Auckland-based artist Benee, born Stella Rose Bennett, has seen a consistent swell in her career since uploading some covers to Soundcloud in 2017. In 2019 the bubbly pop sensation crossed the threshold of the country’s lounges in winning NZ Music Awards’ Tuis for Best Solo Artist, Best Pop Artist, Breakthrough Artist of the Year, and Single of the Year for her debut single Soaked. It was a four-feat she was even more incredibly able to repeat at this November’s Aotearoa Music Awards. Following two 2019 EPs, ‘Fire on Marzz’ and ‘Stella & Steve’, Benee’s debut album ‘Hey U X’ came out just days earlier, on Friday, November 13, 2020. (There are 13 tracks on it… spooky.) Aabir Mazumdar talked with our nation’s current pop supanova.
Since its release in December 2019, Supalonely has enjoyed about a bazillion Tik Tok outings and been Spotify streamed just under 470 million times, both figures, of course, accurate when typed but out of date just as soon as they were printed. At just 20, she’s a bonafide pop star. It’s no surprise to learn Benee started her journey as an artist early.
“About when I was in primary school I started playing the guitar and I played it for a few years. I would’ve been maybe seven? But then I stopped because I went to St. Mary’s College, which was an all-girls Catholic school. Music was compulsory but they didn’t offer the guitar as an instrument. So I asked my parents if I could play the saxophone when I was eight.”
She went on to play the saxophone through primary and high school when she dropped all music-related activities for water polo. By the time she was 17, she had again become interested in writing and recording music, posting songs online during her final year at school.
Listening to different styles of music has been central to developing her style of music. She says she’s always made an effort to go out looking for artists that are genre-bending.
“I prefer to find artists who are not so tied to one genre. I was obsessed with James Blake when I was 13, and still am, and I think maybe that’s because he doesn’t have one sound you know? He’s making beats with Travis Scott and he’s making sad boi beats and he’s making every kind of music.
“I grew up listening to a bunch of different kinds of music. I listened to a lot of Gnarls Barkley and Bjork and Radiohead, Bon Iver, Groove Armada, Grace Jones… My parents definitely listened widely and I think that has definitely influenced the way that I listen to music. And that has rubbed off on the music that I make, which I think is cool.
“I’ve started a new obsession with Grimes. I always knew about her and I had listened to Genesis but I hadn’t ever fully gone into her music but I have recently become super into it. She’s got a song called 4am which is really, really cool and very random but I think she’s a perfect example of an artist who is the definition of a musician who is experimental and is kind of alien-like, which I think is really cool.”
Benee gushes almost embarrassedly when I mention the track called Sheesh on her new album that features Grimes.
“I know! I know! I still don’t quite understand that but, pretty happy about it!”
With so much success from those very first single releases, how does it feel to now have her debut album out?
“It feels good. It’s always a little bit scary when you have it finished. You start over-thinking everything. It’s released now and there’s nothing you can do about it. I’m just happy that it’s out. I had been listening to mixes and thinking, ‘This song is too long’ or ‘I hate the bridge’. I’m sorry everyone, take it back!”
When we talk it’s really not long since the album release, so feedback has been minimal.
“The only things I’ve heard is from people messaging me and it hasn’t been hate, which is nice. And people’s favourites are my favourites which is nice. That’s not normally the case but it is in this case.”
So that’s something learned from her two preceding EP releases?
“Yeah, my favourite is always the one no one gives a damn about. My favourites in ‘Stella & Steve’ were Blu and Monsta and those were the two that the least amount of people listened to. In ‘Fire on Marzz’, Want Me Back was my favourite, and that was the least streamed as well! What can you do? I’m just happy anyone is listening to my music, honestly.”
The songwriting process starts in her small home studio set up.
“I’ve got a mic, an interface, a guitar and a keyboard and speakers. And I use Logic. I play myself a bunch of songs that I love and I find elements in them that I maybe somehow want to incorporate into a song. Maybe it’s a synth sound or something. I’ll get them down. Drums are always a good thing to put down. And then I’ll just freestyle melody and vocal ideas and write my lyrics.
“Some songs can take one session, which is like maybe seven hours. I usually go back though. I’ll have a song and then I’ll go back to it and edit it up.”
Benee says she’s trying to make music that she wants to be making in that moment – meaning it reflects just what her mind is coming up with at this time of her life.
“I think it’ll always be changing and I hope my music will never just stay the same. That’s why I listen to the artists that I do, because all of their music sounds so different. My goal is to make music that I want to be making and that I’m really excited about, and have it all sound like a big eclectic kind of package.”
Her history with the guitar still comes out strongly across most of her music.
“I love guitar. I love the sound of it. That’s always been a really big thing for me, keeping even the live kind of feel to my music. I’ve always wanted to incorporate instruments that sound like you could be at a gig. So there’s the guitar and the drums and the bass. I love the funky bass.
