Interview: Declan McKenna

Gemma Kent talks to Declan McKenna, winner of the Glastonbury emerging talent competition 2015, about the loss of David Bowie, a need for greater conversation, and how the Irish are obviously really damn cool.

When the phone finally rings I throw myself at the landline like a soccer player dives to make the crucial save. Only, I’m not athletic. And I don’t want to knock my poor landline to the ground. Following a brief head-bop to some classic ‘please-stand-by’ music, my interview with Declan McKenna gets underway.
My first thought as he says his hellos is how young he sounds; aged only seventeen, he’s younger than me by about two years. With this thought flying around my head, I decide we might as well start with his biggest success to date, the Glastonbury Emerging Talents Competition of 2015.
“Well, I entered the competition back at the start of year and I definitely didn’t expect to get through all the rounds to the final. I went to Pilton where Glastonbury is held and I just went up there and played on my own — against all these ridiculously good bands. I was so shocked to win and get the chance to play on the main stage. It was pretty amazing if I’m honest.”
Even at such a young age, he already thinks that winning the competition could be a springboard for the rest of his career. “I think the initial thing of just entering the competition was what got a couple of labels interested in me. It just went from there. It was a hectic part of my life, really, because I was doing GCSEs at the time, too. It was pretty crazy but it was a big deal.”
At the mention of the GCSEs, alarm bells go off in my head and I remember reading that Declan had made the decision to drop out of school, so as to pursue his music. “Yeah, I started doing AS last year but I dropped out in October. I’m all about focusing on the stuff that you want to do and I just felt that I was half-heartedly doing things, so I knew I had to drop out.”
I broach the topic of his music and its satirical edge, asking if it had always been his intention to write such politically-charged pieces. About one of his songs, Paracetamol (a particular favourite of mine), he says, “It was from a story I read that hit me quite hard — the story of Leelah Alcorn. I wanted to write a song based on it ‘cause I felt really bad that that sort of stuff was happening in the world. It just stemmed from that. And I think a lot of people are becoming more open to these kinds of things these days, which I think is a great thing. And it’s a video I’m really happy with.”
I point out that I love the video too, perhaps mostly for the fact that it emphasises the positives of the transgender experience, in contrast to what the media would often have us believe.

“Definitely,” Declan says, “and that’s what it should be about these days: being optimistic.”

Another hard-hitter of Declan’s portfolio is the song ‘Bethlehem’, so ridden with religious and political motifs that I couldn’t hope to introduce it justly. Fortunately, Declan is keen to explain the motives behind the song.
“That song is probably one of the earliest that I wrote and put out — I must have been 15. It was about how people are using their religious beliefs to justify war and hate. I went to a religious school and there were some people who were very nice, as you would find, and then there were some people who I’d find myself arguing with about things that they didn’t even really understand. They were just using their religion to justify hate, which didn’t make any sense to me.”
Employing the fool-proof ‘Rule of Three’, I venture a final song of Declan’s, titled ‘Brazil’. Like its counterparts, it, too, focused on another aspect of social justice, again too intricate to delve into here. What I wanted to address about this song though, was a particular shot in its music video.

At one point, it shows Declan singing in front of the David Bowie mural in Brixton and I hope that the mentioning of the late, great Ziggy Stardust won’t distress the young singer as much as it does other hard-core fans.

“It’s really strange,” Declan says. “That spot in particular is covered in flowers now – it’s crazy. I’m still shocked. It’s not very often that someone that I don’t know personally dies and I’m still hit by it so hard. He created so much music that I love.”
With more than enough material to work with, I’m happy to let to let Declan go, though I feel I have a final a duty that I owe to Irish people everywhere. Where most kindly admit a great, unlikely hope to one day grace our Emerald Isle, Declan is keen to suggest we might catch a glimpse of him performing here before the year is out.
“I really am hoping to come to Ireland before the end of the year,” he says. “Irish shows are always really fun! I went to Longitude this year and it was insane — the crowd was pretty lively! But both me and my manager are from an Irish family so we always like going over. Whenever I go we get a holiday and a show at the same time.”
And here, as any true Irish person will, I jump on the notion of ‘Irish relations’ with the vivacity that a novice journalist jumps to her telephone the day of an interview. I decide to put forward one last topic and so make David’s last effort a worthwhile one. I ask Declan what he thinks the reception of his music is like, seeing as his chosen themes are frequently controversial.
“I think it generally” — a chuckle at his slight scepticism — “gets received quite well. I mean, I sometimes have people complaining about what I’m writing about; I think when you write about such serious topics a lot of people have different views on it or on how it should be talked about. But, you know, I never claimed that my views on things or how I write about them are completely correct. I just think it’s important that people talk about them, one way or another.”
And with our talking about them complete, I thank Declan repeatedly for his time and patience, then lower the receiver before our call can end in giddy excitement.