BENEE talks us through her fun but fragile debut album
New Zealand’s coolest popstar explains the meaning behind every song on ‘Hey u x’ – track by track.
Photography Harry Were
It has been universally acknowledged for some time now that 2020 has been a bad year. That is, of course, unless you’re a dog, a Joe Biden stan or 20-year-old New Zealand popstar BENEE. The latter has had a very good 11 months. Like the rest of us, she’s been locked down for much of it, but that hasn’t stopped her putting out a stack of successful singles and witnessing TikTok flood with people dancing to her Gus Dapperton collab “Supalonely” -- written pre-pandemic and now more relatable than ever. To top it all off, last week BENEE released her debut album, Hey u x, and my god it’s good.
“I’ve come to the realisation that putting music out is important right now because music is what helps people,” she tells i-D. With tracks featuring Grimes, Flo Milli, Bakar, Lily Allen, Muroki, the aforementioned Gus Dapperton and BENEE’s Australian pal Mallrat, the record dances through genres like a wild reality-shifting dream. There’s introspective darkness, plenty of bops and “Kool”, whose music video features BENEE as an actual Sim, complete with hovering green crystal plumbob (don’t lie, you didn’t know it was called that either) above her head.
The eclectic record is about, she says, “everything that’s been going on in my life in the past year and a half! It’s all over the place.. emotions, made up stories, everything.” As for the title, Hey u x, BENEE was after maximum connectivity. “I wanted it to be a cute text message that I would send to a friend,” she says. And for the first time in a long time, given the generally covid-free paradise that New Zealand currently is, BENEE was able to connect IRL with an actual in-person album launch and performance to an arena of 12k fans in Auckland. Can you imagine? We cannot.
Thoroughly impressed but full of questions, we caught up with the Kiwi to find out what inspired the love song "A Little While", how she wrote “Night Garden” in just 30 minutes, and why she decided to document the pandemic from the perspective of a tiny shelled gastropod on “Snail”.
Now it’s over to BENEE to talk us through all 13 songs on her debut album, track by track…
Happen To Me
“This is my favourite song on the album because I wrote it about anxiety and depression, which I feel are really important subjects to talk about right now. I think that given the circumstances and everything going on in the world it’s so important to talk about mental health. I was in a pretty low place when I wrote this song but I can look back on it now and see a lot of growth which is really nice.”
“I wrote this song about a letter my ex-boyfriend sent me that basically said to wait for him, which I thought was ridiculous and unfair. I was stuck in this cycle of not really being able to move on because things like the letter would give me false hope that it could work out when actually I knew it wouldn’t with him. But I also wasn’t feeling anything for anyone else for a very long time, so it’s just about how the others don’t have the same effect on me. It’s only him that I saw and it’s annoying because we weren’t even together.”
Sheesh (ft. Grimes)
“I went into the session wanting to be super experimental with this one and I was joking around with my producer about making a drum and bass song so we ended up giving it a go. I had the finished track and then somehow magically I got Grimes to feature on it. She was really pleasant to message and she also added some production and I think she smashed it!”
Supalonely (ft. Gus Dapperton)
“A song I wrote last year after breaking up with my boyfriend four days before leaving for LA. I got there and was just feeling everything that follows a break up, loneliness and regret, but I wanted to be super self deprecating with this song and so I had a lot of fun writing it and adding a ton of autotune to my voice. I just wanted it to be super happy and light even though I was pretty sad at the time.”
“I wrote this in between lockdowns in New Zealand and worked on it with my producer Josh Fountain. During the first lockdown, I was living with my parents and I was just fascinated with snails because there seemed to be so many of them there, like, more than a normal amount. I was fascinated by them and wanted to write about a snail wondering why people weren’t coming outside and doing stuff because of the global pandemic.”
“It sounds like I’m putting down another woman, but it’s not actually about that. It’s more about my ex being out there and making it seem like he was having a good time, but then he’d message me and I’d realise he wasn’t actually having a great time. So I wrote this song just thinking that everything they’re doing is a bit plain, that they’re not actually happy. Flo Milli and Lily Allen came to mind from the get go, because they’re both queens of sass.”
“I wrote this one about a couple of artists who just seem effortlessly cool. I guess I was kind of comparing myself to them and thinking about how I get quite anxious and overthink things when I’m in a room with people, and comparing my feelings with them being super comfortable and held together in that situation.”
“I wrote this one in LA last year on the same trip I made “Supalonely” and “Night Garden”. For this song, I was at the end of my trip and not really wanting to be there. I didn’t really know anyone in LA and I wanted to leave and come home to the Auckland winter and leave the LA heat. I got Mallrat to feature on it because I love her lyrics and she added something really cool to the song.”
A Little While
“A song that I produced in my bedroom during lockdown. It’s kind of a little romantic creative story that I made up… maybe about finding a new love interest who is really kind, and just thinking about how I haven't found anyone like that in a long time. At the time that I wrote it, I wasn’t actually talking to anyone new, I just felt inspired in lockdown to make up stories. It was really fun to write and really fun to produce -- it’s actually my first time releasing a track that I produced. Also I play the guitar on it, which was fun.”
“This was another one I wrote in LA. I worked with Kenny Beats, which was a change because I’ve made pretty much all of my music with my producer Josh Fountain. But I went into the session knowing that Kenny was super strong with hip-hop tracks, so I played him “Triumph” by the Wu Tang Clan, which was the kind of chill but slick vibe I wanted to go with for this song. It’s the fastest I’ve ever had to write lyrics to a song -- he was just so quick at comping everything up and so I ended up writing it in about half an hour and freestyled my lyrics. Then I got Bakar to feature on it because I love his voice, it’s so smooth.”
All The Time
“This song features my friend Muroki and it’s the one track on the album where I actually got to sit in the studio with someone featuring on the record. I had the song finished and I just felt like he would sound so good on it. I’m such a huge fan of his work, so I got him to sing my second verse and he smashed it.”
If I Get To Meet You
“This is another one of my favourite songs. I wrote it about speaking to someone online who I haven’t actually met but then having this weird thing around me being a musician. It’s weird because you don’t really know what their intentions are, or what they’re going to say to people about talking to you. But performing it live has given it another meaning, a cute thing as well, because it’s more like a message to my fans.”
“This is another post-lockdown song that I wrote. It’s similar to “A Little While” in that it’s made up. I was writing a story about me and a guy staying at a beach house somewhere and me having to leave: though the place was so nice, I had to leave and go back to work, which I feel is the reality for me a lot of the time because you don’t really get breaks. You can have a great time somewhere for a weekend but then you have to switch to reality and go back to work in the real world… even though staying at a beach for months would be a dream.”