BENEE on her music career, mental health, and not being a one-hit wonder
On the day of her latest release, Lychee, we sat down with the 22-year-old singer to find the story behind the TikTok sensation.
It’s a pretty commonplace story now when you hear of songs and artists gaining a huge following through going viral on TikTok. It has happened so much that it’s hardly even an angle of interest anymore. If it was still hot news, the only articles about music that we’d read would be covering the ‘most exciting artist on TikTok right now!’ There’s plenty of content for it, but we’re all at ease now that the platform plays a vital role in building a fanbase.
But BENEE’s story is different. As she jumps on a call late one evening in New Zealand, wearing a hoodie despite the muggy weather, it’s a bit like seeing a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Although, in this instance, the Walk of Fame is the repertoire of viral hits that TikTok is responsible for. It might be common that a song will get big on the app, but BENEE’s Supalonely ft. Gus Dapperton — an upbeat, bouncy record, full of lyric-melody contradictions and a self-deprecating, retrospective storyline — was one of the first to do so.
It was around the same time as Powfu’s Death Bed (Coffee For Your Head) and Sales’ Chinese New Year were also laying the foundations for what would become one of the best places to get your music heard. And BENEE found her place as an artist that was one everyone’s lips and playlists.
But that rapid rise in popularity came at a cost. She tells HUNGER that, after the hype around the song began to die down, people started commenting on her social media, calling her a ‘one-hit wonder’, and the pressure of needing to put out a song with the same calibre started to weigh heavy on the singer. And to make matters more complex, BENEE didn’t even really get the chance to soak up all of the praise and love that the song was getting because of the pandemic. In many ways, the artist saw the rise and potential fall of her career in the space of months, all from within four walls.
However, BENEE’s career has never faltered, and the worry of becoming a one-hit wonder has been quashed by adored releases since Supalonely. And today, her latest release in the form of a much-anticipated EP, Lychee, is testament to the rigour and talent that underpins her modest, gathered and astute answers. She’s gone from making pizzas and washing dishes, to having hundreds of millions of streams on Spotify alone. And even though she’s sat huddled in her home in New Zealand, and has been for a while, BENEE’s reach will continue to stretch all over the world.
We sat down with the artist to find out more about how she handled being called a one-hit wonder, how Lychee sets a new tone, and how music is the only future for her…
How was life growing up?
It was good. New Zealand was a nice space to grow up in — running on island time. I grew up in an artsy area. Now it’s gentrified and wealthy, but pre that, when I was growing up it wasn’t. It was diverse and had all sorts of artists and rappers coming out of it. Being around my parents who are in the creative industry, they always encouraged me to go make clay at the workshop, or try out painting, which I fucking suck at. But also getting into playing saxophone quite young, I was always surrounded by that stuff. I was never going to be an accountant.
When was the moment that you started playing music?
Learning the instruments and having my first MacBook, I had Garageband, and I found that a really fun tool that was easy to loop samples and record vocals really badly through headphones. But I feel like it set me up to figure out how to navigate myself on that. Then I was posting covers on Soundcloud in high school, which started everything.
What were the first pieces that you wrote?
I wrote a song on a trampoline with my friend, Grace. We were 14. It was about love, but I had no idea about love. It was so cheesy. I wish I could find it. I’ve talked about it enough for it to be worth me trying to dig it up.
When did music become something that you wanted to go into?
In my last year of high school, I was making pizzas and doing another job in hospitality. That was when I was I really didn’t know what was going to happen. I’d been chucked out there into the world, which is obviously what happens. I was doing a communications degree at university, and that was when I was like, fuck this. I was working a couple of days a week with a producer who had found me through Soundcloud, who I still work with now. Getting a taste of playing my first show, recording my first song, it felt like no degree compared to how I feel when I’m writing and making music and when I started getting label attention, that’s when I could start making it a full time thing. It was all pretty insane.
How would you describe the feeling of making pizzas everyday and going to a degree that you don’t like, but…
See, I actually liked it. I played a lot of sports growing up and had that team thing. My dishwashing job wasn’t as satisfying. I found myself looking out the window. I remember looking out on the motorway and thinking, ‘how long do I have to do this before I can start getting paid to make music?’
At the point when you started taking it seriously, who was inspiring you?
James Blake – I’ve had an obsession with him since I was 14. Not a weird obsession, but with his music. His Overgrown album, I was listening to that and Yung Lean in my little sad girl phase. That was when I was trying to make emo songs. That definitely inspired the first songs I was making because I thought that this guy does everything, he does all genres and he just experiments, which I thought was really exciting. He’s still someone who inspires me.
From that point onwards, until when Supalonely blew up on TikTok for example, how can you describe that early part of your musical journey?
I was stoked that anyone was even listening to my music, to be honest. We were playing a couple of shows in New Zealand and we went on our first tour. I wasn’t big, but we had 100 people coming to a show. Being able to go and play in New York and London and have a group of people who had memorised my songs was so insane to me. Even since Supalonely, I’ve never actually been to the States and played a show with a bigger crowd. I guess what I’m used to is a nice, intimate gig in a different country. So it will be interesting to go on this next tour.
Has there been a notable switch in terms of the attention and popularity you’ve got?
I’ve been in NZ for a lot of the time, so I’ve not really been around any of it. It was organic and happened over time. I had a song called Soaked, which blew up here before Supalonely, so that’s what people were connecting me to here. But now I’ve got people listening to my music in Mexico and Indonesia who didn’t listen to my music before. So yeah, it definitely opened up a bunch of places that didn’t know about me at all.
