Declan McKenna: ‘I realised I don’t have to be serious’

Declan McKenna
Image caption,The 25-year-old got his big break when he won Glastonbury’s Emerging Talent competition in 2015

By Mark Savage

BBC Music Correspondent

“You don’t need to be clever.”

So goes the chorus to Declan McKenna’s recent single Sympathy. It’s a deliciously strange, herky-jerky pop number, orchestrated by synth bassoons and merry-go-round organs. It’s also a mission statement for his third album, What Happened To The Beach.

McKenna, as you might know, made his name by ripping lyrics from the headlines. His breakthrough single, Brazil, tackled corruption in Fifa.

Later songs addressed transgender suicide and religious hypocrisy; while his second album, Zeros, imagined escaping the Earth after a catastrophic climate event.

His third album purposefully moves away from such weighty topics, embarking on a magical mystery tour of sonic invention and lyrical playfulness.

I’m off to Tenerife / ‘Cause life’s really changed me,” he sings on the opening song, Wobble. “I used to cry at home all night / Now I’m out in the sunshine“.

The pivot was a reaction to the “voice of a generation” tag that had started to follow him around.

“I got to a point where I felt like I had to do things in a somewhat serious manner,” he says.

“This time, I went back and was like, ‘Maybe I don’t actually have to do that.’ I just tried to let things happen and not sculpt songs into meaning something specific, when they just felt good.”

He’s called the album “hella weird” with a “wonky edge” that might alienate his parents.

“It’s not the kind of thing that my dad would sit down and listen to,”┬áhe told his local BBC radio station in Hertfordshire last week.

But his parents were there as the record took shape – in their house, during the first wave of the Covid pandemic.

“It started in my sister’s bedroom, which I turned into a studio,” he says. “Well, I say a studio – I basically just put my laptop in there.”

Declan McKenna plays at the Reading Festival 2023
Image caption,McKenna was third on the bill at last year’s Reading Festival, drawing a huge crowd as the sun set on Sunday night

Sitting in his childhood home, strumming his guitar with increasingly strange tunings reconnected him with the way he’d first made music as a teenager.

Freed from the pressures of touring and record labels and studio sessions, he rediscovered “making music just for fun”.

“I tried to jump off the most interesting and wild ideas that I could come up with on the spot. Just letting things come out.”

You can hear the process at work on I Write The News, which opens with a bare-bones iPhone recording from his sister’s room. After the first chorus, McKenna cycles back to the beginning, adding lo-fi drums and cheeky backing vocals to the demo; before one final refrain that evaporates in a smoky psychedelic haze.

The lyrics are broadly satirical – imagining an argument between “Labour kids” and “some Kensington dude” about who really controls the news agenda. But where once McKenna would have made a political point, these characters are more concerned about where they’re going to score their next joint.

“There’s a meaning to it, but it sits in this very playful, nonsensical world, as well,” he says.

“I think that’s where this album really falls. It’s not just complete nonsense but you’d be forgiven for thinking it is – because the lyrics are quite non-specific.”

Declan McKenna sits by a swimming pool
Image caption,The album was completed in California – although McKenna eschewed expensive LA studios for the home set-up of his producer Gianluca Buccellati

When the pandemic ended, work continued on the album in Brighton and Los Angeles, where McKenna hooked up with producer Gianluca Buccellati, best known for his work on Lana Del Rey’s Lust For Life and Arlo Parks’ Mercury Prize-winning Collapsed In Sunbeams.

Californian sunshine and blue skies are present throughout the record, but the escapism is anchored by a more thoughtful exploration of why we feel the need to escape in the first place.

The woozy decadence of Mulholland’s Dinner and Wine (“I got a boring apartment and all of the drugs“) suggests that copious free time and substance abuse do not a happy McKenna make.

Later, The Phantom Buzz (Kicks In) tells a familiar story of feeling trapped by technology – the title refers to the imaginary sensation that your phone is ringing when it’s not – and the relentless pace of modern life.

It’s a situation McKenna confronted head-on during the pandemic. Lockdown was his first opportunity to stop and reflect after five years of non-stop touring.

He won Glastonbury’s Emerging Talent competition and the infectious indie hooks of Brazil became a hit. That led to a frenzied record label bun-fight over his signature, and he was quickly whisked away from his childhood home in Cheshunt to the bright lights of London.

“I don’t really feel like I’m cut out for London,” he says, looking back. “I found it all too much. The pace of life in Brighton, by the sea, is a little bit more suited to me.”

“That’s been the big takeaway from the last couple of years for me,” he adds. “Just because you can move very quickly and take every opportunity that comes your way, it doesn’t mean you should.

“When you’re able to travel the world a little bit, you see that not everywhere operates at the same pace. There’s something really important about slowing down that helps you get perspective on your life.”

Declan McKenna
Image caption,The singer is setting out for two weeks of intimate shows and record store signings to celebrate the release of his latest album

He says therapy, which he started in 2020, helped him to gain perspective and recalibrate his ambitions.

Two of his album’s most striking songs – Nothing Works and The Act – address that directly.

With its glam-rock Bowie buzz and insistent piano chords, Nothing Works is the record’s closest link to McKenna’s old sound, but the lyrics find him in an existential crisis – caught between wanting to evolve creatively without alienating his fans.

You tell me I don’t relate to the kids no more / Now, I feel like I’m letting them down,” he sings, apparently recounting a conversation with his record label.

“I want to be able to move forward in a way that’s not just about fulfilling obligation,” the singer explains.

“I’m much better off using my own taste as a reference point, rather than trying to pre-empt anyone else’s – whether that be my team or my label or my fans.

“The best music comes out of doing things your own way. No-one else can emulate your taste, so if you lean into that and let go of any fear, you’re more likely to make music that’s worth listening to.”

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