Words by Ben Bowman.
Photography by Callie Winch.
Hertfordshire born Declan McKenna is starting to make a big impression on the alternative scene and has been tipped for even bigger things in 2017.
Following in the footsteps of artists such as Slaves, Blossoms and Jake Bugg, McKenna has been one of the many beneficiaries of the BBC Introducing scheme which gives young bands and artists a huge hand in showcasing their music.
Alongside this, the winner of the Glastonbury Festival’s Emerging Talent Competition in 2015 is a talented, unique song-writer and deserves credit for his immense hard-work. McKenna has been on tour with Blossoms over the Autumn and prior to his 100th and final show of the year, I caught up with him to discuss politics, vegan christmas and his debut album.
It’s fair to say that a lot of respectable music outlets such as the NME have been tipping you for good things next year, so what do you make of the hype surrounding you and does it put any extra pressure on you?
Yeah I suppose so, it’s a very exciting time and everyone wants to be on the polls and all the sort of stuff that magazines put out and it’s exciting like obviously it’s nerve wracking when you know that there’s eyes on you and people are expecting things from you but I’ve finished making my album and I’ve finished a lot of things that I could be nervous about before so I’m kind of just ready to go and do it really.
I was going to ask you about the album, is it true that you worked on it with James Ford, obviously he’s worked with bands like Arctic Monkeys and Foals so how excited are you about that?
Yeah he’s been really really good to work with, I’m really excited about the tracks we’ve made and obviously he’s made and worked on so many of my favourite albums. I really look up to him, he’s a brilliant producer.
Can we expect the album next year then?
So you’ve had a pretty busy last few months, you’ve been on tour with Blossoms in the UK, appeared on Jools Holland and you’ve been in America – so what would you say the highlight has been for you this year?
I really enjoyed the American tour with The Head and The Heart, I did a couple of runs in America but that one in particular, we had a full band and we went to so many places and really got to know the band that we were playing with and that was a great highlight. Also playing at The Park stage at Glastonbury was a pretty big deal for me obviously because I’d been there the year before playing and then coming back and playing a bigger stage to more people.
So what did you make of the whole Jools Holland experience as a whole?
It was crazy! I never really expected to be able to get on Jools Holland so early, I’ve been watching for it so long and it was a really nerve wracking experience but it was a really amazing day and I’d definitely say that it was a really important step in my career.
This year you’ve been on tour with Blossoms in the UK, you’re going on the road again with them next year in Europe – so what do you make of their rise and does it give you hope for your debut album?
Yeah, absolutely I mean they’ve just done incredibly, I was on tour with them as well last year and it was nowhere near the level that they’re at now playing like Castlefield Bowl, they’ve completely blown up and it’s really well deserved. They’ve just built and built and kept going and now they’ve released their album and it’s been one of the biggest albums of the year. Playing alongside them has been really inspiring and they’re just a really good bunch of blokes.
This year you’ve been on tour with a number of different bands, now this is your own show so what can we expect from that?
These shows we have to play a couple of kinda new songs because we’ve only released a few but also to practice them for next year and get some good experience, so there’s gonna be lots of new material and lots of cool little songs that I’m excited about and also maybe a Christmas cover seeing as it’s Christmas but yeah it’s gonna be fun! I think our shows are continuing to get better like we’ve worked so hard over the last year to improve the live show and how things sound, we’re still working on it but I’m definitely much happier now than I ever have been. So yeah, I’m really looking forward to tonight especially as it’s basically a hometown show!
Obviously tonight’s show is in celebration with your birthday, so do you find it weird having a birthday so close to Christmas?
I mean my birthday is Christmas Eve, but I think this year it might be better than it has been because I’ll be 18 and i’ll be able to go out on Christmas Eve like a lot of people are with their family or something but like a lot of people go out as will which I couldn’t do before so hopefully it will be better but we’ll see hopefully it will be a decent time, like I’ve never really had anyone to hang around with before so it should be good!
What’s the best and worst Christmas presents that you’ve ever received?
It would’ve been the year before last I got a microKORG mini synth and up until recently we were still using it in our live set, but it’s like an old second hand mini synth and it changed a lot of things I did with my songwriting so yeah that was a good one! The worst Christmas present, I don’t know? I don’t wanna be mean to anyone but if you consider it to be a present then I spent all of Christmas throwing up, and my birthday of course because I had a really bad stomach bug so no Christmas dinner for me!
No pigs in blankets then, obviously not for you but…
I’m vegan? D’you not know that I’m vegan?
You can make vegan pigs in blankets though!
Well, I mean my whole family has all of a sudden decided to become vegan and we’re having our second vegan Christmas, like you have to cook so much meat but now you just have like some nuts or something!
Nut Roast is good though good to be fair!
Yeah nut roast can be good, if you can make it work then it can be really good, but I will have to look up the vegan pigs in blankets though! It’s just about how you season it like that’s why I love setian, you know seitan? It’s made of like gluten and it’s like vegan meat and it takes up the flavours you put into it really nicely!
If you could have any 4 people dead or alive over for Christmas dinner who would you have?
Oh that’s a good question! I’d make it really interesting, I’d have like Stalin or Ghandi I think, can it be anyone? Ummm, Vlad the Impaler, but he’d be well disappointed with the nut roast but yeah I’d have Vlad the Impaler, Nina Simone…
Would you have Vlad the Impaler as in Noel Fielding in the Kasabian video or just Vlad the Impaler?
