Make Music Thought-Provoking Again: An Interview with Declan McKenna

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Hook-ups. Love. Break-ups. Regret. Empowerment. Uncertainty. Listen to any pop song today, specifically those from younger artists, and the lyrics will more than likely embody one of the themes listed above. More often than not, they're written to appeal to the masses, to relate to a scenario all of us may be going through or feeling–while foregoing their personal touch along the way. In the world of pop lyricism, it seems there is no place for complexity. Enter Declan McKenna. The 18-year-old songwriter has proven that complexity can be popular, and in a sea of generic lyricism, McKenna digs deeper. His first single, "Brazil," which speaks on the corruption during the 2014 FIFA World Cup, amassed over 20 million streams on Spotify, and took the number one spot on Sirius XM's Alt Nation's Countdown for three weeks back in 2016. 

We see even more of this intricate and thought-provoking songwriting on his debut album What Do You Think About The Car?, which dropped July 21. Rather than use his experiences from relationships like many other artists, McKenna's lyrics were written through reactions and impulses to issues happening around the world over the past four to five years. Each catchy song is initially deceiving to the ears. While the music feels light and poppy, the lyrics are telling a different and often darker story. Whether it's tackling religious hypocrisy on "Bethlehem" or speaking out against transgender conversion therapy, and more specifically highlighting the death of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn on "Paracetamol," McKenna isn't afraid to tackle taboo topics, and it's because of this that many have compared him to Bob Dylan. 

McKenna is already hard at work on his second album, juggling the demands of touring with writing. I spoke with him the day before his album released about his glittery upcoming US tour, admiration for Run The Jewels & St. Vincent, and the negative stigma aligned with millennials. 


OTW: When did you first start writing and develop interest in making music?

DM: I started to have an interest in music from a pretty young age. There's a little clip at the start of the album from when I was four years old, and I was very much into music then if only because of my older siblings' influence on me but as long as I can remember, I've been interested in music. I first started writing probably only a few years after that, really. I was still in the single figures age-wise when I started writing songs. I was in band with my sister and my cousins but yeah, a pretty early start I think.

OTW: Because your lyricism and the ideas you write about are more complex, did you start out just writing in general, or writing lyrics? 

DM: I think I've always tried to have some kind of depth to the lyrics I've written. Sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully especially first starting out, but I think what you write about is something you learn. You develop your own sort of skills, almost like imitating and taking from a lot of the artists you know already, and I think what I've written about is not only a reflection of that, but a reflection of how I've grown up, the world I've grown up in, friends I've got, family I've got. They've all sort of pushed me to write in a certain way.

OTW: For me personally, you're breaking the mold of what people expect artists, especially younger artists, to write about. You've proven that complexity can be popular. What made you want to write about taboo topics like American politics, police brutality, being transgender, and the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, even though they may not directly affect you?

A lot of it is just kind of hearing about something and being like, "Oh, that's wrong." Like, that's the kind of official thing, that's just been like, "Oh that's shitty" or you know whatever it is you write about, and just wanting to write a song about it–having that sort of impulse. I think in the grand scheme of things of what I do, there's just a lot of stereotypes around young people and pop musicians, as well as together seen as ignorant or unintelligent or not insightful or anything, and not to say that I am like the most intelligent thing since whatever, [laughs], but I think I try and make a point to at least try to say something, to say something that I actually care about because I think there are a good range of artists out there doing it. I think it's important to do that, and in the world of pop it can be shallow and I think you have to understand that, but appreciate that but also it can be great, and it can be whatever you want it to be. I think that's why I like doing and making it what I want it to be. Whether its very meaningful or just for fun, I want it to be all those things whenever I think it's appropriate.

OTW: Does your track "I Am Everyone Else" go along with this theme of writing from other people's perspective?

Potentially. It's kind of a weird one because the writing was really staggered so that song for me was about kind of a bunch of different things at once, but it all revolves around that theme that you can say whatever, you can do whatever, but no one understands everyone. And you can't pretend to do that. I think that is sort of vaguely what that song revolves around, even with the lots of different things that happened at that time in my life.

OTW: Are there any artists that have inspired you or influenced you to write about bigger topics?

DM: Yeah, I think so. One for me at the minute that I really love is Run The Jewels. I'm a big fan of them. There is such a wide range of hip-hop, and a wide range of things that people write about but people do slate it for being shallow, even though I very strongly disagree. They are just a really great example of very powerful music, and they also just come across as really nice guys which I think makes a difference when they put across their opinions and views, and you can kind of relate to them or just have a nice impression of them. It really helps with that, and I think that's what is really nice about Run The Jewels.

OTW: How do you make these heavy topics feel light, specifically "Brazil" because it's a really catchy song but the root of it is corruption. 

DM: I think it comes from listening to a lot of The Beatles, honestly. I know everyone kind of references The Beatles quite a lot, but I feel like you can say a lot with sound. Like entrusting sound with lyrics, or having something that's kind of bittersweet, something they do quite a lot, can actually maybe say more about how you feel, and you can also have lyrical content that expresses your feelings about it. For example, how the World Cup in Brazil might have been seen, compared to what was happening behind the scenes, you know, it could be two different things between the music and the lyrics, which is kind of fun to mess around with even if it's very vague. People might not pick up on it because it's not an obvious thing but it can just be fun in your head to work out these things, and it can mean different things to you and nothing to someone else, or even if it means something completely different to someone else, which is kind of the beauty of music.

OTW: I love that! How did you get yourself in the headspace to write about these situations?

