By the time Declan McKenna finished touring his first album What Do You Think About the Car?, there was nothing left in the tank. “We did this really long tour in America,” the North London singer-songwriter tells Apple Music. “And it pretty much put me and my whole band in therapy. We’d been working so hard for so long.” McKenna’s 2017 debut revealed a songwriter who, on tracks such as “Brazil” and “Paracetamol,” could fuse complex, topical issues with easygoing indie-pop. But as he began to write the follow-up, he found himself reflecting on matters closer to home. “I feel like I was talking about the stuff I’d learned about myself,” he says. “The stuff that I struggle with, the stuff that I do that can negatively impact me, the patterns of behavior you get into where you let yourself down.” The resultant record, Zeros, is a reflection of the scope and imagination of its creator. It is bombastic (the careening classic rock of opener “You Better Believe!!!” and Bowie-style balladeering of “Be an Astronaut”) while feeling confessional; expansive (the ’70s-style stomp of “Twice Your Size”) but still tethered to the ground. Recorded in Nashville with producer Jay Joyce (Carrie Underwood, Little Big Town), these songs take in themes of space, the future, the environment, and the dread of modern life and document how McKenna found his way out of the abyss. “The story of the record is this young character becoming lost in the world, seeing people falling into dark corners,” he says. “In a way, it’s a dramatized version of what I was going through at the time. I did start beginning to feel lost, but also this sense of discovery helped me to understand it all.” All aboard Starship McKenna for a journey through Zeros, his cosmic odyssey. You Better Believe!!! “I wrote this and I was like, ‘I want it to be the start of the album.’ It felt like it was describing a world. I had a vague idea of a few different concepts and ideas I was thinking about. I was reading Homo Deus, the book by Yuval Noah Harari, and there was a lot of ideas of the future and stuff that I'd been thinking about. I just thought it kind of thrust you into this world. It’s this damaging world; it's foreboding in a sense, where it's like you're going to get yourself killed. It is the start of someone being pushed away, and I think that is the story of the album. I wrote it with my friend Jake Passmore. He came up with the line ‘Fastest gun in the solar system,’ which is one of my favorite lines on the record.” Be an Astronaut “This was when I was really deep into making things as big and extended as they could be. I was obsessed with The Age of Adz by Sufjan Stevens, where it's just these huge songs. I also knew this would be the second song on the album. After that thrust in, it's this throwback and it's recalling something, recalling thoughts of a childhood, thoughts of growing up and experiencing hardships and experiencing grief. It became quite central to giving the album its spaciness, or at least an aspiration to go to space. I think the album maybe exists in a world not far from our own, but definitely dreams of something bigger. And I think that the whole thing in ‘Be an Astronaut’ is that dreams can be damaging and can often be unattainable, and I think that's the thing.” The Key to Life on Earth “I came up with this when I was on the train. I was on the way back from Hertfordshire, where I'm from and where my family is, and getting the train into Finsbury Park, London, where I lived at the time. When I was growing up, the juxtapositions between those places weren’t apparent, it was just life and normal, but now the conflict of ideas between working-class people or people living in suburban areas is amplified. Everyone thinks they know what is right, but really they just don't understand each other. I wrote two of the key melodies on a xylophone. I think that’s the first time that a xylophone has been used as a writing tool. It's weird playing an instrument that you're so not comfortable or used to playing—the first thing you play is often the best thing you'll even play on that instrument.” Beautiful Faces “I had to build this song around the chorus. I was living in West London—I lived there for two months while I was writing the album. I was writing with [UK producer] Max Marlow, and I got the melodies and the chorus together and then the verses took so, so long. I was writing about spending an awful lot of time on my phone and thinking about the futuristic stuff I'd been reading about—where social media, technology is going and the future of inequality, how technology is going to impact that. It's kind of this weird Big Brother thing, the feeling of being watched. I didn't really finish writing the verses until I was in the studio, and I had a verse that was actually loads better than the one that's in the actual song, but it didn't serve the chorus. I'll probably use that for a different song.” Daniel, You’re Still a Child “I think of it in a similar vein to ‘The Key to Life on Earth.’ I think it's fairly simple in that it tells the story of the album—someone being pushed away and someone becoming lost or being thought to be something they're not. It ties into the stuff that I felt like I was observing all around the world. People being misunderstood, people becoming flat-earthers, or anti-vaxxers, or anti-maskers. Just people finding a dark corner for themselves, but oftentimes being pushed into it. I guess this is understanding what's behind the human being and what is behind their actions.” Emily “‘Emily’ is like a letter or a conversation. It was one of those strange moments where I literally sat down and knew what I wanted to do. I listened to a lot of Fleetwood Mac and wanted to do a Lindsey Buckingham-style guitar part, something really muted and acoustic and but very simple. I think the character of Emily represents the toxicity on a personal level—where it's not the big world anymore, it's actually quite direct.” Twice Your Size “This is an environmentalist jam. I talk directly about this quite grim end-of-days thing, where it's this stuff melting and turning to dust, and all of that imagery was based around setting the tone for the end of the world. At one point, I thought I was writing an album for each way the world could end, like each song would be a way the world could end. And the last few songs are that, so ‘Twice Your Size’ seems to be some kind of environmental collapse, or like the sun has gotten too big and everyone's trying to get off Earth. It also represents the way that discourse happens now. Like, it only means half as much when you say it twice, and that relates to so many things right now, where whoever's talking the loudest gets heard, but it doesn't mean as much if you keep repeating yourself.” Rapture “This was one I sat down and wrote very quickly. It leads in from that end-of-days thing, and it's a bit more direct than ‘Twice Your Size.’ It's a similar vein, but a bit more scary, but also more danceable. It’s talking about fear of the future, because it's this torment and being told that stuff isn't real by some and that's it's an ever-present threat by others, and it's like the rapture's in your head. It's both this dread for the future but also this personal torment and personal struggle. It all ties in, all the stresses of going through all of this stuff and worrying so much about it.” Sagittarius A* “I'd just read that Sagittarius A* was the name of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, so it's like this big massive thing that's just pulling everything in and downward. And unless some other crazy shit in the universe happens, it's inevitable that one day we're going to be sucked into it. I guess the simplest way of describing it is like, ‘I'm Sagittarius, I'm a star, I am this thing that is going to pull you all down with me.’ I was seeing a lot of people in very powerful positions ignore the concerns of people who were in much less powerful positions, worried about the environment and worried about injustices and worried about things, and it's just almost like, ‘I am bigger than the world, even though we are limited to our resources and we know we're limited to our world. I don't care, and I'm going to pull you down with me.’” Eventually, Darling “I guess, in a way, this is the song that sparked the album. I wrote it not long after I released the first album. Even though I didn't really have a concept at that point, there were certain things that were once normal becoming lost, and certain things changing so much. The song itself is this big transition, and it made sense once I'd recorded the album to fit on the end, because the story ends up at loss. That was the simplest thing I was talking about, that change can be brutal, and it fits into the narrative of the album. It's just a very simple idea that life is always changing and the modern world is changing at a faster rate than we can keep up with. All of that change was really, really affecting me. My life was changing, and in some ways it was better, some ways it was worse. It's complicated, I guess. That's why you write songs about things, because they are complicated and you're trying to kind of make sense of them.”

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