I think I’d just have Vlad the Impaler, I think Noel Fielding’s just a whole different thing…
He would be down for the nut roast though?
Yeah I feel like he would be down for that, I could have Noel Fielding but I’d have to go with Vlad the Impaler, Nina Simone, L. Ron Hubbard – the guy who created scientology… who else would I like for Christmas dinner? I suppose L. Ron Hubbard doesn’t really celebrate Christmas but yeah, I’d have Ghandi! I’m just trying to stir up a bit of conversation!
Imagine all of their faces when you put the nut roast down!
Ghandi would just be like ‘Yes Please!’, the rest of them not so much! Vlad would just impale me – always impaling people old Vlad!
On quite a different topic now, but your political interest and engagement with ‘real issues’ is refreshing to see in your songwriting – how important do you feel it is to relay these feelings to a young audience and a young fan base?
I guess a lot of young people now such as myself, especially with a lot of votes and stuff that have been happening – some are becoming disengaged because there are so many horrible things that are happening and we can’t have a say in it, but I feel like a lot of young people are becoming engaged in politics and they’re starting to realise that there are loads of things that are going on in the world that they can influence.
I feel like something that I’ve spoken out quite a lot about is young people being able to vote on these sort of things and I think a lot of people think it’s unfair that they can’t vote. I think I’m just one of many young people who are starting to want to have more of a conversation about politics.
Do you feel like your interest for politics came through school or do you think it came through looking at what’s going on in the world right now?
Social Media is definitely a big influence as well as friends. I don’t really think school really in terms of politics get kids engaged in politics in the way that they should be. At the minute there tends to be a lack of compassion in politics and people call it like ‘lefty scum’ but there does need to be a certain level of compassion which has been lost especially towards people from other countries and people who move here from other countries. It seems that there are all sorts of different types of people that politicians are kind of ‘gaining from’ and actually showing that they don’t care about and that’s bad.
Do you feel then that politicians being on Social Media is a bad thing, considering the comments made by Nigel Farage this week?
Obviously I feel like anyone should be allowed to be on social media like we have free speech at the end of the day, but he’s just a fool and politicians who are going to use social media should learn not to use it in the way Farage or Trump do because they make themselves out to look worse and worse as people. Trump gives out such a bad impression of himself just through his twitter page and Nigel Farage is just a hypocrite, who doesn’t know when to stop especially with what he said in the week regarding the Jo Cox comments especially given the pain that her husband has gone through the past few months.
On the point about Social Media, what did you make of the situation with yourself and Piers Morgan?
Um, I was thinking of replying and responding to him but I just didn’t want to, like with the amount of responses I got from his ‘twitter fans’. I felt like I had a valid point because I felt he was being completely ignorant about young people and I was just like ‘well, what did you do when you were 17 that I haven’t done?’ and then you get all his followers being like ‘Oh, I haven’t heard of you so you haven’t done anything’, but he’s another one of the fools who think the biggest problem in the world is political correctness when it’s not really a thing and it doesn’t really exist. Generally when people complain about political correctness they just wanna be a dick and don’t want to be told that they can’t be a dick.
I suppose Piers Morgan’s demographic isn’t really who you’re trying to sell to?
I just can’t be arsed to get in a twitter spat with someone like him. It’s just funny as well because he wrote this whole article on young people spending so much time on their phones and then I got all these responses from 50+ year olds on twitter it’s just mad!
What’s it been like for you growing up in a more suburban town given the fact that Hertfordshire doesn’t really have a prominent music scene when compared to bigger cities such as Manchester or Sheffield and do you think this has an effect on your songwriting?
I think recently there has been a couple of big artists come from Hertfordshire such as Sam Smith and George Ezra, but obviously it’s all very sparse there’s not really much of a ‘scene’ like the closest you can get is London. I guess I was always very frustrated at not having very many music venues in my hometown and also there are the busking laws in Cheshunt so you can’t busk and it just kind of killed the music scene there and I spent a lot of time playing shows in London because of that. I guess though it makes you work a bit harder to do things and you do learn a bit more about yourself doing that, but yeah it was very frustrating when starting out.
I interviewed Declan at Harlow’s independent music venue The Square in the build-up to his 100th show of the year, supported by Rews and local band Sleeping Lions. The gig was in celebration of Declan’s 18th birthday and from the moment the Cheshunt artist stepped onto the stage he had the crowd palm of his hands kicking off with latest single Isombard. The set was packed with fan favourites such as Paracetamol and Bethlehem, but McKenna also teased new material with his album set for release next year. Brazil, the song that initially projected and exposed McKenna closed the set, but as promised, he returned to the stage with Ben from Blaenavon who in true ‘Stars In Their Eyes’ style took the roles of Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl and belted out ‘Fairytale of New York’ to a jubilant crowd.
The collective sense of pride and hope for a young and local emerging artist was undeniable in the venue that created such a positive atmosphere. Declan McKenna’s profound modesty and down to earth nature as well as his immense talent will no doubt see him through in what looks to be a very exciting 2017.
Interview by Ben Bowman, you can follow Ben on twitter here.