declan mckenna is the musical social conscience of generation z

As we share the Matt Lambert-directed video for "Paracetamol," get to know the young talent.

by Milly McMahon
17 March 2016, 6:54pm

Frustrated by condescending misconceptions which undermine the intelligence of younger generations, musician Declan McKenna has faith in the wisdom of youth. A talented 17-year-old singer songwriter with a social conscience and a progressive outlook on life, he is the Columbia-signed artist whose voice is breaking in more ways than one. Disturbing Declan from an afternoon nap midway though his debut SXSW expedition, a tentative voice laughs from the end of the line. Flown across seas to introduce his very British sound at the very American industry event, word about Declan has crossed continents since he won Glastonbury Festival's Emerging Talent Competition in 2015. With just three official tracks to perform, Declan's debut release "Brazil" made headline news. Speaking on the injustice of FIFA -- or more specifically, Sepp Blatter -- parading the decadent and affluent culture of soccer in the face of Brazil's relative poverty, Declan appeared on Sky News calling the sport out for its insolence. 

Advocating equality, freedom and self expression, Declan's most recent release entitled "Paracetamol" expands on the tragic suicide of American transgender teen Leelah Alcorn. Reimagining the pain and torment Leelah endured after being subjected to conversion therapy, posting her suicide note via Tumblr, her torment sparked a petition calling for a ban on such damaging and regressive aversion therapies. Shooting a poignant and affecting short film with irreverent Berlin filmmaker Matt Lambert, his visuals accompany the arresting and poetically composed song beautifully. A soft and sad commentary on the limiting effects ugly judgment can have on young and innocent people, Declan brings an issue to the world's attention which demands our understanding. Composed of songs which combine important cultural moments and personal experiences, Declan's debut album will give an original and insightful glimpse into the life of a very modern young man.

Do you prefer to channel your own emotions through the voice of a character or through the vehicle of a situation?
I guess l am quite engaged in with current affairs, l listen to the news. I'm quite an emotive person too; l feel compassionate and l can get angry at the unfairness of certain situations even if they aren't directly affecting me, like the content of a lot of my songs would suggest. I tend to write from the perspective of a character rather than just my own [self.] If it were my own perspective, it wouldn't have as much character. I tend to write in the first perspective; l never choose the style of the song, it just tends to happen. I guess that's the result of being in school and the way we are taught to write stories.

Why did you find issues surrounding transgender people so affecting?
I've got a lot of trans friends who have gone through a lot of similar issues in the LGBT community and it's something that l have always felt engaged with. Once l had the idea for "Paracetamol," the song came very naturally. l got quite riled up about prejudices surrounding trans people especially after hearing the story of Leelah Alcorn -- it was just the idea of transgender conversion therapy and trying to 'fix someone.' I never realized that kind of thing was going on in the world. There was a lot of similarities between what she went through and what my friends endured. It's something that l am all about; l am a big fan of David Bowie so l am very into letting people be whoever they want to be allowing people freedom.

You demonstrate a level of self acceptance to people on a wider scale, but do you have that same affirmation when it comes to yourself?
Yeah, l feel like l am like every teenager with my insecurities, but at this point at my life more than ever before, l am very comfortable in myself. A lot of people aren't and l should be because there is not reason not to be. I think for the younger generation listening to my music, it is important to hear that you should be your own person and accept yourself for who you are rather than following social standards.

I interviewed an artist called Lontalius who recently released an album called I'll Forget 17, which speaks about the exact opposite frame of mind at the same age.
Everyone has had different experiences so they will write about different things but it is nice to see artists my age writing about their lives. I think about issues that young people have to endure. The problem, l think, is that generally, society does not think young people are intelligent, but they are. Some of the most intelligent or wise people l know are my age or younger. People think that if you are young, you don't know what is best for you. That's a myth. That's generally expressed in the media through films that are aimed at a younger audience. They are all generally pretty stupid and they don't have much substance to them. My friends and people my age don't want to see that, they want to see young people represented properly; they want something on their level and not dumbed down. One of the reasons l write is to not to change the minds of people who oppress others or who have wrong ideas about young people or trans people, it's more about letting those people who are oppressed know that they're ok. In stories with transitioning and struggle, there's often an unhappy ending and l feel like it's important to see the positive outcome. It's not fair to say to transgender people 'your life is going to be shit cause everyone is going to oppress you' because that's not true. With friendship, love, and self respect you can have a happy life like anyone else because you are just like anyone else.

Do you see yourself as an activist in music?
I don't know. I just write songs because l enjoy it, l never thought to be an activist. If that's what l am then that's cool, but l just wrote songs because l enjoyed writing songs it's a good way to express your thoughts, really. It's important to write about important topics that can help other people, there's no better medium for that than music. I don't want to make music to just help myself; l feel like that is the wrong idea. I might as well help other people.

If someone could have written a song when you were going through a difficult time in your life, what would it have been written about that could have offered you a sense of comfort?
It was a song that l didn't acknowledge at the time because the whole album was so good, l didn't really notice how good this one song was. It's a song from Tame Impala's Lonerism called "Why Wont They Talk to Me?"  It just sums up wanting to be accepted and wanting to not be different but struggling to fit in. That song is the one that would have empowered me. It just sums up the way everyone feels about fitting in.

Will you carry on making short films to accompany your music?
The first music video l made was just me and a couple of friends with camera just going through London filming. This one was the complete opposite. It wasn't a amateur production, we had an amazing director and some really cool actors, we didn't really specifically follow the narrative of the song. I would like to do something creative for each of the track l wrote, but l guess we can just see what happens over the next couple of months. I would love to be able to make short films. That is half the fun of being creative in music.

Are you quite into filmmaking?
I'm not that good at it but l like putting together ideas and seeing the finished product; in this case the majority of the thinking was from Matt Lambert and his team. It just turned into something l love. I enjoyed collaborating with people who had great ideas.

What musicians would you like to work with in the future?
I would love to write with St. Vincent or Tame Impala or EMO, Sufjan Stevens. David Longstreth from Dirty Projectors is just incredible; he's really diverse person. He will write these crazy Dirty Projectors-type songs and then is one of the co-writers on "FourFiveSeconds." He can do anything; he is crazy. There's a load of people l would love to work with.

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