Beabadoobee: “I wear my heart on my sleeve with this album”

She might be obsessed with ’90s grunge, but Bea Kristi is a very modern rock star determined to usher in a new generation of guitar heroes

“Every time I’m sad, I dance in front of my mirror in my underpants – and I can’t dance,” Beabadoobee says with a laugh. The soundtrack to her one-woman bedroom flail-around? ‘Eight Arms To Hold You’, the roaring second album by ’90s alt-rockers Veruca Salt. “That’s my anthem. I’m literally in my ugliest underpants ever, like, ‘Yes, Veruca Salt!’, acting as if I’m playing the song.”

She waves her arms around and lightly thrashes her head for a second just in case NME doesn’t get the picture and then looks back at her laptop camera, a beaming grin on her face. “I really want ‘Fake It Flowers’ to be that album for someone, you know?”

Clean your mirrors and, er, strip down to yer pants, then, because 20-year-old Bea Kristi – the Philippines-born, London-raised rising star behind the endearingly daft moniker – has made that debut album for a new generation. Released on Dirty Hit, the eclectic and ultra-cool label behind The 1975, Wolf Alice, No Rome, Rina Sawayama and more, ‘Fake It Flowers’ veers from blistering rock anthems (‘Care’) to lo-fi, tender acoustic moments (‘How Was Your Day’) and back again, encompassing its creator’s dizzying journey so far.

Beabadoobee Big Read 2020
Credit: Tamiym Cader for NME

Since Kristi was on the cover of NME almost exactly a year ago, her life has gone into overdrive. Back then, she was releasing her third, loudest EP yet, ‘Space Cadet’, and being mobbed outside her first headline dates by enlivened fans. In the intervening 12 months, she’s been a BRIT Awards Rising Star and BBC Sound Of nominee, played packed arenas in support of her teen idols The 1975 and was crowned the future of music as the recipient of the Under The Radar trophy at this year’s NME Awards.

At the Brixton ceremony in February, a little-known singer called Taylor Swift added her name to the ranks of Beabadoobee fans, telling the shell-shocked young artist that her discography so far contains “no skips”.

Beabadoobee Big Read 2020
Beabadoobee on the cover of NME

“Taylor’s so ethereal,” Kristi gushes today. “She’s so badass, I was like, ‘Holy shit!’ She was walking towards me and I’m like, ‘She’s going to Matty [Healy, The 1975 frontman], not me. And then she comes up to me and I’m like…” She excitedly makes a noise that can only be described as a verbal keyboard smash, random vowels and consonants mashing together in pure chaos. “I vomited in my mouth. I couldn’t believe it.”

Having one of the biggest pop stars in the world give you their seal of approval is, you imagine, a pretty mind-boggling experience. Coupled with the burgeoning attention and achievements that the 20-year-old could put her name to, she began to feel like she wasn’t riding the wave, but being pulled into the undercurrent. She’s grateful for everything that’s come her way so far, but also found a silver lining in being forced to retreat over the last few months.

“Lockdown really helped me because everything was so fast, I couldn’t breathe,” she explains. “It was really overwhelming me. You just lose touch with reality a bit.” Instead of spending 2020 on the road as previously planned, she’s taken the time to “rebuild relationships I lost from tour and live in ‘Fake It Flowers’”.

Beabadoobee Big Read 2020
Credit: Tamiym Cader for NME

Her debut album offers intimacy and sanctuary between Kristi’s mammoth riffs. Her London bedroom has been her songwriting base since day one. ‘Coffee’ – her sweet, simple debut single that caught the ears of Dirty Hit and kickstarted everything – was created there, under her posters of Tom Hanks and ’90s bands, as was her 2019 breakthrough EP ‘Loveworm’ (and everything in between or that’s come since). For Kristi, her space is somewhere she can hide away in, comfortable enough to talk about anything she wants.

‘Fake It Flowers’ is her most personal work yet – sometimes painfully so – detailing everything from romantic disloyalty (‘Worth It’) to her experiences with self-harm (‘Charlie Brown’). She values honesty in her songwriting and says she can’t help but write with no filter, but some songs are tougher to share than others.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, it’ll be fine!’ and then I’m getting DMs like, ‘This song’s about me, isn’t it?’” She grimaces, before addressing herself. “But come on, Bea, you signed up for this shit. Sometimes you have to separate yourself from the music.” That’s sometimes easier said than done, though. On the twinkling ‘Emo Song’, she sings about incidents that made her lose her trust in men (“You call me up / And lie again”). She doesn’t think that she’ll be able to play it live, as it’s too rife with emotion.

“When I met Taylor Swift at the NME Awards, I vomited in my mouth”

Sugary rock banger ‘Worth It’, a song about being unfaithful to her boyfriend while on tour, presented its own challenges too. It’s the third single taken from ‘Fake It Flowers’, and Kristi was concerned about showcasing it in such a way, given the delicate subject matter. Ultimately, though, her fans’ reactions gave the decision to put it out meaning and value. “I got loads of girls DMing me, which was really sweet, actually, hearing their stories and how they got over it and how the song helped them,” she smiles.

