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Declan J Donovan

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Emma Wilkes | 15/05/2021

Far too many of us know what it’s like to feel inadequate. For some of us, it’s one of the growing pains of adolescence; for others, it ebbs and flows like the waves of other mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression before they come crashing in. Indeed, today’s social conditions allow self-hatred to fester and flourish, especially when you’re only a scroll away from reels of people prettier, skinnier, wealthier and more successful to compare yourself to.

If anyone knows how vital it is to rewrite the stories you tell yourself about who you are and what your worth is, it is rising star Declan J. Donovan. Having embarked on what he describes as a “real journey of self-love” in the last year, it is no surprise that the process of learning to do so is something of a recurring theme in his music, the latest exhibit of which is his most recent single, “Into The Fire”.

“I was making a lot of bad decisions,” Declan says of the time before he realised he needed to look at the way he was treating himself. “That was reflected in my relationships and how I was maintaining them. It almost felt like the perfect song to describe that moment of realisation where I was like ‘Something needs to change’. It’s nice to talk about a lot more, it’s nice to be more open.”

Though Declan estimates he wrote close to a hundred new songs over the last year, “Into The Fire” wasn’t born out of that period of sitting, reflecting and taking advantage of the space enforced self-isolation gave him. Instead, it is a couple of years old, and a favourite to play live in his early days of touring before three million (and counting) Spotify listeners came along. “I get to work a bit more distortion into my guitar, get to play a bit heavier and not care about my vocals and just scream into the mic,” he explains. As he looked back on where he was when he wrote that song compared to where he is now, the resonance was so stark that he felt now was the perfect time to give ‘Into The Fire’ the studio treatment it deserved and get it out for the world to hear.

On the surface, the track could be mistaken for a love song, in which Declan tells a lover that he would “throw myself into the fire/Just to get to you.” That isn’t an incorrect interpretation, but naturally, it is more multifaceted than that – it is a tale of how the strongest of feelings for someone can blindside you, yet also motivate you to better your relationship with them by bettering your treatment of yourself. “I’m starting to write a lot more about appreciation,” Declan ponders. “There’s definitely a kind of pattern that forms between people that essentially hate who they are and constantly battle with themselves and how they treat other people.” The saying goes that ‘hurt people hurt people’ and it’s a sentiment Declan identifies with. “[Their behaviour] is essentially a reflection of how they already feel themselves.”

Indeed, as anyone who has had to work on their self-image knows, sometimes all we need to hear to direct us onto the right path or keep us from veering off it, is that we are enough just as we are. The upwards trajectory Declan has embarked on (just as his numbers on Spotify prove), built upon songs with this theme, is a testament to that. Nothing exemplifies that better than the story of his previous single “Perfectly Imperfect” which accelerated his rise to popularity when it went viral on TikTok at the tail end of last year. In this track, Declan is placed on the other side of the exchange, reassuring someone who is hurting and feels unworthy of his love of their meaning to him.

“It’s always quite weird when a song just really connects [with someone else],” he comments. “As soon as I release it, and it’s so cliché, but it becomes other people’s song. I get so excited by hearing other people’s [interpretations] of the song and what it means to them. It’s just mad to see that something I wrote with my mates can do that to people.”

By contrast, while the song was enjoying such success on TikTok, Declan had bigger concerns - he describes that time as the hardest of his life. “I had to be, obviously, really strong on social media, being there every day, making videos and talking about the song and talking about appreciating all the people in your life while I was absolutely hating myself at the time.” Away from the camera, he says he felt constantly sad, waking up feeling “shattered” every day with no desire to work or socialise, only to sleep.

In November 2020, Declan made what he says is “the best decision [he’s] ever made” by going to see a psychiatrist for the first time. He has continued to see her once a week since and would go as far as to say that he “loves” his weekly sessions. “She’s amazing,” he says of his psychiatrist. “I think it gave me a new perspective on how I always tried to figure out my problems on my own.” Although conversation is, naturally, helping to break down the stigma surrounding mental health issues, the stigma around going to therapy perhaps hasn’t quite lost its sting just yet, and as a result, Declan declares that his experiences are “definitely” something he wants to be more open with his audience about in the same way he is with his friends about their mental health. “I think if everyone [around you] knows what you’re going through, it’s easier to deal with, and they can be a lot more sensitive with you and understand your boundaries [with] how you’re feeling.”

It can be argued that lockdown gave us as many things as it took from us – it gave us time, space, a quieter head, and one government mandated walk each day. Declan certainly thinks that is true: “I spent so long touring and being in the studio and being around so many people every day that I was never really alone in my own head. I’m almost grateful for the time it gave me.” While the space and empty schedule kick-started Declan’s journey of self-love, the habit of daily walks formed during that time is one Declan is taking forward into the future. After all, outside of therapy, it’s one of the main things he does to maintain a positive state of mind.

Being in a more rural area helps: after getting into “damaging” patterns of returning from tour, sleeping all day and not speaking to anyone in his native Harlow, Essex, Declan moved to a small village in Hertfordshire “full of old people”. The greatest peace he finds on his walks there is next to a river behind his flat. “It’s crazy how much of an effect it has on my brain. It’s so calming,” he says. “I’m a little bit addicted to it.”

Where the future for Declan is concerned, it’s a certainty that “Into The Fire” won’t be the last that we hear from him this side of Christmas. As things stand, we can expect to see more frequent releases throughout the year, culminating in a mini album around the autumn. When that’s out the way, work will turn to gathering together all the songs he’s written in the last six or seven years and whittling them down to a tracklist of twelve for his debut album.

In the background, and as his following continues to grow, Declan’s journey of development and healing will be sure to continue. “My whole life revolves around trying to be as happy as I can,” he concludes. “It’s nice to be a lot more open about it now.”

Words By Emma Wilkes

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