DM: I don't know, it often just happens. I try as often as possible to focus on writing but it can be really hard to just make yourself do it. A lot of it is just an impulse thing. I think a lot of it just comes down to what you see, what you hear, and kind of keeping notes in your head, and making sure it will all come together at one point, or something can happen that just inspires you. I tend to try to go on impulse as often as I can, although the more and more I've been touring, the less easy that is because being like busy all the time and tired catching up on sleep; it's not as easy. Your writing becomes very different because you actually have to focus and learn to put time aside for it, and I think that has changed my style of wiring now, especially going into the second album. Not so much with the first because obviously a lot of those songs came before I was heavily touring.

OTW: I want to touch on a few of your tracks that were released prior to album. "Paracetamol" is a really beautiful track. Can you talk a little bit about how it came to be? I know a little bit about the background, but the title specifically?

DM: Paracetamol. It wasn't originally the title of the song. I never originally had a bridge or anything when I first went into the studio with it. It's kind of a weird little story of how it came about. We actually found a little Agogo bell in Neil's studio, the producer I was working with, and it was about in tune with the song. It kind of worked, we were doing this samba rhythm with it, and I was like "Maybe we can have something like that in the song," and we just started this whole other section because I felt like it needed something else, and I didn't have any lyrics. On my walk home, I was just thinking about what would fit here? What would go with like what I wanted to say in the song? And I pretty much wrote the lyrics on the walk from the studio to the train station.

 A lot of the song is based around people thinking that their opinions can be right in regards to how other people identify, and that certain people can be changed, or to tell someone it's a choice, and that it can be changed, and fixed with something like therapy, and I wanted to compare that to like an everyday drug. Like, "Oh, you can cure yourself with Paracetamol" because it would be just as messed up an idea to consider that someone can be changed through medicine. It was a very simple little metaphor, but it felt right at the time to kind of make sense of the theme of the song, and give it a slightly different section to break it up a bit.

OTW: Let's talk about the video for "The Kids Don't Wanna Come Home." In the beginning of the video we see a young girl say, "I think the way we view ourselves is very different to the way other people views us." For you personally, why do you think our generation is negatively viewed/has the stigma that it does?

DM: I don't know, I think it's easy to because I think the mistakes that young people make now, as compared to a while ago, are documented. If someone says something silly at a young age or does something silly, it gets filmed, it gets documented, it gets posted online. The Internet is a thing which has been popularized, and people often blame that but it just means that you can see more of peoples' lives, and it means that people are insecure and a bunch of things, but I don't think it means that people are unintelligent. I don't think it means that people are naive, or anymore naive than a young person would have been awhile ago. I just always find it quite hypocritical that the generation that gave us all of these phones, the Internet, everything, and marketed them to us and made us want them are now kind of saying, "You're always on those things that we made you want to have." [Laughs]. Yeah, I just struggle to understand how anyone could actually have that opinion of the younger generation.

OTW: Let's talk about the new album. If there are three feelings that you want your listeners to experience while listening to the album, what would they be?

DM: That's really hard because I don't want people to feel sad, but also, it does kind of have that. [Laughs]. I don't know, I think I want people to feel excited listening to it. Just every feeling that is the opposite of bored, basically. Happy, excited, but like with a slight tinge of melancholy just for good measure. That's what I want because I think, like we were talking about earlier with the happy sound and slightly darker lyrics, I don't want the music to make people feel down about bad things. I think music in itself should be enjoyable, and I think even when songs have a hard topic, I want people to be happy and excited and enjoy them. 

OTW: What is your favorite song off the new album, and why?

DM: Properly, I have to say "Humongous." I love playing it live, and I really love all of the production and everything we did with it. It's not one I listen to and have anything I would change. I feel like since it's the most recent one I wrote for the record, I just still relate to it as much as I could a song I wrote yesterday because I've changed a lot, definitely as I wrote a lot of songs on the album so I think it being not that old to me even is quite a special thing and quite nice because I've often spent a year or two after writing a song waiting for it to come out, and with that one, it was out within a month.

OTW: With the new album, what can fans expect at your live show during your US tour

DM: Confetti and balloons hopefully, if we can find them in America. Glitter. Dancing.

OTW: I think you just need to go to a Party City when you get here. They'll have everything you need.

DM: Yeah I'll find a college town or something, I think we try more and more to keep the shows really upbeat and party-esque. We try to put as much into it as possible so we'll probably come up with fresh ideas but lots of just bright, shiny things. [Laughs].

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Photo: Birger Hagevold Johansen

OTW: Sounds good! I'm so bummed that California isn't a stop on your US tour. When can we expect you on the West Coast?

DM: Yeah, I was expecting to come in April but we had to cancel that whole tour. It was a bit crap. Hopefully before the end of the year but I don't know. I'm really hoping to come back because I love being in the warm places. [Laughs]. Yeah, I'm up for that.

OTW: If you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be? 

DM: I say this all the time, but St. Vincent. I just, I don't know. I try and make my live show and make everything, somewhat…It's all kind of somewhat inspired by her live show. As a performer, as a songwriter, I really look up to her so I would love to be able to create something with her.

OTW: Who are three artists on your OTW list?

Feet - They're a really cool new band from Coventry in the UK. A lot of different sounds. It's like psych, punky, indie rock, and it's really really well written music, and there's a cool video out for a song called "Petty Thieving." Yeah, they're really good.

Jealous of the Birds - It's a product of Namoi Hamilton. She supported us out in Ireland, Dublin, and Belfast. She's from Northern Ireland, and has some of the most beautiful songs I've heard in a long time. Yeah, I really really love her.

The Rhythm Method - They're sort of coming up in a minute from London, and they're very cool. It's somewhere been the streets and PC music, and it's really interesting. I'm looking forward to them releasing more music. They only have a few tracks out. 

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