Has it made you more creatively focussed? What was your plan of action after knowing that the song went viral on TikTok?
I’ve been stuck in NZ during a global pandemic whilst I have this song popping off, so it’s an odd time because I haven’t really been able to do anything. It’s been weird and there’s been pressure, obviously. I’m trying to get into the mojo of continuing to make music. I was able to go to LA last year and finish up the EP. That motivated me a lot more because I got into this hole here where I was like, ‘fuck I’m missing the opportunity’. I had people commenting that I’m a one-hit wonder everyday. Before it blew up, I was a lot more comfortable because I had a reasonable chunk of people who were listening to my music and I felt there wasn’t as much pressure, maybe, and no one was saying, ‘she’s falling off’. Now, people want another hit. It’s been crazy to see how many people have dropped off in the last year after it blew up and me not releasing another Supalonely.
I know that there have been some darker times of your career as well, such as people trying to figure out your whereabouts and trying to record you. That worry has been put into some of your songs too. What was the point that you figured out this was going on?
I have OCD, so I’ve always been extra paranoid and created things in my head that weren’t actually happening. When I lived with my parents, I lived in a sleep-out, and I would convince myself that someone was going to come and kidnap me, or that there were people who knew where I lived. I got followed once in a car. It was innocent I think, just a couple of young dudes recording me. But me, super sensitive to that shit, I was hyperventilating in the car. I had to drive past my house. I think it’s just me particularly – I shouldn’t be doing this. Someone took a photo of me at the beach when I was on holiday the other day. I don’t take lots of bikini pics and this mum took a photo of me secretly and I don’t know how someone could become used to that. I don’t understand how people do it with paparazzi when it’s that level of fame, because that would be terrifying.
Does that make you want to move out of NZ more?
Yeah, that’s what I love about being in different countries — I don’t know anyone and they don’t know me. I guess my anxiety levels are toned down a bit because I’m not going to bump into someone that I know, and I’m not going to see my teacher for 2015. In LA especially, you’re kind of invisible.
Is writing about abduction something that still lingers in your songwriting?
I’m not as paranoid at the moment. I’m on Fluoxetine, which has been so good and has really toned down intrusive thoughts. I’m definitely not in the same zone of songwriting that I was in for some of my other songs. I found that going on meds and going to LA to finish the EP, I didn’t feel like writing about anything of the sort. We’ve moved on! I mean, it will probably come back but…
What about OCD in general… Do you want to explore it more in your music, or do you want to keep them separate?
I explored it in my song Doesn’t Matter, which was a lowkey release. I think it’s important to talk about it. I already have these obsessive tendencies, so it’s nice not to write about it all the time. But it is nice to talk about it, because you realise how many people are completely in the same space.
In light of that, what did you set out to explore in your new EP, Lychee?
I think all sorts. I just wanted to have fun with it. Finishing it up with people I admire and really wanted to work with, I wanted to be playful with it and make music that’s happy and fun.
Is there anything that you notice in your mind of elements of loneliness and isolation that you put into your music?
Not in this EP. I think in my Hey u x, there’s more of that because that was where I was at. But because most of the songs on this EP are quite recent, I’ve had this spark of getting back to normal life and it’s less about an isolated girl making music, it’s more about that I can travel and make music with people. It’s different. I’m happy that it’s not super sad and lockdown-y.
Did you want to write something happy because you think that’s what people need right now?
For sure. The start of last year, I was stuck in NZ and it was becoming repetitive and sad, or bored or lonely — that feeling of uncertainty, because that was obviously where I was at. I’ve gotten over that, and what I write about now isn’t that.
Other than the pandemic, what events do you find yourself looking back on when you write?
Relationships. They always spark a lot of inspiration. I’ve written an awful lot of songs about my first boyfriend, because you get so much content from it. Also fantasy, I like to make up stories or write about my fears. A lot of it is anxiety. A lot of what I write about comes from my anxiety or feeling depressed or whatever. It’s just everything. That’s what’s fun, I can just write about anything.
What do you think the role is of a musician nowadays beyond just making music?
I’m definitely one to speak up on social media. A lot of people are always like, ‘stop being political’. People have the wrong idea about what musicians are meant to be. You watch the Taylor Swift documentary and how she was told not to be political by her dad. That is so not the modern day pop star. Especially now, we have to speak up and tell people who you’re bloody voting for. It’s such an important part of it, because there are so many fuckwits in the world and art is where it’s at. And it is political.
Would you care if anyone heard you speak about politics and stopped listening to your music?
For some people it can be hard to remove the music from the artist. That’s a weird thing now that people want the whole thing. When Trump came up, I was slamming Instagram with ‘Fuck Trump’. I had a lot of people saying, ‘fuck you. I’m not following you anymore and I’m not listening to your music’. It sucks, but I don’t care enough. Maybe if I was listening to someone who shifted to being super right wing and was a complete arsehole, I might consider cutting down the amount I was listening to them.
What are your greatest ambitions as an artist?
To be long-lasting. I’d fucking hate to be a one-hit wonder. This is all I want to do. If this fails, I’m going to start an animal sanctuary. I have nothing else that I want to do, other than make music. I want to be old and making music, and still have a loyal fanbase. So, fingers crossed!