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British alt-rock prodigy Declan McKenna on breaking through in America via Tampa Bay

Whatever fame and fortune awaits Declan McKenna on what should be a very long career, he can say it all started in St. Petersburg.

Okay, not all of it. By the time McKenna made his U.S. debut at Jannus Live in 2016, he was already a British alt-rock prodigy, having played Glastonbury 2015 at age 16.

Still, McKenna has clear and fond memories of his first-ever stateside gig.

"The first place I ever landed in America was Tampa," McKenna said recently by phone from London. "At the time I hadnít played so many crowds that size, and on a stage that big, with my own handmade one-man-band setup. It was a bit daunting. But I remember really enjoying it."

McKenna, now 19, returns Thursday for a gig at Crowbar, his first local headlining show in support of his precociously polished 2017 album What Do You Think About the Car?

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The singer-songwriter is a rare bird in music these days. In an industry dominated by pop and hip hop, heís a 19-year-old rising alt-rocker both at home in London and, increasingly, in America ó "it was the first place, in a nationwide sort of way, to actually really accept my music," he said. Some of his songs are political, such as debut single Brazil, which criticized FIFAís decision to award the 2016 World Cup to a nation wracked by poverty.

"I make songs based around my political ideas because theyíre a big part of life; politics affects my life, politics affects my friends and familyís life," he said. "I donít actually think it did me any harm, people branding me in a certain way, like a protest-political artist, because it did in a weird way set me apart from a certain bracket I could have been instantly thrown into."

Understanding how McKenna found success in his unique lane also says a bit about why America hasnít lately produced a teenage rock artist of his stature.

He credits an older brother for inspiring him to pick up a guitar around age 8, eager to learn anything from Jimi Hendrix to the White Stripes, but studying mostly classical in school. He liked some Britpop bands (Blur, Pulp), was cooler on others (Oasis, Stone Roses), and like a lot of his peers, felt pretty ambivalent about U2.

"In all honesty, I donít know many people my age who are that into U2," he said. "I do think that they have a lot of great material and the Edge as a guitar player is fantastic, and they have a lot of fantastic stuff. I donít really swat at it like a lot of people do with U2. But Iíve never been into them."

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One of McKennaís breakthroughs came via the publicly funded BBC, whose BBC Music Introducing program is designed to help get young, up-and-coming British talent on the radio. Compare that to America, where despite the prominence of satellite radio like SiriusXM, local stations often have more sway in their communities than their British counterparts ó but also donít play nearly as many young, local artists like McKenna.

"Itís two very, very different systems," he said. "Itís a difficult thing, breaking in America. A lot of bands whoíve been massive in the U.K. for years take much longer than that to break America. Itís a big country."

Nevertheless, some American stations have latched onto McKenna; that 2016 gig at Jannus Live was a free show organized by 97X. Heís learned a lot about the American music industry since then, with gigs at Coachella and Outside Lands and a tour with the Head and the Heart.

Less than a year after What Do You Think About the Car?, heís already hard at work on new songs that he says will balance his political proclivities with something a little more personal.

"The next record is going to have a little bit more of a narrative to it," he said. "Iíve always written in character and done stories about political ideas, like Brazil, or many of the songs on my album. I think that styleís going to stay and there are going to be political ideas, but the next albumís going to say a little more about me."

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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