Declan McKenna: “There is a time for understanding – and that time is now”

Bang a gong! Get it on! How the ’70s glam-rock-loving north London pop star learned to love himself (and made peace with the haters)

“I’m bigger than The Killers!” Declan McKenna exclaims, throwing his head back and erupting into a fit of infectious laughter. “I don’t care… I saw them play one night at Brixton Academy in 2017, and I’m playing two nights there next year!”

Er, are you sure?

“Yeah! I personally think I’m going to whoop The Killers,” he continues, one eyebrow raised, an exhilarated smirk plastered across his face. “I am of the opinion that you can do anything. If I say I can do it, then people can believe that I can do it.”

We’re an hour-and-a-half-deep into our conversation, and regardless of whether he is joking or not, McKenna’s sudden, fiercely confident burst of energy feels totally understandable.

Before jumping on a Zoom call with NME, the 21-year-old north Londoner recently learned that his upcoming second album, ‘Zeros’, was set to go head-to-head in a potential chart race with Brandon Flowers and co.’s ‘Imploding The Mirage’ – and he’s having a right laugh about it. Yet just six days after our interview, the towel is thrown in prematurely: it is confirmed that the arrival of ‘Zeros’ has been pushed back. A fortnight later, The Killers outsell the rest of the top five combined during release week.

On paper, Declan’s burning desire to gun for the Number One spot against one of the biggest bands in the world didn’t really make much sense. But when you begin to think about his seemingly never-ending list of accomplishments, it becomes clear that no feat has ever truly seemed out of reach for the boy who fell to Earth.

Declan Mckenna album Zeros 2020 interview
Credit: William Arkle Marsden for NME

‘Zeros’, is further testament to the fact that, in all senses, Declan’s always been more ambitious than most. A 10-track collection of his most compelling material to date, the record is stuffed with frenetic songs that shimmer and shake into larger-than-life indie stompers full of transformation and discovery – a hard pivot from the purposefully scrappy kicks of his triumphant 2017 debut ‘What Do You Think About The Car?’. It’s not, it would be fair to say, what most are expecting from album number two. But then again, of course it isn’t.

In terms of viral success stories, Declan’s is a particularly unique case. His debut single, the riff-happy ‘Brazil’, quickly became a runaway hit in 2015: self-released when he was still some months shy of 16, the sprightly, intelligent cut of indie-pop with which he defiantly called out the corruption scandal around the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The work of someone unafraid to obscure the definition of a protest song, it was bold and forward-thinking, much like the precocious singer-songwriter himself.

That very same track led Declan to being crowned the winner of Glastonbury Festival’s prestigious Emerging Talent competition in 2015, which immediately threw him into a heady whirlwind of press tours, social media attention and formal meetings with industry executives – and all while he should have been revising for his final GCSE exams. After a major label bidding war, he signed to Sony offshoot Columbia and in pursuit of stardom, and left school for good.

“I’m feeling the most imposter syndrome I’ve ever felt”

In 2020, he still struggles to make sense of that period of his life, when everything around a once-diffident Declan began to move at head-spinning pace, leaving him understandably dazed and overwhelmed.

“I had representatives from 30 different labels talking absolute bullshit to me, and I often didn’t know how to respond to them.” He throws his hands up in the air, remembering the incredibly difficult conversations he had with label heads following the release of ‘Brazil’. “I had too many guys with big egos chasing me, claiming they knew the way to make things work for this ‘wonder kid’, all off the back of one song. After school, I would go and meet some fucking geezer at The Windmill pub in Cheshunt [in Hertfordshire]. They’d be tucking into a beef sandwich, I would sit with my orange juice and we would chat about the music industry, as if I had a clue.”

Yet these formative experiences of having to hold his own in intimidating spaces at such a young age gave the Enfield-born artist the confidence to stick with his vision: to become a torch bearer for a better future for a legion of misunderstood, outspoken teens from across the UK and beyond.

Declan Mckenna album Zeros 2020 interview
Declan McKenna on the cover of NME

And so he did. Tailor-made for Gen-Z, his debut album traversed the right-wing media’s misrepresentation of transgender youth (‘Paracetamol’); a response to the 2015 Paris Bataclan theatre attacks (‘The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home’); and religious bigotry (‘Bethlehem’). In turn, McKenna was branded ‘the voice of a generation’ by the music press – and it’s true that he’s an influential figure for many. He concedes, though, that at 18 years old, those five words burdened him with insurmountable pressure, and have overshadowed his every move from then on.

