Declan McKenna: “If I’m gonna do something weird, I don’t want it to be too intense, so out there that you can’t grab onto it”

„What Happened to the Beach?“ is the name of Declan McKenna’s newly released album, and it’s such a good question, especially on this dark, cold and rainy winter day I’m meeting the British singer-songwriter via Zoom, to talk about his latest work. It’s a wild, eclectic album, that takes a lot of twists and turns, but also follows a distinct storyline. And it really lifts your mood, which is probably the best thing you can say about an album being released during probably the hardest part of winter. 

Declan does indeed look like he just came from the beach, wearing a cap and a t-shirt, while I sit there huddled up in a scarf and hoodie. We don’t have much time, but the whole mood of our conversation is that of condensed sunshine. 

It’s a very dark and grey day here in Berlin. I listened to your album a couple of times today, and I have to say, it kind of helps!

(laughs) That’s nice to hear, thank you. It’s actually kind of sunny here, but still cold, very cold. Yeah, the album is coming out at a pretty bleak time of the year, but hopefully it influences people to feel a little better. 

I read that for this album, you tried to strip back to the core what songwriting means to you. But in the end, the album became very diverse, layered and playful. How did this come about?

I guess I just wanted to make an album in a slightly different way. It wasn’t limited to anything really, I was just working in a more direct way. Not waiting to get into the studio to record something: we did a lot of it in living rooms, bedrooms and things like that. There’s just so much that you can do. I’m always drawn to finding a sort of strange composition and trying to land an idea in a way that just feels natural but kind of weird. A lot of the songs were just formed that way. We didn’t write the song and then we were like „let’s make it weird“. The weirdness kind of came with the songs and came with the inception of the ideas. Just the process was different. I think just having a bit of experience in working on music, you learn what might work and what might not. So you can land slightly more abstract ideas. Because you kind of know how to ground them a little bit? I think it’s a weird album, but everything is grounded in a song, in a beat. That makes it not so out there that it’s not accessible. For me it feels very groovy and lighthearted. If I’m gonna do something weird, I don’t want it to be too intense, so out there that you can’t grab onto it. 

Oh absolutely, I totally feel that. It’s daring but you don’t lose your listeners. And a lot of it is really surprising. For example one of my favourites is „I Write The News“. It starts out super stripped back and then it takes this crazy turn. 

The start of it, I think it’s an iPhone recording. I don’t think we could really even separate the vocals from the guitar, although I have a feeling we tried to use AI to do it at some point. I pretty much started that idea with the switch up in my parents’ house, in my sister’s old bedroom, that I had made into a little studio for a short period of time. I don’t know what gave me the idea to do that, it just kind of happened, and it felt really cool (laughs). A lot of the album happened like that. 

It sounds like you created a playground where things could just happen. 

Yeah, that’s the thing. Conceptually, with the music and stuff, there is not as many attempts to do something intense or serious. The playfulness was really in full swing. It’s quite a collaborative album. All these influences, trying to make it work together and making my own sound with it was the goal. I think even though it changes up a lot, there is an identity which brings it together, in the sort of looseness of it all. It’s not exactly genre hopping, because I think there is not really one genre (laughs)

As you talked about gaining experience, I have to say I find it amazing, how young you are and how much of a catalogue of work you can already look back on. How does it feel today, looking at the work you did when you were much younger?

As much as I’ve been able to release work that I’m proud of as an artist, it’s also just been a really great experience. It’s been like my university, you know? Learning about music and the craft of writing songs and being in the studio. I just had some really invaluable experiences with pretty great people. It’s not like a standard education where you are given parameters. I’ve been able to pick up and develop my own ideas. I really feel grateful to have had that experience under my belt. I’m 25 now – I just turned 25 in December – and having three albums and all of that experience to draw from… I’ve always wanted a career in music, but one where I can move between perhaps different projects and produce music and write music, all of that. I feel like this album has been almost a point of pinning down a lot of what I have learned. It’s an exciting place to be now and going forward. This project has given me a lot of confidence in terms of being able to execute ideas that feel much more distinct to me. 

What has changed the most for you in the past four years, ever since your last album „Zeros“ came out? We were still in the midst of the pandemic, when that one was released. 

The album was released in lockdown really. We were able to do a couple of things, but most of the promotion was just done from home. It was quite a bleak time, to be honest. I was a lot younger: was I 21 when it came out? I feel much older now. Perhaps that was a turning point in my life. I sort of came out of it, having a lot of time to think about how I would move going forward and what I would do. I had the time really to work on the kind of ideas that made it onto this album. It’s hard to pin down what really happened during that lockdown period, but I definitely released an album (laughs). It wasn’t the most rewarding experience really. 

When was the first time you were back on stage? And were you always confident that everything would be going back to normal?

I think I felt that it would come back. I had friends who were incredibly negative about it, and it was an easy time to be negative. But I was confident that it would come back, it was just quite hard to see the pathway. Even the first proper show we did, which I guess was Latitude, where they did like a trial festival, to see if they could pull it off, that was so strange! I think everyone there was like: „What the hell!“ I don’t even know if we were fully allowed out in bars and things at that time. Every step felt like a huge jump, but then eventually it felt kind of normal to be back out. I’m very grateful for it. I feel like it is such a huge part of my life: although touring can up and down, it gives you a kind of purpose and a direction. 

What are you most looking forward to this year?

Probably touring the album and working on more music. As soon as I start promoting an album, I am done with it (laughs). I’m really sick of this one (laughs). I think I like the album. I just really want to get back into the studio. No, I’m excited to play different songs: that will be refreshing. We haven’t played all of the songs live yet. I am looking forward to the tour. But working on this album, I came up with so many ideas as well. There’s just so much sitting there I want to return to. I have so much music that I want to work on. I feel very inclined to get back in the studio.