Declan McKenna’s third LP, ‘What Happened To The Beach?’, is a generous exploration of burnout as a source of creative renewal. For the 25-year-old songwriter, these 12 tracks celebrate getting to a point in his career where he no longer feels a need to match or surpass his previous successes but instead focus on honing a loose, high-spirited sound all his own. “What’s the point of running?,” he sings on ‘Nothing Works’, which unpacks the tribulations of a near-decade spent in the music industry. “Not like I’m ‘up-and-coming’ anymore.” Then, a stream of guitars give way to a bright and breezy hook, and it sounds like relief.
The new album is a marked turn from its predecessor, 2020’s ‘Zeros’, a rip-roaring, glam rock-inspired epic bursting with ideas inspired by a fictional and dystopian other world. The intervening years brought McKenna acclaim – two consecutive sold-out shows at Brixton Academy; main stage slots at Reading & Leeds festival – and with these achievements, the trappings of fame. For McKenna, an increased level of anxiety around his stature as one of the UK’s most popular and beloved modern indie artists began to serve as an impetus to scale things back: he took a self-imposed break from work, moved to Brighton, and began to embrace total musical freedom.
His closest collaborators – which include CMAT, producer Gianluca Buccellati [Arlo Parks, Paris Texas] and NME 100 graduate Eli Smart – encouraged him to create and explore new sounds through it all. In making ‘What Happened To The Beach?’, McKenna says he “relaxed and matured”, and the resulting collection traces a journey through moments of disillusion and moving forward towards a personal reckoning. The songs draw from the primary colour-hued vibrancy of Beck’s ‘Colors’ era or the earthy, mischievous charm of ‘Ram’ by Paul McCartney – they’re ecstatic, joyful and awash with life.
“I followed a dramatically different [recording] process to what I have done before, but it allowed me to absorb from those around me,” McKenna tells us, describing how he’s come to value, above all, a sense of community with other musicians. In an illuminating chat as part of NME’s In Conversation series, we discuss the album’s deeper themes, McKenna’s surprise ABBA cover and how a trip to the West Coast rekindled his love for making music.
NME: Much of the new album explores finding joy in simple day-to-day routines. What has that process looked like for you?
“When I started working with my producer in LA, he had this ethos of seeing music as a release, and not trying to ‘overdo’ ideas. We were able to just bounce off what was happening in the moment [in the studio] and pluck ideas out of thin air… and then see how the meaning of songs were able to develop over time rather than force a ‘profound’ concept. Sometimes, less is more with these things.”
There’s a real sense of childlike wonder imbued in your recent single ‘Elevator Hum’. What other songs make you feel this way?
“I was listening to MGMT’s ‘Oracular Spectacular’ earlier today, and ‘Time To Pretend’ opens that album and I was like, ‘Wow, this has got all of that childlike wonder, it has playful lyrics and is super open.’ MGMT have always been an influence for me and I am sure you can hear that in ‘Elevator Hum’. Another influence that people have suggested for that track is the ‘Hoedown Throwdown’ [from Hannah Montana] – and I can see it! It’s a goofy, feel-good song.”
You previously told NME that some of the songs on ‘What Happened To The Beach?’ wouldn’t have made the cut for your earlier albums. How has your approach to making music evolved?
“I think my taste has relaxed and I’ve matured. I really care about music and put pressure on myself to make things sound a certain way but I’ve found that I can now relax a little bit more, which leads to better results. I saw my music as something else before; I would come up with more groove-based ideas and [my songs] would never feel complete. This whole process has been based around finding new ways to figure recording out, and it has been quite empowering.
“[The new album] has made me feel like I’m capable of executing different kinds of songs. I see every album of mine as an opportunity to make something that I’m proud of, as well as an opportunity to learn from different people along the way. I followed a dramatically different process to what I have done before, but it allowed me to absorb new methods from the musicians around me.”
Your group of collaborators has expanded over the past few years: Eli Smart features on this record; CMAT has appeared at some of your recent shows. Why has it been so important to bring new people into your world?
“What this album was about was not knowing where I was heading with it; I really didn’t know how it would end up, and there were lots of different [musical] avenues that I could have taken it down. Working with other people adds to the excitement of recording, where you’re able to assess what’s right for the song, collaborate freely and try stuff out with new influences in the room.
“Like you say, both in the studio and at the gigs we’ve had a whole host of different people coming in and just trying stuff out together. Eli’s has added a lap steel [guitar] to the album, while Allie Kelly sings on ‘Elevator Hum’ and a bunch of other songs. Working with Luca, we refined all of the ideas for the album and built a good foundation for other people to jump in and throw paint on the wall and see what works. It was a great way to make music and we got these beautiful results that we wouldn’t have anticipated.”
Let’s talk about your recent campaign for Christmas Number One: a cover of ABBA’s ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’. What was behind the decision to release this?
“I built a new studio and needed some stuff to try out, and one evening I decided to have a crack at ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’ as people [online] were asking for it after I played it on a livestream. I did a straight acoustic take without thinking about it too much, but towards the end of the track there are some synths and drums which were played and produced by me. I was trying to make things sound like they could have been recorded on my phone.”
“There was also an element to this release where I was like, ‘There you go, we’re done with that [song] now.’ I’m not going to play it at the gigs – Merry Christmas! Now it’s time to move on to the next single…”
Have you seen ABBA Voyage yet?
“I thought it was really good… but it was weird! My favourite thing about it was that they kicked off the whole show with one of my favourite ABBA songs, which is ‘The Visitors’ – it’s darker and more synth-heavy in places. I feel like I had thought before that opening a show with that song would be awesome, as it sounds like it’s so full of anticipation. After that, they played the hits with a live band and it was really cool. What’s not to love?”
If you could choose another artist to perform as a virtual hologram, who would it be?
“The Beatles! Could you imagine? It would be sick! They could play anything. That’s what I really loved about Paul McCartney’s  Glastonbury set: he played things we didn’t expect, like ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite’, which I was just not expecting at all – never in my life did I think I would hear that song live. That’s the kind of stuff I would like to hear. But to me, all Beatles songs are hits – there’s no filler really.”
You can certainly hear some elements of [McCartney’s] ‘Ram’ era on your new album…
“Absolutely. They share a similar intimacy, and on ‘Ram’, Paul really dived into playing around with different characters. He and that album are such a big influence on me because on tracks like ‘Admiral Halsey’, he goes in on these wild vocal takes – and I feel like my album has elements of that too. I feel like they were recorded in similar ways too: building things up bit by bit to create weird soundscapes. Some people hated ‘Ram’ at first… so I am looking forward to [my new album] being out!”
Declan McKenna’s new album ‘What Happened To The Beach?’ is out now via Columbia Records