Declan McKenna Is Humongous And Small

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Coachella
– Declan McKenna
Declan McKenna performs onstage during the 2018 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Field on April 21, 2018 in Indio, California.

Declan McKenna was 15 years old when he wrote “Brazil,” a song about the impoverished masses suffering while FIFA staged the 2014 World Cup in that country without doing anything for the people.

That social commentary drew a ton of ears and eyeballs to the budding singer/songwriter, most importantly Cliff Burnstein and his colleagues at Q Prime, who began working with the artist when he was 16.

“It was his writing, it totally was his writing,” Burnstein told Pollstar. “We’re very difficult to impress. Typically, we listen to something new thinking we’re gonna turn it off in 20 seconds – and that’s usually the way it is. This one, bam, right off from the intro we were hooked.”

Burnstein saw that the music, that irreplaceable ingredient, was very strong, and he was confident the abilities of performance and promotion would develop in time. Now McKenna’s manager, he booked a run of shows for the young artist at SXSW in 2016 and watched him grow through the inevitable disappointments of early gigs.

“I remember seeing him at his first show and everything was falling apart. His whole rig was falling apart, he was very uncomfortable. It was at a bar, people were talking the whole time, it was in the afternoon. It was kinda crappy,” Burnstein continued. “He was very disheartened. … He barely said a word while we were eating dinner. He was just so despondent.

“I stayed around SXSW for the rest of the week and saw his other shows, and by the end of it, he was like ‘Man, I can do this.’ In the course of a week, he had already progressed tremendously.”

Over the last two years, McKenna has been mastering live performances of the songs on his debut album, What Do You Think About The Car?, which came out in 2017 through Columbia Records. With the addition of a live band and years of practice, Burnstein said McKenna is reaching new heights as an artist.

The young Brit played a full two months of headline dates throughout North America, in large and small markets like Lawrence, Kansas and Akron, Ohio, as Burnstein makes a point of getting his artists away from playing just the coasts. He then played his largest two headline dates in Manchester and London, with 2,500 at each performance according to Burnstein, then he returned to North America for appearances at Coachella and more headline shows, including a play for 1,700 in his Mexico City debut.

Photo by Visionhaus#GP/Corbis via Getty Images
– Declan McKenna
Declan McKenna performs live on stage at The Ritz, Manchester on October 23, 2017 in Manchester, England.

People lined up around the block to see the artist in Fresno, which McKenna told Pollstar had become a trend for the tour. The audience largely consisted of teenagers, many of whom eagerly sang along to Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus piped through the PA while waiting for the show.

While McKenna’s recorded music tows the line between alternative and pop, the live show is performed by a four-piece band and McKenna with room for extended guitar solos, leaps across the stage, and demands that the crowd lose their inhibitions and dance. The overwhelming theme of the audience, the band and the music is that it is so inherently young. McKenna has been on the road, opening for The Head And The Heart and playing major festivals for three years, but he is still only 19 years old.

McKenna frequently cites David Bowie and ABBA as influences, and when asked about his career goals, he said the mission has remained the same throughout his journey: “I love great music and I want to make music that I consider great. I’ve made a lot of music that I love but I want to keep progressing.”

That passion for songwriting, Burnstein said, is what got his attention and it is what will give McKenna a 30- to 40-year career. Rather than having McKenna work with songwriters to create music that can be sold, Burnstein said the team’s goal is just to let him write the music that comes from himself.

The challenge within this approach, of course, is finding ways to connect people to music that doesn’t necessarily sound like anything else. While Burnstein wasn’t totally willing to give away the secret sauce, he said, “We think of things, we try them. … If his audience is growing, we know we’re on the right path. And his audience is growing.”

The extended touring is bearing fruit in some of the highest streaming numbers of McKenna’s career, Burnstein said. Merch sales, even in many of the small markets, were excellent, with an average of $10 a head.

McKenna said whereas his recorded music is more about artistry, the live show is more about having fun – which might be one reason the tour is eliciting such a response.

“I grew up going to rock ‘n’ roll gigs and indie gigs that were really high energy and that really pumped me up. I love that about live music, and that’s what we try to do with the live gig.”

When asked if there was anyone who inspired him at Coachella, McKenna said he loved the sets from St. Vincent (“The presentation was incredible. She’s doing very interesting things with the live show,”) and David Byrne (“That show felt like the most original live production I’d ever seen”).

McKenna still has some festival appearances lined up at TRNSMT, Paleo and Boardmasters this summer, but he and his band were most looking forward to a period to decompress after the “longest, roughest tour we’ve ever done.” Beyond the recent touring, he said he’s been thinking about writing, recording, performing and promoting music continuously for several years, so a break will be most welcome.

The next step in his career will be to write another album, but Burnstein emphasized that there is no rush, as the most important thing will always be the songwriting.