Matthew McAuley sits down with New Zealand’s latest next-big-thing to talk about following up the monster hit ‘Soaked’, her approach to collaboration, and exactly how you go about building a ‘Beneevision’.
Although her catalog is still barely more than a handful of tracks deep, Auckland-raised proto-popstar Benee seems determined not to waste time. Seeking to capitalise on last year’s monster streaming hit ‘Soaked’ (this week announced as a long-list finalist for the 2019 Silver Scroll awards), June saw her play shows in a handful of Northern Hemisphere destinations. Along with dates in London, Berlin, Amsterdam and New York, she also paid a visit to Spotify’s Stockholm headquarters and shared the stage with fellow Aucklanders Miss June at star-making Los Angeles showcase School Night.
Returning to New Zealand didn’t slow things down either – in the same week that she arrived back in the country, the artist born Stella Bennett released her debut EP Fire On Marzz and played only her second ever headline show in her hometown. But where her sold-out mid-2018 debut at low-hundreds-capacity uptown club Neck of the Woods could still be somewhat reasonably described as “intimate”, her second effort – another sellout, but this time at Eden Terrace’s genuinely iconic Powerstation – was anything but.
Listening to that record, her steep ascension from underground buzz act to the cusp of genuine pop stardom becomes eminently understandable. Produced and co-written by local studio vets Josh Fountain and Djeisan Suskov, its established hits and festival-ready skronk-pop anthems come as expected, but the real surprise is in its emotional and tonal range, Benee herself presenting as an artist both surprisingly well-rounded and almost shockingly self-assured. ‘Glitter’ is the kind of happy downer that’s destined to soundtrack pre-dawn comedowns worldwide, ‘Wishful Thinking’ sounds like The Internet playing a Paramore song (or vice versa), and closing ballad ‘Want Me Back’, maybe the best of the lot, is a genuinely stunning gut-punch, an icey and understated bookend to a set of songs whose sonic palettes generally skew significantly more summery.
A few days after the EP’s release and her emphatic return home, on a typically dire mid-winter Auckland afternoon, The Spinoff met with Bennett at Universal Music’s airy uptown office. Possibly still coming down from the high of the previous Friday night, or maybe just hyped up from an apparently fruitful morning spent digging through Real Groovy’s record bins, she was relaxed and openly excited by the previous month’s events, and unguardedly optimistic about what’s to come next.
The Spinoff: So you’ve just come back from the Northern Hemisphere, released the EP, and played a sold out show at the Powerstation. Is this just a stopover before you get back out into the world?
Benee: I’m going back to LA with Josh Fountain in August. We’re going over there to work with a bunch of producers and people, and make some more music, so yeah I guess this is kind of like a little stop-off. Because after that I’ll be back here, but then straight into festival season with Aussie and the Kiwi summer.
You played School Night when you were in LA, right? How was that?
That was pretty fricken fun. The cool thing about it was that all the bands were so different, and like even just me playing at the same gig as Miss June, I was like, “Fuck yeah.” The crowd surprisingly loved, like, everything I think.
Was that sort of the buzz of your tour? Like were they all those kind of shows?
Yeah, I had a few almost showcase-y things, a couple of little headline ones, and some which only I played. They were, like, a lot smaller, with a lot less people, but they were still really cool.
And obviously those were your first Northern Hemisphere shows, did that feel like the culmination of something for you?
It was a bit nuts, kind of mindblowing. Some of them were nights that were always going to be people there, but a couple of them – the one I did in New York at Mercury Lounge, that was just for Benee, so it was crazy that people actually came. I was just like, “What are you doing here?!” But yeah, it was pretty crazy.
You’ve had a lot of traction online and on streaming platforms; is it weird going out into the world and seeing if that translates, if people are going to come out to the shows and know the songs?
The whole streaming thing is so nuts. You can go on Spotify for Artists, and you can see what countries; what percentage of people are listening to your music from where. It’s pretty nuts being able to look at that, and then being able to go and play a show in the States like, “OK, these are the people.”
Did that impact on the way that you planned the tour? Was it based on places where you knew that you had a bit of profile?
Yeah, I think so. And they’re even like, some of the places we did, like Stockholm, that’s kind of like the Spotify hub, so I guess it was also targeting areas where they’re kind of looking, where they’ll know that you’re out there.
