Declan McKenna is the kind of high achiever who wonders what he’s done wrong when he gets 98 per cent in an exam.
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As the Hertfordshire lad collected his GCSE music results in 2015, the missing two per cent on his composition paper puzzled him because the song in question was ‘Brazil’, a complex polemic about corruption in FIFA that had just won Glastonbury Festival’s Emerging Talent Competition and was playing on American radio.
“I thought, ‘What more do you want?’” he says. “‘This song just got to Number 16 on the US Alternative Chart!’” There’s more, though: “Funnily enough,” he continues, “for my music GCSE ensemble piece we also did a Mystery Jets cover, and a couple of months later I was supporting them on tour.”
Now 18 and on the cusp of releasing his debut album ‘What Do You Think About The Car?’, the multi-instrumentalist finds it strange looking back on his impressive rise. Four years ago, he was busking in Harlow, trying to kick-start his career. “I genuinely hated it,” he says, “but I thought if I did it long enough, loads of people would be listening to my music.”
These days, loads are. McKenna’s spent the past year recording new indie anthems with respected industry figures such as Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij and Arctic Monkeys producer James Ford, and his latest puzzle is figuring out how to upscale his trademark live trick – a balloon release – in the larger venues he’s playing. He normally tips them from a couple of bin bags, but he notes, “We’re doing some 1,000-capacity venues now. That’s not going to work anymore.”
As a teen with a proper platform who’s writing about race and LGBT issues, McKenna has made TV appearances and been hailed as both “the voice of a generation” and “the social musical conscience of Gen Z”. The first song on his album, ‘Humongous’, tackles his “what the f**k” response to those labels: “I’m gonna throw up,” he sings at its climax. If you ask him, he’s just one of many young people with a point of view. “People my age are engaged,” he insists.
So what big talking points can we expect him to turn his attention to next? “I’ve always looked to the wider world for what I can analyse or give some substantial comment on from my own perspective,” he says, “but there’s no writing off what I might do.” Watch this space.