Emerging artists often come out swinging, taking shots at the current landscape to make room for their place in it. Declan McKenna, the 18-year-old English singer-songwriter, embraces this tradition, albeit in unexpected ways. "Trans music videos can be pretty bad and send out the completely wrong message," he wrote for The Guardian, in a 2016 essay he penned explaining the message and visuals of his song, "Paracetamol." The result, a collaboration with photographer Matthew Lambert, shows a teenager binding their chest and discussing going on testosterone. The video's director Lambert wrote, over email, that McKenna represented the "future face of youth I wanted to support--someone whose empathy and humanistic open-mindedness transcended their gender/sexual-identity."
McKenna's debut album What Do You Think About The Car?, which includes "Paracetamol," is out this July. On the cover, another collaboration with Lambert, McKenna's shaggy brown crop drapes his face, makeup dusts under his eyes and around his lips, resembling dirt and glitter. The album opens with "Humongous," featuring the lyrics, "I'm big, humongous, enormous, and small / And it's not fair / That I am nothing and nobody's there / Do you care?" It's a swell of teenaged feeling met with a vista towards an abrupt descent.
It leads into "Brazil," the song that launched his career, originally self-released in reaction to the corruption of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. "It's the first impression most people have had of me. A lot of people [say] it's a political song, so that sets the tone that [my] music is political. It's part of what I do, but it's not all of what I do. My songwriting style, the stuff I write about, definitely has changed so much. I have changed," McKenna tells OUT, hinting at what fans can expect from an album written across the span of "quite a long two and a half years."
OUTcaught up with McKenna, polite with a charming laugh over the phone, from his home in Hertfordshire just north of London, before he embarks on tour in support of this strong debut.
OUT: You're touring Europe, Japan and coming to the states for Lollapalooza. How are you feeling, right now?
Declan McKenna: I'm pretty relaxed. I'm kind of packing. I'm actually flying to Brazil tomorrow. Just getting ready for that. I'm not really playing or anything, just a little top secret project I'm doing out there and I'm really, really excited.
How do you prepare yourself for going on the road?
Rehearsing is the main thing. We normally just spend a week beforehand going over everything, over and over and over, so there's no rough edges. Just make sure I'm in a good head space for everything I need.
Are you able to make time for the sights?
Yeah, it depends where I'm going. Sometimes you'll have like a ridiculous 13 hour day that is promo, and gigs, and sessions, so you don't get to see as much of the city as you want to. Generally, there's some kind of downtime where you can explore places. I love doing that--especially places I've never been to before--just seeing the sights, getting shown around.
How many years of work went into What Do You Think About The Car?
It's been a relatively long time. The bulk of the album was recorded last year, all the songs we did with James Ford. A lot of the writing happened before then, in 2015, some of it in 2014 as well. Some of the earlier songs I wrote I never really planned to be on the album. Technically, it's been two and a half years, but it's been very, very staggered and one bit after the next. I'm touring, then I'm back recording.
How many of those songs did you have in mind for the album?
A lot of the earlier stuff I wrote I was putting out just to put it out, and have my friends listen to it. They were personal projects, which I never really expected to go towards a big album. It's quite a nice thing, because I think maybe there is something different about writing songs when you're not expecting anyone to hear them, and writing songs when there's people waiting for songs they want to be good. I try to ignore that as much as possible, and just write and make the stuff I enjoy making, want to think about and talk about, and want to hear.
What Do You Think About The Car?
How did you decide on the image for the album cover?
It kind of was a bit like, "What would David Bowie do?" I wanted it to be quite sleek, but a sort of natural vibe to it. It wasn't too perfect. A lot of times there can be a pressure to have the perfect shot. Especially with a young fan base I don't want to give this impression that I've got a perfect face, because I don't.
What was the message you wanted to send by making a song and video like "Paracetamol"?
It came from a time in my life where I was in school, and I had a lot of arguments with lots of people, and I was very angry about a lot of things. I still am, [over] how large amounts of people in the world are treated. There are obviously a lot of things happening in the world that just aren't right, and people are put in positions they should not be put into. I believe that we need to start treating people in a way that we would like to be treated, and stop pressuring people into not being themselves. It was kind of an expression, a quite natural expression, of my personal anger, but also want for hope and want for change. The music video got the treatment from Matt Lambert, who had this great idea of everything that I could've possible wanted to portray with it.
You have frequent queer collaborators, and the last song on your album is called "Listen To Your Friends." How do you plan on listening to queer people as you grow as an artist?
My own set of experiences can't tell me the same thing that someone else's set of experiences can. I think that's kind of the basic premise of listening to your friends, listening to the people around you, who you should care about and who you should love. I think that's been quite an important thing for me in the last couple years, learning to listen.