With Politics, Eye Makeup & That Album Cover, Declan McKenna Goes Bold

Sophie Green
Declan McKenna

A piece of free advice if you’re planning on meeting Declan McKenna any time soon: don’t ask him what socio-political issue he’s going to tackle next.

The 18-year-old U.K. singer-songwriter, who added another impressive line to an already exceptional CV with an appearance at Lollapalooza 2017, has had enough of people thinking that his only muse comes from the pages of The Guardian. McKenna earned that ripped-from-the-headlines reputation with a string of sparkling singles that began exactly two years ago this month with the release of “Brazil”—his debut that took FIFA to task for staging the money-soaked World Cup in the South American nation while seemingly turning a blind eye to its poverty.

On subsequent songs, McKenna addressed trans youth, right-wing media, religious zealotry and the challenges of being a young person in an often dark world—and did it in a deft, tuneful, non-didactic way. It may not be everyday fare, but neither is it the sum total of McKenna, who is still figuring out what kind of artist he wants to be. So when he found himself either overly venerated (the cringe-worthy sobriquet “voice of a generation,” anyone?) or criticized in the press—where too often you’re the G.O.A.T. one day, and goat the next—it was all a bit much. It was those conflicted feelings about newfound success that led to “Humongous,” another triumph of a single, and the latest from his debut album, What Do You Think About the Car?  

If you know McKenna’s look—kid-next-door-who-enjoys-a-bit-of-eye-glitter, like Ferris Bueller-meets-Ziggy Stardust—you might have done a double take when you first glimpsed the album cover. Shot by Berlin-based filmmaker Matt Lambert, it’s smudge-y, sweaty, bare shouldered and barely looks like the musician. But that’s okay. McKenna clearly doesn’t mind a reaction, good or bad. And while yes, there are topical songs, there are more personal ones as well, including the sublime “Make Me Your Queen,” and “Listen To Your Friends,” a co-write with producer Rostam Batmanglij that bears the erstwhile Vampire Weekend man’s dreamy sonic stamp.

By the way, all that politics hasn’t made Dec a dull boy. Far from it. On the phone from Chicago, he’s happy to engage on a range of topics. But please—just don’t ask him to write a song about them.

How long has it been since you’ve been in the States?

It’s been a while! I think we left on the last tour in November of last year, and we were supposed to come over in April for Coachella but we had to cancel that whole tour—so yeah, it’s been a long time.

People have discovered you these last couple of years through these great singles and videos. Is it different now that you’ve got an album out?

Well yeah now there’s a couple more recent tracks on there that are you might say a bit more of where I’m at now? Previous to “Humungous,” I’d only put out songs that I’d written aged 16 and under.

You wrote all the songs on the record by yourself, with the exception of “Listen To Your Friends,” which you co-wrote with Rostam in Los Angeles. I must say it sounds like a Rostam song, in fact in the slower opening part it almost sounds like you’re channeling him.

Absolutely. Well yeah with him and Ezra [Koenig] they always had that riff-y, back and forth “Ahh-ahh” kind of thing. And even the record he did with Hamilton Leithauser which came out last year, it had a similar feel. But I am very much a child of Vampire Weekend influences.

How did you end up working with him?

We first started talking on Twitter! He just DM'd me once, asking how it was going, asking if I was making an album and stuff. And he asked if I wanted to do some writing, so it kind of worked out that way. And when I was touring the U.S. I kind of ended up in L.A. It worked out—but it was very awkward at first. I had never co-written, and for me to be with someone whose music I'd been listening to for like half of my life, it was interesting. [laughs] I think he was very conscious of that, and quite friendly about it.

You’ve definitely gotten a reputation for topical, even political lyrics. But there are glimpses of more personal songs on the album.

Yeah, people will be like, "Here's an article—you should write something about this!" And that's absolutely not what I do. I write about things I care about, like any songwriter, whether it’s a personal thing or not. A lot of the stuff I've been writing now—I finished this album in November so I've been writing my second album for a while—but I like the idea of people not really knowing what I'm talking about with the next stuff because I think it definitely—I've just had a lot more stuff happen in my personal life, whereas I think people aren't necessarily gonna be able to pick apart and understand the songs and music videos as directly on this [next] album.