Writing ‘Fake It Flowers’ has helped Kristi too. She likens it to her “own little therapy session” and adds: “I wear my heart on my sleeve on this album. It’s made me understand myself more – understand how I choose to act in certain situations and where it stems from. Writing this record made me feel comfortable with myself and I hope it makes other girls feel that, too.”

She says it’s important to her to be a champion for young women, and that she wants to be, for them, “the big sister I always wanted to have”. The feeling, she adds sadly, isn’t always mutual: “It’s quite disheartening to know that when I’m on stage and I’m on my period and I’m like, ‘Fuck me, my cramps hurt so much and I’m bleeding, sorry if I play shit’, the response on Twitter [from a female user] is, ‘That’s gross’.” Ultimately, she hopes the album lets her female listeners know “it’s OK to be annoying, to be such a bitch, to complain”.

She adds: “I think that’s why I glorify the ’90s a bit, because you had bands like L7 throwing tampons in the crowd. If I did that everyone would be like, ‘Oh my God, that’s absolutely disgusting!’”

Beabadoobee Big Read 2020
Credit: Tamiym Cader for NME

Bea is no stranger to receiving criticism online. Last month, she noted on Instagram that her album would be released on the same day as bland pop-rockers The Vamps’ latest record, joking that their fans are a “lost cause”. The reaction from the “Vampettes” highlighted another double standard women face. While male-fronted bands can tweet through light-hearted ‘beefs’ with other artists – see: Sports Team with Lady Gaga; Sports Team with Shame; Sports Team with… just about anyone – the response with Bea was more backlash than belly laughs.

“Took the words out of my mouth, mate!” Kristi nods. “I’ve been getting bloody death threats – it’s crazy. If anyone else said that and wasn’t a little Asian girl like me, it would be taken completely differently. But just ’cause it’s out of my mouth it’s like, ‘Oh my God! She speaks?!’”

How has she been coping with this kind of negativity? “My goal was for them to tweet about me and they did,” she shrugs with a mischievous grin. “I get these messages saying, ‘We don’t even know who you are’, and I’m like, ‘Why are you DMing me, then?’ It’s kind of funny, but then I sit back and feel bad [about myself] ‘cause it’s all these girls being like, ‘You’re a slut!’ You shouldn’t say that to another girl, man.”

She asks if I’ve watched the recent Netflix docu-drama The Social Dilemma, which looks at the harmful impact social media has had on modern society. “It’s made me think constantly and it’s made me have a good step away and separate myself from how weird it is.” She has, though, been pleased to see people speak out via social media about the things that matter, specifically citing the spreading of the Black Lives Matter movement online as “an amazing thing”. But she hopes that people – “especially young girls” – don’t get lost in the more problematic side of the internet.

“I want to be the big sister for others that I always wanted for myself”

Her solution? Get off your phone and go and experience life: “I know it’s hard because of corona, but music is such a great way to escape – art, creativity, finding forms of things to put all your energy into. It’s [about] putting your passion into something else instead of just being glued to your phone. And girls need to be empowering each other, not bringing each other down. We should be together.”

Social networking apps have also brought her music to vast new audiences, not least when her 2017 release ‘Coffee’ was sampled by Canadian lo-fi artist Powfu earlier this year on his track ‘deathbed (coffee for your head)’. Last week, the reworked version hit a mammoth 2billion streams. Her sound has moved on leaps and bounds since she put out the original song – a roughly strummed acoustic lullaby – and, at first, she was concerned that Powfu’s hit didn’t sound anything like Beabadoobee in 2020.

“I was super overwhelmed and just being a whiny bitch,” she laughs now. “I was just so scared that so many people were listening to one of the first songs I’d ever written. But I think it’s cool that, if loads of people discover me from that, they can like that music and like [her rock song] ‘Care’ too.” It’s also a reminder for her of how this all started: “just me and my guitar”.

Beabadoobee Big Read 2020
Credit: Tamiym Cader for NME

Even at 20, Kristi feels she missed the boat with TikTok, where ‘deathbed’ went viral. Yet much of her charm lies in the fact that she’s walking her own path. In 2020, it isn’t rare for someone her age to look back to the ’90s for inspiration, but other breakthrough acts don’t tend to stick so strongly to one sound, as she does. Florida’s Dominic Fike blends rock influences with hip-hop beats, while London singer AMA mines both ’90s R&B and cutting-edge production. Bea, on the other hand, stays true to the fuzzy textures and anthemic riffs of that age (think Smashing Pumpkins).

