"It’s a very turbulent and destructive world and this record is a product of it" - Declan McKenna talks making new LP Zeros
For the entirety of the build-up and aftermath to the release of Declan McKenna’s debut album, What Do You Think About the Car?, all anymore wanted to talk about was his youth.
McKenna first came to some prominence when he was just 15 after he won Glastonbury Festival's Emerging Talent Competition. That earned him a record deal, and his debut LP, which was largely composed in the months after his Glastonbury appearance, was released in 2017.
After two years of heavy touring and the writing and making of a second record, McKenna is just 21, but he’s gathered a huge amount of experience and a new breadth of influences.
His new LP, Zeros, McKenna headed to Nashville to work with producer Jay Joyce.
Joyce, whose credits include Halestorm, Little Big Town and Eric Church, the album finds McKenna delving more into country and the 70s sonics of Bob Dylan and Crosby, Stills and Nash.
We spoke to McKenna about why he decided on Joyce, Nashville and the sonics of Zeros…
It’s a very odd time to be putting out a record, are you managing to enjoy it all?
“Sort of. It hasn’t been loads of fun and re-jigging everything to do with the release took a lot of doing. We’ve been trying to come up with new ways to re-engage with people when normally I’d be playing gigs. With every day, it gets a bit more monotonous, it’s difficult to get very excited about your new album when you’re home every day.”
“Weirdly, it’s been more demanding, I’ve had to create a lot more, make more videos, things like that. I’ve not been able to rely on the people I normally would and I have been getting stuck in ruts at home. I feel like we’re getting there now and almost through it.”
At least you’re at the start of your album cycle, rather than having to cut things off in the middle…
“If we were out in the middle of a big US tour, then it would have a total nightmare. But it’s just gutting because we had a whole year of touring and festivals all lined up. That’s just disappeared. We’d had a bit of time off touring and we’d played three shows and that’s going to be our lot for the year. I’m not in the worst position, I’ve got to be grateful.”
When were these songs written? Did you put them together as you were touring? Or is it a more focused burst?
“It was over quite a long time, easily a year and a half. I got back from touring in America and I had a few songs, but the summer of 2018 was when I wrote the majority of the tracks. Most of it was written in Finsbury Park, which is where I was living at the time. I wouldn’t say it was a particularly focused period of time. I didn’t make myself knuckle down. But I had concepts and a consistent approach that I held onto."
"It did then take another six months before we made it out to Nashville to record. Jay was just so busy. And, since we’ve finished it, it’s been another year. Extension after extension after extension.”
Was Jay someone you identified? Or was he put to you by management or the label?
“I was listening to Melophobia by Cage The Elephant and I wanted to see who produced it. Fortunately, I share management with Cage The Elephant, so getting in touch and getting him the demos was quite easy. We hit it off on the phone and he had the perfect energy for the albums. I loved the feel of those Cage The Elephant albums and I wanted the feel of that room for my album. I wanted it to have more energy and more like a band, like we do when we play live, so I took my band out to Nashville to work.”
You worked with a few different producers on the first album, were you keen to just work with one person on this record?
“I had more of a sense of direction on this album. I didn’t need to try lots of producers to get the songs together. I’d never worked with a producer before, I didn’t know what was a good working relationship, so it was natural I’d work with a few different ones. This time, I knew I wanted to do the record in one go and give it real consistency. It was exciting."
"The first record was so broken up. I’d have a couple of songs and a spare week and I’d go and work. This time, we actually gave the album the time it deserved and I really expanded my horizons. I didn’t want to make a record by piecing different sessions together.”
You went to Nashville to work, every band we speak to all say a version of ‘I loved it, but everybody works very hard and very quickly’. Do you have a different story to tell?
“No, it was very fast-paced! I really enjoyed that. I wouldn’t say it was your typical Nashville record, I didn’t get whisked into writing sessions. But we worked at a real click and that was a good thing for the record. I’d had such a long time with the songs and it helped make things excited. We tried lots of things and really experimented."
"I put a lot more trust in my band to do their own parts and Jay was really good at getting involved when he needed to and stepping out the way when that was the right move. A lot of ideas were flying around and the album really benefited from it being more like a traditional band record.”
How did you find living and working in Nashville? Did you get out much?
“We went to the strip a few times. It’s a bit mad down there. It’s not a great place to hang out, it’s a lot of stag do’s and covers bands. It’s fun for a bit, but it is very tacky. We hung out with some people we’d met on tour and they showed us some more niche spots. We weren’t doing late days in the studio, we weren’t pushing too hard and we had time to enjoy the city. I did enjoy being out of London and going round a city on electric scooters.”
Had you always planned to go away and work? Or was it just that Jay was in Nashville?
“It was primarily for Jay, but I did like the idea of going away. I didn’t know where I wanted to go, but when Nashville was floated, I liked the prospect. You don’t get the space in studios in London. Jay’s studio is this massive converted church with so much amazing gear and great engineers who can set anything up really quickly.”
We’ve spoken to a lot of British bands who’ve gone to Los Angeles or Nashville or upstart New York to make an album. We don’t think there’s ever been an American band who’ve come to London to make a record…
“You’d go to a residential studio where you can live and breathe. It’s just so expensive to do anything in London, especially when you need the space to make noise. Even in a city like Nashville, there’s so much space. Jay has really built a great set-up and it was nice not to feel pinned down by the obligations you’d inevitably have in London.”
Do you have a sense of whether the record has a theme? Or is every song a bit of an island?
“There are definitely themes, though it is a lot of different things at once. I was thinking about the environment a lot and my own turbulent time writing the album. A lot of change. Touring for so long and coming back a different person. I’ve been figuring out how to live and how to write songs somewhere that wasn’t my bedroom at my parents’ house. When music isn’t your job, you tend to give it all the space you’ve got to give, whereas when it becomes your living, you have to find a balance.”
“There’s also the modern world. I see people hammering away online and getting fired up over arbitrary things and how it pushes people apart. It’s a very turbulent and destructive world and this record is a product of it.”
When did you decide that Zeros was the right fit for the title? Did you kick any others around?
“There were a few, but I’ve forgotten them. Zeros came after Nashville. I sat down trying to tie the whole thing together. I knew I wanted something simple and a single word, especially after how long-winded my first album title was. I wanted to go the opposite way and Zeros tied it all. It was the future, it was loneliness, it was binary code, all the things I’d be hinting at on the record…”