Declan McKenna talks success, free expression, being a meme at Lollapalooza 2017

Photo by Eric Goodwin / Assistant News Editor

Not many 18-year-olds have the bragging rights English songwriter Declan McKenna has.

He played Glastonbury this summer, having won the festival’s Emerging Talent Competition the previous year. He played at BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge, and his hit single “Brazil” reached number 16 on Billboard’s alternative songs chart in 2016.

As of Thursday, McKenna, who signed to Columbia Records in 2016, can also add a performance at Lollapalooza to his growing list of achievements. But no matter how successful McKenna becomes, he tries to stay levelheaded about it.

“No matter what it is you’re aiming for, I think I’ve realized you always want more, and you can’t really do that to yourself. It’s stressful,” he said in an interview with Sidelines.

McKenna retains an air of nonchalance that fits the youthful persona he embodies. Commenting on a YouTube video whose thumbnail reads, “Declan McKenna being a meme,” he said it’s a tough life “living the meme.”

“People think it’s all fun and games, but like, when you’re a living meme, you have to be hardcore,” McKenna said. “You can’t go half-hearted on that sort of s–t.”

Yet McKenna speaks with a wisdom that reveals itself in his lyrics. For example, the song “Bethlehem” off his July 21 debut album “What Do You Think About the Car?” addresses religious hypocrisy and the exclusivity of love in a religious world.

I don’t have an entirely negative perspective on religion despite what people might think of me,” McKenna said. “I’ve seen as much good as bad.” 

Growing up in a religious setting (he went to a Church of England high school), McKenna said he has seen the positive and negative effects of religion.

(Religion is) what people live their lives by, so if they believe in something, then a lot of the time that becomes bigotry because they don’t believe that anyone else could be right. They don’t believe that anyone else could have their own opinion and just let it be,” he said. 

The serious messages McKenna conveys through upbeat music is an intentional juxtaposition, he said. Radio-friendly tracks like “Paracetamol,” a song that addresses transgender representation in popular media, are marked by bright melodies backed by catchy guitar-pop tunes.

I feel like you can kind of express a lot more when it’s not just straightforward. Because emotions aren’t straightforward, are they?” he said, which could explain the contrast of serious messages with cheery riffs.

I like, at the same time, making music that’s kind of misleading,” he said. “Because a lot of what I write about is stuff that is misleading in our world.”

McKenna wrote the song “Brazil” when he was 15 years old. It’s a socially driven message about the FIFA association’s corruption surrounding the World Cup, and it’s also the first song that propelled him to American radio stations.

So it doesn’t come as a surprise that McKenna would make a political statement during his first stop in the U.S. following the release of his debut album. To close out his set at Lollapalooza, McKenna wore an unflattering face mask of President Trump while giving an impromptu speech about free expression.

McKenna said he decided to add that bit because he read an article which claimed a U.K. band had been denied entry into the U.S. for mocking the president. While the article has been updated to clarify that the artist had the wrong VISA, McKenna’s belief in free expression encompasses all facets of life.

There’s numbers and numbers of things that come under the bracket of expression that the people are restricted from,” he said. McKenna said out-of-touch politicians trying to restrict free speech in the world is “f—ing terrifying.”

“Paracetamol” is a song about the exclusion of young voices in the political world. McKenna, who acquired the ability to vote less than a year ago, said he uses his platform to speak for what he cares about.

“If you feel comfortable with it, just go out there and try and speak as loudly as possible as you can. I did that through releasing lots of songs about things that I care about.”

McKenna will play five more shows in America for his “What Do You Think About the Car?” tour before playing at Summer Sonic Festival in Tokyo, Japan.

But no matter how far he goes in his career, McKenna said “enjoying yourself and being happy” is paramount to the highest degree. “You can play a show to 10,000 people and just be like, ‘That was s–t,’ and you can play a show to 50 people and be like, ‘That was the best night ever,'” he said.

To contact Lifestyles Editor Tayhlor Stephenson, email

For more updates, follow us at, on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter/Instagram at @Sidelines_Life.

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