Jay Joyce was the most unlikely of collaborators. Known for crafting records by Cage the Elephant, Little Big Town, and Halestorm, among countless others, Joyce has a particularly unwavering eye for style. Yet his genre-blurring excellence fits Declan McKenna like a glove. McKenna’s pop psychedelia reaches into the stratosphere with his second record, Zeros, situated somewhere between Bowie’s Hunky Dory and Elton John’s glitter-stained piano balladry (circa Goodbye Yellow Brick Road).
McKenna folds in his own singular imagination, dressed up as a lead protagonist named Daniel, whose trek through space and time reframes earth’s quick descent into decay and madness. From hypnotic gamma rays buried in “You Better Believe!!!” to fizzy percussive stomps in “Daniel, You’re Still a Child,” Zeros swirls with the unexpected, much like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole into wonderland.
Funny enough, McKenna and Joyce did just that. “Jay’s someone who’s always keen to experiment in the studio and find a new path. He had a sort of energy in trying new things. We went down some real rabbit holes with him and his ideas,” McKenna tells American Songwriter over a recent phone call. “After such a long time getting to that point recording the album, it was nice to still have a real creative air about it and work as quickly as we did.”
Closing track “Eventually, Darling” flicks with an off-kilter drum pad and bizarrely affected vocal work, choices that retooled the demo’s original delicacy into something much punchier, and the road there was most certainly less traveled. “He just knew there wasn’t enough urgency in the demo I had. Melodically, I loved it, but there were points that needed presented in a different way. The first thing we did was go down a very grungy path. I ganged up on my guitar, playing very vaguely the part of the song, but really just trying to slam as many notes and create as much chaos as I could. The song was quite gentle prior to that, I guess.”
That was just one of many rabbit holes. As any listener will glean, Zeros is not anything if not weird, cosmic, and completely immersive. McKenna and his circle of musicians spent some five weeks in Nashville, and when they weren’t finalizing tracks in the studio, he was busy playing various DIY gigs around time, enjoying the smaller indie scenes, and galavanting through the strips on “those electric scooters,” he recalls. “We were zipping around town for like five dollars a go.”
McKenna’s 2017 debut What Do You Think About the Car? set his entire supernova career in orbit, and for good reason. It certainly possesses its own charm, calling to more classic pop/rock structures and reliable set of moods. But the British musician feels far more alive, tenacious, and bold with Zeros; he’s not only steeping his work in glittering glam-rock showmanship but searching for answers to many of life’s most existential questions.
He plugs inquiries into higher powers, roles of religion and thought, and a person’s responsibility to parse fact from fiction. Even with his earnest prodding, “you never really find answers,” he says. “The big role in my music isn’t to tell people what to do but provide questions. That’s what most protest music or just music I connect with does. It asks the right questions and lets you apply them to your life or to the world.”
A direct correlation between political outlines and his personal evolution can be traced to one simple thing: more time. McKenna had more time to write, free from pressures a debut record often impresses, and more time to tweak and fine-tune in the studio. He also set his gaze upon sculpting an overarching story, rather than a sequence of one-off sigles that may or may not result in a jumbled album.
Zeros is meteoric in its vast musical adventures, soaring across the universe with production that feels unhinged but always grounded. There’s a great “sense of epicness, fun, and freedom that is just present in my own music,” he observes. “I wanted to expand and be expansive in writing and draw ideas to the furthest points I could go.” As much as he colors well outside the lines, there are times when it’s appropriate to “pull back and have fun and do things in a slightly simpler way.”
There are few moments of sheer ecstasy and epicness quite like “Rapture,” a deceptively glistening tune drenched in fear of the future. “You know, there’s all sorts of crap on the TV these days / Now you won’t live after such disaster,” he sings, with a whimper to his tongue.
The final version is not so far removed from the original, which he produced initially on his own. “Every step of the process, I was figuring out how to give it that sense of dystopia. It ties in with this mental struggle and social observation of the fate of humanity,” he explains. “I’m always laughing at these things, as well. I’m looking at things that are quite serious, but really, I’m taking piss out of the right people, and that’s half the battle.”
Electronic blips and bloops fall into starry patterns, lending a celestial quality against his frantic vocal, soon erupting into a near death-metal scream by the end. “There was always just a darkness to the chords I was playing and a creepy preachiness to the lyrics,” he says. “And it’s sort of also a party song.”
“Emily” stands in jarring contrast, as a number accentuated with a folk-pop gloss. On his way to a west London party, he picked up his acoustic guitar with Lindsey Buckingham on the mind. “I came up with those simple muted notes and then looped it and made these weird rhythms around it,” he says of the song. Distorated musical shards rise and fall in the mix, evolving “from a very choppy demo and placing these things that shouldn’t go together.”
The arrangement soon morphs like a creature moulting in the night. There was even a Paul McCartney-style modulation he toyed with but cut from the song as being “too corny,” he laughs.
If that’s not enough, McKenna’s predilection for the odd-ball also unfolds with “The Key to Life on Earth,” a track which began on xylophone. “I’d been on a train and made a voice note of this sort of melody, which is basically the chorus. I came home and laid down some chords and a drum groove. My housemate’s xylophone was just sitting there, and I thought the song needed something. I played around with it, and that hook came out.”
“At that time, I was constantly reaching for a new instrument or point of inspiration. Using a xylophone as a writing tool is a bit of an unusual one, but if you know all the notes on a scale, I think it’s so important to change up the instrument you’re using,” he says. “Then, your writing revolves around timbre. You come from a slightly different point even when you don’t mean to. Writing a song on a piano versus a guitar just suggests very different things.”
“It can be very cheesy these days, but if you get a xylophone right, it’s a very unique way of playing a song,” he says.
With central figure Daniel, who could possibly pop up on future albums, “as some kind of sequel,” McKenna teases, he is able to control the setting in a way he never could before. “I understand myself and a song’s purpose,” he says. “I’ve learned that less is more with production and songwriting 一 to give yourself space from the songs and to not crowd them with ideas in any one way.”
“I’m trusting my impulses with everything and knowing how important I am. Sometimes, you get lost in the industry for a minute and forget you’re trying to make something really cool.”
Zeros unlocks McKenna at his most fearless, even when he’s explicitly addressing deep-seated political or social fears. “Positive change is quite half-assed these days,” he says. “I like to think we’re getting to a point where it’s starting some real change. We have seen that, but it still feels like we’re in a very divided world. It’s hard for progress to really take hold.”
As we’ve seen with such artists as Mickey Guyton, Tyler Childers, H.E.R., Usher, and Alicia Keys, among others, utilizing platforms to amplify social justice movements has become more crucial than ever. And you could count McKenna among them. He is already known for peppering in urgent and insightful observations of the world in his music (see: “British Bombs,” “The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home,” and “Bethlehem”), but Zeros, as an otherworldly concept album, juggles the divisive landscape and longing for better days.
“Some people’s worlds exist with a different set of ‘facts’ right now, and that’s the scary thing. People’s lives are very separated in the way they view the world because that’s the way phones, the internet, and social media work,” he says. “I don’t feel hopeless. It’s been a strained year for everyone. But I’m still able to get messages across and I have no desire to stop. It’s been frustrating to experience these stalemates that have existed politically.”
The role of art then can not be understated these days. Musical expression could perhaps relay a message that would otherwise be ignored or shrugged off as fake news. “Art is the most important thing, in terms of bringing movements to a whole new level. It gives clarity and a sense of identity to different political movements. Whether it’s as simple as telling the story of your life or directly calling out your government and the ills of humanity, all of that is so vital. More often than not, it goes hand-in-hand with any sort of revolution.”