BENEE on Her Debut Album, Playing New Zealand Arenas, and Surviving the Year of Mental Breakdowns
Achieving viral stardom earlier this year on TikTok with her single “Supalonely,” the Kiwi songwriter details her new LP Hey u x, out Friday.
No song has defined the quarantine era quite like BENEE’s “Supalonely,” which blew up on TikTok back in March thanks to its aptly relatable lyrics (“I’m a lonely bitch!”) and has since amassed over two billion streams worldwide. It’s an ironic feat considering BENEE, born Stella Rose Bennett, has spent minimal time in strict lockdown due to her native New Zealand’s successful efforts to contain COVID-19. In fact, of all the artists who’ve found success amid the pandemic, BENEE is perhaps the only one who’s been able to reap the full benefits, as she embarked on a sold-out arena tour of New Zealand in October.
“I knew I would miss playing shows, but not to the level that I friggin’ didn’t know what to do with myself,” says the twenty-year-old singer over a late-October Zoom call. “It was just crazy to see the new energy that everyone was bringing to each show. Everyone is so happy to watch live music again.”
She loved seeing the thousands of smiling, safely mask-free faces of her fans every night, but whenever BENEE thinks of the early career heights she’s experienced over the past eight globally tumultuous months, she’s overwhelmed with guilt. “This whole year has been weird for me,” she sighs. “I feel like I shouldn’t be telling people that I’m doing this or that, but at the same time I have to acknowledge these things when they happen to me.” After all, when she dropped out of college after two weeks to pursue music full-time—or at least in between her restaurant shifts as a pizza chef and dishwasher—she never thought it’d gain such rapid momentum.
Following the release of just two singles, “Tough Guy” and “Soaked,” BENEE was signed to Republic Records in 2018, and the following year she released two EPs, Fire on Marzz and Stella & Steve. The latter project originally housed “Supalonely,” the success of which quickly led to the creation of Hey u x, her debut album. All guilt aside, she’s moving forward with its release knowing that music has been an immense help for people through the disastrous year. “I just want to get it out there so that people can have something,” she admits. “But it is very weird to think that I’m releasing an album at a time when things are so weird and shitty.”
The album was mainly constructed over the course of New Zealand’s two lockdown periods with a “pretty intense” block of studio sessions in the interim to ensure she’d meet her deadlines, and the pandemic-inflicted intimate nature of its creation inspired its simple, cheeky title. “I feel like ‘Hey u x’ is something that you send to a mate, or someone you have a thing with,” she says. “I wanted this album to feel very personal to whoever is listening to it. I want it to feel like a conversation between them and I.”
“I feel like ‘Hey u x’ is something that you send to a mate, or someone you have a thing with. I wanted this album to feel very personal to whoever is listening to it. I want it to feel like a conversation between them and I.”
If Hey u x is a conversation, BENEE is an open book. Her lyrics read like revealing diary entries, detailing her anxious thoughts about death on opening track “Happen to Me,” her desire to reunite with an ex-lover on “If I Get to Meet You,” and her paranoia over being watched on “Night Garden.” “I wonder if he’ll jump right out, cover my face, and hold me down,” she sings of a fictional stalker, detailing a longtime fear so intense it’s led BENEE to ask her mom to sleep next to her as recently as this year. Unfortunately, the fear has not only grown, but proven rational as the singer has gained recognition; she was actually followed on a drive home by two men earlier this year.
“The last three years I have been this fucking anxious stress ball, so I definitely think [fame] has made me more hyperaware of what’s going on around me,” she shares. “I went to a psychologist and she told me to stop watching thrillers that have the predator that watches the lady in her house. I used to love that kind of stuff, and I realized that was a huge contributing factor to why I could never get to sleep, so I stopped. I also got a guard dog. Like a dog, but I call her my guard dog, ’cause I feel like she would protect me if anything was to scare me.”
Sonically, Hey u x is like a Spotify playlist, running through a wide range of genres from track to track: pure pop, airy alternative, industrial dance, hip-hop. “‘Eclectic’ is the word I’ve been using to describe the album to everyone,” she says, noting that she’s not striving to please any single listener with the entire set. “It’d be great if one person liked every single song, but it’d be cool if a person only liked one song, and the rest is completely not their vibe.” It’s a fitting sentiment, considering that BENEE herself didn’t like some of the album’s tracks until a stacked set of collaborators—including Gus Dapperton, Kenny Beats, and Grimes—were enlisted for guest verses.
“I had ‘Plain’ finished, but I hated the second verse ’cause I tried rapping,” she says of the self-described “bad bitch anthem” that now features Lily Allen and 2020 breakout rapper Flo Milli. She felt the same about the somber “Winter” before Australian musician Mallrat wrote and performed its second verse. “Sometimes I’m still a bit unsure, but I like what they’ve done to it.”
In addition to releasing her own music, BENEE recently launched Olive, her own record label. It may come as a surprise for her to assume the administrative role of CEO as she deals with such severe anxiety and uncertainty, but she plans to use the platform to uplift artists who haven’t seen the success she has so early on in her career. “I realized after posting about climate change and Black Lives Matter that people were actually listening to me,” she explains. “It’s like a hobby for me, ’cause I love going to little gigs, finding cool artists, and telling people about them.” Her first signee is fellow Kiwi artist Muroki, who features on Hey u x cut “All the Time.”
Due to her residency in New Zealand, one of the only places traditional concerts currently exist in, BENEE is in a uniquely perfect position to scout new artists. Her location also means that her album release week will look pretty normal, complete with interviews, performances, and a pop-up merchandise shop. But while she’s grateful to be stuck in such a safe, free area, she looks forward to the day she can travel again and finally meet her newfound fans around the rest of the globe. Until then, she plans to make visuals for Hey u x and take a well-deserved break before moving on to her next project, which she expects will be another EP.
“I feel like once I’ve done this, I’ll probably be chilling for a bit,” says BENEE. “Sometimes I don’t chill, and that’s when I have mental breakdowns and stuff. I’ve had enough of those this year.” FL