Challenging the media’s representation of the LGBT community, police brutality and the 2014 FIFA corruption, Declan McKenna takes on the big issues in his music at just seventeen years old. Supporting Blossoms at The Leadmill it is evident why he is already set to headline a gig there in just three months’ time.
Crafting colourful pop songs from profound lyrical topics is a skill that few musicians can master, yet McKenna seems to have devised a fool-proof method. “I focus on whether the song sounds interesting and then make sure the lyrics say what I want it say, you can easily get caught in a trap of just writing words” he explains.
On stage and in person he does not radiate confidence, not in the typical sense anyway. Aside from being seventeen, he is still incredibly new to performing, and it shows. He began the set simply by stating his name and saying “I’m going to play you a few songs”. Once he started to play debut single ‘Brazil’ however, it is clear that he is assertive in his musical talents. A group of fans near the back of the crowd chanted something inaudible and McKenna looked both worried in how to respond, yet also elated that he has dedicated fans.
His demeanour both on stage and backstage is acutely fluorescent, with flailing hand movements and painted nails. Both musically and aesthetically, he takes influence from Bowie, who he stated as a significant inspiration. “My music is some kind of pop, modern rock, indie thing, most people box it as indie but I don’t think it’s just that.” As McKenna tried to explain, his music is not restrictive. Many songs are keyboard based like the carnival sounding melody of ‘Paracetamol’. The track which is written about the death of the transgender teen Leelah Alcorn was delivered with true conviction. On the other hand some songs are guitar led like the stunning highlight of the set ‘Bethlehem’ which is a grittier soulful track.
Having just performed his latest single ‘Isombard’ on ‘Later…with Jools Holland’ he stated “It was the most nerve-racking thing I have ever done. I broke a string in the middle of it but managed to keep on going.” Not one to miss an opportunity for television, his t-shirt stated ‘Give 17 year olds the vote’. An understandably potent topic for McKenna as he explains: “There’s a lot of votes at the moment that are going to impact young people’s futures, that they can’t decide on, when the majority are informed enough to make a decision.” On top of being dedicated to preaching important issues, as a self-confessed music fanatic, McKenna rarely emerges from his musical bubble and is entirely devoted to it. “I didn’t find anything exciting at school other than music. I have written or half-written at least around one hundred songs.”
Committed and prolific, this teenager is miles ahead of the game. While many seventeen year olds are glued to FIFA, he is performing songs written about the company’s corruption and featuring on its soundtrack. Piece by piece Declan McKenna is swiftly becoming a pop artist of high calibre.
Photos by Ethan Weatherby.