“You have songs [on ‘Hey U X’] like Sheesh and C U and If I Get To Meet You and Happen To Me which are not like that at all. But definitely with my older music I was super into the funk. I was listening to a lot of R&B. With my first EP I was listening to a lot of The Internet and Steve Lacey, who all have very funky bass sounds.”
Knowing that the production credits on her most successful singles, Soaked, Glitter and Supalonely, are shared with Leisure-member producers Josh Fountain and Djeisan Suskov, it might be tempting to assume the prize-winning pop smarts might be theirs, but not so. The choice of feature artists (Flo Milli and Lily Allen are others) is all Benee’s, and she started learning how to use a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) early on, so knows her way around in the studio process.
“That started when I first got my mum’s old Macbook that had Garageband on it, and I remember playing around with it when I was 14. I would try to write songs on it and try to record stuff, really badly. And I also found that you could download free beats and put them into Garageband and record vocals over them. I would do that for fun. Covers were something that I really liked to record on there.”
She watched a lot of tutorials but otherwise, her own production skills were self-taught, now enhanced by working alongside the country’s current pre-eminent pop producer.
“I definitely think working with Josh, sitting behind him in the studio, has definitely helped me over the past three years. But hey, there’s always room for improvement and in my case, I can definitely do a lot better at it.”
Despite the obvious high levels of professionalism, their studio sessions sound pretty relaxed.
“Sometimes I’ll come in with stuff written in my notes, even just an idea, like I had ‘Write a song about a snail’ written in my notes. I’ll take it into the studio, I’ll play a bunch of music and we’ll just have a conversation for like an hour and then we’ll figure out a beat. I’ll say what kind of vibe I want to go for.
“So with Sheesh it was like, ‘Alright, time to make a drum’n’bass song!’ We’ll lay down some drums and some bass and I’ll just be there for an hour writing all my lyrics down. Then I’ll go into the booth and I’ve been freestyling lately. I’ll just freestyle melody ideas, record them all down, go back into the studio, cut them all up, find the bits that we like the most and figure out how to structure the song.”
Fountain, she says, produced everything and played a lot of the instruments on ‘Hey U X’, aided and abetted by Suskov who played much of the guitar. The musicians she performs with live are different.
“My band is made up of three of my best friends. I’ve got Tiare Kelly who plays the guitar who I’ve known since I was a baby. She actually did record the Happen To Me guitar and another song too. Felix Holton also played the Happen To Me drums and the Same Effect drums. And Dylan Clark plays the bass for me.
“I met them when I was trying to figure out a band in 2018 for my first performance which was at Neck of the Woods. And I thought, ‘Oh my god, who am I going to bring into my band?’ I messaged Tiare, ‘Dude would you want to be in my band and she was like ‘Yeah man’’. She just finished studying at Massey in Wellington doing a music industry course. And I was like, ‘Do you have any friends who would want to play in the band?’ She found Felix and Dylan who I’m now really, really close to. And we’ve been playing together ever since.”
When you have genuine studio-produced hits that your fans have heard repeatedly it can be a challenge translating that recorded music to a live show. Benee happily admits there are differences, her live band taking some creative license, but says it’s about finding a balance.
“It’s obviously letting them do what they want and be their own kind of artist but at the same time also respecting that it’s my music and my sound. There’s a way to do it, which I think we’ve obviously figured out and that’s why we work really together. There are some things that are actually cooler when you have someone like Felix adding these crazy fills and we’re like, ‘Okay, that’s sick. Keep doing that.’ It almost sounds better sometimes when it’s live. But I think that the whole live performance is just another side to the music, so it’s nice when it’s super similar [to the original recordings] but also nice when it has some differences.”
Benee’s planned international tour early in the year was cancelled due to Covid. She still managed a sold-out tour across NZ, playing Christchurch, Dunedin, Wellington and Auckland, the latter possibly one of the biggest shows happening anywhere in the world in that time.
“I was so, so scared there would be another lockdown and it would all get cancelled. I was just so stoked that it went through. And I feel like there was this new energy, like everyone was just so excited to be going to gigs. So it was a really nice celebration.”
The Auckland show was live-streamed for overseas fans that wanted to be part of the action but Supalonely’s Tik Tok popularity in a Covid-lockdown planet meant her international profile has possibly been enhanced by the pandemic. She has featured on a number of U.S. talk shows including The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and the Ellen DeGeneres Show – all from Auckland of course.
“We recorded them at home. It was kind’a cool cos the art direction and everything was up to us.”
Covid aside it’s been a year of politics and when we talk Benee had recently found herself in the news for weighing in politically during a charged NZ election – for which she was both applauded and criticised. On the backlash she received she wanted to set the record straight.
“I think it’s important for anyone who doesn’t already understand, musicians can say whatever they want and that’s part of being an artist, expressing yourself and your opinions. It’s important to be political and I hate it when people tell me not to be political. So that’s the tea.”