When Bree Runway emerges from her dressing room at her first-ever NME cover shoot, it’s like being in a high-fashion fever dream. Bedecked in layers of custom jewellery, an oversized puffer jacket, pin-sharp acrylic nails and skyscraper heels, she walks slowly towards our photographer with the confidence and poise of a model.
A team of at least 10 stylists, makeup artists, managers and friends – the kind of infrastructure needed for an artist of this talent and status – gasp, and stand watching, filming, admiring her every move. The fact we’re running two hours behind schedule suddenly doesn’t seem to matter anymore – we’re now in the presence of a real, rising superstar.
When things settle down, we peel off to the only quiet corner of this east London studio, so that Bree can exhale and begin to adjust back to reality. “I’m on the cover of NME? That’s some real rockstar shit,” she exclaims, her eyes lighting up as she reclines into a sofa. “Everything about this cover story is mad. I still can’t believe that this is my life.”
For Bree, 2022 is set to be that kind of year – surreal, gratifying, kind of overwhelming. She’s beginning it by featuring in the NME 100, our bumper list of the most exciting new artists on the planet right now. Her music is an ambitious mix of pop, rock, R&B and hip-hop that overflows with ideas and immediacy; little surprise she’s generated a global and diverse fandom that lives for her appetite for risk and Y2K-leaning vision. 2021’s ‘Hot Hot’, was not just a stellar single but a state of mind, a no-holds-barred approach to confidence and movement. “You think you hot hot / You ain’t got it like me / Don’t lie, baby, tell the truth,” she sang over thumping electro.
As the music suggests, Bree is an equally expressive person away from the camera. As she chats to NME in a plain-coloured tracksuit – the uniform of an off-duty popstar – she frequently enjoys playing up the over-the-top aspects of her personality, melodramatically tossing her hair away from her oversized sunglasses, and frequently flashing a megawatt smile when we discuss the year ahead.
Mainstream ubiquity is at the top of the bucket list: “This year, I feel like the sky’s the limit. I’m extremely ambitious, so there’s nothing I feel like I can’t achieve. There’s an empire I have in mind, and I want to make it the biggest thing ever. I want to be a voice for those who, like me, want to achieve their dreams.”
“I am a flamingo in a world full of pigeons. I want to be as bright as possible”
Bree has already gained the sort of visibility that other artists could spend a career chasing. Following last September’s flawless headline show at London’s Colours Hoxton, she’s sold out a string of dates across Manchester, Birmingham and London this spring, and was recently nominated for this year’s BRIT Rising Star award (previous recipients include Adele and Griff), alongside Lola Young and winner Holly Humberstone.
Though excited to appear on the world stage with her peers, Bree is sensing a shift toward more fame, starting with ‘Pressure’, the first single from a stack of releases set to come thick and fast in these early months. A cool, sexy number with crushed-out beats and knowing lyrics (“Anywhere I walk is a runway”), her voice wraps effortlessly around the chorus like a slinky feather boa. Bree explains of the track: “I am a flamingo in a world full of pigeons. I want to be as bright as possible.” She roars with laughter at the audacity of the statement. “I want to sell fashion and art and anything that evokes an emotion in you and makes you want to press play again.”
She adds: “I truly feel like I have carved out my space in pop music because there’s no one else out there like Bree Runway. My time is now.”
Brenda Wireko Mensah was born into a musical and creative household in Hackney, east London, in 1992. Bree credits her drummer father for introducing her to genres such as Ghana’s Highlife, a fusion of African metre and jazz stylings; her mother, meanwhile, was an “obsessive” pop music fan that brought the music of noughties MTV regulars – including Lil Kim, Britney Spears, Pharrell and Kelis – to her daughter’s attention. Her first encounters with melody were bombastic; she’d watch the aforementioned artists’ music videos after school and “try to find the beauty in every single song”, building a deep understanding of pop music’s past, present and future along the way.
“Growing up, my favourite artists taught me a lifetime of lessons,” she says. “I loved how they were loud, flamboyant and in-your-face. In their music, they were honest about their emotions, but they looked amazing while they’re doing it. I wanted to be just like them.”
Throughout her formative years, she began to find the embryonic elements of Bree Runway when she shaved her head and studied music technology at college in south London. She describes teenage Bree as a “workhorse”, whose business savvy, stamina and drive pushed her to learn how to produce beats – a DIY way of working that informs the music she now makes.
Moving into higher education was life-changing for Bree and was “where I found my identity”. She immersed herself in a new environment and a new level of confidence emerged: Bree was now uploading her own music online – recorded from her makeshift home studio – with the support of her friendship group.
