- 04 Sep 20
The talented young singer-songwriter who, at 21, already has an NPR Tiny Desk concert and two records under his belt, chats about his brand new album.
Declan McKenna is not just your average boy with a guitar, and he doesn't make your average indie pop, either. The 21 year old Enfield-native, who has just released his second album, seems to be often lazily compared to the likes of Ed Sheeran and Jake Bugg, but I have a big hunch that will stop with the release of Zeros.
"Sometimes, even now, you see a really reductive description of an artist that was written just to get it out there," the singer says, down the line from the UK. "I get why it ends up happening, but it can be a little frustrating when you work on your music as one thing and people present it as another, or only present one aspect of it."
More Bowie or Beatles than Bugg, and certainly more considered than anything Sheeran has had to offer in recent years, Zeros is part space-age concept album and part modern tale of Gen Z anxiety.
On 'Be An Astronaut', an operatic tune that has more prog rock undertones than pop, McKenna sets the tone for the rest of Zeros, with a song "that came together in about a half an hour. It just seemed to – weirdly – fall from the sky. Sometimes you just sit at an instrument and a song comes out.
"It's a great thing to retell, but it's not the reality most of the time. It's usually more tedious than that! But I was really buzzing after I wrote 'Be An Astronaut,' because it felt like a new approach and a new energy for my music. It felt good. It hit a lot of nice spots for me, and expanded in the right places."
On Zeros, the pop prodigy takes a microscope to the hyper-critical, fast-paced social media age, in which McKenna has – for better or worse – grown up. "Social media is such an all-encompassing thing. There are pros and cons. I do love a lot about social media," says the young singer-songwriter, "but I literally am talking all the time about how damaging I find it for myself. I can never find the balance of it. Engaging with it as much as I have been recently, it's strange. And I've spent a long time thinking about the future of technology and where we're headed. It'll be a very scary place if we're not careful. But there are aspects of community, of sharing ideas, to social media as well. I think it can become a real vice on your mind."
McKenna also grew up as part of a generation who don't have the privilege of apathy: the world is burning, Trump is in the White House, and youth are – rightfully – rioting. As a result, McKenna's material has always had one eye trained on social justice. "When I was first starting, I was very much trying not to be apathetic," he says. "The way in which our world has been left by society – or the past few generations – is pretty terrible. And a lot of the people my age are a little bit up against it. We're now in a constantly-progressing, fast-changing, world. It does feel like a breaking point now. You know, especially for me with the environmental movement and stuff, there's so much that could have been done that hasn't. I'm very actively trying not to be an apathetic party, at the very least. But it can feel hopeless at times. The purpose of the music is to encourage that hope, and encourage the positive questioning and the positive understanding that leads to this change."
So does art need to stand for a cause, for McKenna?
"I don't think art has to stand for something, but I do like when it does," he notes. "It can be engaging when a message you connect with is put in a new way. But I also think art is just nice, sometimes. I'm definitely not the type to turn my nose up at music just because it's not about the most important thing in the world. Not all art is meant to do that, and that's fine. It would be a very intense world if it was. We should definitely have room for people to pour their heart into music, but at the same time we need music to escape with and live our best moments through."
Listen to Zeros below.