Our world is at a crossroads, between past and future, technology and humanity, our place in the universe and the vast mysterious extraterrestrial world beyond that we can’t yet comprehend. Declan McKenna doesn't shy away from these looming dichotomies. Instead, he simplifies them, weaves them into stories, and leaves the listener to unravel the truth.
As McKenna moves to a new flat (practically around the block from his previous North West London abode), he takes a break from the heavy lifting to chat about another transition in his life: his long-awaited new album Zeros will be out in September and marks a new certainty in his creativity as he settles into his twenties. For McKenna, the record is a sweet spot between self-discovery and the continuation of journey. He has found his footing, but there is still a vast distance for him to climb.
The record was initially set for release back in May, but the pandemic has changed several of the 21-year-old London-born singer/songwriter's plans. He would have been in the midst of the UK festival circuit right now; instead, he has been working from home. He goes on daily walks to clear his head and get a change of scenery. For now, he's embracing the limitations of the time, but also looking forward to touring again next spring, and with a summer of festivals to follow.
At its core, Zeros is an examination of people as well as an introspective reflection of the self and its responses to the world around it. “I was looking for one word that could tie everything together,” says McKenna of his search for an album title. “I’m talking on the album a lot about technology and the future of humanity and also people becoming lost and people becoming disenfranchised and I guess a lot of the emotions on the album and also the more technical themes and more environmental and political stuff all kind of tied into this one word, Zeros. It could be applied in so many different ways. I’m just imagining this web of things all interacting with each other rather than each song being about one thing or covering one sort of set of emotions.”
Zeros was recorded last August in Nashville and produced by Jay Joyce (known for his work with Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin and FIDLAR) in a fast-paced studio setting that stood out amongst McKenna’s previous studio experience. “When you’re going from recording in your bedroom to recording in studios, the frustrating thing about it is not just being able to plug in and go straight away like you would do at home,” he tells me. “Whereas working with Jay out there kind of had the best of both worlds. There was no separate control room, there’s nothing like that, so you can record very quickly but also really really well because they just knew the space and having that setting and having such a direct process where I could interact with Jay while I was playing and he was recording everything in… It just made recording in a big studio like that a bit more creative and you’re able to bounce off the energy rather than have that professional process slowing you down and making things a bit less interesting.”
It took almost five weeks of collaborative effort in Joyce’s studio to complete the record. The biggest difference between the making of Zeros and debut record What Do You Think About the Car? was this element of collaboration. It led McKenna to turn corners that otherwise would have remained unexplored and held an air of spontaneity that he hadn’t experienced making demos on his own. Another major perk of working in Joyce’s own studio rather than an unfamiliar rented studio was the familiarity with the space. The team didn’t have to struggle for twenty minutes to connect a stubborn aux cable, and instead had time to focus on the music and the moment.
When he wasn’t in the studio in Nashville, McKenna went to the strip to take part in the chaos, visited friends, and tried to go to an American football game (it was rained out). Another highlight of the trip was the abundance of electric ride-share scooters that are scattered throughout the streets of town, beckoning anyone who crosses their path no matter how dangerous they might look. McKenna’s guitarist actually went down on one of those scooters - a shopping bag dangling from the scooter handle throwing off the balance just enough to send her to the ground and graze her hands; McKenna ended up playing her part in the studio that day.
He has played the guitar since he was young and considers it his main instrument, but McKenna can also play piano, bass, and has dabbled in drum programming, which allows him to write much of his own instrumental portions of his songs. “I try to pick up as many instruments as possible really. It’s just exciting to play stuff that you don’t normally play or that is a bit different. It just inspires you in a slightly different way,” McKenna explains. “The difference between writing on piano and guitar and the feel that they both suggest can be so wildly different even if you’re playing something kind of similar. I try and get as much of that as possible. I find it more inspiring to be able to try out different things and start a song on a different instrument than the last one.
"I think even the instruments that you don’t know that well can almost be more inspiring than the one you know really really well because you make more mistakes and lead yourself down little rabbit holes that you wouldn’t find normally.”
Switching instruments has been a key method for McKenna since the making of 2015 breakout single “Brazil.” Five years later, the track continues to have a life of its own, from radio plays to Tik Tok trends. “I definitely knew it was a special song and one that people really took to. It’s taken a lot of turns and it has kept growing, which has been the spectacular thing about the song. It never really stopped getting people listening to it,” McKenna reflects. “Somehow, it’s like in the Lord of the Rings, they just have the ring and no matter what they do; they throw it out the window, they throw it into the sea, and somehow, one day, fate brings them 'Brazil' by Declan McKenna.”
On “Brazil” McKenna highlighted problematic aspects of international soccer. On Zeros, his political commentaries take a turn toward the future and examine the anxieties and uncertainties of the human race as we charge forward into uncharted territories in all aspects of life and navigate a world that feels more and more dystopian. “I think I kind of do write from the perspective of the aggressor on a lot of occasions and kind of give that backwards spin on the things I’m trying to talk about,” says McKenna. “With the album, I didn’t want to be too specific. I didn’t want people to be drawing their initial reaction on what the songs are about via some kind of buzzword. I wanted it to be a bit more open than that because I think that this record definitely ties in a lot of stuff. At the same time there’s a sort of political edge and there’s a big environmentalist sort of thing throughout it and a lot of stuff about the things we need to protect and the things we have to be responsible for. All corners of life kind of seep into it and I didn’t want this one to be quite so clear I guess. It can become frustrating.
