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NUNN ON ONE: MUSIC Declan McKenna: Breakout star on trans teens, identity
by Jerry Nunn, Windy City Times
2017-08-16

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British singer Declan McKenna is heading for the big leagues and people like Adele are singing his praises. He won Glastonbury Festival's Emerging Talent Competition in 2015 where he gained the opportunity to perform on William's Green Stage. Afterwards he was signed with Columbia Records.

His new album What Do You Think About the Car? is full of pop tunes with deep subject matter. "Paracetamol" discusses how transgender teenagers are misrepresented in the media. "Isombard" covers Fox News trying to justify police brutality. His song "Brazil" criticizes FIFA during The World Cup for being in an impoverished country.

After performing at Lincoln Hall in Chicago, McKenna sat down to talk about his music and life backstage at Lollapalooza.

Windy City Times: Tell our readers about yourself.

Declan McKenna: My name is Declan. I am from Hertfordshire in the UK. I am 18 years old and I make songs!

WCT: Did you always want to be a musician?

DM: Yes, to an extent. I can't remember a time when I didn't write songs. It has always been a part of what I do.

WCT: Did Glastonbury help jump-start your career?

DM: It wasn't a massive public thing, but it helped me in the industry to build a team for myself. Getting a small slot at Glastonbury and immersing myself in music was really cool.

WCT: Are you performing a lot of festivals like that one and Lollapalooza now?

DM: We have Reading and Leeds festivals. I have been there in the past, being from London. Summer Sonic in Japan...

WCT: Hopefully, you have a big following in Japan.

DM: Fingers crossed. I did a little promo trip and there were a couple of fans that were very loyal at the show. I got lots of gifts. I couldn't bring them all home so I had to pick and choose which ones to give to the staff there. I felt so guilty.

WCT: This is your first trip to Chicago?

DM: No, third. I liked the crowd at Lincoln Hall last night. It was a bit cramped. I really enjoyed myself and thought my performance was good. That makes me happy. I wasn't picking at anything I did after I came offstage. I do that all the time. I need to get over it. I am my own biggest critic.

WCT: The video for "Brazil" has an image of David Bowie on a wall. Are you a big fan?

DM: I am. We did two videos for "Brazil." That was the first one. I was 15 years old and it was on a zero budget. It was more about the shot for the video, but David Bowie is one of my favorite artists of all time.

WCT: Talk about your song "Paracetamol."

DM: I had heard about a trans teen who had committed suicide after pressure from conversion therapy. I had not heard of that before. I couldn't get over it and how heartbreaking it was.

I don't think he song isn't necessarily about that, but it definitely influenced it. I wanted to write a song that stood against someone that takes over someone's freedom of self and personality.

A lot of people struggle with their own identity. In her case, to have figures of authority pressuring her to be something else was something I was against. I wanted to write about that.

WCT: Have you heard from fans about that subject?

DM: Yes. People have definitely connected to that song. People are touched by it, and many of my songs. I want people to feel welcomed by my music. If people have that sort of connection to what I am doing it is a massive bonus.

It is not the biggest thing, making pop songs, but it is nice to have a community with people that accept and love each other.

WCT: Do you talk about how you identify yourself?

DM: [Laughs] Not usually, but I will when I figure that one out!

WCT: Maybe in a follow-up interview. You are 18, so a lot can happen.

DM: I am very general in all aspects of that, I will say.

WCT: You did a song called "Listen to Your Friends" with Rostan Batmanglij from Vampire Weekend. How was it working with him?

DM: Amazing. I have always listened to Vampire Weekend and his solo work as well. It was massively inspiring and encouraging to have someone that I looked up to ask to make a track with me.

He's awesome to work with. He is so creative and has so many ideas. I had never co-written before. I had written all of my work before that. It took me a while to warm to it.

WCT: Was it an email collaboration or did you work in the studio together?

DM: It was the end of my first U.S. tour and I stayed in L.A. for three days with him in the studio. We came out with a couple of ideas, but that was the main one. It was structurally very early. I basically wanted to go and write lyrics to it. It took a long time actually. I eventually came up with a song I really liked.

I was so shocked earlier when I played it the crowd connected to it. I shouted the bit about free health care people were jamming to it!

I like to see people shooting and complaining about things they don't like.

WCT: It must be nice to have a platform to do that now.

DM: It is unreal. It's nothing I would have expected. I am fortunate to have people that like what I do.

WCT: I like the song "Why Do You Feel So Down?"

DM: That is quite an old song. It is odd for me having just released it. I was 16 when I wrote it. I had gone through a lot of stages, but I liked the fact that it is a loosey goosey pop song. It is fun and carefree. It is a melancholic song that you can dance to. It is an emo-disco song!


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