NME Radar: Breakout

BENEE: Kiwi pop star with TikTok banger taking her from Supalonely to superstardom

Meet the Auckland singer everyone is making a song and dance about. No, seriously.

Each week in Breakout, we talk to the emerging stars blowing up right now – whether it be a huge viral moment, killer new track or an eye-popping video – these are the rising artists certain to dominate the near future

In December, when BENEE released her new single ‘Supalonely’ featuring indie-pop hero Gus Dapperton, things felt pretty much business as usual for the Auckland-based singer. Streams on the track from her second EP, ‘STELLA & STEVE’, were ticking over nicely. Little did she – or anyone – know that just a few months down the line, the song would erupt into a global hit that it’s hard to go a day without hearing.

TikTok is to thank for the sudden incline in attention. After Zoi Lerma a TikTok dancer with 1.7m followers, created a dance for the track, it spread like wildfire across the app, with celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Jason Derulo hopping on trend too. The attention saw a 400% increase in streams in just one day in February, shooting ‘Supalonely’ up into the charts across the world. After seven weeks in the charts in the UK, it’s still knocking about in the Top 30

Lyrically, it’s a self-deprecating story of a break-up, juxtaposed by upbeat, nostalgia-tinged, lo-fi disco themes. It all crescendos into a chorus that’s hard to rid from your head and even harder not to jig about to. Little surprise then, that it turned from TikTok sensation to real-life smash hit. When she joins NME via video from her family home in Auckland, New Zealand, she explains how lockdown has given her time to process the sudden stardom.

Let’s kick off with ‘Supalonely’, then. There’s been 8m TikTok videos created with the sound, totalling 5.8bn views. That must be weird, right?

“It’s completely wild! It’s all been very crazy, especially during this weird time. I’m in isolation and just watching it all happen. I’m being sent videos of people dancing and seeing YouTubers I used to watch when I was 14 doing dances to it. Surreal.”

When did you first realise the reach?

“I have a little brother and he gave me the inside scoop about TikTok, ‘cos I had no idea. He was like, ‘there’s this group called the Hype House and they’re the main TikTokers’. There’s this girl called Charlie D’Amelio (who has 50m+ followers on the app) and it was when someone sent me a video of her doing the dance, I was like ‘damn, that’s insane’. I searched the song and saw the people doing it and I was like ‘oh my goodness’. These really young kids have millions of followers and I’m like ‘oh crap they’re all doing my dance!’ Well, not my dance but…”

How have things picked up? Does anything feel different?

“Yeah, definitely. I’m getting a lot more people coming from different pockets of the world who weren’t listening to my music before, which is insane. It’s definitely opened up a lot of doors for me at the moment. I think a lot of people have gone on and listened to my other songs and I know they wouldn’t have found them if it wasn’t for TikTok, so I have a lot to thank the app for.”

Tell us about how you came about writing the track?

“Well, I started writing the song halfway through last year – it’s a breakup song, so I wrote it after I broke up with my boyfriend and 5 days before I went to LA for writing sessions. It wasn’t my smartest move! I was hella sad at the time. I was in a dark sad girl place and I was like ‘shoot I could write a really sad song right now cos I’m feeling real emo’. But I realised that I can twist it and be super self-deprecating and mock myself, ‘cos I hate feeling sorry for myself.

So, when did you start writing songs?

“I think it was only 2017 when I wrote my first song where I was like ‘this is the sound I wanna stick with at the time’. My mum has videos of me singing weird little songs when I was five though. I think when I was eight, I asked my parents if I could start learning the saxophone and I think that’s when the proper interest [in music] started. I was learning the guitar in primary school, carried on with sax in high school and then dropped everything for water polo… that was the dumbest decision ever and took up every minute of my life.”

Sorry, water polo? 

“It was intense! When I made ‘Tough Guy’, I had been working on music in sessions that I had to fit in with the last year of high school and playing water polo all the time. I did this session and wrote ‘Wishful Thinking’ too and that’s when I realised ‘crap, I think I’ve found my sound’. It sounds so cheesy but it took me a long time to trial different sounds. There were a lot of bad demos, but you gotta experiment!”

Most people know you for ‘Supalonely’, but you have a knack for writing killer hooks. ‘Find an Island’ and ‘Glitter’ are incredibly catchy too. What’s the secret?

“I guess it kinda comes naturally? It changes but it’s usually just: freestyle, get everything out and see if anything good comes out. I usually write out my lyrics, go to the little booth and freestyle melody ideas. We’ll just keep doing takes, I’ll keep playing around with my lyrics and we’ll just try out everything. Then I come back in and figure out a structure.”

CREDIT: Undine Markus

“I dropped my music career for water polo – that was the dumbest decision ever”

You’re no stranger to surreal career moments, having been interviewed by Elton John. How was that?

“I mean, ooh, it was insane man! It’s just crazy to me that he reached out. He wanted to buy my record and I didn’t even have one at that moment. I was like ‘dude what the hell we need to make records right now!’ He invited us to meet him and be on the show. He’s just the sweetest human. We played three New Zealand artists’ tracks and I was surprised ‘cos he had really studied the songs and he could tell me everything about them. Like, this icon has just spent time out of his life to listen to it. What the heck! Everyone says ‘don’t meet your icons’ but they’d be surprised – he’s a real human and he cares.”

Do you feel any pressure now for your next songs to have the same impact?

“I feel like maybe deep down I’m actually freaking out, but the last year I’ve been floating and that’s how I’ve been dealing with everything in life. So, actually, I’m weirdly chill about things. Probably when I release my next track I’ll be like ‘oh crap no one’s gonna like this at all’, but as long as I like it, I can just put it out there and let it do its own thing. If people hate it, then it sucks, but it’s out there and not coming back in.”

Who do you trust with showing your music too, then, before you release?

“Over the last couple of years, there’s a limited amount of people I’ll show the songs to. Everyone likes different stuff and sometimes I’d play songs to someone and they’d be like ‘I don’t really like that at all’ and I’d be like ‘nooo, it’s coming out in a week!’ I think as long as you are fully feeling what you’re making, that’s fine. I just need to like what I make and as long as my mum likes it, we’re good. I don’t know why, but she tells me if she hates something and I’m like ok I’ll change it!”

What’s next in terms of releasing?

“I’m gonna try to release a big project at the end of the year. The plan’s got a little pushed back because I was working in the studio and it was a lot faster working with the producer, but once everything is safe I’ll be replanning tours. And just releasing music in the meantime. I have a couple of songs that are gonna come out real soon…”

BENEE’s ‘Stella & Steve’ EP is out now.

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