"By giving people too many specifics in terms of what the songs or the album is saying, you almost can misguide people when they go down that route specifically rather than kind of learning their own sort of language in their own sort of way, listening to the music and absorbing the messages rather than sort of telling people exactly the kind of things that you’re hitting on and then winding up saying too much and leading people down the wrong path with it. I know of that happening sometimes and I just wanted to be creatively very free with it and not confine myself to being specific. I wanted to write stories and make those stories compelling and make the stories fit around the music in an interesting way.” He jokes, “That is oftentimes the priority and then you can kind of fit in whatever subliminal messaging you would like to within that context.”
One of these stories revolves around a character - Daniel, who we first meet in “Be an Astronaut” and get to know even better in “Daniel, You’re Still a Child.” The name came to McKenna out of nowhere as he was writing “Be an Astronaut.” The beginning of the song was charted out, but he was missing a first line. After settling on a person’s name, Daniel seemed to be a perfect fit. “I feel like the stories on the album have kind of led themselves to having a sort of central character that represents the album as a whole and the things that worry me," he tells me. "Daniel sort of personifies a lot of the sort of dread that is implied on the album, the sort of worry about pushing people away by not understanding people, the worries of blaming people for being products of the world they’re brought up into, the sort of threat of what we could do if we don’t look after the planet, if we don’t look after each other.
"It’s quite symbolic of what I see happening to a lot of young people in modern day really. I also like the idea that it’s close to my name because people are always getting my name wrong and its kind of funny to fuck with people in that way.”
His interest in people and the future was kindled by Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, a book that examines the meeting point between the past and future of the human experience. “At the end of the day humans can be quite predictable and there’s a way of understanding each other that we haven’t quite reached yet," he says. "Playing on these themes which are tools that we [use to] understand the world was a fun way to look at people and look at our lives and our emotions and things but do it in a way that is a bit less direct and fits into this sort of weird hazy storyline."
The crossover between past and future is perfectly illustrated in McKenna’s video for “Beautiful Faces,” directed by Will Hooper. Classic rock nostalgia and 70s fashion meets glitching and unsettling CGI, leaving the overall vibe of the video to feel somewhat like a three-and-a-half minute Black Mirror episode. “I love a lot of the seventies stuff and love a lot of the aesthetics and styles and grandness and glaminess of the seventies. We wanted to have a little flavor of that because a lot of the music I like is from that era, but try to keep it modern and try to have modern aspects that tie in this big theme of looking back at people and the way people are,” shares McKenna. “Having this taste of the past and having the CGI be this element that brings about the future and the way things are going and raises questions about how our lives are changing and how they are going to continue to change felt natural and interesting.”
McKenna also presents a dystopian story in his video for “The Key To Life On Earth”. Alex Lawther (End of the F***ing World, Black Mirror) plays a creepy and disruptive doppelganger as McKenna struggles to complete even the most mundane tasks. The weirdest part of filming? Wearing cockroach suits on the streets of east London at night for an audience of drunk people. Lawther never broke character. “At one point he rips out a page of this book that we were both reading and eats it,” McKenna laughs. The two got on well and had met up for a coffee date before to share work and discuss ideas. Lawther was just the doppelganger that McKenna needed to step all the way out of his shell and embrace something purely wacky and surreal.
Images of outer space also permeate the record but Zeros is by no means an outer space concept album. At its core, the record is about people: “Human beings have a tendency to look elsewhere for answers, look upwards, look to the skies, and want to kind of branch out and be bigger than we are," explains McKenna. "I think that’s always been an interesting metaphor to play on. Whether that means going into space or into science or into religion or into where we look for answers as a species. It can be very hard. Looking back on myself as a child and my obsession with space and why that was, it all kind of tied in and connected space into being between two worlds: this sort of real world and virtual reality and between earth and space. I wanted to tie all these things together.”
One of his personal favorite songs off the record “Sagittarius A*” is named for a black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy. “Technically speaking, the thing that’s sucking everything in, in this irreversible void, I guess that could be used as a metaphor for so many different things,” he says. It’s a perfect symbol of existentialism, impermanence, and the insignificance of human beings in the grand scheme of everything.
Another of McKenna’s favorites is the closing track, “Eventually Darling.” With a series of dissonant minor six chords that one might screw their face up at, its eerie and unsettling nature sets the tone for the message of the song. It’s a perfect conclusion, leaving things open-ended but also providing a sense of resolve. McKenna explains: “I think the song feels like, definitely, the end of a journey, something is coming to the end or something has been lost or something has been destroyed. I feel like, if we’re talking about stories, that’s kind of where the album ends up. It’s some kind of burnt bridge at the end but it’s also a little flicker of hope amongst it. You can change things around. There’s time to change and do things again and do things differently.
"It is all interconnected in a weird way from the start to the end.”