The musician’s mum introduced her to those ’90s sounds. Bea’s childhood home was also filled with the sounds of Original Pilipino Music (aka OPM, the Philippines pop scene that’s often associated with sentimental ballads). “They just put everything on paper,” Kristi says of those formative acts. “It was so raw melodically and lyrically. It’s so weird because I can listen back to it and I can tell it’s somehow threaded its way into the way I write without me realising.”

Growing up as one of only a few Asian students at an all-girls’ school in London, she was once embarrassed by her Filipino heritage. It made her feel like an outsider, and she struggled with self-acceptance, as well as the subtle, sly bullying of the school’s popular girls. Now she’s embracing it and the idea that she can be a role model for girls like her. “I remember playing a show and a Filipino girl coming up to me and being like, ‘You made me start playing guitar’,” she smiles. “This is why I do this. It’s the nicest feeling ever, knowing I did these songs in my bedroom for myself but people are actually getting inspired by it.”

Beabadoobee Big Read 2020
Credit: Tamiym Cader for NME

While she felt like an outsider at school and has felt the same way in music at times, she’s also built a strong community of like-minded musician mates around the world. She calls fellow Filipino Dirty Hit signee No Rome her “main bud” and worked with him and Filipino-American bedroom-pop star Jay Som on lilting May single ‘Hurry Home’. After touring together last year, she’s firm friends with US indie darling Clairo and, in London, her newest labelmate, the alt-pop artist Viji, indie newcomer Molly Payton and buzzy pop champ-in-waiting Baby Queen are part of her posse.

Bea’s particularly excited about all the women she’s befriended being picked up on by fans and the media. “We’re pretty much taking over the world,” she exclaims. “It’s important to know that there needs to be more girls on stage and that we rock.” It’s a sentiment that’s been at the forefront of the backlash against male-dominated festival line-ups in recent years and, at the start of 2020, Kristi backed The 1975’s stance of only signing up for events with a gender-balanced bill. While it’s unfair to put the burden on new artists who might not be able to afford to pass up opportunities, she says she’ll be following suit in the future. “The fact that people are still fighting for this shit is crazy,” she groans.

“Music is such a great way to escape – instead of being glued to your phone”

It’s unclear when Kristi will be able to get back on stage herself – her tour has now been pushed to the end of 2021 when she hopes gigging will have resumed, and she’s working on ways to play some semblance of a live show while she waits (a few days after we speak, she shares a trailer for a pre-recorded live session in which she and her band play the album in full). Like a lot of artists, she’s concerned about the future of live music and the Government’s lacklustre response to the industry in light of the pandemic.

“I don’t understand why anyone would discourage creativity and why it’s not seen as important because it’s passion,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Everyone needs passion to thrive and to live. They need creativity and art. It’s dumb as hell. There are amazing venues that can’t live on because of everything that’s happening and I really hope there’s ways to keep them alive.

“[Music and art] keeps everyone happy and makes everyone feel like there’s something to look forward to or gives them a sense of togetherness. I had the advantage of being in lockdown with my boyfriend, so I had someone, but there are so many people who really depended on music and movies to feel comforted.”

Beabadoobee Big Read 2020
Credit: Tamiym Cader for NME

Thanks to the lockdown, she will follow up ‘Fake It Flowers’ with yet more new music pretty speedily. Bea has spent some time in Oxford recently, living with her band, Healy and 1975 drummer George Daniel, working on fresh material together. It’s the first time she’s teamed up with them, and continues the pair’s tradition of collaborating with the younger artists on their label.

“It was one of the nicest experiences of my life,” she says. “It was the most wholesome time – just dogs and good food.” Healy and Daniel produced the project, but she won’t say much more than that: “It’s a little thing coming out after the album, but it’s a secret.”

Kristi had ambitions to become a nursery teacher before she found music, something she still longs to achieve, and has a bucket list of things she’d like to do. “I also want to direct school plays or make children’s songs and do some soundtracks,” she says, adding that for her success is “having a good house and a good dog and cat, a few kids, and being really happy”.

“There needs to be more girls on stage because we rock”

She adds: “I remember writing in my journals when I was growing up and being like, ‘I don’t know what my ‘thing’ is; l I don’t know what I want in life’. It was me having this three-page manic episode and it ended off like: ‘Maybe I just need to learn how to be happy. Maybe that’s my goal’. I’m still trying to find that. I feel much more content at the moment. I’m growing into it and music is helping a lot. It’s taking ages, though!”

As she sings on the attitude-driven new song ‘Dye It Red’: “I haven’t found myself so comfortable / I’m not stopping now”. Whether she’s rocking out alone in her pants or on stage in front of thousands, Bea Kristi’s energy is something we could all do with harnessing. The first steps? Leave your inhibitions outside your bedroom door, turn ‘Fake It Flowers’ up loud and dance yourself happy, just like rock’s most exciting young flagbearer.

Beabadoobee’s ‘Fake It Flowers’ is out now