From Brazil…to the World
IT might seem strange to focus so heavily on a new songwriter…
and someone so young – putting their debut album out to the world. I will come and talk about the awesomely-titled, What Do You Think About the Car? later on – as it represents a fantastic achievement from a bright and multi-talented young songwriter. There are a lot of solo musicians who write their own material and play their instruments. It is not as common as one would hope and, on Declan McKenna’s debut outing, he pours his personality all over the music. I have heard few young newcomers with such an individual and take-care-of-everything approach to their music. Maybe my 2016-favourite Billie Marten – on her debut, Writing of Blues and Yellows – had that integrity and talented – a couple of co-writes and some help with instrumentation and performance. McKenna is a teen who reminds me a bit of the young Bob Dylan – albeit, a modern and ‘sassier’ version. He reflects on modern life and issues few songwriters touch upon. I will come to that, as I say, but, right now, a bit about where Declan McKenna came from. Born on Christmas Eve, 1998; the Hertfordshire-raised musician started his G.C.S.E. exams in 2015 – makes me feel bloody ancient (I took mine in 1999)! Studying A-levels in English Literature, Philosophy and Ethics (and Sociology): it seems there is an intrinsic and deliberate connection between his academic pursuits and lyrical viewpoints. One can see how those areas of education have gone into a debut album – one that brims with relevant insight, accusation and intelligence. In fact; McKenna had to put the A-levels on hold once his music career started to take off. McKenna signed with Q Prime shortly after a triumphant appearance at Glastonbury in 2015. McKenna put his signature to a Columbia Records contract – after more than forty record labels battled it out to win the heart of the teen. That first single, Brazil, criticised FIFA – the governing body of football – and how they awarded the World Cup to Brazil in 2014 – overlooking the rampant poverty and violence inherent in the country.
PHOTO CREDIT: Emma Swann
Few artists, of his age and background, feel compelled to engage in political discussion and include in in their music. The fact McKenna hails from a working-class background, in a way, makes him more aware of the struggles of the people of Brazil – not that there is any link between his upbringing and theirs (I guess there is a natural empathy and outrage in the young man). Brazil, in addition to being a captivating song, highlighted a poverty and injustice that needed to be unearthed. Through 2015, with the success continuing to build, McKenna played a range of festivals through Ireland and the U.K. Most of these were quite modest – Big Boston Gig festival in Lincolnshire, for instance – but a chance for the songwriter to hone his skills and get his music to new faces. Self-released second single, Paracetamol, looked at transgender teenagers and how they are misrepresented in the media – the idea being that paracetamol is seen as a cure; the fact these teens might be able to be ‘cured’ of an ‘ill’. It is no surprise the song garnered praise and acclaim from the likes of NME. Many, even at that point, were calling Declan McKenna the ‘voice of his generation’. He refutes this claim (with a humorous and profane utterance) but, given the things he is writing about, he is responding to issues that need addressing. In a music scene swimming in mushy love songs, negativity and commercial ambitions. McKenna, as I glean from interviews he has conducted, is as down-to-earth and charming as they come. He rocks a good pair of dungarees – he explained to the BBC they are versatile and have plenty of handy pockets – and finds it condescending people think he should not be addressing such hefty topics at his age.
The fact the E.U. referendum result irked him some – and he, only eighteen now, was too young to cast his vote – compels anger and the need to expose the worst traits of our people; how we are becoming a divided nation – and one that wants to split from the outside world. The cracks in Britain mean we are becoming fragmented: this is something the young McKenna is acutely aware of – and feels a lot of sorrow and annoyance at. McKenna got his record deal at Glastonbury and, seemingly a contract delivered with mud splattered on and people excitedly urging him to sign, there was no fanfare and build-up. The teen signed it, had a big celebration and set to the task of creating his debut album. Let’s back it up a bit because, between here and then, a few things have happened. By late-August of last year; Declan McKenna unveiled Isombard to the world. Rather than bring out another boring song about love and life: this was a song about police brutality in the U.S. and how right-wing stations like FOX sought to justify it. Last year, following success and new material, McKenna secured gigs at Live at Leeds, The Great Escape Festival and Standon Calling. Debuting in North America on 11th March (2016) at Jannus Live in St. Petersburg, Florida; a set at SXSW and European dates took the British hopeful to the international audiences. That potentially poisoned chalice of BBC Music’s ‘Sound of 2017’ nod could have backfired for Declan McKenna. I have seen names on that list, including the winner of that list, who have not (thus far) reached their potential – not as lofty and successful as BBC predicted. McKenna is thankful of any nominations and features but, one suspects, does not want pressure and expectation on his shoulder. For much of last year, he was piecing together his album and working with James Ford – who has helped craft modern masterpieces by Arctic Monkeys and Florence and the Machine. I will finish with a look at the album itself but, for the remainder of this year, McKenna will play Reading and Leeds; other big festivals (he has played Glastonbury again) and plotting his next moves.
