We caught up with 17-year-old Declan McKenna, who is taking the music industry by storm after winning the opportunity to perform at last year’s Glastonbury.
“There’s always some reason why being young is affecting something you’re doing,” explains 17-year-old Declan McKenna, “like everything is sort of connected to your age.” Having won Glastonbury’s Emerging Talent Competition last year, McKenna found his dreams being turned into reality when he was given the opportunity to perform at the festival.
The performance created a lot of hype around McKenna, and he eventually signed to the major label Columbia – home to the likes of Beyoncé and Bob Dylan – in a deal which he refers to as “crazy”, saying that “no-one expects that to happen to them”. Despite this, he’s becoming increasingly frustrated with his age attracting more attention than his music. “Being young is something I am, but that’s it,” he says. “That’s the extent of it.”
That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t appreciate his unique entrance to the music industry at such a tender age, though. “It just did so many things for me,” he says, referring to the competition, “it was one of many things that I’d tried to do but that one just turned out to be successful.” But, when he entered the competition, did he actually expect to win, or did he think it’d be just another unsuccessful attempt to stand out?
“I wanted to do well, because I applied to it,” he says, “but I can’t say that I expected to win – everyone wants to play at Glastonbury and to get the opportunity to was really, really cool.” Wanting to play at Glastonbury is what most musicians dream of, but McKenna was just 15 years old when he applied for the competition with his single ‘Brazil’.
“I wrote it about midway through 2014,” he says, “so it’s been quite a while, but it’s sparked so much and it’s still going strong – it’s crazy”. It might be surprising that McKenna was capable of writing such an accomplished song at just 15, but he traces his interest in music and songwriting back to his early childhood. “I’ve been ‘making music’ – quote unquote – since I was like seven, or something ridiculous like that,” he claims. “I’ve always wanted to be a musician, but in the recent years I got a loop pedal and started writing songs – I’ve been trying to write them as a project since I was 14.”
What’s likely to have made McKenna stand out at such a young age with ‘Brazil’ is the lyrical content of the song. While most people that age are writing lame lyrics about pretend relationships, he was tackling corruption in football – it’s a song that even saw him asked to go on Sky News to talk about the issue. “It was just such a strange, awkward interview,” he laughs. “I got called up to do it on the day – I kind of didn’t know what I was doing and I was just trying to get it over with once I started it, because I was just like ‘oh my god this is awful’.”
Still, being on a national news channel was good exposure for him. “It was a bit odd,” he admits, “but I got to go on Sky News, so it wasn’t that bad.” McKenna’s new songs show no signs of him shying away from difficult subjects either, as they all tackle challenging issues as well – they all seem to be following in the footsteps of ‘Brazil’ and his recent single ‘Paracetamol’, which he describes as a “social commentary”.
“I just find it a lot more interesting to write about stuff like that – stuff that’ve seen in the news,” he says, “cos there’s just not that much not much personal stuff that I feel like I can write about, or that I’d make anything good about writing.” Having said that, McKenna admits that some of his new material is personal. “There’s a couple of songs about me just being stupid or whatever,” he laughs. “There’s a couple more on the political side, and there’s more on the personal side – there’s all sorts.”
“My new single, ‘Bethlehem’, is about people’s conflicting views creating hatred and creating wars that are just unnecessary and pointless,” he continues. “It’s such a common thing and I feel it’s one of the most important issues in the world right now, cos people are just disagreeing on the grounds of religion and stuff like that – it just kind of goes really, really too far when people need to learn just co-operate when they believe in different things.”
While McKenna clearly knows the kind of music he wants to be releasing, the fact that he was snapped up by a major label at such a young age is still a bit of an elephant in the room – it could come across like he’s an exploitation waiting to happen, but is that how he feels? “I feel like if I wasn’t so adamant of doing stuff I wanna do, then maybe,” he admits. “But I feel like at this point in time labels are realising that getting the same people to write songs for new artists is not really working and they want people’s original ideas – they realise they’re gunna do better from people who are genuinely just being themselves.”
“Having a label, they’ll sometimes come very close to making decisions that you don’t wanna make,” he continues, “so you have to be adamant, but they’re a good bunch; they’re not forceful in anyway – I can’t say there’s been any incidents where I’ve felt like I’ve been used or anything.”
McKenna is also quick to praise major labels, as being signed to one is what has given him the financial freedom he requires. “For me at least, it would be impossible to fund what I’m doing without being signed,” he admits. “I can afford a band; I can tour – I couldn’t record with the producers that I’m recording with if I wasn’t signed, and It’s a shame because it means a lot of new bands can’t really start up.”
“But that’s just kind of the way the music industry is, and being signed to a major label is a crazy opportunity for me,” he continues. “I mean it hasn’t really changed anything about my music, but there’s some sort stigma against it – for some strange weird reason it means that you have more integrity if you have no money to do anything.”
It’s the support of Columbia that’s allowing McKenna to start planning his debut album, which is scheduled for release at the start of next year. It’s still early days for him, but even if he shrugs off the major label naysayers, there’s still the stigma of youth looming over every move he makes. “Relating everything to my age can get quite frustrating, but it’s something you learn to deal with,” he says.
But as he continues to mature as a person and as a songwriter, you can only expect big things from him in the future. “Not everything I do is because I’m young,” he continues. “Everything I do is because I’m Declan, and I do the shit that I do.”