Declan McKenna returns with ‘Sympathy’ and tells us about “hella weird” third album

The indie star unpacks his new record, "huge" plans for his Main Stage slot at Reading & Leeds and the continued impact of smash-hit 'Brazil'

Declan McKenna has returned with buoyant new single ‘Sympathy’, and teased details of his currently-unannounced third album. Check out the new track below, along with our interview with the Enfield-raised indie star.

Following his second album, 2020’s ‘Zeros’ – which hit #2 in the UK Charts – the 24-year-old has shared ‘Sympathy’, the first preview of his forthcoming third LP. The new track was recorded in LA in January 2022 alongside producer Gianluca Buccellati, who has previously worked with Arlo Parks on her Mercury Prize-winning debut album ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’.

“‘Sympathy’ is a summery tune, and it feels like the most outwardly upbeat song I’ve made, with the most positive message,” McKenna explained to NME. “It made a lot of sense as the first single. It’s a bit of a stark introduction to the new world I’ve created; I’ve made a new record that is as probably as different as it could be from my previous albums.”


He continued: “It’s been a much more natural process in the way that I have written and produced my new material. It’s closer to how I work when I am just making music for fun in my bedroom – and I think you can hear that in ‘Sympathy’. There’s a lot of personality within the track, and it has a sugary, summery vibe to the melody. I can already sense that this may be a slightly ‘Marmite’ tune for people, as they will either love it or hate it, but it will definitely be stuck in their heads at some point!”

While ‘Zeros’ and its predecessor, 2017’s ‘What Do You Think About The Car?’, tackled weighty issues such as religious hypocrisy, disillusion and political unrest, McKenna has expressed that his new material will focus on looking inward, and is inspired by his personal growth as a musician.

“As much as I’m proud of the previous music I have made, when I look back at the creative process behind ‘Zeros’, there’s a sense that I was trying to prove myself a little bit too much. I was making life harder for myself than it needed to be,” he said.

“I’ve made a hella weird new album: it’s got a lot of strangeness to it, but that hasn’t come through me trying to be anything other than myself. This music came from living in the moment and not worrying too much about some deeper meaning, or trying to make songs that live up to the all-time greats or something like that. It makes a better case for the music that I make as I am presenting a more relaxed version of myself. It translates my character in a clearer way.”

Declan McKenna
Credit: Press


For McKenna, ‘Sympathy’ was made with a more “sustainable” approach to recording in mind. Having taken an enforced break from the studio during lockdown, he re-evaluated how he wanted to make music going forward; ultimately, he decided to give any new music a few days to breathe before sending it on to his wider team for feedback. He also widened his pool of collaborators, having worked alongside both NME 100 2023 graduate Eli Smart and Jules Apollinaire of the psych-rock band TRRUUCES for the first time.

“By the time I got out of lockdown, I was raring to go,” he added. “I had all these ideas for new music and decided that there would be less chin scratching when it came to laying them down. ‘Sympathy’, therefore, happened quite quickly; I was happy to just roll along with the process and jump off from more simple starting points.

“I used to have a very strict regime when it came to making music, but this time I was more open to new ideas. It made me feel like I was capable of creating anything I wanted.”

Speaking to NME at Glastonbury 2022, McKenna affirmed that album three has been a work in progress for two years, before adding that he had been in the studio with Norwegian pop sensation Sigrid. Together, the pair had made a “crazy” unreleased track inspired by “an aggressive clown”, alongside producer and vocalist Sam Tsang, who works under the moniker Congee.

Asked whether his Sigrid collaboration will ever see the light of day, McKenna replied today: “I don’t know, actually. It’s a weird tune, but it’s really good. It’s a disarming thing to work on something as bizarre as that – a track that is verging on character comedy. It was the first and only song that I have worked on with Sigrid, and it hasn’t been finished yet, but it was a super fun way for us to meet each other.”

Declan McKenna
Credit: Press

Elsewhere, McKenna is currently in the middle of a two-week break from a 46-date headline tour across the US and Canada entitled ‘The Big Return’, serving as an introduction to this new album era. The second leg will run until early November, after McKenna returns to the UK for a Main Stage slot at Reading & Leeds, which follows his last appearance at the twin-festival event in 2021. 

Having welcomed new members into his backing band, McKenna’s current live set-up is “a completely different experience” to his previous shows, he explained. “I spent so much time in America around my first album, and it has always been the plan to keep up that momentum – it has always been part of the journey. And that’s the beauty of it: being able to go back after such a long time and book these sold-out shows,” he said. “Being able to expand on that dream of touring overseas is amazing.”

And can we expect any surprises from the Reading & Leeds sets?

“I mean, we’re in full album mode already,” McKenna said. “But by the time Reading & Leeds rolls around, we’ll have at least 30 shows under our belt, so we’ll be in really good shape. These two festivals are an anomaly in that you get the craziest crowds every time. Reading & Leeds will be special in that they’ll be my only shows at home this year, so we’re really going to go for it. It’s going to be a movie.”

Declan McKenna
Credit: Press

In April, a month before McKenna hit the road, he took to social media to share that his debut single, 2015’s ‘Brazil’ had been awarded Platinum status in the UK (having sold in excess of 600,000 single-equivalent units). The track has since become a staple of McKenna’s live shows, and went viral on TikTok in May 2022, leading to a re-entry in the UK Singles Chart nearly seven years after its original release.

“You do feel that, sometimes, people are just waiting to hear that tune live, but most gigs aren’t like that,” McKenna said of his changing relationship with ‘Brazil’. “I like the way that it has organically grown; it has never had an ‘Imagine Dragons moment’, in that it has never soundtracked an advert or a big movie. It has just reemerged and snuck back onto the radio by being a vibe. It’s incredible.

“Even though certain groups of people may have grown tired of the song, collective society has not; there is still room for people to discover the rest of my music off the back of ‘Brazil’, and that’s a wonderful thing. But I am conscious of not wanting to repeat myself with the music I am making, and know that people will want to hear all the new, different songs.”

Declan McKenna’s new single ‘Sympathy’ is out now. Reading & Leeds 2023 takes place over August Bank Holiday Weekend. Visit here for tickets and more information. 

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