we live in, and with so much ac­cess to the in­ter­net and stuff, I think it’s dif­fi­cult to avoid cer­tain top­ics,” he says.

“But I think my pri­mary rea­son for be­ing a mu­si­cian, or writ­ing songs, is just be­cause I want to en­joy it. I think one of the coolest things that you can do with mu­sic is when it sounds a cer­tain way and can be kind of mis­lead­ing in terms of the lyri­cal con­tent, like what David Bowie did with Oh You Pretty Things or The Bea­tles on Maxwell’s Sil­ver

Ham­mer. That the song kind of has this dou­ble mean­ing of con-

flict­ing emo­tions.”

Born in Hertfordshire, just north of Lon­don, on Christ­mas Eve 1998, McKenna is the youngest of six and comes from an Ir­ish back­ground. His grand­par­ents hail from Ca­van and Cork.

“Each summer we’d kind of spend a few days in Ireland as a hol­i­day and just go around all the dif­fer­ent fam­ily mem­bers. We’d go to four dif­fer­ent houses and have sand­wiches and Sprite all day. There’s a big old McKenna mas­sive in Ireland,” he says.


As a child he played Gaelic foot­ball in En­field, north Lon­don, be­fore tak­ing up gui­tar aged nine. “My dad played gui­tar, my old­est brother as well. Ev­ery­one in my im­me­di­ate fam­ily kind of had some­thing to do with mu­sic. It just kind of hap­pened nat­u­rally.”

He be­gan writ­ing se­ri­ously at 15 be­fore win­ning the afore­men­tioned com­pe­ti­tion to play at Glas­ton­bury in 2015. That suc­cess trig­gered a bid­ding war among record la­bels be­fore he signed with Sony’s Columbia im­print. The sub­se­quent two years have brought him out of school and on tour, with nu­mer­ous miles clocked up around Britain, Europe and the US. In be­tween, he recorded What Do You Think

About the Car? with pro­ducer James Ford (who has worked with Arc­tic Mon­keys, Foals and Haim).

“The song­writ­ing on the al­bum went from 15 to 17, which is not a mas­sive amount of time, but in terms of how much change hap­pened in my life, there was quite a lot,” he says. “Some of the stuff I didn’t write un­til two weeks be­fore I was record­ing my last ses­sion. And then some of the songs came two or three years be­fore that.”

The dif­fer­ence be­tween the newer and older tracks, he says, is he now has more life ex­pe­ri­ence to draw from be­yond “be­ing in school and hang­ing out at home with not much to do”.

Yet it’s clear his ear­lier, is­sue-led songs pro­voked a very per­sonal re­sponse, par­tic­u­larly

Parac­eta­mol and The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home.

The lat­ter was writ­ten on Novem­ber 13th, 2015, the night of the Paris at­tacks. McKenna was per­form­ing in the city’s Le Mansart bar as the vi­o­lence at the Bat­a­clan un­folded. He re­turned to the UK in the early hours of that morn­ing.

“The day af­ter, I kinda re­alised that I now felt the emo­tions that I was try­ing to put into this song and it all be­came quite real for me. That kinda fear and frus­tra­tion but also a long­ing for change,” he says.

“The Kids Don’t Wanna Come

Home is a song about be­ing a young per­son in the mod­ern world. It’s about want­ing to chal­lenge fears and be part of a move­ment of change, and look­ing for hope de­spite a lot of dark and hor­ri­ble things hap­pen­ing around the world.”

Parac­eta­mol, his sec­ond sin- gle, was also born out of a dark place. McKenna said he was “deeply af­fected” af­ter read­ing an ar­ti­cle about trans­gen­der teenager Lee­lah Al­corn and how her par­ents had forced “con­ver­sion ther­apy” upon her.

Me­dia per­spec­tive

“That sort of thing, just be­ing called out and hated for your own iden­tity, I think is some­thing that a lot of people ex­pe­ri­ence at some point in their life, ob­vi­ously not al­ways to that ex­tent. It’s def­i­nitely some­thing that hit me very hard.

“Parac­eta­mol was al­ready an idea in terms of the melodies. I guess once I’d read that story, I was straight in. I’d come up with this idea about writ­ing a song from a me­dia per­spec­tive, start- ing with some­thing like ‘A boy, 15 . . .’ be­cause that’s how a lot of news­pa­pers will start their ar­ti­cles.”

Of the newer songs, the bouncy Lis­ten to Your Friends is a stand­out.

“It came out as a kind of state­ment against a lot of me­dia forc­ing false po­lit­i­cal ideas on the pub­lic and people. I saw this per­son on the train read­ing an ar­ti­cle that was ba­si­cally de­mon­is­ing par­ents who take their kids on hol­i­day dur­ing school term time. The big­ger is­sue there is com­pa­nies tak­ing ad­van­tage of par­ents at that time of year . . .I guess the ac­tual prob­lem is ig­nored and one that is less sig­nif­i­cant is used to cover it up.”

With his bur­geon­ing suc­cess, how does he stay grounded?

“Your in­ter­pre­ta­tion of your­self and what you’re do­ing is the most im­por­tant thing,” he says. “And that’s how you stay on a cer­tain level. You just ac­cept that some people are go­ing to re­ally, re­ally love what you do, but you just got to keep work­ing the same way and not change that. That’s how I feel about my­self.

“I just try and stay on a plan of ‘this is what I do’ and I don’t worry about if people love it or hate it. That’s just how I my­self avoid get­ting sucked into it.”

Your in­ter­pre­ta­tion of your­self and what you’re do­ing is the most im­por­tant thing, That’s how you stay on a cer­tain level . . . you just got to keep work­ing the same way and not change that. That’s how I feel about my­self

“I’ve never seen my­self as a strictly po­lit­i­cal song­writer” McKenna doc­trine

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