- The BBC Artist of the Year is making teen pop safe for social commentary.
McKenna also speaks in complete sentences, which, in and of itself, would qualify him as the Anti-Bieber.
“I don’t really care what people think of my image,” says the affable Hertfordshire native. “I’m more of a songwriter than a looker or a whatever. I try to stay very separate from that, to not be airbrushed or look perfect or have a certain image. It’s just how I feel that day. And if I look like Justin Bieber in some of them, then great.”
McKenna’s debut album What Do You Think About the Car? was released last summer by Columbia Records. It’s an eye-opening collection that at times suggests a more innocent Bowie or a far less morose Morrissey. It’s also relentlessly catchy.
Much of the subject matter, on the other hand, is anything but lighthearted. “Paracetamol,” for instance, addresses the media’s representation of LGBT communities; McKenna wrote it in the wake of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn’s suicide.
“Brazil,” meanwhile, is a deceptively melodic protest song about FIFA’s exploitation of impoverished Brazilians during the World Cup: “I’m faithless now / We win every time, and I don’t know how / ’Cause I haven’t bought you, and I haven’t sold me / But the people are dying to get on TV.”
McKenna was just 16 years old when the song won him the Glastonbury Festival’s Emerging Talent Competition. It has since racked up more than 7 million views on YouTube, which will likely screw up any chances of being invited to do an official World Cup song.
“It’s probably pretty unlikely at the minute,” he admits, “but I really have no idea. I did make the [FIFA 2016] video game with the song ‘Isombard,’ funnily enough. Although I think the people who created their video game are probably a very different group to those that were at the top of the chain in FIFA.”
The album also features McKenna’s first co-write. A collaboration with Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, “Listen to Your Friends” opens with a spare voice-and-strings arrangement, before shifting gears into the kind of Graceland world-pop vibe that was once Vampire Weekend’s stock-in-trade.
The album’s most tuneful tracks, meanwhile, are “The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home” and the aptly named “Humongous.” The latter sounds like a millennial homage to Ray Davies, complete with a huge pop-chorus payoff and an unexpected time change that carries the song to its revved-up conclusion.
“That was one of the last songs I wrote for the record,” he says, “and I was expanding on my ideas a lot more than I’d ever done before — or even thought to. I’ve always loved songs where you don’t quite know what’s going to happen, where one thing turns into something completely different in a way that’s still fluid and cool. So yeah, I think I’ve learned how to do that a little bit.”
McKenna and his band are also learning a lot about life on the road, with more than half of the 40-plus shows on their current U.S. tour having sold out. Along the way, the artist is also stopping at high schools to play a few songs and answer questions from music and arts students. And yes, he says, the Parkland teens are clearly on everyone’s mind, but the topic hasn’t come up in his
conversations with students.
So is it just journalists who ask him about it constantly?
“Yeah, for example, now,” he responds dryly. “I don’t know what I can add to it. It’s a very genuine movement, and it’s very difficult to argue against people who have gone through the worst of what these types of guns can do. It was a massive shame and a horrible waste. But I think there are a lot of smart young people out there who will change things.”