“Missy Elliot is now like a great big sister to me – she always has the most encouraging things to say”
Bree had suffered with anxiety for a long time, and had always been a shy people-pleaser who longed to be liked. It was an exhausting period of her life that made her resilient, something which has since helped her navigate the less glamorous areas of the music industry, such as social media trolls and tricky boardroom meetings.
“I’m so grateful that I get to be a Bree to the baby Brenda’s in life; there are so many people that have daily battles with confidence issues,” she says. “No matter what you identify as, there is something in my story that everyone can connect with.”
Music became an emotional outlet as colourism played a role in her life throughout school. She was bullied horrendously for “being the darkest girl in class”, which eventually led her to bleach her skin at the start of her teenage years – before needing professional treatment and therapy to eventually undo the damage.
“[School] was really hard because for a long time, I didn’t feel worthy,” she says today. “I didn’t feel like I was good enough for anyone.”
What would you say to your younger self if they could see where you are now?
“Oh my god.” She leans forward, speaking now in a lower, nearly hushed tone. “I would say to her, when you grow up, you’re going to be that bitch. You don’t even know how you’re going to impact the world with just your existence. You are so important and so special,” she says. “Please step into your power because once you do, you are going to change the world.”
She is hardcore, Bree; so unwilling to compromise her ideals or vision that it’s easy to find her journey both inspiring and incredibly touching. Her “message”, which ultimately boils down to: “Everyone has felt like the underdog at some point” – is something she repeats and takes seriously enough for others to echo it online. “Everytime something good happens for [Bree], I feel like it happened to me,” a fan recently tweeted.
Slowly, she is starting to overcome her previous difficulty with accepting small victories. “I’m still blown away by every single thing that happens to me – I can’t stress that enough. Every single day someone tells me, ‘Congratulations!’. I literally achieve something new every day.”
Throughout 2021, Bree’s success skyrocketed. She appeared on ‘Dawn Of Chromatica’ – famed producer Bloodpop’s remix record of Lady Gaga’s 2020 album ‘Chromatica’ – teamed up with Glass Animals for a reimagined version of their ‘Dreamland’ highlight ‘Space Ghost Coast To Coast’, and won a BET Award for Best New International Act.
However, she’s keen to emphasise that she’s received greater recognition in the US than at home. “When it comes to pop music, I think the UK likes a certain thing – and I’m definitely not that,” she says. “My music and my style is a bit leftfield and out-there, to the point where people assume I’m American as it’s all so polished. But it’s every artist’s dream to break America, and I seem to be connecting naturally over there – I’d much rather be recognised as a global-facing artist.”
Much of last year was also about “balancing Brenda, the human and Bree Runway”, she says. As an artist, an aspect of her character that is often portrayed online is how “untouchable” she is, although Bree wonders if that simply means being private about her personal life on social media. “I’ve had to learn how to enjoy ‘Brenda time’,” she says. “Last year, I missed a friend’s funeral because I was working; I was sick at one point, but tried to plaster it with work. I’m getting better at knowing when to take a step back from being Bree to thousands of people across the world.”
“I was bullied for being the darkest girl in class. I didn’t feel like I was good enough for anyone”
Just because Bree can be serious and reflective in conversation, it doesn’t mean that the meticulously polished aspect of her image isn’t important to her today. At a time when many other artists are dialing down the pop bombast in order to centre their approach on being authentic and ‘real’, there’s something fabulously escapist about the larger-than-life persona. Her mission is straightforward: she wants to stake her claim as a classic pop entertainer, even down to her on-stage outfits.
Prior to signing with EMI (Taylor Swift, Halsey) in 2018, Bree uploaded home recordings to YouTube, hoping that someone, somewhere would hear them. It wouldn’t take long for her breakthrough moment to arrive: early singles ‘Butterfly’ and ‘What Do I Tell My Friends?’ established her bright and dynamic sound, where deliberate washes of AutoTune embellish big, pounding beats. ‘Be Runway’, her first EP, followed in 2019, offering a further collection of transcendent pop anthems.
She has no problem conveying her winning charisma on record, either. 2020 mixtape ‘2000AND4EVA’ sold a transportive fantasy of wealth and excess, with snappy lyrics about designer clothes and globe-trotting, as exemplified on striking Missy Elliott team-up ‘ATM’: “They said I look like a painting by Van Gogh / You know a girl like me cost.” Simply put, she’s not trying hard to make you believe her because she believes in herself.