After the success you had with your early singles, did it feel like there was extra pressure on the EP? Were you at all worried that you’d get these songs out and people wouldn’t react to them in the same way that they had those earlier songs?
I feel like with ‘Soaked’, which is obviously the one that’s had the most … it’s kind of like, you’re going to compare that success to whatever this gets. But I feel like for me just having it out there, I’m so happy with it, that wasn’t really what I was thinking. Like, it’ll be cool if other people like these as well, but I like them, so just having them out there for people that want to listen to them and like them is what I’m about.
So that working relationship, with Josh and Djeisan, is that how you see BENEE going forward?
I think like, the whole thing of me going to the States and bringing Josh with me, it’s because we have this good little system going where he gets my sound, and not having ever worked with anyone else, I felt like it would maybe not be the best idea for me to just go in and work with a bunch of random producers in the States. Without someone who really gets my vibe, if you know what I mean? And there’s also, like, this extra layer of confidence with him. I can’t actually imagine what it’d be like going in to work with someone who doesn’t know you at all, or what you’re about. I feel like that can kind of twist the sound a lot.
Were you writing songs before you met Josh?
I was, but I’ve never really been good at Garageband, and I was using Garageband. I’d always kind of liked to make songs, and I thought I could make a simple beat, but getting into the studio with him taught me the proper craft. I was lacking a few skills, but I have a couple things – I have an unreleased song where I did make the beat, and a bunch of little sample loops, and I kind of semi-produced it, then I brought that into the studio and he turned it into this crazy song.
So do you feel like you can go to Josh with a vision and have him work as the kind of conduit to actually make it?
Yeah totally, that’s the kind of collaborative process that we have, we’re constantly bouncing ideas off each other. It starts with me going into the studio and playing him a bunch of stuff that I’ve been into – like with ‘Tough Guy’, for example, I was listening to a shit-ton of The Internet and Steve Lacy, but then I also heard ‘Wild Thoughts’ by Rihanna on the radio, and the guitar [sings riff] – I brought that in and I played it to Josh and he was like, “Ohhh yeah.” So yeah, me going in there and playing him stuff, and him bringing up a bunch of weird little sounds and making this beat, and then me just writing away, writing melodies, then just bouncing off each other, and then: song.
I’ve also seen a bunch of references to ‘The Beneevision’, and this idea that it’s not just the music; that everything that comes out of the Benee project is a part of this artistic ecosystem. Is that something you’ve mapped out, or is it finding shape as you go?
I think going into it, like when I first came into the music scene, I always kind of knew that I didn’t want it to be just about the music, because I love physical art so much. And I use, when I talk about the “Beneevision”, I always say it’s like a Jackson Pollock painting, like different materials and stuff just kind of, like, splashed onto a canvas. I think with me being a new artist, who doesn’t have that much out there, it’s kind of like this fresh canvas for people to look at; I want them to have the music, but I want them to have cool art to go with that. And that’s like, probably through more collaborations with artists. Like, even for the EP art, oof, Ricardo Cavalo. That was, like, a dream, and then it happened. And I did a merch collab with Shelley Botticelli – she’s pretty cool, she made this cute little cartoon and we sold like 20 T-shirts at the Powerstation. But I think just, like, making as much [non-music] stuff as possible.
Am I right that the ‘Evil Spider’ artwork was that artist @hotandsad?
Are you just constantly on the lookout for people like that, whose work fits into your vision?
Totally. I’ll go through Instagram and look at who artists are following, I’m just constantly looking, even for really small artists. And that’s what happened with Che, I just found their Instagram, and I found Bb Gurl which is the music project that they’re doing, which is also really cool. When I found their art I was kind of looking for a kind of anime-ish vibe, but I’m just constantly looking for artists that want to work with me.
Do you bring them in and explain what the vision is to you, then kind of just let them do their thing?
Oh, 100%. That’s what I’ve tried to do with everyone, we’ll have a little meeting and I’ll maybe play them a song – like with Ricardo, he listened to the EP – and then it’s kind of just a matter of me being like, “Y’know, the name is this, you could maybe add that somewhere, if you wanted you could put my head in it.” But, like, I kind of want them to do their own thing on it, because I think that’s what people want to see. That’s what I think is good with a collab: allowing them to do their own thing, and if it works then I don’t want to fuck with that.
