Singer/Songwriter Declan McKenna Talks Debut Album: 'I Was Trying to Make Sense of Growing Up'

Declan McKenna
Sophie Green

Declan McKenna

When Declan McKenna was four years old, his family got a new Toyota Previa. In a home video that captured the moment, McKenna’s sister asks, “Dec, what do you think about the car?” To which he replies, “It’s really good, and now I’m going to sing my new album.”

McKenna says that moment stuck with him forever. Over 10 years later, when it came time to begin working on what will be his debut LP, out July 21, he knew exactly what to title it: What Do You Think About The Car?

The English pop/rock singer-songwriter -- who gained acclaim after winning Glastonbury Festival's Emerging Talent Competition in 2015 -- started writing the album at the ripe age of 15 when he was still in school. “It was quite a broad stretch of time, from when I was 15 right up until the end of last year when I was 17,” he tells Billboard. “There were a lot of changes, and I think you can hear that within some of the songs on the record. Quite a big part of the album is about change and being confused… a lot of the headspace I was in was trying to make sense of growing up in a world with loads of crazy things happening.”

McKenna wrote the 11-track album primarily in his bedroom, where he feels most relaxed. For the closing track, though -- the downtempo, symphonic “Listen To Your Friends” -- he took himself out of his comfort zone and wrote “very far away from home” in Los Angeles. The experience also marked the first time McKenna wrote with someone else, an experience he says took some adjusting to, though one he feels was important in order to push himself as a songwriter and artist.

One way in which McKenna pushes his power-pop songs to the next level is by embedding big, brash choruses -- mainly why he believes his hit “Humongous” might be his favorite off the album. An obvious inspiration for the rising singer is David Bowie’s “Life On Mars?” --”[It’s] that sort of tune just keeps building and building, and then it climaxes with that high note at the start of the chorus. That was something I wanted to do as well” -- though he also cites ABBA as an inspiration for making the kind of chorus you can really shout along to.

Throughout the album, catchy and propulsive tracks like "Brazil" and the jangly "Why Do You Feel So Down?" capture what McKenna does best, though the alternative and experimental-tinged "Mind" proves the LP is just as multi-faceted as its creator -- suggesting a wide-open world of possibilities for McKenna's eventual follow-up. 

The most surprising moment off What Do You Think About The Car? comes at the end of “The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home,” when children’s voices can be heard complaining about having to, in fact, go home. McKenna recalls how his manager’s son and daughter, along with their school friends, came into the studio to sing on the end of the track. “When we wrapped, one of the kids started saying, ‘This song is called 'This Kids Don't Wanna Come Home' and you’re telling us to come home?!’” McKenna decided to keep the lighthearted dialogue on the album.

Following the release of his debut, McKenna will celebrate with his biggest U.S. festival performance to date, at Chicago's Lollapalooza in early August. For his live show, he says he enjoys throwing in covers -- he recently performed Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” at a show -- and likes the idea of doing things differently than on the record. “The more [me and my band] play, we’re figuring out different jams and different variations of tracks to play live,” he relates. “I’m kind of excited to experiment, and keep changing the songs even though they’re out there."

"But not in a Bob Dylan way," he catches himself. "Not completely different.”


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