For Bree, working with her “lifelong hero” Missy – a collaboration that stemmed from a Twitter exchange between the pair – was a lesson in not compromising on her creative control. “Missy is now like a great big sister to me – she always has the most encouraging things to say,” she says. “I used to think that I didn’t fit the mould of a typical pop star, but she’s always made me feel like I can be fearless within my music.”
She says she will now never have to contend with external opinions about what she should sound like. “Some artists are afraid to do what I do because maybe my approach feels too extra. But honestly, I don’t see anyone else as competition. I don’t look at anyone’s else’s grass – I always focus on watering my own.
“I have never felt like I’m caught in a congested lane; to me, the industry looks like an empty motorway that I’m dominating, by myself. It’s just me and my car.” This is another of Bree’s many gifts: being able to round off a serious point with something outrageous. It’s almost as though she can’t help but always go one step further.
The week following her interview with NME, Bree takes to the stage at the MOBO Awards to open the ceremony with a fiery rendition of ‘Hot Hot’. It involves arriving onto the stage on a custom motorbike, pyrotechnics aplenty and slick choreography. By the end, she stands triumphantly before her audience, as unique, true and original a star as pop has produced in recent years.
Preparing for the performance made her feel a bit nostalgic for how the pop landscape looked a decade ago, a time that she describes as “unforgettable and epic”. She references Lady Gaga’s infamous meat dress – made from raw beef, which the generational musician wore to the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards – as something “people will never forget”.
Do you want to bring similarly iconic and controversial moments back to pop music?
She responds immediately: “I’m here doing it already. I don’t have a choice – this is who I am. I want to bring high drama back to music because as a kid, I lived for those moments. They were fun as hell!”
“I want to bring high drama back to music because as a kid, I lived for those moments”
This is what drives her. Bree’s own level of ambition is the answer to why she’s constantly pushing the boundaries of both her sound and her look. As such, she says she is actively against chasing TikTok trends (“I’m not living my life to blow up on the app”) and “throwaway” content, and instead wants to invest her time and energy into building connections with songwriters and producers across the globe, something she made happen throughout a string of sessions in LA towards the end of 2021. The collaborators that she met have contributed to her currently-untitled debut album, which is expected to drop later this year.
“Making music is not just some microwave situation – I’m not going to provide you something equivalent to a two minute, ready-made, supermarket-style burger,” she says. “I want to give you the well-made burger with the perfectly crispy lettuce, the amazingly sharp sliced tomato and the best brioche bun.” There is a pause, before she continues after some stifled laughter. “When it comes to me releasing music, I’d rather you starve and wait for that great burger instead.”
An artist that wholly understands her perfectionist mindset, she says, is R&B hitmaker Khalid, with whom she has teamed up with on a forthcoming single. “Khalid and I share a deep appreciation for stacking harmonies. I learned a lot from working with him; he is so meticulous in his recording process, and like me, really cares about the finer details. He really knows what he wants out of a song,” she says.
Who else is Bree keen to hit the studio with? Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker is her musical hero and the artist who, she says with a growing smirk, she would want to make music and get high with. “I think Kevin is unbelievably talented,” she says. “The fact he’s able to write lyrics that have touched so many of us so deeply – and also make all of the music – is magical. Honestly, it’s like he’s not a real human being!”
The singles that she will release over the next few months gleam, strut and sparkle as they take on themes of legacy and powerful self-possession. For Bree, they represent how certain she is about what Bree Runway stands for; what started out as a vehicle for her self-esteem issues as a teenager has become an ever-expanding movement, one that champions living life as your true self and having faith in your abilities.
“I feel like all the songs that I’ve previously put out have only scratched the surface of my talents,” she says. “But now, there’s literally nothing I wouldn’t do in terms of music.” She helped to produce her upcoming material, adding electronic shimmers and dramatic vocal swoops to make them that much more expansive – they’re maximalist, danceable and infectiously fun, a collection of Max Martin-style pop anthems built for arenas.
For now, though, she is happy living at 100 miles per hour. Bree is laser-focused in achieving her dreams, is hungry for success, and engages daily and intimately with an online fanbase that aims to uplift her. Most importantly, though, she knows exactly what she is doing.
She’s become something of an icon for confidence and empowerment, but as with her success as an artist, those feelings were hard-earned. “My debut album is going to really show off what Bree Runway can do,” she says. “All I want is for people to walk away from it thinking, ‘This girl can really do anything’.”
Bree Runway’s new single ‘Pressure’ is out soon
Styling by Holly Wood
Hair by Bernicia Boateng
Makeup by Seraiah Hair & Makeup Artistry
Nails by Katt Katana