Your shows to date haven’t been at the kind of scale where you’re dealing with major production design, but is that something that’ll come into it too?
Oh yeah. I’m starting to start thinking about visuals I could put on a screen, if I have that at a show in the future, but even just lights. I went to the Billie Eilish concert that she did recently, because I’d been to the show she did at the Tuning Fork a few years ago and I wanted to see how it’d changed, because she’s just blown up. But being at her concert and just seeing how the lights play such a massive part in the performance? That show, and even, like, I did this show in London, and this guy played last, and the lights! They were just crazy, it was like this screamo show and it was just nuts, it was so cool. I definitely want all of that stuff.
Your set at Laneway this year was pretty crazy – like playing a festival when you’ve only got a couple songs out, and drawing that huge crowd – but I really liked how free it felt. Like during ‘Soaked’, there was this confetti cannon that went off, but because of the wind none of it went anywhere near the stage–
I know! It wasn’t the plan, but I’m glad it happened anyway … at least you saw it.
I liked how you embraced the chaos of that though. Like it was a choreographed moment which didn’t happen how you’d planned it, but in context it felt kind of fitting.
Yeah I like things like that. When things are a bit off, and kind of don’t work, I feel like that’s a vibe.
Is that something you like to leave space for in your art?
Yeah, I mean I’m always making mistakes and stuffing things up, but I think a “perfect” kind of show isn’t really what I’m aiming for. And I love it when I see musicians that I love, like, stuffing up. It’s the best thing ever.
I thought it was quite bold that you you played ‘Soaked’ second last, then closed with ‘Afterlife’, which hadn’t been released at that point. Was that an intentional thing, or is that just how those songs flow for you?
I’ve just always liked playing ‘Afterlife’ last, it just works for me. It’s a nice wind-down, because ‘Soaked’ is real, like, “boom, boom”. With ‘Afterlife’, no one really knows it, and I kind of like that. It’s this weird little dream story; it just feels right.
Does it feel weird having those songs out there now? Like you held onto them for so long, and now they can take on their own lives?
Yeah, totally. Because no one has heard them, and I’m quite close to them because I’ve sung them so many times, it’s quite weird having them out there for people to listen to. Especially ‘Afterlife’ in particular, that one is one that people probably won’t get at first listen, they probably need a bit of context on what that dream was about, before they’ll get it. But I don’t know, it’s kind of fun having them out there. Whether they get good or bad reactions, I’m interested to see what people think about them.
Your lyrics are obviously very personal; is there any part of you that worries about people misconstruing or misunderstanding what these songs are about?
I don’t know – I like it being out there, and I like people knowing what it’s about, but I like that they can also have their own interpretation of what I’m saying. Like with ‘Afterlife’ again, I don’t know what someone would think that song’s about without me telling them. But I like that, I reckon it’s cool. And I love it when I can make up my own thing for songs that I’m listening to – with some songs I don’t really go that into depth in telling people what they’re about, because I’d rather they just do their own thing with it.
I think it’s really fascinating that you have this really multimedia, multi-faceted vision for what you’re doing across all of these formats, but that you’re also really comfortable with it being open for interpretation.
I reckon, yeah, they’re out there on their own now. I’ve babied them, they’re my little friends, and now they’re out there. Little babies going out into the world, and making new friends, and having people hate them. They’re like little people.
It’s such a healthy way to approach writing such personal music.
Well for like, ’Want Me Back’ – that’s such a sad, vulnerable song. And I think it was kind of just, me knowing how much it meant to me, and how much emotion poured into it, I was like “Oh, maybe people who like my other music won’t like it, because my other music’s more bouncy and fun.” But when it’s kind of beyond that point, I think you don’t actually need to care whether people are going to like it or not. For me, at least, it’s like, put it out there and see who can connect with it, what people will do with it.
Is there anything you hope people will get from it?
I think the biggest thing for me personally listening to music, and what I hope people get out of mine, is just relating to stuff. It’s a simple thing, but when I hear music and it fits a mood that I’m in, or something – I listen to James Blake and Bon Iver when I’m really sad, and some of those lyrics just hit home; I hope that some of my music can do that for someone else. It’s the best thing ever when you hear something and you’re like, “It gets me, this music gets me.”
The above has been edited for clarity and brevity.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.