If you were a teenage songwriter what would you write about? If you’re Taylor Swift you’re perhaps penning a Shakespearian “Love Story”, or if you’re Alex Turner maybe a conceptual view of the UK’s nightlife.
However, for 17 year old singer-songwriter Declan McKenna from Hertfordshire, such trivial topics aren’t enough. Instead of writing songs about unrequited love, scrumpy jacks or fake ID, he’s concerning himself with much bigger topics.
His indie-pop debut single “Brazil” set McKenna onto the field, the song tackles the corruption at the heart of Brazil’s football World Cup in 2014, with a shimmering looping guitar hook. The opening verse McKenna sets the tone succinctly “I heard you sold the Amazon/ to show the country that you’re from/ is where the world should want to be/ find something all people need.”
Tackling the big topics seems to come easier for McKenna. When penning “Brazil”, the singer-songwriter “wanted to say something, but didn’t have much going on personally.” Tackling the blemish on the beautiful game is only the tip of the iceberg for McKenna, other singles “Paracetamol” and “Bethlehem” challenge media stereotypes and religion respectively. It really is a refreshing to see McKenna tackle such bold issues.
Perhaps the subject matter to McKenna’s inspiration is even more impressive, since school hasn’t been a routine fixture for the talented singer-songwriter. On the topic McKenna suggests that school and touring “aren’t meant to coexist with the amount of travelling I had to do.”
Irrespective of schooling, it seems like music is the right thing to do from McKenna, his current successes are enough to leave any teenage songwriter (or any songwriter really) envious! “Brazil” has racked up over seven million listens on Spotify, won the prestigious Glastonbury Emerging Talent Prize, signed to a major label and even been on Later with Jools Holland.
Although, if you’re feeling bad reading this, McKenna did start playing guitar “about 7” – so he’s had a few years to hone his skills!
Anyway, McKenna’s story began by winning the Glastonbury Festival’s Emerging Talent competition in 2015- beating the 6,000 strong competition! This spring rocketed the Hertfordshire teen to the publics consciousness and set the ball rolling. Even speaking about it now, he seems to hardly believe his own success, “it all came from nothing” McKenna exclaims.
Despite only being 16 at the time of winning, McKenna was keen on a career in music, enjoying it inside and outside of school.
He then formed a band with good friend Sophia who he had “known for a few years” and auditioned the rest of the band at different universities. McKenna was insistent that he didn’t like using the backing tracks of his early live shows, so getting a keyboard player was imperative.
New single “Isombard” is reminiscent of “Brazil”, with the theme once again being rather deep! McKenna’s latest effort features a trademark anethemic chorus “if you can’t walk then run” over a retro, repeating piano riff. Not bad for a piano riff which began during a “classroom during break time”.
The “Brazil” teenager elaborates on the context of the song, “on the boards around my school they had boards of inspirational quotes. One of them was from Martin Luther King which said something along the lines “If we can’t run we’ll walk, if we can’t walk we’ll crawl.” I wanted the quote in the song but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, so I flipped it round. I made the quote wrong by flipping it round, and then made it into a song about right wing media.”
McKenna even performed the song on Jools Holland, describing the whole experience as “crazy”. “I’ve done a couple of TV appearances in America and one in France and it’s very nerve wracking. But with Jools Holland it’s different. There’s everyone you know watching and it’s something I’ve watched since I was young. I’ve seen so many great performances on there, so I kind of wanted to make it special. Performing in front of Norah Jones and Barry Gibb as well was scary.”
Despite Barry Gibb giving McKenna the heebie ‘bee jees’, he gave a stellar performance. Prancing round on (and off) the stage, reminiscent of Yannis Philippakis and “What Went Down” earlier this year.
The more eagle eyed viewers may have noticed McKenna brandishing a ‘give 17 year olds the right to vote’ T-Shirt. Apparently he was inspired by the twitter campaign earlier this year!
I sense a little frustration his voice, McKenna is quick to voice his concerns. “A lot of people my age are feeling particularly f***ed over about not being able to vote. Especially when they are impacting our future. A lot of people voting won’t be around to see the full choices that they made. I feel like the average 17 year old, and I feel informed enough to vote- I don’t see why I can’t.”
It’s a fair point, with politically savvy teenagers like McKenna being able to vote, would our future be more prosperous?
Back to the reason we’re here, McKenna supporting Blossoms at Leeds Beckett. It’s a massive support slot to live up to with Blossoms having a number one album under their belt, a sold out tour and the whole of Manchester bowing at their feet. Tonight the Hertfordshire teenager relishes the occasion, jumping jovially around the stage. Although he may sounds a little ruff around the edges, which is unsurprising given he’s been with his band for less than a year. However, if he keeps playing his cards right, there’s no reason why he could not ‘do a Blossoms’ next year.
One thing striking about McKenna’s appearance tonight is that he brandishes dark nail polish across his hands. However, it is perhaps less surprising when he suggests his dream collaboration. McKenna suggests “David Bowie, or maybe Damon Alban. David Bowie is my favourite ever, and I love everything that he has done. It was really heartbreaking for him to die this year, I was hoping he’d headline Glastonbury or do something big soon!”
McKenna’s debut album is “hopefully” out Spring next year, his new single “Isombard” is out now.
You can catch McKenna on his headline tour in January.