Benee’s waving at me on mute through a pixelated computer screen. It’s her first day out of her second lockdown, and she’s sporting a fresh salon-rinsed orange fringe to prove it. We’re miming words and frantically pointing at our ears, because it turns out even popstars struggle with the banalities of life filtered through livestream. “I still can't work Zoom,” she laughs when we finally connect. To be fair to Benee, it’s not a problem she should be having.
The Conversationalist: Benee
Club writer Georgie Wright sits down with pop superstar BENEE to talk her new album, being legally allowed to tour, and why snails are superior to slugs.
She should be complaining about crappy Wifi on a tour bus winding through Europe, or using her DIY facemask to battle horizontal dust storms at a swarming festival somewhere hot. But it’s 2020, so instead she’s been orchestrating a pop career from the confines of her bedroom, which comes with its own set of challenges. “I'm always messaging my manager last minute being like, 'Fuck, I don't have the password, what's the ID.”
Benee’s rise has been swift. In 2019, the 20-year-old released two EPs, FIRE ON MARZZ and STELLA & STEVE, slick collections of distinctive, funk-laced pop that cemented her voice as a fresh one. This year, her already steady ascent spiked when millions of teens worldwide started filming a very technical series of hip swings and head rolls to her quarantine-apt track, Supalonely. It was Benee’s second brush with TikTok virality - her earlier release Glitter got some mileage on the app - but it was Supalonely that hit peak streams and galvanised the limbs of J Lo, Jason Derulo and reigning queen of Tiktok, Charli D'Amelio. “I get a lot of people commenting like, TikTok girl! '” she says of the platform that catalysed her fame. “But it's got my music in front of so many people who didn't know I existed before,” she says. “So I'm not complaining. I'm quite happy.”
Having a viral hit is one thing - having the personality, talent and tracks to back it up is another altogether. Benee’s got it all. Her chat’s infused with the same wry humour that makes Supalonely such a relatable sad banger: on paper, the lyrics read like the mean little voice in your head using your soul as a punching bag: “ I know I fucked up, I'm just a loser / Shouldn't be with ya, guess I'm a quitter.” Sonically, however, it’s wrapped in a witty layer of oohs and aahs, yells and vibes that make the cold depths of loneliness almost sound fun.
Benee is similarly self-deprecating when discussing the disappointment of all the opportunities she’s had to drop this year. “I talked to a lot of people, had a couple of breakdowns, y’know,” she says casually. But she’s got a balanced outlook on it all. “I guess there are pros and cons,” she explains. On one hand, it’s gutting not to be in the same room as Jimmy Fallon for her TV debut on The Tonight Show. On the other, she sings better in a music studio than in front of a television audience (her claim, not mine), “Because I get nervous, and I go off and stuff, which probably would've happened if I'd done it in front of Jimmy,” she laughs. “So in that sense, it's chill.” It also helps that she’s grounded by a decent dose of perspective. “People are losing their jobs, and you come to reality and go, holy shit, the world is really stuffed up right now. So you just do what you can kind of do, work in the ways you can work right now, and hope that there's some kind of end, soon-ish.”
The work Benee’s been doing is finishing her debut album, which is in its final stages of recording. In lockdown 2.0, she was legally allowed in the studio, as long as she kept six feet from producer Josh Fountain, who’s also a member of kiwi band Leisure. The pair connected after Benee posted a few covers on Soundcloud, then set to work figuring out what she actually wanted to make. “There was a lot of experimenting when I was trying to find, like, my sound,” she laughs. “It definitely took making a lot of songs that I hated to find the music I wanted to be making,” she laughs. That said, she’s adamant about not being shoehorned into one box, and promises her album will be unlike anything she’s done before. “I feel like over the past few years I've realised I don't have to be tied to one sound,” she explains. “I'm listening to different music, and getting a little bit older. I'm like, evolving.” She pauses, then laughs. “Oh my god, shut up. Sorry.”
We caught up with her to chat about animals, making a mukbang, and what’s in her bag.