PHOTO CREDIT: Andy Hughes / NME
Speaking with NME, promoting What Do You Think About the Car?, McKenna was quizzed about his busking past (“I genuinely hated it”) and the experience of playing the streets of Harrow (“But I thought if I did it long enough, loads of people would be listening to my music”). If his trademark live move of releasing balloons into the crowd would not work nowadays – he is playing thousand-seater venues – there are few other things that will change. He now has a platform on which he can write about L.G.B.T.Q. issues and the hyperbole that has been thrown his way. McKenna says, and addresses on Humongous, how those labels (being the voice of his generation) are ludicrous and nausea-inducing. People his age are engaged: he is simply articulating their viewpoints. There is a conception the middle and older-aged are the wisest: as election results have shown; should that be an assumption in need of reassessment?! It seems the young are the ones who want the best for the country and the most open-minded – much more tolerant and unified than other demographics. McKenna does not want to accuse his elders and ‘betters’ – merely talk about things important to him. The young master is looking ahead and urging us to watch this space. There is no telling what future albums might discuss: right now, he is rebranding and overhauling the traditional sound of the protest song. Were the music to have a Dylan-esque skin – slightly morbid hues and Folk strings – it might mean McKenna fades into the background – and dismissed as a moody and unoriginal protest artist. Shrewdly, he pens colour and flavour-laden bombs of fizz, fuzz and energy. He is compelled by David Bowie – a hero and someone he aspires to be – but turns his nose at any who suggests he is at Bowie’s level right now. Similarly, one should not ignore the trajectory of Declan McKenna’s career – showing the same originality and innovation Bowie did in his early days.
PHOTO CREDIT: @owenhardiker
If McKenna’s Hunky Dory and Low might be a few years off; he could, as he claims, maybe hit Earthling levels of quality right now – Bowie’s 1997 album that was not considered his best work. This is modesty from a hungry artist whose love of Bowie and ABBA can be detected in his kids’ choruses, vivacious electronics and huge Pop choruses. Many teenagers, growing up in today’s world, would need a lot of time to process what is happening around them. That is true of McKenna who, between the ages of fifteen and seventeen, was dealing with political divisions and facing rising fame. He spoke to Attitude about labelling his sexuality – how he is experimenting and does not want to define himself in binary terms – and refuting the sensationalism the media is providing him. So bright is the spotlight of expectation on McKenna; he is taking a mature and pragmatic approach to it. Rather than rebel and attack the media and the tags they impose on him: he is letting the music speak and taking care of business. We put too much pressure on young musicians and, when they start picking up fans, elevate them to absurd levels. Turning to the subject at hand – and the debut album from Declan McKenna – critics have been vibing and drooling over his car (an answer to that album question). The Guardian assessed the record, thus:
“…They are protest songs, but sound anything but worthy or world-weary. Instead, they are sun-soaked aural fizz bombs which channel indie rock through his love of David Bowie and Abba. His effervescent anthems are packed with detail, from electro squiggles to children’s voices, and he saves one of his best choruses for The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home, in which he packs the anger, fear, alienation and glimmering flames of hope of Generation Z into a euphoric, uplifting pop construction…What a cracking debut”.
PHOTO CREDIT: Emma Swann
NME were hardly filled with hate and doubts:
“On debut album ‘What Do You Think About The Car?’, there’s swagger to McKenna’s delivery but no cockiness. Instead, he narrates his innermost feelings on everything from politics (‘Isombard’) to the media’s treatment of transgender suicide (‘Paracetamol’) with subtlety and skill. Standout ‘Make Me Your Queen’ is a rare moment of intimacy as he laments the ache of unrequited love, again with a delicacy and wisdom beyond his years”.
The eleven-track album was primarily penned in McKenna’s bedroom. This is a space he feels most relaxed in (and private). I am excited to see where Declan McKenna heads from here but, on the evidence of his debut album, it seems like a long and prosperous future awaits. The songs we already know about – Brazil, Isombard; Paracetamol, The Kids Don’t Want to Come Home and Humungous – are established and exceptional. Intriguing cuts like Make Me Your Queen and I Am Everyone Else are fascinating glimpses into McKenna’s personality and psyche. The entire album is focused, unique and uncompromising. He does not write for the charts, positions and niches: his debut L.P. is from the mind and soul; a young man exploring and growing into the world. This is his musical exploration and growth. Six of the eleven tracks have already been released as singles – one suspects that will probably be it already. There are big tour dates and the chance to get out to even more people. Many musicians might be daunted by such heady expectations from the media. Declan McKenna has no desire to let ego or false ideals define who he is. He’s a curious and lovable soul who is as interesting and complex off-record than he is throughout What Do You Think About the Car? Make sure you hear the album as it is one of the best of the year (so far) and, I think, signals a rare and near-peerless talent in British music. Not that is concerned with such things but Declan McKenna’s debut album more than means the Hertfordshire-born musician more than…
PHOTO CREDIT: Emma Swann
LIVES up to the hype.