“One of the most annoying questions I get asked frequently is, ‘What do you think you’ll write about next?’ I don’t know!” says Declan McKenna. Having turned 18 on Christmas Eve, the Hertfordshire indie musician is hopeful that the arrival of adulthood will bring a significant decrease in people patronising him.
Early singles on subjects as wide-ranging as corruption in football, religious intolerance and transgender teenagers have marked him out as politically precocious. He thinks the voting age should be reduced to 16. He has appeared on the BBC Sound of 2017 list, an influential indicator of the year’s success stories, alongside 18-year-old singer Raye and 18-year-old rapper Dave, but perhaps because he looks even younger, it seems he’s the only one whose youth is a talking point. In summer 2015 he was interviewed onto Sky News, fidgety in a headband and Bart Simpson T-shirt, and asked by Adam Boulton whether he does “words AND music”.
“I guess I haven’t had that much happen in my life that has been really awful or significant, but I like writing songs, so I just look elsewhere,” he tells me over coffee near a Kensal Green recording studio, where he’s putting the finishing touches to a debut album pencilled for May. However, the idea that he sits down with an acoustic guitar and the Times opened at the World News section is wide of the mark. “There is a more personal side to the album tracks that I haven’t released yet, compared to the ones people have heard so far. But when I write about the wider world I tend to be more serious, and whereas the more personal songs are the more playful ones.”
So far he has earned a lot of attention for his song Paracetamol, which tackles the practice of transgender “conversion therapy” in young people. It was inspired by the case of Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender girl from Ohio, who committed suicide in late 2014. The song’s lo-fi, naturalistic video follows two British transgender teens on a day out to Brighton. “I have a lot of friends who don’t identify as a boy or a girl. I myself don’t identify as either straight or gay,” says McKenna. Upon its release he was invited to write a blog for the Guardian explaining his intentions. “It’s good to see more peoople are trying to get trans people represented well in the media. It shouldn’t be treated as shocking. I was playing a show in San Diego, standing by the merch stand afterwards, and this kid came up to me, just said: ‘Thank you for Paracetamol,’ and started crying. That time stuck out to me as, like, wow,” he says today.
Last September he performed his song Isombard, about the right-wing media, on Later… with Jools Holland with his three-quarters female backing band, wearing eyeshadow and glitter in his hair. Today he’s looking less androgynous (though he says his main thought in his music career is: “What would David Bowie do?”) in a red bobble hat, skinny jeans, chipped black nail varnish and a Pringle golf jumper that says “Nick Faldo” on it.
He contemplates how much has changed since he sent his song Brazil (the one about FIFA) in to Glastonbury’s Emerging Talent Competition in the first half of 2015, aged 16, and won two slots playing at the festival that year. “Me and my friends were having a sandwich at the free buffet next door when someone found me to tell me I should go back in to hear the announcement. I came in just as they said, ‘Declan McKenna!’ That was what really got the ball rolling in terms of interest. One of the judges is now my booking agent.”
Only two songs have remained from that period to appear on his album. As a percentage of his life, the two years since he wrote Brazil are pretty big. “Things have kept changing and developing. I don’t think it can ever be exactly how you imagine it will be,” he says. “From my own perspective I think I’m always getting better, which is what you’d hope. The last song I wrote for the album is my favourite. It has all these different sections. It’s less primitive than the old songs.”
Mixing woozy keyboards with buzzy guitar energy and slurred, casual vocals, he should appeal to fans of Jamie T and The Libertines. He says that one of the new songs was written with and features someone from one of his favourite bands, but won’t reveal who. Another supporter is Arctic Monkeys and Florence + the Machine producer James Ford, who has been working on McKenna’s album in between jobs for much bigger bands such as Depeche Mode. “When he can casually drop a name like Depeche Mode, it puts who he is into perspective. But he’s very easy to work with. There’s none of the weirdness or arrogance that you might expect from a bigshot producer. He’s wicked.”
McKenna himself has found the recording process somewhat stressful, because demand from a fast-growing fanbase has necessitated him being out on the road when he should have been squirrelled away writing songs. He supports Cage the Elephant in London this month and returns on a headline tour in March. “It has been a bit jarring at times. Rather than writing the album, then recording it, which is how I’d very much like to do it, we have recording time booked and I have to finish writing certain songs before that time.”
Meanwhile, his friends are finishing their A-levels and plotting university life. He dropped out of A-levels in Sociology, Philosophy and English Literature after just a few months, when the demands of his music career became too pressing. “Most young people see their friends every day at school and I don’t. But I am doing what I’ve wanted to do for ages and I can’t take that for granted.” With an arsenal of fine tunes and youth on his side, he could be in for far more than a great 2017.
Declan McKenna supports Cage the Elephant on Jan 20, O2 Academy Brixton, SW9 (0844 477 2000, o2academybrixton.co.uk) and headlines on March 23, The Garage, N5 (0844 847 1678, thegaragehighbury.com)