Politically precocious British artist Declan McKenna is currently on his biggest headline to tour to date. He took time to speak to Benj Cullen ahead of his show at Portsmouth’s Wedgewood Rooms.
Declan McKenna’s popularity is on an unstoppable rise. With each new tour he is hitting cities he played only a few months previously, but to vastly larger crowds. His last London headline show was in October at the 300 capacity Nambucca; in a couple of months he will return to play Heaven, capacity 1600. Quite humbly, McKenna doesn’t seem to care much about the size of venue he’s playing as long as all the new people who have come out to see him are having a good time, “It’s nice to see people turning up and enjoying themselves. It’s all you can ask for, init.”
Starting out in music aged 15, a year later McKenna had won Glastonbury Festival’s Emerging Talent Competition with just his voice, a guitar and a loop pedal. Nowadays he tours with a full four-piece band, which he says has ”always been my plan” but he “just never had enough people, space, or money.” The band are predominantly female, though McKenna questions whether through this he’s defying the gender imbalance in the music industry. “Maybe a tiny bit? I don’t know,” he replies. “It still exists, still a lot more needs to change structurally in the industry. It’s a shame.”
Defiance is a staple of McKenna’s music. He has released five singles over the last two years, each with a standpoint on a different social or political issue, from football corruption to religion. “I’m always going to talk about politics in some way or another,” he remarks, undeterred by the increasingly polarising political climate of the last year. “I don’t restrict myself to it, but I think now is a time greater than ever to do so, for sure.” In this way, McKenna provides a youthful perspective on issues that young people are often not consulted on. His second single ‘Paracetamol’ is a commentary on the struggles faced by transgender teens, whilst his most recent, ‘The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home’, is his response to young people’s exclusion from political discussion.
“Sometimes people just seem to talk about you in a way that makes you wonder if they were ever 18 once” he says, speaking of those in the music industry whom he has to work alongside. Younger than many may expect from a politically charged singer-songwriter, McKenna’s age is not always a help but a hinderance. “Sometimes people are really impressed, which can be nice but patronising at times.” The music industry is not his target audience however, and at 18 years old McKenna has proved that he is perfectly positioned to help provide an empowering voice for disenfranchised youth.
His debut album is finished, though it remains unannounced. Slated for a summer release, the album was recorded over the last year with producer James Ford, who has worked on albums with Arctic Monkeys, Florence + the Machine and Mumford & Sons, to name but a few. “It’s good, he’s a great guy,” McKenna says of Ford. Though a new artist working with such an established producer, McKenna remains unfazed, “He’s good at making songs sound nice, which is all you can ask for I guess!”
Many aspiring musicians grow up dreaming of milestones to one day hit, and McKenna has already achieved a few his own in his whirlwind career. “Playing Glasto was one” he reflects, thinking about his Emerging Talent Competition winner’s slot in 2015 and his 2016 appearance on the prestigious Park Stage. “Still yet to headline – bare with,” he then quips. “Jools Holland another, it’s crazy to think I’ve done all that stuff. I don’t know, I don’t set many goals to be honest. I just tend to go with the flow.” He may be going with the flow, but Declan McKenna is making waves of his own.