“With my first album, I was just simply trying to highlight problems within society and put it into pop songs,” he tells NME. “I think that music is the best way to share a message, as I might as well be promoting stuff that I think is wrong in the world.” He looks away from the camera and gives himself a minute to consider his answer deeply. “Though I still can’t put myself at the forefront of my generation because all I was doing was trying to say something important in every aspect of that body of work, but there has since been this expectation for me to blur the lines between myself as an artist and as an activist.”

Declan Mckenna album Zeros 2020 interview
Credit: William Arkle Marsden for NME

Now a shaggy mullet-sporting, world-weary version of the doe-eyed singer that thousands fell in love with at first sight, Declan is still trying to shake off the biggest misconceptions that people have of him.

In conversation, he seems honest, open and thoughtful. A single question about the new record can send him off on a seemingly never-ending tangent, and he peppers his answers with repeated apologies and variations of, “Ah, stop talking, Declan!”. Above all else, though, it quickly becomes apparent that the three-year window between albums has left him feeling unsure people wanted from him this time around.

“The most imposter syndrome I’ve ever felt is now,” he says. “I’ve just been sitting on an album for a year, and I have had too much time to ask myself questions about the musical direction I have gone in. When you get to that point, you begin to wonder if you are an absolute fraud.”

To Declan, these worries have felt increasingly inescapable over the past 12 months, and they play a major part in the abiding story of ‘Zeros’, an existential pondering on what a world dictated by technology and social media would look like in the future. Inspired in part by the works of Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, his second album finds him at his most introspective yet, examining anxiety, communication and humanity with an increasing level of concern.

This doomsday reckoning quickly becomes apparent on ‘Zeros’. Guitars roar into mighty crescendos, pianos twinkle and shine and basslines pulsate. A musically dexterous journey that plays out across 10 rapid-fire pop rock tracks, it moves from searching for solace on a burning planet (‘You Better Believe!!!’) to satirising the unnerving power dynamics between Instagram influencers and their followers (‘Beautiful Faces’), while continuing the fight for the disillusioned youth – as direct and timely as ever.

“I knew that the album had to detail this cycle of life in which you’re thrust into a [path of destruction,” he explains. “I was dwelling on the same ideas, and trying to explore my own emotions and those of other people, without forcing a specific narrative or concept. I finally managed to find this space where I could create and be free, and talk about myself and about the world at the same time.”

Declan Mckenna album Zeros 2020 interview
Credit: William Arkle Marsden for NME

It’s also a record that affirms his “lifelong passion” for the glam-rock era of the 1970s. Growing up as the youngest of six in what he describes as a nurturing, musical household “where everyone in [his] family was involved within some element of music”, Declan duly developed an obsessive inclination towards guitar-heavy music from a young age, and his desire for self-expression led him to gravitate towards listening to the likes of David Bowie, T. Rex and Roxy Music throughout his early teenage years.

On ‘Zeros’, these influences come out to play – kicking and screaming. Blink and you’d mistake the cover’s coruscating, motion-blurred portrait of Declan for ‘Space Oddity’-era Bowie, and that seems to have been the intention all along. “The glam-rock era was just full of life,” he beams, chuckling softly. “I’m fascinated by the clothes that musicians of that era could get away with wearing, and the concepts of space and time that were invariant to the music of the 1970s. The energy! The freedom! The inspiration!”

He took those ideas and ran with them. Where his lyrics were formerly straightforward and direct, ‘Zeros’ is often powerfully evocative and at times dark, evoking the space-age ideas that many of his primary inspirations drew from. “So what do you think you’re doing telling people lies? / The hope’s going like Christmas pies” he sings on the poignant, juddering ‘Daniel, You’re Still A Child’. “But it’s never gonna stop turning you pink”.

Another track, ‘The Key To Life On Earth’, twists surrealism into the mundanity of everyday life. “Iron your suit and tie forever until you die / Join forces, like carousels and their horses forever spinning around / And never coming down”, so goes the bridge as it pinballs between zippy guitar leads and knotted, angsty harmonies.

“The internet is anxiety-inducing”

At the heart of the album lies a deep-rooted fear of the future, and its dystopian themes of survival, destruction and technological control give scope for theatrical excess in a way that political directness of his debut could not afford. With this expansive vision in mind, Declan began work on his second album from home at the beginning of 2019, but swiftly took the plunge and journeyed to Nashville, Tennessee for a five-week recording stint.

It was in Music City that Declan linked up with producer Jay Joyce; Declan requested they be put in touch after learning that Joyce worked on one of his all-time favourite records, Cage The Elephant’s seminal ‘Melophobia’. As an artist signed to a major label, did he try and use this approach to score any big collaborations for the new album?

