Declan McKenna Is Making Space

Declan McKenna Is Making Space

Feb 12, 2024

Last year, British singer-songwriter Declan McKenna played 56 shows across the US, with two crowning sold-out dates at New York City’s Brooklyn Steel and Webster Hall. The 25-year-old grew up in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire a place world’s away — in both climate, distance and overall vibe — to sunny Los Angeles.

Still, as he prepared to create his third studio album What Happened To The Beach?, McKenna found himself in California, embracing the limbo between records and enjoying the “big shift like a change in weather.” Though his previous two releases, 2017’s What Do You Think About The Car? and 2020’s Zero’s, had waded into political-protest rock — and came packed with wordplay and doses of cynicism and observation draped over glittery, glam rock that would make Bowie blush — this time around McKenna decided on a different direction. His latest tracks ended up “being slightly less heavy, unfiltered and from the source,” he tells PAPER from his home in Brighton. “When I was writing a song, I wasn't necessarily thinking about a big concept or trying to communicate a particular idea. I was literally just listening to the sound and the melodies and kept working to serve the sound.”

Producer Gianluca Buccellati (aka Luca), who is known for his work with the likes Arlo Parks and Lana Del Rey, worked with McKenna to shape this new world, building a more expansive and spacious sound than his previous records. “Stumbling into the album wasn’t a grand plan,” McKenna says. “We allowed ourselves to discover the direction as we’ve gone along.”

McKenna has come a long way since he self-released his first soothing single “Brazil” on YouTube, drumming up attention from Glastonbury Festival’s emerging talent competition and introducing the world to his knack for protest lyrics, groovy beats and contagious lyricism. Now, nearly a decade later, he’s naturally ready to move into different territory, glitzy indie pop propensities in tow. What Happened To The Beach? boldly takes a psychedelic, swaggering twist in “Mulholland's Dinner and Wine” and an upbeat distorted detour on “Nothing Works.” Listened in full, McKenna’s latest is inventive, unexpected and delightfully strange.

“There are songs on this album that are slightly simpler, slightly less convoluted and I wanted to have moments where the lyrics were actually a bit sparse and it was more about the overall feeling of the track,” he says. “Changing up the process is something I do with every record. I always want to move on and try new things.”

Below, McKenna talks with PAPER about What Happened To The Beach?, how his approach to music-making has changed three albums in and what he’s most excited to share next.

You’ve talked about having sparse lyricism in this album compared to your previous releases and called this an escapist album. How did you create that space sonically and that feeling of escape in the studio?

The fact that Luca had lots of time because we weren't working in a big studio... we just had time to develop the ideas and time to try things. We could really make sure that when we were making things spacious and weird and out there we also had time to ground it, make it make sense, ground it emotionally. We could get lost and get spacey and weird. That was the key to it. There’s a lot of strange synth sounds and weird guitar sounds and strange backing vocals, and we could do all that but we also had time to refine it and glue it together. When I say it’s an escapist album, I don’t know how unintentional or intentional that was, but through time and the ability to freely go on a tangent that’s what we created.

You’ve toured so much since your first albums. Do you feel like that experience has impacted the sound or even the confidence we hear in What Happened To The Beach?

Confidence with the experience for sure. I've always made strange setlist and things have developed from certain things I've made in my bedroom and maybe before I just didn't have the confidence to execute or the know-how. So once I got in the studio, it’d be like, That’s just a weird stupid idea I’m obviously not going to actually do that. Whereas with this album and working with Luca we could always find a way to execute something weirder and know what an idea needs. When I was 16 and 17 working on those ideas, I didn’t have the experience or knowledge to do that. Because I've had experience in making records in different ways I've been able to tie in the best of everything I've learned, like working in a studio environment with someone like James Ford or Jay Joyce, or doing the complete opposite and recording in bedrooms and things like that. I can take from all of those experiences now in a functional way that doesn’t hinge on other people to carry it. I can insert my ideas into a different process.

I love the idea of getting to a place where ideas that felt outlandish before feel accessible now.

You get a bit scared when you get into the music industry and you’re trying to prove yourself [so you make] stuff that’s easy to convey what the end product is going to be. That’s the kind of stuff that’s easy to communicate to your team and label. Whereas if something is weird and you can’t execute it properly, it’s hard to get it to that final point. When you have the confidence you can be like, Hold on for a minute I actually do know where I’m going with this. We’ll have the strangest album tracks that obviously wouldn't be a single but in the context of the album, it's so important. In this album, I've just slightly more lent into not every song being a single, not every song being classically written. There are moments where it's not that at all. In the long run, I'd like to be where there's [music] that feels super together and formed and there's [music] that's a little more abstract and I’m just finding a place for everything that I can create.

I really love moments on the album like “Nothing Works” where you combine cutting lyrics with almost this giddiness sonically and you’ve talked about this album being like the music you like to listen to. Who are some of the artists you feel do that well?

MGMT’s second album Congratulations I listen to a lot, it’s probably a big influence on this album. I’ve started listening to Joanna Newsom. It’s hard to pinpoint what her songs are about just by listening to them straight up, but she’s still managed to make it feel like a story and a journey. Her instrumentation is generally fairly simple if the parts are a bit weird but she’ll just take you on such a journey.

Was there a moment in the studio or a song that made you realize you were going in the right direction with this album? Sort of like a “spark” or “aha” moment?

When I was working on “Mulholland's Dinner and Wine” it felt effortless and a simplified version of what I’ve already had a go at but cooler. Luca would come up with ideas that were simple and you could listen to for ages and that’s what we did while we were writing it. We were driving around and playing it in the car and it felt like it was possibly one of the most important songs on the album so that was that moment in LA.

What do you hope your fans feel when they finally get to hear What Happened To The Beach? live?

Hopefully, it’s a more dynamic version of my live show. I think I've gradually introduced more ups and downs and each album has different flavors that I can throw into the setlist. I'm just imagining more and more of an emotional roller coaster. There's some more relaxed and mid-tempo and just flowy groovy tunes and I think that those will feel more like the core of the set than the heavier stuff, but hard to say because you know, until we really get going with with the new album, we don't know exactly what it will be. I feel like it'll be a little more up and down and a little more variety going on, which is exciting. I'm just not looking forward to picking the setlist because I think we've got too many songs now.

Photography: Henry Pearce