On Ditching the Ballad and Maintaining Momentum with Declan J Donovan

Kess Leung

Made nervous by the prospect of toasting at his brother’s wedding, a then seventeen-year-old Declan J Donovan wrote and performed a song instead. Welcoming both the newlyweds and his first taste of musical success, the rest was history for the young Essex star. Now with a debut record under his belt, Donovan talked ditching the ballad and maintaining momentum with Impact’s Kess Leung. 

Drugged with a poignant dose of heartbreak, the latest release from young balladeer Declan J Donovan, Before You Let Me Go, is a sonic collection of heartfelt experiences curated by the singer himself and those surrounding him. “I started writing this song three years ago in the countryside and it was never really about anything,” Donovan muses thoughtfully when asked about the singles’ inspirations. “It was more like this idea of heartbreak that I had in my head and a mixture of everything I had ever been through.”

Referencing the lyrics, he continues amusedly: “There’s a lyric about leaving someone at the train station and never seeing them again, and it was only last year when something similar happened to me that I remembered writing the song! I went back into my iTunes, found it and it blew my mind! Like wow, I can’t believe I just forgot about this. So Rude!”

“I’ve been sending these songs around and everyone’s like – ‘can you not just write a load of ballads again?’”

Chuckling to himself, the singer resumes on a lighter note: “I rerecorded some sections and it felt so much more intimate. Before last year, it had just sat on top of a pile of songs because, at the time, it hadn’t been personal enough for me yet. The right thing needed to happen to me to release the track and draw inspiration from it. I’m really grateful for that experience which allowed me to rediscover this song again because it was never thought of as a piece to be released!”

With the everlasting question of what if’s clouding the air, the artist wonders thoughtfully about his own artistic process: “I try not to think about the alternatives. I know that many people talk about feeling guilty or having guilty pleasures, but I try not to regret my decisions.” He continues: “Back then when I wrote music, there was a lot of questioning and thinking. What if I did this differently? How would it have panned out? Now, I live my life with a mentality where it’s essentially hard to regret things. If I love it, I love it. If something goes wrong, it’s out of my control. I can’t go back and fix it.”

Straightening himself up, the singer proceeds to divulge his own personal experiences: “I’ve always suffered from really bad anxiety which is weird because my job is to talk to people on stage! But I was always second-guessing every decision I made. There were conversations I had with people where I would’ve played through the encounter in my head before it even happened. So, I guess my way of dealing with that now is to say whatever I want to say, do whatever I want to do, and if I mess up – who cares? Everyone does the same things anyway. I try to live my life as carefree as possible with no real plan and it seems to be the best kind of balance for me. Doing whatever I really want to do and what I enjoy!”

As Donovan reflects on his recent musical experimentations, it seems apparent that this carefree mantra has soaked into his sound. Pausing for a moment, he laughs, “recently I’ve been having a lot of fun writing really poppy songs. In fact, I wrote a Post Malone-esque song yesterday and it was really fun. I’ve been sending these songs around and everyone is just like – ‘could you not just write a load of ballads again?’ And I know I can always go back to ballads – like that’s my thing – but I also just love experimenting with new sounds and stuff!”

“I was about fifteen when I started learning the guitar and I didn’t go to school for about six months”

Speaking about his own trademark ballads, a sudden tinge of nostalgia washes over the singer as he reminisces on discovering famed singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne, Ed Sheeran, and James Taylor. “I grew up listening to rap music and really loved it for years until I was fourteen or fifteen. Then, I started discovering these singer-songwriters and it just absolutely blew my mind. There was just this rawness and realness to the music, it had been the thing I waited my whole life for. No one had ever introduced me to it, it just popped up in my recommendations on YouTube one day and became my whole life, and pretty much all I listened to after that.”

This eventually manifested in Donovan picking up his own guitar, keen to follow in the footsteps of the singer-songwriters who soundtracked his teenhood. “I was about fifteen when I started learning the guitar and I didn’t go to school for about six months. All I wanted to do was music once I discovered the guitar, and I just sat in my room for eight hours a day and learned to play.” He chuckles at the way it felt like his own little secret: “When I started going to school again, it was like I suddenly knew how to play this instrument that nobody knew I had started playing.”

