Declan McKenna is embracing the weird and wonky

The Hertfordshire musician travelled to Los Angeles to hone his new sun-soaked, carefree sound. Now back on UK soil, he's ready to unleash it to the world.

Declan McKenna just got back from Reading and Leeds Festivals, and has the memories of Main Stage pop star theatrics to prove it.

Third from the top of the line-up (only Steve Lacy and Billie Eilish were above him), the pastels-clad and mulleted singer played a joyous, sun-blasted set to a sea of fans waggling toy seagulls – a nod to the avian stars of the video for recent single Sympathy – and a scrappy cardboard sign saying Hertfordshire Massive”.

Clearly moved by the homecoming reception after several sloggy weeks playing America on his The Big Return tour, the singer-songwriter from London’s northern borderlands ended his Reading set sprawled among the crowd in the grass. The tactical swigs from a bottle of whisky gifted to him by Rod Stewart (“Rod had left us a bottle of his whisky. He had given it to a load of bands at the festival – his new brand [Wolfies]”) may have helped, too. But still. This was McKenna on the loose, and loosened up.

I always try to find a new way to interact with the crowd and ways to make that moment,” the 24-year-old says when we meet, a few days later, for tea and Sympathy chat in Hackney Wick, East London. I go with it until I feel a section [during the set] I can freak out in.”

He mentions another recent excursion into the audience where, in every sense, he went too far: security had to bodily carry him back to the stage.

It’s OK to be a bit arrogant or over-the-top,” he says of this enthusiasm for those rock star moments. It’s about reading the vibe or carrying your emotions in a certain way where you don’t give a fuck what you do on stage.” And, when his new music can’t help but turn him into a freaky, demanding dance monster”, well, he has no choice, does he?

For many, Declan McKenna might be the Brazil guy. Released when he was just 16, his Jake Bugg-meets-Jamie T debut single was the football nut’s impassioned dig at FIFA corruption – specifically the hosting of the 2014 World Cup in a country wracked with poverty. It’s currently sitting on Spotify streams comfortably north of 400 million. McKenna’s passion for the game, meanwhile, is undimmed: straight after our interview he’s off for a game of five-a-side – I can get so bogged down and football allows me to forget about things, so I try to play a lot.”

To others, he’s known as the agit-pop stress-head. His 2019 single British Bombs (produced by James Ford), was a vituperative attack on UK arms manufacturers exporting death around the world, while 2020’s glam-rocky second album Zeros railed against global warming and social media swarming.

And to more casual fans, McKenna is hastily dismissed an exemplar of TikTok-core, a young singer-songwriter who can’t help but write concise, fizzily catchy tunes – he has nine million likes on the platform, his own clips regularly clock up over 50,000 plays, and Brazil alone has some 200,000 videos attached to it.

But really, McKenna is more than that, as his 5.2 million monthly Spotify listeners would attest. He’s a writer with a sharp lyrical eye and keen wit. And, as proven on his upcoming third album What Happened To The Beach?, he’s a writer who knows how to roam free and bring the bangers. Relocating to Brighton and recording in Los Angeles with the producer who helped bring to life Arlo Parks’ shimmering, Mercury-winning Collapsed In Sunbeams can do that to an artist.

I will always speak my mind with music, but we live in a time where the conversations I wanted to contribute to previously are much more out in the open now,” McKenna explains of his new direction. There’s that, and the fact that he’s too hungry a writer to not change things up. If every song features a lyrical statement then it loses some of its impact, too. I haven’t let go of that aspect of myself but I don’t want to live out that style forever.”

When I got to LA, the sun was shining and I’d gotten out of the UK for the first time in fucking ages. I really just embraced that”

Equally, there was a Covid hangover to shake off for an artist whose second album came out in the blighted pandemic summer of 2020. As he says now of the new songs he recorded, California dreamin’ style, with Gianluca Buccellati, they were a distraction from all of the bullshit. Because of how intense things were, I was drawn towards creating music that was a release and that felt a little more otherworldly.”

McKenna initially found himself picking at the scraps of old unfinished demos like a seagull outside the chippy. Then, once in LA, he went even deeper with the scavenging.

What wound up being the inspiration for the album was capturing my creativity in a really natural way – and being able to finish music that I previously would’ve thought was too wonky or weird to actually pursue.” For his part, Buccellati says the project was pretty much Declan and I at the helm of all of it. That was an amazing experience.”

Unapologetically redefining his sound as intimate and more psychedelic”, the results are pared-back, sun-soaked lyrics that move the musician away from the intensity that usually underpins his songs and into a world that is relaxed, warm and chilled-out”.

He admits that, previously, too often when he wrote it’s been tinged with sadness or something [that is] more intense and deep. But I didn’t feel the need to do that with the tunes on this album.” His mantra was straight up and straight to the point: It should just feel good.”

As demonstrated by Sympathy, the album’s lead single, and its rapturous Reading reception, he struck gold straight away.

It was the first thing that I wrote when I got to LA with Luca. The sun was shining and I’d gotten out of the UK for the first time in fucking ages. I really just embraced that.” Nailing the track, which explores the universal experience of putting up a front and worrying about what people think of you, was McKenna’s first hurdle in moving past what was holding him back both emotionally and lyrically. Sympathy was both a note-to-self and a template for the other songs he’d write.

It was about growing up and realising that stopping worrying about what people think of you is the best way to be yourself.” Or, as he sings in the earwormy chorus: You don’t need to be clever.”

The second tease of the album comes via single Nothing Works, released this week and marking the official announcement of What Happened To The Beach?, which will drop in full next February.

It was one of the songs where I almost wanted to say more with it. But again, the simplicity is what made it,” he says. The New Wave‑y bop, with a phat and funky synth middle-eight, was an instant hit at last month’s festivals – and it’s just been crowned Radio 1’s Hottest Record.

Again, it’s the sound of McKenna – who, remember, has been doing this a third of his young life – reflecting on the experiences entangled within the shift from teenagehood to adulthood, in the full glare of fandom. It was no surprise that having millions of eyes on him made the singer play up to the role of being a bigger and more intense version of himself. Little wonder, as well, that he struggled with the process of divorcing himself from the sound and ideas that he had created and been associated with as a popstar schoolkid.

Finding a way to string together the abstract ideas and messages scattered throughout his demos was the missing piece of the third album puzzle. And that piece was found through accepting the vulnerability that came with talking about that experience. I wrote Nothing Works because I know that nothing works other than doing your own thing. Even though it may sound a little sad that I stress about this kind of stuff, I’ve written the song because I’m so much more sure of myself these days. I know what I’m doing.”

As much as evident in killer album tracks such as the psych-pop wonder of Mulholland’s Dinner and Wine (think: Sufjan Stevens at his most playful) and the acoustic acid-trip of I Write The News (think: if Beck was in The Beatles).

The main inspiration,” he concludes, was wanting to have music that was otherworldly, a bit of a release, and lyrics that were a little bit simpler but had these nice, positive messages. Obviously, there is stuff that is a little more honest and revealing. But for the bulk of the writing, I was trying to enjoy the process. And let it be about discovering a new sound.”

At 24, Declan McKenna is all grown up, embracing the weird and wonderful.

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