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Interview: 2017 Must-Know - Declan McKenna

Interview: 2017 Must-Know - Declan McKenna

18-year-old Declan McKenna writes songs like none you’ve ever heard before. His debut single 'Brazil' addresses the corruption surrounding the 2014 FIFA World Cup, whilst follow-up 'Paracetamol' shines a light on the media’s misrepresentation of transgender culture, 'Bethlehem' challenges the hypocrisy of organised religion exploiting love to manipulate their followers, and 'Isombard' criticises police brutality and is inspired by Martin Luther King Jr..

It’s impossible to do justice to Declan with token adjectives, so you should probably just listen for yourself to some of his songs below...

MUST-LISTEN: 'Isombard', 'Paracetamol', 'Brazil', 'The Kids Don't Wanna Come Home'.
YOU WILL LIKE, IF YOU LIKE: Nice As Fuck, The Cribs, St. Vincent, Ryan Adams, Real Estate, DIIV, Circa Waves, Muna, Jake Bugg, Tom Vek, Mac DeMarco.

COUP DE MAIN: One of my favourite things about your songwriting is that you’re so gifted at picking up on societal ironies and then fleshing them out into songs that challenge the status quo. How does your songwriting process work?
DECLAN MCKENNA:
I thought about a lot of things that have happened to me and take sounds that I’ve listened to and heard from all over my life, and just throw them together wherever my mind goes - 'Oh yeah, you can do this now.' And I just kind of mess around with different sounds and then I’ve got a song! <laughs> That’s what I do, I guess!

CDM: Do you write your lyrics specifically for the songs, or do you write poems or prose and then evolve them into song-form?
DECLAN:
I tend to write them specifically for songs. Sometimes the first thing you will think of for a song will be a melody with some words and it won’t really mean anything, or that any one of those things can kind of spark a song. Lyrically it can take a long time if you don’t actually think of some lyrics to start with because then you’re like, 'Oh... how am I going to fit a certain amount of words around this melody?' Or stuff like that.

CDM: Lyrically, what's your favourite song that you’ve written?
DECLAN:
Probably one of the ones I haven’t put out yet, but of the ones I have put out so far, I’d actually probably say ‘Brazil’, and that’s one of the earlier releases, but there is a certain level of playfulness which is kind of in every line, I think it kind of sums up what I try to do when I write songs even though I wrote it a very long time ago and I wouldn’t consider it really my best thing. I think lyrically, it is a very early form of me expressing exactly what I want to express in songs.

CDM: In your song 'Bethlehem', you challenge the hypocrisy of organised religion exploiting love to manipulate their followers, which reminds me a little bit of popstars who charge their fans for meet and greets. What are your thoughts on celebrities putting a literal price on their time?
DECLAN:
Yeah I’ve always thought stuff like that was a little bit silly, I always think when someone can pay for like a show or a song that you’ve worked at and have put lots of effort into, I feel like that kind of makes sense because it funds what you’re doing, but when someone is being charged for literally somebody being present in a situation, I think it’s kind of crazy. Obviously meet and greets they aren’t necessarily always easy-going when you’re on the artist side of them and especially when you’re at a certain level of artists who have done that, you can’t really say hello to everyone, but there is something kind of wrong with only allowing the kids with rich parents to meet their idols. <laughs>

CDM: In an ideal world with unlimited resources available to you, what would your relationship with fans be like?
DECLAN:
Oh man, what would it be like? That’s an interesting question... I guess in an ideal world I could just put out songs whenever, and everyone would listen, then when I play the shows they would all turn up to the shows and then after the show we can all just hang out and go out to a pub!

CDM: With the results of the U.S. election, your song 'Isombard' seems even more pertinent right now, than when you released it last year. Do you think that 2017 is going to be a better or worse year than 2016 for the world?
DECLAN:
I mean, by default, David Bowie isn’t going to die in 2017, and so there can be no year worse than 2016, but I don’t know. There is a big rise of fascism if you wanna call it that, there are a lot of bad things going on, but in the least cynical way, there are always horrible things going on. I think you can have this doom and gloom perspective where you think things are gonna be worse, but as a general rule I try and not think that anything is gonna be worse ever, because I like to think that there is going to be lots of good things happening in 2017 that will move the human race forward and closer to being at one with each other, and closer to being at one with the planet that we live on. That, I guess, is something to be positive about!

CDM: Obviously America is currently staring down the barrel of a gun that is Mike Pence’s anti-LGBT extremism, but even here in New Zealand our new Prime Minister is a man that voted against the legalisation of same-sex marriage in New Zealand and is vocally anti-abortion. When faced with men like that in charge, it’s easy for anyone to feel disheartened and like change will never happen. What’s your advice for people who feel powerless?
DECLAN:
Learn from history, power in numbers is the key. People often put apathy down to young people, but I’m too non-apathetic to agree with that. I think there is a lot of apathy that goes around once people do feel powerlessness and weakness. It’s all the apathetic people and all the people who are not apathetic about these things all getting together like, 'Right, we need to make some changes and there is all these awful things going on.' You know that is when change is made, when all the normal people, the 98% or whatever you wanna call it come together and go, 'Hey, these things aren’t right and we want to change it.' That’s when in history things have been put right and it isn’t always the easy things, it isn’t always the democratic vote that will get you instantly to the end goal, it’s more about working at things for long periods of time and accepting everyone, and appreciating that the normal average person whose opinions are slightly different to yours are not the enemy, they are your friend. I think that is the point we need to get to.

