The dynamic duo, Simon and Brian, are joined by a talented young musician with a penchant for writing political songs
Declan McKenna is one of the most exciting young songwriting talents to emerge onto the UK scene in quite some time. Included alongside the likes of Rag ‘n’ Bone Man on the BBC’s recent Sound Of 2017 list, his debut album What Do You Think About The Car? looks set to become one of the most talked about records of the year.
Born in Hertfordshire in 1998, McKenna grew up in the commuter town of Cheshunt. Having played the guitar from a very early age, it was as he entered his teens that he began to take music more seriously and while studying for his GCSEs he entered and won the 2015 Glastonbury Festival Emerging Talent Competition. In August of the same year Declan released his first single Brazil, amply demonstrating his precocious songwriting abilities it brought him to the attention of the wider public with its withering criticism of the powers behind the 2014 World Cup.
When he wasn’t performing live around the word, Declan was putting together his debut album in London with producer James Ford (Arctic Monkeys, Florence And The Machine). The record demonstrates McKenna’s knack for tackling both the personal and the political, sometimes combining the two – as on the single The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home.
So it’s over to Simon and Brian to delve a little deeper into the mind of this talented young star…
The first thing that struck us about the album is the choruses which are all super solid, is that an important songwriting skill do you think?
“Yeah 100%. I think the first thing that is almost always going to hook you to a song and make you listen to it is a banging chorus so that’s what you’ve got to aim for and I think that’s what I tried to do with these songs. I’ve been touring a lot with Blossoms while I have been making this album and they have some grand choruses, which is cool. I’m trying to do something like that and I listen to a lot of music with big grand choruses and try to make something that’s punchy and powerful.”
Humungous is a good example of that, the way it opens out with those very atmospheric voices. What are your memories of writing that song?
“I think Humungous is my favourite one on the record, mostly because it’s the most recent one I wrote. I wrote it really close to the deadline of when I was supposed to be finishing my album and it kind of just happened when I was sitting at home playing on my guitar messing around with some chords. I think I was listening to ABBA or something and I was just messing about with one of the chord progressions. It was written trying to have that big chorus, something I want to shout and put a lot of energy into when I do it live. It kind of went that way when I started writing the lyrics as well, it just became quite powerful. Aggressive but not fast paced or anything, just putting a lot of power into a few words. It’s not overly wordy but it feels quite big and I was really happy making that because it feels like a step in the right direction for where I go afterwards as well, considering it was the last one I made for this record.”
Make Me Your Queen is another one that we love, what can you tell us about the writing of that one?
“That was actually the second last one I made for the record. Both came around the same time and I recorded them in the same session so they have a bit of continuity sonically and songwriting-wise. The influence is somewhere between George Harrison and ABBA. With Make Me Your Queen I kind of wanted to make a post-truth-era love anthem, an anti-love song to the political elite or something pretentious like that. I didn’t really know what it was going to be, but it was parts of other different songs and then I turned these country love song lyrics into something a bit sarcastic and a bit satirical, trying to not take myself too seriously with it but it still touches on something a little bit serious and prominent. It was an interesting writing process. That one I wrote pretty much in an hour or two, once I’d got all the ideas together.”
There’s a lovely verse melody on that one. Does that stuff tend to come pretty quickly to you or do you experiment with lots of different tunes to find the best one?
“Humungous is one where I went through loads, because I had this chorus that I was in love with but I had all these different ideas for verses. I felt that was probably the strongest chorus that I’d written at the time and I wanted to have a verse that matched that. I went through maybe three or four different ideas until I eventually I came back to the first or second one that I made…
“Make Me Your Queen a I already had the chorus but the verse kind of wrote itself quite quickly and again it’s another one that depends on the song. Sometimes the verse is second nature, you’ve written the chorus and you know what the verse is going to be and sometimes you’ll have a chorus and you won’t have a verse or you’ll have a verse and you won’t have a chorus and you’ll spend months and months trying to put different songs together.”
Is there a point at which lyrics become really important, do you tend to finalise the melody and then hang the words on that melody?
“It depends, sometimes the lyrics can be almost second to the actual melodies but sometimes the lyrics are the motif. You think of a couple of words, you don’t have melody and you don’t have the tune and it’s like, ‘yeah that’s strong, this is where I want to start this song from,’ and sometimes they will just go into something you’ve already made or they’ll just start something different. I like to spend a lot of time on lyrics but whether that’s right at the start or at the end, it really does depend.”
Do you get the opportunity to work out ideas with you band or are they mainly involved in the performing side of things?
“I haven’t written anything or recorded anything with the band other than live versions. In terms of recording the actual album there was no sort of involvement from the band. I have thought about trying to do it because I think it would help out with the live show a little bit if we already knew what we were doing rather than having a song recorded and then be like ‘right we need to recreate this.’ So I have thought about that but as it stands for the majority of the album it was myself, James Ford and his engineer who would work on everything and between us we could play all of the parts and so it worked out a lot easier to do it that way in the studio. There’s not loads of people waiting around to do something. As well, because there’s a lot of experimentation going on sonically with what we were doing… having too many cooks might have been a negative thing for this first album which has been quite cluttered and all over the place.”
Was it always the guitar you were interested in writing songs with, you started on classical and then switched to electric later on?
“Yeah I always wanted to play electric guitar, it was just that at my school you could either learn classical acoustic guitar or you could learn the flute. So I got fifty quid and went to Cash Converters and bought a Squire Stratocaster and started learning stuff on my own. I stuck all of my Match Attax stickers all over my guitar, it was horrible. Eventually that guitar actually got stolen from my conservatory.
“I’ve always had my guitar as my main instrument but more and more I’ve been writing on the piano. It’s because it’s a very different thing, especially not knowing much about the piano. You can accidentally play things and then be like ‘actually that’s really cool,’ so it’s nice to write on something that you don’t have as much knowledge about or experience on.”
You’ve been writing songs for quite a long time haven’t you?
“Yeah a really long time to be honest. I’ve been writing songs forever, when I was really really young, maybe six or seven, I had a band with my sister and two of my cousins. We would all write songs and perform them in the living room, stuff that I think a lot of kids do but I think I was one that never really got out of that phase and just kept doing it.”
You had a musical upbringing, most of your family at least play an instrument…
“Yeah most of siblings and my parents as well at least do something arty. My parents both play instruments, my dad plays the guitar and my mum plays keys and the flute and sings. My oldest brother played electric guitar so I was brought up around music.”
When it comes to your more political charged songs will you tend to have a list of issues you’d like to tackle or does it happen in a more organic way than that?
“One question I often get asked is ‘what are you going to write about next?’ and I don’t know, there’s not really a checklist that I go through. Normally if I do write something political I’ll have seen something on the news or passed something on the street or whatever. I’ll have experienced something or someone will have said something and you’re like, ‘Okay I’m going to write about this.’ Or you just start writing a song and you’re like ‘okay I’m writing about said topic.’It just kind of happens in the same way as if I’m writing something a bit more on the personal side of things, it will be like, ‘Oh something’s happened to me, I’m writing a song about that now.’ It’s the same sort of thing.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have more than 100 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo, Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Paul Simon, Ben Watt, Justin Currie, Willy Russell, Lamont Dozier, Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall, Dan Gillespie Sells and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the 36-minute interview with Declan McKenna – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.