The English alt-pop musician Declan McKenna—boyish features, hair over his eyes—is just 18, and has already been dubbed by countless outlets the voice of his generation. This is probably a little premature for the breakout singer-songwriter who has just released his debut album, What Do You Think About The Car?, even if his lyrics do echo, resoundingly, the concerns of his peers.
Born in a small town in Hertfordshire, a county north of London, McKenna has been writing songs since he was 6. The title of his album, he recalled, came even earlier: “It’s from a home video from when I was 4 years old. We’d just got our car, which we still have, and my sister is like, ‘What do you think about the car? Do you like it?’ And my response is, ‘I think it’s really good, and I’m gonna sing my new album now.’” And then I just start singing something... it stuck in my family’s history records.”
Every successful artist has a song that changes his trajectory; for McKenna, it was “Brazil”, which he self-released and entered into the Glastonbury Festival's Emerging Talent Competition in 2015.
He wound up winning the contest, at 16 sharing the same stage with the likes of Bastille. “It was pretty wild to be honest. It kind of was and is [a dream]," McKenna said. "I sometimes step back, and I’m like, How did I pull that one off?”
He had written the song the summer before, during the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil; it criticizes the shady socioeconomics of the World Cup industrial complex.
“It initially started out as this guitar bit that I had for quite a while that I really liked but didn't know what to do with,” McKenna explained. “I used to just jam it in school or wherever I could. And then eventually, I don’t know how, but the lyrics sort of just came. I just had a couple of words and phrases I wanted to throw in, but for some reason, it turned into this catchy pop protest song about a lot of the wrongdoings that were going on around FIFA and just generally around.”
“Brazil”, which peaked on Sirius' Alt 18 Countdown, was followed by the equally praised “Paracetamol”, a song about transgender youth, and later “Isombard”, which touches on police brutality—all of which, along with more recently released singles “Humonguous” and “The Kids Don't Wanna Come Home" (2.5 million YouTube views and counting), can be heard on the new record, on which McKenna worked with producer and composer James Ford (Arctic Monkeys, Florence and the Machine) in London and Los Angeles. (A music video of McKenna's live performance of "Make Me Your Queen," also from the album, at London's Garage premieres exclusively here on W.)
“I finished recording [it] in November last year, so I’ve been sitting on it for a long time,” he said. “It’s funny, my album release has pretty much coincided with my friends finishing their exams.”
Considering the eloquence of his lyrics, it’s easy to forget McKenna is in fact still a teen. He’s now dropped out of school, choosing to concentrate on music, and is currently touring the East Coast—off the heels of playing Lollapalooza—with a lineup of shows, including a gig at Webster Hall in New York tonight.
“It’s just very nice to have [the album] out and be able to see people knowing all the songs at shows,” he said. “Just having a record out there and seeing the positive feedback and just being able to move on and work on something else is a really nice point to be at.”
He’s always writing, he added, and has been fomenting his next project. “I’ve been trying to focus my songwriting recently into a concept,” he said. “There’s a lot to draw from at the minute... I just want to make songs that I like and be able to get away with doing music for as long as I can get away with it.”
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