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Culture, Music, Interviews

OX Meets: Declan McKenna

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Declan McKenna

Ahead of the recent release of his third album, What Happened to The Beach, we got in touch with alternative singer-songwriter Declan McKenna to discuss his new work as well as his musical inspirations and upcoming appearance at Oxfordshire’s Truck Festival. Gaining initial attention at the age of 16 years old following the release of his protest song Brazil, his latest album is set to be the most personal and honest yet.

Tell us a bit about What Happened to The Beach. How long has it been in the works and what are you hoping to convey through it?

The earliest ideas that landed on the album are from years ago, but I think being at home during the pandemic and working on music in my down time really set a more intimate tone for the record. When I had a bank of ideas I went to LA and that was when I really started working on the album – that was probably two years ago. I think compared to my other record it’s got a more relaxed feel to it; it hasn't got the big studio sound or any big messages but rather a smaller and more personal message and an honest account of your most personal emotions. It’s an escapist record compared to the others. 

Is that ever hard? To balance the personal elements versus the universal, relatable themes?

Kind of, but I think my personal is universal in a way. It’s harder to get the really personal and honest stuff across and I think this album – as well as having more exposing lyrics – is more exposing sonically as well. It’s not been done in a big studio where everything’s smoothed out, it includes stuff from the first demos. That’s a bit nerve wracking because it’s not so common in indie band world. 

It must feel a bit more vulnerable.

Yeah, everyone’s a bit like, ‘Oh, is this really going to work? It’s a bit different, where's this aspect that you've done before, or this aspect?’ For me, the most creative thing you can do is step a little bit outside of your comfort zone. It’s what I’ve tried to do with every record; move on a little bit and tread new ground for myself.

This album was produced alongside Gianluca Buccellati, how did that collaboration come about and how do you feel it’s made this album distinct from your other work?

He's a very different producer to who I’ve worked with before. I liked some of the stuff he had produced but I hadn't met him before I went out to LA and we just clicked straight away. We spent more time together on the record compared with other producers I’ve worked with where we would have studio time and that was it: this was more about gradually building the whole project together. There’s something really cool about that, I mean I recorded a bunch of stuff in my bedroom before I went out and some of that stuff is on the album, and then we recorded a large chunk of the album from his living room, so it just had this completely different feel to any other record that I’d made.

I wrote songs with him, which I hadn't really done with the producers on my other albums; we really built the world together, in a much more just relaxed environment which makes it more natural. I like making music at home and that’s what I think this album gives – something a little more direct and less filtered.

You’re doing quite a lot in Oxfordshire like the recent show at the O2 academy, and Truck in the summer. Do you have a preference between more intimate shows compared to the festivals and larger venues?  

It really depends, some of the more intimate – particularly these in store ones where it’s a bit more stripped back and bare bones – can be a bit more nerve wracking because you’re just stepping on to the stage. You've got an acoustic guitar, maybe a couple of band mates around you, but it’s not like the show that’s been worked on for such a long time. It sometimes surprises you and prove to be some of the most fun gigs.

I try to take that energy into our bigger shows because just stepping out and playing the f*cking song and not thinking about it and engaging with the crowd really provides an energy that makes the show distinct and unlike anything else. You don’t know exactly what’s happening next and or exactly how it’s going to go, you just bounce off the crowd a little bit more. We did a small show in Chicago just before we did Lollapalooza. They put us on stage at, like, midnight, so we played for about an hour, but it was just the best gig we’ve played. We probably played every song too fast; we were absolutely going for it, but that energy is just amazing. Then that Lollapalooza gig the next day we were playing to 30,000 people and they’re both as good as each other, just in different ways. 

What a great line-up to be amongst at Truck, will you get to enjoy the rest of your time there and see some of the other acts?

Yeah, it depends. Last year we got to see Steve Lacy and Billie Eilish at Reading, and a bunch of great stuff at Lollapalooza including Lana Del Rey. A couple of my band stayed in Chicago after we played because it was the last night of our tour, so yeah you sometimes get the chance to enjoy it. Sometimes you can’t really be bothered, and you just don’t want to see any more live music but when there’s someone you really want to see you can often make it happen which is really cool.

Is this summer going to be full of festivals for you?

There should be a good few, I don’t think it’s going to be, like, crazy-busy because we've done a lot of festivals over the last few years, so we’re hitting a few that we haven’t done before like Truck. I’m hoping to do that and also get a bit of time to really focus on maybe getting a little break in at some point and also working on some more music at some point. So, it will be a summer of all of that, I think. 

What are you listening to at the moment?

Recently I’ve been listening to Joanna Newsom and I hadn't really listened to her stuff before because it’s not on Spotify or anything but I knew about her and she's got some amazing tunes… so weird but also, contained. It’s always kind of like grounded but weird at the same time. The song Good Intentions Paving Co. is super super good.

Thinking of International Women’s Day this month, are there are any other female musicians who have inspired the way you make music?

Absolutely, one of my favourite artists who I always talk about is St Vincent – she's kind of my guitar hero and probably my favourite modern guitar player. I love that she approaches every project differently but always finds innovative ways to play, so yeah, she's one of my influences in terms of how I perform, and how I make music. I watched her masterclass on song writing, so big big fan of her. I listen to tonnes of Kate Bush as well, I think she's one of my favourite artists really, because again she’s just aways pushing the boundaries.

Image credit: Henry Pearce

www.declanmckenna.net

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