To call Declan McKenna precocious would be a bit of an understatement.
Though he’s just 19, the Englishman — who plays at the Majestic Theatre on March 11 — is already writing better songs than guys twice his age, and with loads more heart and insight. Like Damon Albarn or Jarvis Cocker before him, McKenna’s got a sharp eye for social critique, which he couples with a bouncy brand of indie rock that’s straight out of 1998. (That’s also, incidentally, the year McKenna was born. Feel old yet?)
On his debut studio album, What Do You Think About the Car?, McKenna navigates touchy topics, like the media’s depiction of transgender teens (“Paracetamol”) and FIFA’s exploitation of an impoverished nation (“Brazil”), with wide-eyed empathy. In the hands of a lesser writer even the most well-intentioned messages might come off as clumsy, but McKenna handles them a delicate touch.
“It’s about coming from an honest place and not forcing anything,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I try to be really sincere and say something that’s valid and worth hearing about. Even if what I believe changes within the next couple of years, at least at that point in my life, I was being honest with myself and honest with the people who were gonna listen to my music.”
So where did such a young guy find such an assured sound?
McKenna credits his older brothers, who were heavily into what he calls “the noughties London/U.K. scene” where jangly bands like Mystery Jets and The Maccabees rose to prominence. And more recently, working with Britpop vet James Ford — who produced McKenna’s album — played a big role.
“I’ve listened to a lot of James Ford’s records that he’s worked on over the years, whether I knew it or not,” McKenna says of the former member of Simian Mobile Disco who’s also produced hit albums by Arctic Monkeys and Mumford and Sons.
Ford has a knack for creating “massive songs,” McKenna explains, which fits right in line with his own vision of growing his sound as fully as he possibly can.
“I’ve always wanted to be self-sufficient in terms of the sound and the writing,” McKenna says. “And I still went in with songs that I had completely written myself, but we very much worked together sonically on it.”
With such a clear vision, it’s easy to forget that McKenna’s still relatively new at this. Albarn was 23 when Blur released its debut album. Cocker was into his 30s before Pulp’s breakthrough. Still in his teens, Declan McKenna’s future looks bright.