It’s no mean feat, being labelled the voice of a generation.
It’s a title, however, that 18-year-old musician Declan McKenna has shouldered with relative ease. Tackling thorny social issues with melodic, guitar-led aplomb, McKenna drew on the influences of older, politically-conscious role models, to forge an identity for himself as a mouthpiece for the optimism of Generation Z.
With the release of debut album What Do You Think About The Car? looming on the horizon, we chatted to McKenna about the realities of existing and making music in the current climate. Like his music, McKenna’s conversation veers between sarcasm and sincerity, throwing him into clear relief as the honest and unpolished mastermind behind what’s set to be one of 2017’s most conscientious debuts.
How are you feeling in yourself, in the run-up to the release of your debut album?
It’s exciting! It’s nice to be close to having a full body of work coming out. I’m excited to have more than just a few singles around, and be able to play shows and have people know the songs that we’re playing! A debut album is a pretty big deal to anyone, so I’m really up for it.
Do you have any particular favourite tracks from the album?
I think my favourite track is probably “Humungous”, the first track. It’s the most recent one I’ve written and it feels like a step in the right direction for what I’m doing. It feels like my most - I don’t know if “mature” is the right word - but it feels like me, now, more than any of the other songs.
You’ve been songwriting since you were literally tiny, how far back do the songs on this album date?
The first ones I wrote when I was 15, which is “Brazil” and “Bethlehem”, and then went from there.
You cover some heavy topics on songs we’ve already heard, is there more in a similar vein to come on the album?
In terms of the album tracks, there’s not so much that’s so specific as some of the stuff I’ve put out. A lot of it revolves around a certain level of confusion in my life, and a lot of the tracks touch on a lot of different things. There is a political element to most of the songs, but in the same way most of the songs touch on both the political and hint at my personal life. There’s a lot of different things going on, topic-wise!
Have you found, as a young artist talking about political topics, that you’ve been patronised at all?
Maybe! When I started out, I didn’t see it as a big deal. Most musicians I was into had an element of being open and overt about politics. It’s interesting seeing people have different opinions on what I’m saying, and what I think. I definitely have changed a lot in the past couple of years as well, and I think that comes into it. You often get patronised for being young, but that’s just part of it. It’s nothing new really! People tend to form an opinion before they hear anything - and if they think it’s crap, they think it’s crap! It’s fine! It’s better than judgement being based around me being a young child, like I am!
Can you elaborate a little on the story behind single “Paracetamol”, and why it was important to you to write that song?
It’s quite difficult to articulate something like that. It was another of the earliest songs from the record that I wrote, and for that reason I didn’t expect to have any number of people listen to it past maybe my parents at a show.
It came when I read this article about Leelah Alcorn, this transgender teenager who’d committed suicide. It was a story of transgender conversion therapy, and I was completely ignorant to the fact that this was still going on - that this had ever happened! I felt so distant from it, and at the same time really struck by it. Being a young person, that sort of subject feels personal. It feels like it’s affected me, and it has affected a lot of my friends. Talking about people being more fluid and expressing their gender [differently] has become more accepted over the past couple of years, and that’s meant that the people I’m surrounded by [include] transgender people.
[“Paracetamol”] came very quickly out of these awful things that were happening in the world just because people didn’t accept who someone was. I was very young, and very passionate. I’ve always stood by allowing people to be who they are, and I couldn’t get over this awful thing - how someone could be pressured into feeling a certain way about themself because of the authorities that were around them; their parents, and all those people making them feel that they weren’t okay. That’s what shocked me, and let me to write that song.
Looking at the state of the world right now, do you feel a responsibility to speak out about these issues that affect you?
I’ve always done it, but with the state of the world right now it’s more important than ever for anyone with a platform, with a voice that’s going to be listened to, to speak out against wrongs that are going on in the world. There’s a lot of bad things which are going to be negative for people who may not be very close to you, that you may not know, that you never meet anyone like, but we have Trump, and we have Brexit. People need to speak about that, whether it’s in their art, or just in general life! I think it is an important time for people to be active about that bad things that are going on around the world, because there’s a shit-tonne of it. It’s scary, but it is important.
Are there any particular causes you’d like to encourage people to support?
Help Refugees is something I feel very strongly about. Obviously most people reading this article will have heard about that, but it’s one of those things that people need to be very active about. At the minute, it’s stuff that’s happening right now. People are living without homes, without their family. They’ve lost everything that they once had, and are stuck in the middle between two countries that don’t want them there. As a human race, we’re doing pretty shit at looking after after everyone.
If you were talking to someone who’d never listened to you before, what would you say to get them to check out your album?
I’d probably say something really arsey and sarcastic… [or] “Hey, dude, give us a chance! You might like me! What else are you doing today?”
If you were to sum up the album in a sentence, what would you say about it?
A bunch of… that’s a bad start… a bunch of really fantastic songs, and there’s 11 of them, and they’re all really good… that’s the sentence!