At the beginning of the video for “The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home,” there’s a girl who says, “It’s not apathy, it’s just disillusioned.” Do you yourself get disillusioned when you look at the world?

Well none of that was scripted, we just let people express what they wanted, and give their opinions on things. But a lot of young people do feel very separated from the political process and often decisions that are being made on their behalf. And they want to be part of that. And I think no one wants to be apathetic. It's just that people aren't given the means to talk or express themselves or have their say. And I think a lot of young people are very frustrated about that.

The album cover, which you shot with Matt Lambert, almost doesn't look like you.

Yeah I know, it, looking at it back now, it's—I don't know, my face looks a lot wider there. I like it, I really like the photo because it's a bit like scary and a bit just “off.” And people have had really mixed reactions, I've had like hardcore fans tell me they absolutely hate the picture. But I kind of like that about it.

Why? They think it doesn’t look like you?  

I don't know! They're just like, ‘I really think you could have done better on this, I don't like it.’ But I like the idea of it being—it's just very striking and I like the idea of being 18 and having a topless straight up photo for my album art. [laughs] But in a weird way it doesn't look quite like I do every day. There's a lot of black glitter—there's an element of it being like just having come off stage from a show. Very sweaty, very gross, but also kind of not?

On a related topic—your eye makeup game is on point these days. Glitter is the kind of thing you can’t get rid of for days after you wear it.

I was talking about this with a friend yesterday, because I was hanging out with some friends just back home on Friday before I flew out here, and we were going out and I brought a bunch of glitter with me and I was like, "Who's going in?" And so I like glittered up a couple of my friends. And yesterday, one of them was just like, "This glitter is still on me!" She was like, "How do you do it?" And I was just like, "There's always some there."

What about “Humongous”—is there any incident or experience that led to that song?

It’s a bit reflective of the last couple of years of just seeing so much written about me, and actually just being like a teenager who finds it hard to take in a lot of criticism but positivity as well. They both can be equally damaging and equally difficult to understand, and I think I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve started analyzing that and started understanding myself a little bit more. So “Humungous” sort of looks back on these two years and yeah, it’s a little bit melancholic despite the sort of powerful chorus type thing, it is a little bit emo.

I know you hate suggestions of topics for songs, but I’d just like to point out that next year FIFA has made an even more dubious choice for a World Cup host nation. I would not be opposed to you doing a song called “Russia."

I don’t know. I’d be a little more scared writing about Russia!

How do you feel about boycotts? If you as an artist had a problem with some country for human rights abuses or whatever, would you refuse to play there? Or do you think it’s better to engage with the people?

It depends. I’m not here to be like, calling out artists or judging them for however they go about that. I think people definitely shouldn’t be ignorant in regards to where they’re playing. And there’s an argument for not taking it out on citizens or music fans in a country. But at the same time, if a production or a show is supporting a dangerous and corrupt government, then I don’t know, it’s hard to find an argument to want to do that. I don’t know—it’s a very difficult question and at the moment I haven’t really had to confront it. But there are obviously some countries in the world where I would question a decision to do that. It really does depend on what you’re doing there and what needs to be done.

If you ever do make it to Russia, I recommend you bring that t-shirt from the “Isombard” video—the hammer and sickle in the colors of the rainbow flag.

Oh yeah, I love that shirt so much.

And isn’t there also a “Vote For Declan” shirt?

Yeah.

Will anyone ever get a chance to do that? Do you think there may be politics in your distant future? Or not so distant?

Right now, I’d say absolutely not [laughs]. Just because I would find it very hard. I like talking about certain things, I like being vocal. But I couldn’t see myself being full-fledged politician. I don’t really see myself as the right person for that sort of thing. I think I would struggle in that line of work, but I definitely won’t stop being vocal.

When can we expect that second album?

I dunno, I’d like to get straight into making new stuff, but I need a bit of time and space to work. Because I want my songwriting to be less repetitive and I want to spend a little more time caring about little details, so that verses don’t repeat as much, choruses really develop and the mood changes and the song really builds in a nice way. So yeah—however long that takes. I don’t intend on taking like three or four years on a record. I think it would be silly to do that.