How did lockdown 2.0 compare to the first?
It was definitely different. I was complaining more than the first lockdown. But all the people protesting lockdown? That really fucked me off. That really got me really, really bad.
Yeah, some people truly suck. In lockdown 1.0 I learnt the Supalonely Tiktok dance, so would just like to formally apologise for butchering your song.
I can't do it, so good on you.
Have you tried?
I've been asked to do it multiple times but I can't hack it, ‘cause I can't dance. I'm really un-co, so it just doesn't really work for me. The Glitter one was enough.
It sounds like you had a much more productive lockdown though - making actual music. How’s the album sounding?
Um. Good? I hate it when people are like, 'yeah it's like, sOoOo good. It's the best, I fuckin' love my music.' I mean, hopefully people like it. It's pretty different from my other stuff.
In what way?
It's quite all over the place. I've dipped into genres that I've never explored before. There's some electronic stuff in there, a little bit of funk. I kinda like the idea of it all being quite eclectic.
Are you listening to different tracks thinking, 'I want to pluck that from there', or do you have a day of like, trying out EDM beats.
It's a mix of different stuff. Recently I listened to this Grimes song called 4ÆM, and I was like, what the fuck, it's almost drum and bass. So I was like, would it be cringe if I made a semi drum and bass song? Because there's a lot of bad drum and bass. But then there's some elements which are fun. So I tried it, and that's in the album.
It made the cut?
Yeah, it was fun. But usually I'm in the studio and play a bunch of songs and I'm like, I like this indie guitar from this band in Dunners, and then I like this element of this folk song, or this techno-y track, and then it turns into a pop song somehow. That's how Snail came about.
That’s your quarantine song, right?
Yeah. I wrote it the first week out of the first lockdown, when I was free. But it was about the first lockdown, then I released it in the second lockdown. It was a fast turnaround, because usually we have to sit on songs for ages.
Do you think that’s because we're in this weird lockdown time where everyone is just doing whatever they want?
Yeah, I reckon. No one's allowed to tour, or do anything else. And there's no one that can really be like, ‘You have to do this instead.’ Because I’m just like, ‘Well you can't tell me that!’ I think the album is going to come out a lot sooner than it would have if we didn't have this lil' pandemic going on.
Well that’s one positive. And you've always loved snails, right?
What're your thoughts on slugs? Because I feel like slugs are just snails without a shell, but somehow way worse.
There's definitely something different. Slugs are something else. I don't hate them, but I don't like them as much. Snails are cute. Slugs are almost there but not quite. You feel me?
I do. They try.
They try, but nah.
A lot of your tracks reference outdoors things - snails, spiders, gardens. Why do you think that is?
Far out. I dunno. I guess that's just what sparks inspiration for me. But I like the idea that I can write about anything, so I take advantage of that. I'm a visual learner because I'm dyslexic, so that kind of stuff makes me excited, and that's what I lean towards.
Your tracks are generally quite upbeat, but then hit you with an emotional trojan horse when you listen to the lyrics.
Yeah, I definitely like the idea of having a happy sounding song and having some sad stuff going on beneath that. But then again, I just tend to write sad songs. I find it a lot easier - it's kind of weird for me writing about happy songs. I also like listening to music that's happy sad, sad happy.
You use a lot of illustrations and montage elements for your music videos and album art. Where do you find visual inspirations?
All sorts of places. I do these really deep stalks on Instagram and find artists that are really cool, and really low key, and I'll ask to collaborate with them. That's what I did for Snail, and pretty much all of my other ones, and that's what I've done for the album artwork too. The album art was done by a human that I found on Instagram. And I go on Pinterest a lot.
And you’re going on actual tour. How does it feel to be one of the first in… the world?
Oh my. It's pretty exciting. It's crazy to think that we're the only country that's going to be able to do that. Also, I feel a little bit guilty about it? Everyone seems to be having a really bad time everywhere else, and it doesn't feel like they're going to come out of that hole for a long time. So I'm kind of like, shoot. Should I be out here doing promo for my gigs? But then again, I reckon it'll be really great for a lot of musicians in New Zealand. Because you see every festival line up and it's only New Zealand acts, who are great and may not have been able to get those spots if everyone else was able to join the party.
