Rising Star Benee Takes Her Subversive Pop Music To The Next Level
With a tour and debut album underway, plus recent high-profile TV performances, the charismatic pop sensation talks about being Apple Music's Up Next Artist
It’s Benee’s world and we’re all lucky to live in it. Whether it’s the cartoonish wonderland in the guitar-soaked music video for 2019’s bittersweet 'Glitter', a song that spawned its own viral TikTok dance challenge with over 90,000 videos; or the kaleidoscopic planet portrayed on the poster artwork by illustrator Jack Irvine to promote her national tour in October, the 20-year-old’s unpretentious pop universe might be the antidote we need in these otherwise disillusioned times.
Benee - real name Stella Rose Bennett - is already two LPs and several successful singles into a music career that has clocked her four New Zealand Music Awards in 2019 (Single of The Year, Best Solo Artist, Best Breakthrough Artist, Best Pop Artist).
'Supalonely', the final single from her latest extended play Stella & Steve, released in November last year, went platinum and then was included by fans in 8 million Tik Tok videos which, according to NME, resulted in 5.8 billion views. Her recent live telecast performance of 'Supalonely' for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and The Ellen DeGeneres Show confirmed her growing popularity in the US.
Even pop royalty Sir Elton John blessed her with his seal of approval, the pair charming listeners when they met for his Rocket Radio Hour Apple Music radio show in May.
As she prepares for her nationwide eight-date tour in October, a debut album in 2021 (“I haven’t held back with experimenting with different genres”), and growing international interest from fans and the wider music industry, the stars are aligning for Benee despite an already challenging year for musicians.
Coming out of a productive lockdown where she set up an at-home recording studio in Grey Lynn, she has the full support of her equally creative parents - her mother is an actor, voice-over artist and member of the popular Jubilation Gospel Choir, and her father is a video editor. Both are responsible for introducing a young Benee to the likes of Bjork and Radiohead.
“I think they are like me, just shocked,” she says of her success. “They probably didn’t think I could be doing this as a full-time job! When I told them I wanted to drop out of university and pursue music, they were fully supportive - but I don’t think they could have imagined I would be doing it like I am doing it right now.”
There’s nothing serendipitous about her trajectory though. She showed an interest in music at an early age, posting covers to music-sharing platform Soundcloud and making her own music in her final year at St. Mary’s College in Auckland. After she dropped out of a communications degree at AUT to focus on music full-time, producer Josh Fountain and member of the band Leisure saw her potential, working with her on her debut single 'Tough Guy', then on her 2018 funk-fuelled track 'Soaked'.
WATCH: Supalonely by Benee feat. Gus Daperton (2019)
But it is 2019’s 'Supalonely' featuring American artist Gus Daperton, that’s become the linchpin of her international success, a clever pop record with a universal message that resonated with people during lockdown. “I’m a lonely bitch,” Benee sings.
“It’s weird because I like to write all my lyrics and am very protective of my songs,” she says reflectively, “and 'Supalonely' was a song I wrote when I went to L.A. to make songs with other people. It was set up by my team to see how I would work with writers and different producers. It was the first session I did with Jenna Andrews (whose co-writing credits include songs for Leon Bridges and Little Mix)."
"I was scared because I thought she would try to write my song for me. But it was the complete opposite. I had a huge writing session with her, where I talked about my relationship - which is what the song was about. She was a great sounding board, and that collaborative process turned out really good.”
The attention the song has attracted has no doubt played a hand in boosting her profile, and from today more eyes and ears will be focusing on the singer as she announces her selection as an Apple Music Up Next artist, a monthly artist programme where the full support of the influential music and video streaming service is given to only a handful of promising musicians from around the world.
EXCLUSIVE: Benee - Apple Music Up Next Preview
To better understand the significance of this latest accolade, the initiative has helped propel the careers of past recipients including Bad Bunny, Khalid, Clairo, and Grammy winner Billie Eilish. Now in its fourth year, the Apple Up Next programme is accompanied by a widely listened to Up Next playlist featuring new and emerging artists, hand-picked by Apple Music editors eager to expose music to a wider audience. That kind of exposure is massive for any musician.
“To be honest, this is one of the biggest - if not the biggest - things that has happened for me so far,” she says. “It’s freaky, but I’m excited about it because it gets you in front of people who may not have heard of you or your music.” Apple Music creative director, and one of the world’s most influential music figures, Zane Lowe, agrees that the time for the world to get better acquainted with Benee is right now.