“Not quite…” he responds with a twinkle in his eye. “But I have been talking to Sam Fender for ages about doing something together… Sam has managed to plug himself into owning some crazy studio in Newcastle, and I’d like to go there – I’ll make it my next trek.”

Declan Mckenna album Zeros 2020 interview
Credit: William Arkle Marsden for NME

Many of Declan’s personal anxieties came to the fore during the making of the ‘Zeros’. His ruthlessly dedicated fanbase implored him to overcome a lengthy battle against nagging self-doubt, and caused him to think twice about his consistent online presence, though he continues to give himself over to social media. “Last year, I spent all summer making the album,” he explains. “I posted a single picture of me on holiday and people were like, ‘So this is what you are doing instead of releasing the album!’.

After a pause, he adds: “Look, I’ve been very fortunate to have my music spread widely via the internet. I wouldn’t be in the position I am now without social media. It has put a lot of power into the hands of creators and artists to just do things on their own terms, but I think that this is what is causing an epidemic of anxiety; people just constantly need information. I know that those sorts of comments about the album are obviously a little bit-tongue in-cheek, but they really, really get to you.”

His debut album’s protest songs led some casual listeners to misconstrue him as a cult-like-leader of the politically-minded youth. This became apparent in a recent Twitter spat when one user attempted to call him out over the £25 ticket cost for his forthcoming 2021 UK tour, using lyrics about child poverty and welfare from debut highlight ‘Listen To Your Friends’ – “Go online / Do 10 minutes of research and in turn find / The problem is poor kids who want holidays in term time” – against him.

“The internet is anxiety-inducing,” he says with a sigh. “I can have a tiny bit of pride in myself for the fact that I do stick up for things I believe in, but social media is so good at making you feel like you’re not doing enough. I have really had to learn how to back myself, and I can justify the things I say, but I can also understand where I might be saying things that are wrong.”

With so much of his public presence rooted in his history of political activism, his stans understand his commitment to social change. But of course that doesn’t shield him from criticism: in June, unable to attend a series Black Lives Matter protests in his hometown due to public transport complications, he posted a lengthy Instagram statement voicing his support for the movement. The post was met with a level of vitriol from some followers, who accused Declan of performative allyship, despite his long-standing, renowned effort to use his platform responsibly.

“I’ve become OK with people being wrong about me”

He is keen to stress that he truly believes that the internet is a force for change, but adds that throwing around terms such as “silence is complicity” towards someone who hasn’t tweeted about a current affair for a day or two does more damage than good.

Instead, he wants to encourage healthier conversations online: “Someone should not have to constantly be reminding you guys that they think X is wrong or right, you know. Not everyone has that close relationship with the internet and a lot of people need a bit more space from it.”

He adds: “We live in a world where we’re all pitted against each other. But there is definitely a time for understanding, and that time is now.”

On the flip side, social media has helped Declan to gradually engage with a seismic shift within his personal life. In a recent interview with Attitude magazine, he explained that he wouldn’t put a label on his sexuality, but said that pansexual “might come close”. He reached this conclusion through a gradual process of learning how to be more honest with himself, and attending therapy sessions for the first time in his life last year.

“I am constantly learning about myself,” he says today. “Ideas that started out as abstracts when I was younger have become more concise,” he affirms. “Openness in a young lad, especially of school age, is preyed upon, and being in the public eye puts a burden on you as well.”

Declan Mckenna album Zeros 2020 interview
Credit: William Arkle Marsden for NME

These previous struggles with vulnerability were compounded by Declan’s willingness to be expressive from day dot. Around the first album he gleefully stuck a middle finger up to gender norms by sporting dresses and glittery eye makeup on huge festival stages, but he consequently became inundated with questions about his identity from listeners and interviewers alike. He may have seemed preternaturally self-assured, but the reality is that Declan McKenna was just a teenager trying to figure things out.

Three years of quiet introspection later, he is quick to cite the unbridled honesty of his young fans as a reason for his newfound confidence, emphasising that he is a big champion of the safe spaces that they have created for one another across social media.

“It’s empowering to have a fanbase that seems to be living their best life,” he explains. “They have a sense of community and are so open about their sense of identity, even if it’s just online and not with their parents. We’re all growing older and figuring things out together, and it’s within this positive corner of the internet that they can be so open. I think having a space for fans to connect in such a way makes you realise that, well, that space can exist for you too.”

Losing his fears and unafraid of change, Declan is learning how to reintroduce himself to a world that already thought it knew who he was. “I’m definitely more at peace with myself,” he concludes. “I think I’ve just become OK with people being completely wrong about me.”

Declan McKenna’s ‘Zeros’ is out now