Benee: “I want to celebrate, but you have to ask yourself – is this wrong?”

Grimes and Lily Allen feature on the New Zealander's debut album and she's just played one of the post-Covid era's first arena shows. Benee tells Caitlin O'Reilly about feeling conflicted in the age of coronavirus.

If anyone knows how to bounce back from a break-up, it’s Benee. Thanks to a viral dance routine on TikTok, the New Zealander’s self-deprecating pop smash ‘Supalonely’ – featuring Gus Dapperton – has taken on a life of its own. Written after splitting with her boyfriend, the irresistible earworm has amassed a casual 2.1 billion streams to date, turning the woman also known as Stella Rose Bennett into a global sensation in the thick of a pandemic.

If that wasn’t enough trailblazing, the 20-year-old has also recently finished a sold-out, headline tour across New Zealand. Whilst the euphoria of gigs may feel like a distant dream for the rest of us, Jacinda Ardern’s deft handling of the coronavirus meant that in October Benee was one of the first musicians to perform her songs in a packed-out arena since the pandemic began.

Credit: Harry Were

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“It’s been a crazy few months, that’s for sure”, Benee tells NME on a video call from her home in Auckland. “Coming out of lockdown to play to 12,000 people in Auckland’s Spark Arena was mad. I do feel a bit conflicted about it all, though. I want to celebrate, but given everything that’s going on in the world right now, you have to ask yourself – is this wrong?”.

There’s certainly nothing wrong about Benee’s natural flair for a perfect pop hook. Elton John has declared himself a fan, and she’s managed to break the US with virtual performances on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. “The Ellen Show is such a big deal and has always been on my bucket list. The fact that we got to do that in between lockdowns from New Zealand was just surreal”.

Benee is already ticking off major milestones that would leave even the most established of artists envious. That she has achieved such notoriety before releasing her debut album is testament to her prodigious songwriting talent. Many have been quick to compare her to fellow Gen-Z icon Billie Eilish, but 2019’s ‘FIRE ON MARZZ’ and ‘STELLA & STEVE’ EPs demonstrate a wit and eccentricity that is entirely her own.

“I always like to inject an element of fun into my music,” she tells us. “I can do sad romantic songs, for sure, but I’m not someone who really takes myself too seriously. Songwriting for me is about fusing genres and making a new musical soup every time”.

“I really wanted to take risks on this album and make something chaotic”

Playfulness and experimentation are in no short supply on Benee’s debut record, ‘Hey u x’, which is out November 13. Its 13 tracks take us deep into a fantastical and intimate world, skipping from smooth indie to high-octane, futuristic pop. Backed up by an impressive list of guest features, including Grimes, Lily Allen and one-to-watch Bakar, it proves the Platinum selling success of ‘Supalonely’ was a mere precursor for this relatable, idiosyncratic popstar.

“Sound-wise, I really wanted to take risks on this album and make something chaotic,” says Benee. “I generally hate choosing album names but I went with ‘Hey u x’ because it felt like a cute message to send to my fans, almost like I’d sent them a file and connected personally.”

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The Grimes-featuring ‘Sheesh’ hints at an exciting new direction. “I get what I desire/And I get what I want,” is its sassy mantra, propelled by maxed-out drum’n’bass production. “I was just really keen to make a drum’n’bass track! I’m definitely not going to hold back in the future – trap, hip hop, maybe even techno are all things I’d like to try too.”

Credit: Harry Were

Benee’s appreciation for artists like Radiohead and James Blake shines through in the album’s more romantic moments. ‘A Little While’ – which marks Benee’s first production credit – is a heartfelt tale of working out where you stand with someone: “I’m not used to guys like you/I’m so used to being used,” she whispers over melancholy, lo-fi guitar.

‘Hey u x’ is full of allusions to scary, mystical beings. They’re there on the jazz-inflected ‘Night Garden’, featuring Kenny Beats and Bakar, while ‘Snail’ is a cartoonish, catchy result of the singer’s vivid imagination. “I’m dyslexic so I often tell stories very visually. ‘Snail’ is basically me in lockdown wanting to write a song from the point of view of all these snails that were hanging around outside my parents’ house, wondering where all the humans had gone because of coronavirus.”

Compared to her first EPs, ‘Hey u x’ explores Benee’s more vulnerable side. ‘Kool’ and ‘Winter’ both deal with the feeling of being a social outsider and opening track ‘Happen To Me’ lays her anxieties bare as she questions why people contemplate suicide: “I understand why people leave/But leaving seems scary to me,” she concludes.

“I’m always going to be raw and honest – I’ll never be one of those musicians with some flawless, fake Instagram feed”

“‘Happen To Me’ is my favourite track on the album and I made it the first track to make a point. I’ve never explored mental health lyrically before, so I’m a little nervous about how people will respond to that. But I’m always going to be raw and honest – I’ll never be one of those musicians with some flawless, fake Instagram feed”.

Benee’s feature-heavy debut album is also a chance to flex her own A&R muscles. ‘Spaced Out’ is a chilled jam with fellow New Zealander Muroki – who is signed to her female-run record label, Olive. “There’s so much talent to discover and promote in New Zealand. I’ve always wanted to try my hand at A&R and boost other artists’ careers.”

At just 20, Benee is making meaningful, genre-defying music, whilst also rapidly learning how to take advantage of her new-found fame. “Whether it’s climate change, female representation in the music industry, or mental health – if I post about that online, I can really use my platform to make a difference.”

Don’t be fooled by the sugar-sweet veneer of ‘Supalonely’ – Benee is a Gen-Z pop pioneer with serious intentions.

Benee’s debut album ‘Hey u x’ is out November 13 on Island Records

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