„Creativity comes from letting go“: A relaxed talk with Declan McKenna on trusting your own process

Declan McKenna on „What Happened to the Beach?“ (Photo Credits: Henry Pearce)

After being called the voice of a generation, Declan McKenna has found a more personal way to express himself on his third record „What Happened to the Beach?“ released last week. I spoke to the British artist beforehand about the weight of expectations, creating what feels good and the importance of better weather.

The first and only time I heard some of the songs that shaped my teenage self live, was at the Global Climate Strike in 2019. My eager 18-year-old self had planned on attending during my visit in London, but on that particular day I sat at the table of an old friend and just as she made some tea, my phone vibrated. Declan Mckenna had spontaneously announced a small gig at the strike and I did what I had to do – politely ask her to catch up later and leave her with the two steaming cups in her hands as I ran to the tube. What followed was a dance in the rain with strangers as Declan sang words of frustration over a planet full of injustice that rumbled in all our little hearts. Now, many years later, in a still very much corrupt world, I sit in front of a computer screen on a grey winter day and hear the singer talk about Californian sunshine, about what he has learned throughout his now third album.

“The main thing is the pressure you put on yourself. If you had some success with the first record, you wonder where to take things, you ask yourself ‘Can I really get away with this?’”, he reflects on „Zeros“ from 2020 in comparison to his latest experience. Through releasing music which suddenly resonated with so many, there came the expectation to continue to do so in the same way. Yet you can’t hinder yourself from growing. “This pressure, even though it might sometimes be there, it doesn’t really impact my creativity anymore and I found myself in a place where I am able to execute my ideas.” So how did he approach this anxiety during the process of “What Happened to the Beach?”, I wonder. “Of course you have all these outside influences, like friends, the label or the team – but what made the difference for me was starting to trust myself, knowing what I like. It’s better when you wholeheartedly go for your own ideas rather than second guessing yourself based on what someone wants from you. Creativity comes from letting go and exploring freely.”

His commitment to this comes through when listening to the songs, noticing all the little atmospheric sounds and lyrics flowing like a stream of conciousness. In “Nothing Works” he also seems to address the music industry quite directly, while the accompanying video visualizes the pressure to perform that haunts Declan all the way to his dreams. “What troubles me is that there is a lot of fear that music needs to follow a certain pattern to succeed – and there has been a lot of great talent wasted because of it. People could get something more worth listening to if artists are supported to express themselves rather than make the industry feel comfortable. So the song tries to address that nothing is going to work other than doing things my own way.” He goes on to explain how ideas are reviewed before they’re even finished and then often met with the suggestion to play it safer. But “What Happened to the Beach?” couldn’t have flourished like that. “The process was more like ‘Hold on, guys, let’s just trust ourselves and see where this ends up’. Unfortunately, many artists don’t really get the chance and time to do that.”

There exists, and not only in creative contexts, a demand for acts to be heavy with meaning, with sense, when sometimes we just want to play around like kids. I ask Declan why it can be so difficult to accept fun as an explanation that is enough and he laughs as he admits that he has been trying to answer that question for a while. “It might be easier to promote a story that is reportedly full of meaning. I started my career with stuff that was a direct nod to things and the press seemed to focus only on that as if there wasn’t a whole song behind it. It can become harder to explain when you made something that just – feels good. But there is a point to creating such music, because you can’t absorb so much all of the time.” This experimental approach is refreshing, the abstract ideas develop a beautiful life on their own when one does not try to dissect them. While he has returned to album titles in the form of questions, this one isn’t a child memory but rather also an expression of not wanting to be pinned down too heavily. There were some beaches involved in the making though – one can practically hear the Californian sunshine radiate through the sound.

„Gradually, you let go of any worries of what picture it might paint of you because being vulnerable is a really powerful thing to do.“

– Declan on the impact of sheer honesty in your own music

“I left home in the middle of winter and simply being surrounded by better weather allows you to take it a bit easier”, he responds as I ask what impact the change of place had for his creative process. “A lot of the songs needed this relaxed approach instead of overcooking them. Also Los Angeles as a city is really inspiring, it offers so much to draw from and invites you to do different things.” L.A.’s influence with its hip parties on sunny hills becomes most clear on “Mullholland’s Dinner And Wine” where Declan slips into the role of a criminal driving around in a golf cart. Through this character he adresses themes of emptiness, of looking for satisfaction and love in all the wrong places. What appeal does it have to tell someone else’s story from one’s own point of view? “The track felt so groovy immediately that the lyrics were just written around that. One line at a time, we were building a world this sound could live in. And it just wanted to be badass, I guess! I’ve always liked writing in characters, because sometimes an outer perspective can be a better way of communicating something.”

Still, this third one seems like a quite personal record – not cloaking struggles in poetic metaphors but rather naming them. It can’t be easy to just strip away shielding layers like letting a fictional protagonist speak for you. “What made the album more than just a fun album for me, even though that is at the heart of it, was trying to get my feelings across in a way that feels natural. I have not always been the person to wear my heart on my sleeve, a lot of the time I’ve been looking outward or, as we talked about, creating a story. The album couldn’t just be composed of whacky, fun ideas, it needed to be grounded in real emotions. Gradually, you let go of any worries of what picture it might paint of you because being vulnerable is a really powerful thing to do.” In the end, this honesty seems to be what draws people to certain music and makes them stick to it. I ask for some more wisdom he wants to share before the interview finishes and he says: “Take Vitamin D supplements and wrap up warm!” And if that is not enough to combat winter, try listening to What Happened To The Beach?” on repeat.

Declan McKenna – „What Happened to the Beach“ (listen now!)