CDM: Earlier this year you wore a 'Give 17-Year-Olds The Vote’ t-shirt while performing live on Later... with Jools Holland. What age do you think should be the actual minimum voting-age?
DECLAN:
That is a very difficult question, I’ve been thinking about that. I mean, at the minute we’re looking at dropping it to 16 which I would be very very happy with, but it’s just so difficult to say because I know some 16-year-olds who are definitely intelligent enough to vote and them being restricted from that is kind of wrong. They are going to have to live with the decisions just as long as anyone else has to, and I think the idea of youth and ignorance, all that sort of stuff is just straight wrong. I didn’t get to vote in the Brexit vote, I didn’t get to vote in the last election, and I felt kinda bummed out after both of those.

CDM: For anyone wanting to learn more about their local politics but who is feeling a bit overwhelmed and doesn’t know where to start, what would you recommend?
DECLAN:
I understand that sort of perspective really well, because locally the party that has been in control of my local area hasn’t changed for… I can’t even think if it has while I’ve been alive, it’s been a constant, and it hasn’t been exactly a party that I would personally vote for and that kind of disconnect is very real for me. It’s hard to say, but I think just trying to maybe get to groups and work with the people in your area. Just become active in whatever it is that you can do to support the causes that you’re in support of, and I think that is the way to start looking at politics from home - just be active, and stand up for what you want to stand up for, and I think the rest kind of follows.

CDM: Your song 'Paracetamol' is really important, with its opposition of the media’s oppression of LGBT communities. How do we start to change that conversation?
DECLAN:
That’s a very good question. First, seniors talking about it. The problem with the whole debates around rights of people, LGBT people, and these sorts of conversations, is that people like myself get very worked up about them and are just like, 'Why can’t you just be nice to everyone and let people be how they are!' But one thing I’ve realised recently, is it’s just not a conversation you can have with anyone who’s been brought up and indoctrinated to believe that it’s genuinely not allowed by a certain deity or a certain god that is telling someone that these things are not okay. I think the conversation that needs to be had is one that is kind of more understanding. I understand that obviously all of the opposition to the rights of the LGBT people is completely irrational, but people like myself, I mean I’m still learning to do it, I just have to learn to try and explain things to people without becoming aggressive and without being overly angered about it, because these things do make me angry and you do get to a point where you want to shout at people and be like, 'Why are you like this? Why do you think this way?' But, I think a slow more friendly approach is something that I and many people could approach with, even if it is not something that you don’t want to do or feel comfortable doing, I think it just has to happen like that.

CDM: Our generation barely consumes news via traditional mediums, sometimes I feel like I learn more from Tumblr than I do reading a newspaper. What do you think the future of news consumption is going to be like?
DECLAN:
That’s funny, because there’s a meme going around where people talk about what mainstream media are talking about and then they’ll talk about what Teen Vogue are talking about, and Teen Vogue is more woke then most of the media outlets out there <laughs> - which is an interesting take on that. But I think that’s in ways a good thing that we’re listening to each other more than we are listening to the big corporations and media outlets who are often working in the interests of themselves and their friends rather than information to the masses. We know that from companies like Fox News who constantly just report bullshit and I think the way it’s heading, people are more interested in learning facts and discussing things amongst each other rather than listening to opinions of big corporations, which I think is a really good thing.

CDM: Speaking of memes, what is your favourite meme of all time?
DECLAN:
<chuckles> You’d be surprised how often I get asked this question, it’s actually funny because I’ve got my laptop open right now and Pepe is my home-screen, so I kind of have to say Pepe because I just always come back to it. As funny as some newer memes can be, Pepe is the one that always has me running back.

CDM: Your Cheery Red Tomatoes meme that you made was a really good one. You’re one of my new favourite people to follow on Twitter - your addressing of the negative speculation and stereotyping of the female-members in your touring-band recently, that was really awesome.
DECLAN:
Awww thank you! I can’t think of what made me think to do that, I must’ve watched an episode of 'The Simpsons' recently, I was pretty happy with that meme actually. <laughs>

CDM: If D.E.C.L.A.N. were an acronym, what would each letter stand for?
DECLAN:
I think it would be Dudebro (one word), Eat Cool Lemonade And Nachos.

CDM: Is a Declan McKenna album still on the way for March/April?
DECLAN:
Kind of, I mean it keeps on changing, I think it might be a little bit later than that, but it will definitely be, whenever we figure out when it will be, it’ll be in the first half of this year which is exciting!

CDM: What’s on your bucket-list?
DECLAN:
Oh I’m so bad at these, I’m not very good at goals. I think I just want to travel and see loads of new places, I want to play a bunch of festivals that I’ve never been to before like some of the cool big ones. I guess that is something I’ve always wanted to do, but yeah apart from that, I don’t have much foresight!

CDM: You’re one of our 'must-know’ artist picks for 2017... so who are yours?
DECLAN:
Yay! I think one that has been pretty hyped up recently who is amazing is Loyle Carner, he is awesome, Will Joseph Cook as well, he’s cool, I’m looking forward to his album. Jorja Smith as well is pretty cool. There’s loads of cool stuff coming out of the UK right now, which is very very exciting to see!

CDM: And lastly, when are you going to come and visit us in New Zealand?
DECLAN:
When am I?! That’s a very, very good question. I don’t know, but the way things are going, probably sometime this year, I just don’t really know when!

Click here to check out more of Coup De Main’s 2017 Must-Know Artists.

Watch Declan’s NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert below...

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