“She has a very clear pathway with what she is trying to say,” says the New Zealander, speaking on the phone from his home in Hollywood. “I think people are absorbing the music, and recognising that it’s deep, modern pop music. It’s not like, ‘Hey, I’ve got a great beat and a baseline and a great arrangement here’. There’s some real subversive writing going on too.
“Starting a new artist initiative like this is challenging for lots of different reasons. But ultimately we focused on what we were doing and how much support we could put behind an artist. I’m really proud to be a part of that.”
Being at the helm of a global juggernaut like Apple, Zane is excited to see an act from his home country as part of the programme for the very first time, releasing an interview with Benee today for his Beats 1 show. That interview will be broadcast globally on Apple Music to more than 60 million subscribers in 167 countries. “Zane and I have had a couple of chats and he’s been supportive,” says Benee. “He used to work with my dad! Such a small world.”
EXCLUSIVE: Up Next interview with Benee and Zane Lowe, global creative director for Apple Music
“I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a sense of pride every time someone from New Zealand achieves something in a space I’m really passionate about,” says Zane. “Being isolated geographically in terms of where we sit in the world has always given us this desire to go out there and achieve things on the world stage - but always with a really strong New Zealand identity attached.”
Growing up in the creative nucleus of her family life in Grey Lynn, it’s clear how much the suburb - which has produced some of the most prolific figures in New Zealand music and arts - has shaped her creative identity.
“I feel like I have to say ‘the old Grey Lynn’ now,” she says laughing, “because it’s quite different to how it used to be when I was growing up. I used to go to Grey Lynn Primary and we used to have Aloha Night. I loved seeing Che Fu playing at the Grey Lynn Festival. Being able to see New Zealand artists in our back garden was insane.”
You can’t ignore Benee’s trippy sense of style either. Whether it’s the colourful jumper from Savemart worn during our first meeting; the voluminous Simone Rocha x Moncler dress worn for her MTV UK and US showcase, styled by Sydney-based Sarah Pritchard; or the irony of an all-black outfit by New Zealand designer Jimmy D at last year’s music awards with a top emblazoned with the words ‘intellectual’, her fashion sensibility, like her music, is both thoughtful and fun.
“For me it’s important,” she says, her face framed by two-tone blonde and brunette hair. “My mum used to dress in crazy outfits with insane make-up and wear these whacky vintage outfits. It made me really love the idea that you can wear whatever you want. I love to wear stuff I feel expresses my personality.”
As we hurtle through what has been a big year, Benee is itching to get back to performing again - starting with her New Zealand tour. Like many Generation Z’ers, a commitment to supporting social issues close to her heart - such as climate change and Black Lives Matter - is also on her mind. Posting on her Instagram account last month about her Jimmy Fallon appearance as Black Lives Matter was gaining momentum in New Zealand, she wrote to her 461,000 followers: ‘It feels very weird to be posting anything other than my support for Black Lives Matter right now, but this is a big moment for me that I have to acknowledge. Thank you all for your support and please continue to speak out against injustice and call racism out whenever you encounter it.’
Does she feel the pressure as a modern-day pop star to speak out beyond her music? “Personally I think it is right to say something. As a young white female, it’s my duty to support my friends. When I see people with big followings posting about Black Lives Matter and about climate change I’m like ‘f*** yeah’. People are using their platforms to spread important messages. It reaches so many young people - and uneducated people.”
Armed with bright songs and an equally brilliant future, Benee is the pop star we all need right now - unpretentious, charismatic and kind. During our cover shoot she stops to chat as much as possible to our shoot assistant Lofa Totua, who just so happened to be the head girl at St. Mary’s during her senior year there. “This is kind of cheesy, but Mum has said to me be kind to everyone. She says that to me all the time. It’s so important, especially in the industry that I am in.”
Like anyone dealing with success at an early age, it’s natural to speculate how long this momentum will last. Yes, her whimsical pop-world is intoxicating, but this musical prodigy has her feet planted firmly on the ground.
“I don’t think being the richest person in the world is being successful. I want to be 70 and comfortable with a big family and to be happy. To have people who I love and who love me."
"That’s my idea of success.”
Photographer / Frances Carter #shotoniphone. Fashion director / Dan Ahwa. Hair / Sean Mahoney from Colleen. Make-up / Lochlain Stonehouse. Shoot assistant / Lofa Totua.