Declan McKenna: "It’s important to be expressive, when I’m performing"
Alice Gee | 11/12/2020
“I haven’t played a game of football in months” Declan exclaims in horror as we both dodge the unbearable direct sunlight in both our rooms. “Everyone’s talking about wanting to be at gigs, there’s a severe lack of festivals and not being able to travel and being able to go to places.” With lockdown down 2.0 well under way, we both clearly have cabin fever as we recall the things we’ve missed the most since COVID-19 and how the tiredness of the situation is really kicking in. One noticeable difference it seems, is the bizarre stability being in one place over the past months with touring on hold has brought. For Declan, the norm isn’t one of being cooped up in London with a schedule open for interpretation as he has found himself swinging from one country to the next with headline tours and festivals over the past 5 years.
“I’ve been getting used to working on the record being at home and having, you know, a sort of steady environment. I guess for myself, it’s something I haven’t been all that used to. Even when I’m at home, I’d be going away going into different places to work on things or to just go and visit friends. It’s been a year of missing out on a lot. It has felt that way. Everyone has had to miss out on things really. I’m finding especially with friends dotted all over the country at Uni it’s been quite a difficult time.”
With restrictions in place throughout summer, and no fields of mud in site, people packed away the tents and wellies for another year. The community aspect of festivals Declan tells me, is his favourite part of hitting the road over summer. “I’ve been able to connect with people all over with mutual goals, it’s one of the most valuable things I’ve taken away from it. There’s a whole load of people just like me, young and making music. You know, you only see each other maybe a couple times a year if that, but you have a very, very close bond to those who tour, that’s one of the things I’ve valued the most. I love festivals and being able to travel. I was just thinking the other day about when walking around Shibuya at five in the morning because you can’t sleep trying to find vegetarian noodles which are actually very hard to find. Sh*t like that, I love it , it’s amazing. Just all of the random little things you do when you’re just kind of on a different completely different time. All those little moments really are amazingly special to me.”
On the subject of special momments I couldn’t help but bring up his appearance on The Late Late Show with James Cordon, which must have felt monumental. Pre-recording his performance of “Be An Astronaut” obviously wasn’t ideal but it carried just as real a punch as one of his incredible live performances .“You know, I think doing things like this does take away a bit of what’s kind of special about doing things like that. It’s quite removed, you don’t really get the same, emotional value out of it. It can take away part of what’s kind of special about it, it doesn’t feel as real, the same as releasing an album in this time. You can see that people like it, you can see that it’s happened, but, you know, it doesn’t feel as as real when it is all kind of online or on zoom as it becomes in amongst all of the other things. But it was still amazing, you know, you have to think about it objectively and be like, I have just done James Corden is really good thing.
When you think about it, it’s obvious that the social restrictions brought on by the pandemic has had such a detrimental effect on performers. Getting that feedback, the raw reaction in the moment for people around us, is so integral to the creative process. Declan mentioned how initially the difference in experiencing that reaction solely online instead of physically at a live performance was incredibly frustrating and overwhelmingly sad. But he didn’t remain too downbeat for long as he tells us about the recording of a second album.
“It was fantastic. Really, it was so fun. I felt quite confident in the songs, and I’d spent a long time working on the writing. So I went with a fairly clear idea of what we’re going to do. There was a really good flow. Obviously, there’s a good creative spirit in Nashville, but also being around a lot of friends from touring, who live out there, alongside Jay who is really inspiring and very creative.”
“The recording process was the complete opposite of what this year has felt like. Being present and really being in an inner space, not having many distractions and, you know, having those moments working on music and getting really into it. That’s what I am striving for most of the time. That sort of energy to be really present in.” It’s funny Declan mentioned this idea of presence. To me ‘Zeros’ has the presence of some of the greatest writers and performers of all time. The album brings our present together with previous eras of british Rock’n’Roll in a renewed experience for listeners. The first time I heard one of my favourite tracks ‘Be An Astronaut’ I was catapulted to an out of body space previously inhabited by one of my all-time favourites Elton John. In four and a half short minutes it was suddenly possible to live a different time and world.
“It came together from many parts. When I wrote it, I did imagine at least some of the elements and how the parts were going to come together. My original idea was that it was going to be more orchestral but wanted to kind of explore the studio rock before. It’s very, very much inspired by those greats like Elton John who I think is one of the greatest songwriters. Before going to Nashville I saw Rocket Man at the premiere and I loved it.
Just like Elton, Declan shows no fear in how he expresses himself. Over the past few years we’ve really watched him come out of his shell in how he expresses himself whether it be musically and through his fashion choices. Declan oozes comfortability when it comes to breaking gender norms but as he explains, it was something he always felt so clearly about.
“I think it’s something my kind of younger self sort of desired and wanted. To feel freer in the way I express myself with what I wear and the way I present myself. But I haven’t always been particularly confident in that.
“It’s important to be expressive, when I’m performing, whether it’s wearing loads of glitter or channelling something darker like eyeliner. Having this sort of platform to do that and being able to be encouraged to do that is great. My view of gender and identity on the whole is that these things are always changing and the way we have them set out in the dictionary, per say, is not exactly how it feels or the reality of it, I suppose, it is something broader. If you’d asked me the same question a few years ago, I would have been startled and possibly a bit confused.”
“The whole movement includes a younger generation of people who are questioning and what is important, and what is real. The idea of a nation, the idea of money, the idea of gender. I think if you reject those, then there’s a much more open plane. That feels very freeing to be a part of.”
Being part of a generation, that is much more open and liberally minded than the ones before makes the chanes in societal attitudes even more apparent. Attitudes around the stigma of mental illness are changing at the fastest pace ever seen. In the past few years we have created a space that is more inclusive in our understanding and ideologies whilst providing platforms where we can educate one another and grow. Declan is no stranger to this topic having experienced his own hurdles throughout his life as well as feeling the burden that COVID has left on so many.
“My mental health is always changing and my perspective on it has been constantly reframing over the last couple of years now. There’s been really, really tough times, especially over the last year and touring the first album. It’s just hard to find, especially right now, a balance in life. You know, setting boundaries for work. When you do a job like mine people want to talk about it all the time, they don’t really necessarily respect boundaries, that can be challenging. I think a lot of friends of mine, and peers, have all sort of had a similar experience of it just being very hard to sort of find a balance with living.”
“I’ve been figuring out really over the last few years via partially therapy, partially through beginning to meditate. I’ve been learning all the things that helped me and in turn learnt more about myself. Those first couple of years, when I was really in the music industry, I was very excited and I wasn’t necessarily thinking about a lot of things in that eventuality. It takes its toll when you don’t put your foot down on what is too much for you and what is fair on yourself. You can lose track of things that you do. That’s kind of reframed, the way I look at my own mental health. For me I just found normal life and things that I do that make me happy”
Throughout the interview with Declan I began to realise how the notion of ‘happiness’ has become redundant since the pandemic and how it is all too often a secondary notion in an increasingly busy, hustle orientated lives. Hearing Declan talk with such freedom about the times he has felt pure joy from the things he loves, many of them having to adapt of be placed on hold, I hope that post COVID we can truly find a better balance where our individual happiness can take poll position.