English singer-songwriter Declan McKenna has been steadily ascending for the past five years, and his sophomore album, Zeros, out Friday (Sept. 4), proves he’s fully arrived. From the huge hook on lead single “Beautiful Faces” to the Kooks-esque cadence of “The Key to Life on Earth,” McKenna — at the ripe old age of 21 — has never sounded better.
The album has been a long time coming. McKenna recorded Zeros in August 2019, but thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, it has taken over a year to reach fans — its release date was pushed multiple times, though he continued putting out songs in the meantime. We’re happy to report that Zeros was well worth the wait.
McKenna, who also recently performed a Billboard Live At-Home concert, will celebrate the album’s release with a ticketed livestream concert on release day at 4:00 p.m. ET (details here).
Below, McKenna discusses recording Zeros, his earliest musical experiences, his Dave Grohl moment and much more.
What’s the first piece of music that you bought for yourself, and what was the medium?
I’m pretty sure the first album I bought was a CD of Electric Ladyland by Jimi Hendrix when I was about nine. I got it for my best friend from school at the time, because we loved Hendrix and became obsessed with “Crosstown Traffic” in particular. I think it was for his birthday, but I definitely ripped it onto my MP3 player at some point.
What was the first concert you saw?
My first concert was Hop Farm festival. I think it was in 2010. It was a pretty phenomenal lineup to have seen at that age, looking back. I saw Laura Marling, Johnny Flynn, Mumford & Sons (before they were headlining everything), Pete Doherty, Seasick Steve, Ray Davies and of course Bob Dylan, who headlined. All of those artists stuck with me for some time after, although it took me a while to get into Dylan again — I don’t think such a young Declan was ready to embrace whatever the f–k Bob Dylan does live these days. But I saw him last year and I loved it, it was a nice full circle.
What did your parents do for a living when you were a kid?
My mum has pretty much been a teacher my whole life, and for most of the time I can remember my dad worked for the local council supporting elderly people in the area up until just a few years ago, but I think he was a milkman for a time when I was a baby.
Who made you realize you could be an artist full-time?
I don’t know if anyone made me realise it — it was more that I never got to an age where I needed to question what I was gonna do for a career, a few weeks after I got my first proper job I got signed, and because I was on a zero hours contract, I just left. I was very independent through my teenage years, probably too independent…I just got on with making music and getting it out on the internet in any way I knew how. One thing led to another. Getting a career in music so young was always the dream, but it was also an accident.
What’s at the top of your professional bucket list?
I’d love to play a show at [Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in England], that would be pretty surreal. I don’t have much of a bucket list though, accolades and big festivals are cool in the moment, but the more time I spend working in my dream job, the more I realise that just making sure I still enjoy every day of what I do is much more satisfying than any big goal. I write and play songs for a living — my dream was never much more than that — so these days, I try and embrace that side of it rather than always seeking something that ultimately will be done the next day.
How did your hometown/city shape who you are?
My hometown [Cheshunt, Hertfordshire] wasn’t the busiest place in the world, so I was always finding things to do. It kind of led me to music and gave me a desire to see and do as much as I could. I was a happy child a lot of the time and my parents were always wanting to give me and my siblings the freedom to do what we wanted. I have five older siblings, so we were always sharing stuff. I think my parents did a good job of letting us all discover ourselves and understand what’s truly important to us.
Cheshunt [is] just off the outskirts of London. It’s got some fairly wealthy areas nearby and also some pretty poor estates, but growing up you don’t really see that, it was just life. I’m proud to be from where I’m from, ‘cause it taught me to see past all that, but also to understand what separates us, even though it could easily have led me a very different way. I think that has stuck with me in my life and in my music.
What’s the last song you listened to?
“If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out” by Yusuf/Cat Stevens. I was watching Harold and Maude last night and I’m pretty sure I fell asleep just after Maude sings it on the piano to Harold. It’s a gorgeous movie; my brother Ciaran introduced me to it, as it’s one of his favourites. The soundtrack is so great — Cat Stevens’ music fits it so perfectly. His signature bitter sweetness does a lot to make the film what it is, and if “If You Want To Sing Out” is almost as if it was written by someone so proudly eccentric as Maude.
If you could see any artist in concert, dead or alive, who would it be?
I could go into some deep cuts on this, but wouldn’t you just go and see the f–kin’ Beatles in San Francisco or something? Just to have been there. Sure, you wouldn’t hear a bloody thing, but who cares?
What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen happen in the crowd of one of your sets?
A fight broke out at my gig in Manchester, it was pretty mad, I just thought it was a pit at first. I stopped the song midway through and told the guys to get out. Nathan [Cox] from my band told me later that I’d pretty much recited what Dave Grohl said when the same thing happened at his gig, which I found pretty funny — I definitely had, but there’s only so much you can say? “Don’t come to my gig if you’re gonna pick fights, now f–k off!”
What’s the weirdest or most unique venue you’ve played?
I played at the House of Commons a few years back to a room that had a lot of, shall I say — members of the British political party that’s been in power for a long time now — in it. The people who set up the gig were awesome and pushing for some great things, and I met [Pink Floyd’s] Nick Mason. There were some great people who wanted the UK government to further embrace our music scene. But I recall looking out to see most (I hold back from saying all) of the Tory members [chatting] and drinking and eating, and not listening to my set. It was kind of affirming in a weird way, like, “These people REALLY aren’t listening to me.” Haha.
Which band would you drop everything to join if you were asked?
LCD Soundsystem, maybe? Just looks like they have so much fun up on stage, and it’s a cool setup and such a great sound. Hit some bongos, play with some oscillators, hell yeah.
What TV series have you watched all the way through multiple times?
Derry Girls. Devastated that they’ve had to hold back filming [the third season], it just always makes me laugh.
What’s one thing that even your most devoted fans don’t know about you?
I came 4th in a district sports 600 meter race when I was 10/11 years old. I ran the whole race from behind the group and then charged into the top 4 in the last 100m, ‘cause all the other kids went too fast to try keep up with the mega athlete kids at the front, but I knew my game pretty well and 4th was an amazing result for me at the time.
If you were not a musician, what would you be?
I’d probably be just out of university and working in a cafe or something. I think I might’ve tried to write in some way, or do something creative. I don’t think I’m the type to hold down a 9-5.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to your younger self?
Trust yourself. Don’t just listen to people ‘cause they sound like they know what they’re saying. If you don’t like something, make it heard.
What was it like recording Zeros in Nashville?
It was nice — pretty freeing to get out of London and just go somewhere to finally put it all together. The studio was really big but still immersive, and [producer Jay Joyce] was a delight to work with. We also have some good friends out there from touring, so it was nice in that way to hang out and have some downtime.
What are the challenges of releasing an album during a pandemic?
Pressing delete on all of my plans and having to be creating so much similar stuff from home, basically. It’s a whole different style of working that I can’t say I’ve enjoyed a lot of the time. It’s not particularly rewarding for me, just recording things from home and whacking it on the internet.
What about the positives?
I guess people have had time to listen and connect — it’s just a shame that we’ve had to keep everyone waiting.
What do you miss most about performing in front of a live audience?
The energy of it all. There’s nothing like it right now.
What’s something you’ve been passionate about lately outside of your work?
Mancala. My housemate got it and I’d never played it before. I used to like chess growing up. Mancala, I guess, fills that hole, but it’s more open and less time-consuming, so it’s been fun to get into lately.