Talking to the Declan, it is clear as day that his passion for music runs deeper than anything else: “Honestly, it calms me down. I don’t really listen to any upbeat music that makes me dance around.” Recalling the pre-pandemic times, he continues: “In 2019, I used to fly a lot and it was so nice listening to full albums the whole way through. Music always provides some sort of comfort when I’m needing it, it’s the best thing for me. No matter what is going on in my life, I can always just put my headphones on and ignore everything.”

Harking back to his own songwriting process, the singer elaborates on what he hopes to emulate in his music: “I definitely want to write songs that are relatable to people. I love the most personal songs because I love finding out the stories behind them and how they came about. But there is an element from me when I write where I want the person listening to create their own story!”

“If I wake up and think ‘I’m going to write the best ballad today’, I’ll write the most upbeat pop song there is”

Questioning the purpose of his work, he laments: “Once it’s out for me, who cares what my story is anymore? Make your own story! People often think about music as representing a time in their life so if they’re listening to someone else’s story, it can feel quite separate. But, at the same time, they can still relate to it. So, to me, if someone listens to my music during their low or high points and is still able to relate to it, it makes it really cool that I can make something that represents a part of them. I try to make my lyrics more universal where everyone can understand them and not too specific to one certain thing. Even the relationship songs, I try not to make them explicitly about romance. It can also be about friends or anything!”

Expanding on his creative process, the artist oozes passion from every pore: “Whenever I listen to music, I never listen to it in the background whilst I’m doing something. Of course, because my job is making music if I write something new and I’m playing music in the background, I’d just write that.” He laughs and continues: “Especially because we now use Zoom, when I’m writing with my mates, it’s a lot of after midnight voice notes that I’ll send to people where I’ll be like – I have just written this, what do you think? There’s no structure to it anymore, which is quite cool! We are all just sending ideas to each other and I have definitely written a lot more organic material at the moment relating to the piano, guitar, and lyrical pieces. I’ve just been staying up in my bedroom and writing till 4am some nights.”

With his warm sense of humor on glorious show, the artist jokes: “I normally start on the guitar because that’s the only thing I can really play! I’ll then sing some melodies and pick a word that stands out in between those little hums and mumbles that I’m doing. Essentially, I’ll write a story around this one word and think about my personal experiences that I can write about.” Rich and anecdotal, you would never guess that Donovan’s tracks had such sparse beginnings: “I don’t ever go in with a clear idea of what I want to write. I just sit on my guitar and shape the tempo and vibes as I go along. If I wake up and think – I’m going to write the best ballad today, a nice slow piano song; I will literally write the most upbeat pop song there is. I can’t ever go into anything with an idea because I’d always do the opposite!

Of course, for such a curious individual as Donovan, there is no surprise that his experimental nature has manifested in a few side projects. Revealing his future aspirations and plans, the singer expresses his fondness for experimentation: “I’ve been doing a lot of dance music and working with DJ’s recently, which has been really enjoyable! Sometimes I imagine myself touring again and I’m like – would I have to go out on stage and sing with them? Because I am the most awkward person with my hands. I would be the only hype man there standing with my hands by my side. But I have just been writing extremely pop-ish songs that these DJs want – I love doing that!”

As his recent single touches the hearts of fans, it seems that his journey into music is only just getting started

After pausing for a moment to reflect, he continues: “It’s a break from the heartfelt ballads I usually do because those usually take a lot of time and I tend to overthink everything. But when I’m told to write the most upbeat song ever, I just go – ‘right, I’m having fun today!’ It’s just going to be easy with the lyrics and I get to have fun with the melody. The DJ stuff came out of nowhere, but it’d be cool to have one of them come out this year!

Now, as his recent single Before You Let Me Go touches the hearts of fans around the world, it seems that Declan J Donovan’s journey into music is only just getting started. With hopes to diversify his work and explore his musical interests, it will be exciting to see what the young singer-songwriter has planned next.

Kess Leung

Featured image courtesy of Declan J Donovan via Chuff Media. Images granted to Impact by their owners. In-article images courtesy of Declan J Donovan via Facebook. Image use license found here. No changes made to these images.

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