BENEE is one of the few pop stars in the world right now to have a time-poor schedule. While live performance is a limited affair in most parts of the globe due to the coronavirus pandemic, musicians have given unusual amounts of time to the press while stuck at home. But the 20-year-old Auckland singer is running through a 15-minutes-a-pop press junket – sandwiched between a sold-out arena tour in virus-free New Zealand and the release of her forthcoming debut album, Hey u x, this Friday.
To make things more manic, at the time of our conversation last week, the results of the US election were still in doubt – Stella Rose Bennett, BENEE's real name, had the vote count open on her phone throughout the chat ("I'm so disgusted at how many people are frickin' voting for Trump. I mean, I guess I kind of kind of expected that. But I also kind of didn't, you know?," she intones). But she says being stuck at home during a year in which her 2019 song "Supalonely" catapulted her to international stardom via TikTok has been a blessing.
"Being in the first lockdown, and thinking of how many Zoom calls I had to do – my manager reminded me that if we weren't in a pandemic, I'd actually have to go all to these places to do them. Like farout, I'm glad I'm here," Bennett says.
Her success story over the last five years has been a thoroughly Gen Z patchwork, mirroring the evolution of digital A&R and prompting lazy comparisons to Billie Eilish, not least for the dyed hair. Bennett uploaded demo covers of modern vocal pop to Soundcloud in 2017, where she was discovered by LEISURE's Josh Fountain, who became her mentor and co-songwriter. She released two EPs that punched above their weight, Fire On Marz and Stella And Steve, attracting modest triple j attention, while her (then) biggest single to date, "Glitter", unwittingly prompted a minor TikTok dance.
In addition to Fountain's sparkly electro-pop beats, Bennett's distinctive vocal style weaved in a subtle popular music literacy – she tracks rap-style vocal ad-libs (think "Supalonely"'s "Mmm/Ah/Yeah/Woo"). Bennett credits it to an avid listenership of Travis Scott, as well as old school acts Slum Village and Wu Tang Clan: "They all influence the way that I project my ways of singing, the weird-spoken wordy thing".
Bennett's stint on the Laneway Festival tour at the beginning of this year, where she attracted the biggest crowds in the usually flat mid-afternoon slot, foreshadowed her bigger success to come. She doesn't resent that every article written about her since labels her as "TikTok famous", even if it does bely the real strength of her music – and one senses Hey u x only wants to prompt further hits on the app.
Bennett's debut is a paragon of the The Playlist Generation – where the concept of the artist-designed album has largely been replaced by self-curated mixes on streaming services. Songs are grouped by mood, not genre, reflecting a manicured online identity much in the same way a social media profile does. Hey u x is post-genre and collaboration-heavy, featuring a stack of wildly different musical styles that each would be considered a whole "era" of an artist's work in years prior. The "playlisted" approach – signposted with the abstract graphic painting on the cover – is built into the way she and Fountain begin a studio session.
"I usually start off a session by playing a bunch of music that I've been listening to, and then I'll say, 'Right, it's time to do a drum 'n' bass song'. I came back from a house and techno music festival, and that's when I started thinking of making "Snail", pulling together all of those elements," she explains.
"I like the idea of [the album] just kind of being all over the place; eclectic. I don't know if I'm ever gonna find a sound where I only ever wanna make that sound. I like the idea that I could have a trap song, and a folk song together and my voice is what would tie it together."
Most jarring is "Sheesh", a drum 'n' bass, hyperpop banger featuring an ethereal Grimes on the bridge. It was no accident that it has been kept as a surprise for the album, rather than a single, though Bennett says her fans were unbothered hearing it live – after a snippet was posted online, they were singing along by the second show of her arena tour.
Grimes and Bennett never met – the team-up was coordinated through Instagram DMs, a detached interaction Bennett still found daunting – "I literally could not reply for like two days because I was so nervous," she says. Each famous guest is handpicked by Bennett to match the wildly differing styles – "Plain", a diss track directed to an ex-boyfriend, borrows the arguable queen of the micro-genre, Lily Allen, to help carry the sass, while the moody beats of "Winter" lean on vocals from Mallrat. The skill in artist curation was part of what prompted Bennett to launch her own label, Olive, earlier this year – an operation she contributes to in a strictly A&R fashion. Bennett doesn't see Olive as a means to ever self-release her music, or as an out from the major label system that currently backs her.
"I just love the idea of finding a really cool, low-key artist and telling everyone about them. And I do that anyways. So I thought why not do it now ... we can hook them up with really cool producers and give them money to make stuff because a lot of the time, that's what artists actually need," she says.
"It's also female-run, which I think is also something that is very important, because this industry is full of men."
Despite Hey u x's slapdash genre-approach, the singer wrote much of the record with a live band still in mind – Bennett hasn't rotated members out, even post-stardom. "The band is filled with my closest mates, and it's really important to me to keep them super involved," she says. Two of the most traditional live rock arrangements, "Happen To Me" and "Same Effect", open the record – the former ruminating on suicidal ideation and beginning with the lines "I hope I don't die inside a plane/ I'd like to die a better way". Anxiety has always rippled through Bennett's music – "In The Night Garden" and 2019's "Monsta" articulate her fear of being watched at night – but it's never been so plaintive.
"When I was talking to the label about the order of the songs on the album, I said it was going at the start and I don't care if it's not happy," Bennett says.
"It touches on my anxieties and my fears; my daily fears of dying in a plane, and my room catching on fire. I also think that anxiety right now is something that needs to be talked about because this year has been a big old crumbling flake. A lot of people globally are in pretty similar headspaces, so I think starting off super honest was another thing I had in mind."
Bennett's honesty on tracks like "Happen To Me" is part of what prevents her from becoming mired in a cynical bid for continued viral or algorithmic fame. Hey u x proves she's here to stay.
Written by Josh Martin, a Melbourne-based freelance music and media writer with words in MTV Australia, NME, Junkee, Crikey, etc. Follow him on Twitter @joshuamartjourn.