Besides headlining NZ festivals, what else are you planning to get up to this summer?
I like going to the beach, classic. I like to drive out of the city and get away from humans. I don't like going on the beach if there are too many people on the beach though. I'm weird about humans sometimes.
Do you get people filming you in public places now?
Is that strange?
It's quite strange. It's really nice when it happens and people are like, 'Hey, I love your work.' It's creepy when they do it without asking me. That’s happened at a few gigs recently, and it's like, G, what're you up to? But I guess it's just part of it and putting yourself out there, so it’s probably something you’ve got to get used to. But I haven't been asked yet at the beach.
That's good. Hopefully people respect your privacy at the beach, it's a safe space. Speaking of the internet, you’ve been sharing a lot of resources about important issues, whether that's the Black Lives Matter movement, the election, the cannabis referendum. Is that something you feel a responsibility to do?
I feel like just recently people are now, for some reason, listening to what I have to say. So I’m just taking advantage of having people listening. And it's so important to share resources and messages, and if I can spread it to this many followers then I'm like shoot, yeah. This is a great time for me to be doing it, because the world is stuffed. But it's only recently where I've been like, oh crap, I can do this. It’s seeing people post stuff that I've posted - I'm like ok, this is working. And you can look at insights on Instagram, and I'll post a charity and you can see how many people have clicked the link, and it's insane how many interactions are made from one post. So I know it's working, so I just keep doing it.
So Benee, what's in your bag?
My glasses, a facemask that I made, my ID, headphones, gum, my phone, hand sanitiser, Vicks nose inhaler, Rescue Remedy - that's always good - and a hair tie. Everything I need.
And nothing you don't. Ok, the world is Corona-free again, everything is back to normal, you're in charge of the first festival. Who would you have headlining? Besides yourself.
Imagine if I said myself, what a dick. So it can be anyone?
Anyone. You're Festival God.
I'd want to see Radiohead, and Bjork, and I still want to see Grimes live. Ok look. I want to see Travis Scott live. I've been watching videos of his shows on Youtube and it just looks crazy. I’d probably hate it in the mosh 'cause I'd get squished, but it looks insane. So I'd like to see those four.
I’d go to that festival. You recently tweeted that you watched Lord of the Rings for the first time - what were your thoughts, feelings, concerns?
I feel like it's one of those movies you have to be in a movie mood for. I think I just need to watch it again, because it was cool and some crazy ideas, and crazy little dragon-y things. But I was definitely tired when I watched it, so I need to watch all of them when I'm in a movie mood.
What's your favourite film?
Ok, so. It's Donnie Darko, but it's also Flushed Away.
You love your animals.
I do, always have.
You also tweeted that you want to do a mukbang. Did you ever do it?
What did you eat?
Well I've ordered takeaways, and wanted to do a mukbang, but not recorded it. I've done it so many times.
So you basically just ordered takeaways.
True. But I want to make a really good mukbang and release it on Youtube.
What would be your food of choice?
Probably Japanese. A veggie bento. It'd be great, and have the right amount of crunch, and I'd record it on a really good mic, and it would just be ~chefs kiss~.
How many veggie bentos do you think you can consume?
This is the thing. This is why I haven't recorded one - because I get really full really quickly. It's embarrassing. I'll have to stop myself, because I’ll be so full. Then I'll get hungry half an hour after eating that first bit, and I'll need another meal. But I feel like I could trick the system, and the people don't need to know I've waited half an hour to eat the next bit.
Well they will now, because you just told me.
Far out. That's true. The people who do well on Youtube, the reason why is because they can eat so much food. And so fast.
So your mukbang would just be like… Benee eats half a veggie bento.
Well I’m sure people would tune in. On that note, I feel like I should leave you to ponder what you're going to have for dinner.