BENEE

Stella Rose Bennett, who records as BENEE, grew up in Auckland, New Zealand on a steady diet of downer Soundcloud rap, James Blake breakup hymns, and artists who valued experimentation like Bjork, Groove Armada, and Radiohead, which her parents exposed her to at an early age. It was this boundaryless existence that planted the seeds for the songs she now makes, and set her up for a career in music, even if she didn’t know it at the time.

One day, on a whim, Bennett put some Gnarls Barkley and Amy Winehouse covers she’d sung directly into GarageBand up on Soundcloud. “I was like, why not?” she says. “I was listening to a bunch [of stuff] on Soundcloud, and I didn’t know, but lots of A&Rs search through there, and that’s how I got in contact with my producer Josh Fountain.”

Soon, Bennett was in the studio with Fountain, working on original songs. “I remember that first session,” she says. “I was like, what if I hate what I make? We made a bunch of songs that didn’t work out, but then we had one weekend—a school holiday—where I made ‘Tough Guy’ and another song called ‘Wishful Thinking.’ It paid off because we got something out of it, but it’s always weird opening up to someone you’re not yet comfortable with.” It turned out, though, that those early sessions broke the seal on Bennett’s uncertainty about baring her soul in the booth. “Now I’ve found this way to vent,” she says. “It’s like therapy. I write a song and I actually feel really good when I write a song. Now I need it all the time.”

Last year, Bennett released two BENEE EPs. FIRE ON MARZZ and STELLA & STEVE each delivered a string of instinctive, hyper connective hits that brought a rush of fans to her door. With 2.1 billion streams across all platforms, “Supalonely” is certified Platinum in eight countries including the US. In Australia, “Supalonely,” “Glitter” and “Soaked” are all Double Platinum records, and “Evil Spider” and “Find An Island” are Gold—an impressive feat also matched in her home country.

Additionally, she was named Apple Up Next Artist July 2020, nominated for MTV VMA “Push Best New Artist” 2020, MTV EMA “Best Push” Artist 2020, E! People’s Choice Awards New Artist of 2020, and nominated for New Zealand’s 2020 Aotearoa Music Awards in the Single of the Year, Best Solo Artist, and Best Pop Artist categories. In 2019, she took home four trophies at the New Zealand Music Awards: Single of the Year (“Soaked”), Best Solo Artist, Best Pop Artist, and Breakthrough Artist of the Year. All of which set the stage for what would become her debut studio album, Hey u x, which is out November 13th. In a move that will now feel alien to her international audience, Bennett was able to perform two sold out shows at Auckland’s Spark Arena in mid-October—potentially the biggest shows happening anywhere in the entire world at that moment. The second of these, the last show of her sold-out national tour, was also live streamed to those in countries with less success than New Zealand in slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Hey u x is a fascinating album that exists in two opposing eras of modern society: the (relatively) carefree pre-pandemic era, and the post COVID world, where lockdowns and intense isolation are now a regular part of life. Each of the songs on the album offer up a discrete universe of heartbreak, loneliness, and personal growth, shot back to the listener as quiet communiques. “I’m writing music for one human listening to the music,” Bennett says. “I want them to feel as connected as they can to my mind. Like a message that you send to a friend.”

Bennett’s uncanny ability to straddle the line between deeply personal, often idiosyncratic songwriting and pop hits with broad appeal is on display on Hey u x singles like “Snail,” an intricately minimal track that she describes as her “lockdown song.” “I was at my parents’ place [during lockdown], and I wasn’t leaving the house at all,” she says. “There were a crazy amount of snails, and I was just fascinated by them. I turned it into a story about a snail and a human and what happens when the snail wonders why the human isn’t coming outside.” It’s a testament to her writing ability that she’s able to draw such melancholy loneliness from an interaction with a slimy creature with evocative lines like “As I wake, down goes day/Out comes night, look alive/And I'll meet you in the park/The moon will light up my path/Everything's passing by I ride to you on my bike/While everyone is asleep/Meet at the top of your street.”

Elsewhere on the album, Bennett teams up with Gus Dapperton for “Supalonely”, a jaunty breakup track disguised as a TikTok megahit and Spotify global Top 10 moment. She wrote it while on a month-long recording trip in LA, far from New Zealand. Just before she left, she and her boyfriend broke up. Suddenly she was halfway across the world, alone. “I didn’t know anyone. I was like, I’m just not in the right place at the right time. What am I doing with myself?” she says. Though that sounds like a depressing scenario, “Supalonely” is actually a self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek exploration of sadness—an acceptance of the emotions, paired with a wise-beyond-her-years awareness of how self-pity can amplify and warp our feelings in any given moment.

On “Plain,” Bennett enlisted Alabama rapper Flo Milli to join up with her and Lily Allen for one of the more overtly melancholy tracks on Hey u x. But, much like the rest of the record, the mood is tempered by a deep understanding of outside perception, and where Bennett fits into the world at large. The Lily Allen inclusion, especially, offers up a sort of blueprint for the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach of Bennett’s sound. “I think I always kind of looked up to her,” Bennett says. “She’s so boss. She says stuff that makes people go, like, ‘oh my gosh,’ and I love that. We’re all different artists, but I thought we’d all sit on the track nicely.”

And then there’s “Kool,” a blunted, distorted funk anthem of distant admiration, longing, and wish fulfillment. “I wrote ‘Kool’ about some people I know who seem to be effortlessly cool,” she says. “They always seem to say the right thing.” It’s a common sentiment, but in Bennett’s capable hands there’s a slight prickliness, tinted by jealousy, but also sort of skeptical too.

Sharp eared listeners may notice a common theme across most of these songs. Though she can be funny and clever, Bennett’s writing from a place of isolation: she’s alone, looking at snails, solitary in LA writing “Supalonely,” admiring “effortlessly cool” people on “Kool,” but on “Happen to Me,” she confronts that loneliness and anxiety head-on. In an interview with Vogue Australia she said, “This song is super important to me. It’s my favorite on the album, and it’s the opening track. It’s the first song where I’ve written about anxiety. There’s a line: ‘I understand why people leave’, which is touching on suicide. The lyrics are pretty dark. Life is pretty crazy right now and I think it’s important to talk about this kind of stuff.”

While all of these songs point to Bennett’s preternatural songwriting ability, the inclusion of leftfield guests like Allen, or Grimes on the drum-n-bass influenced “Sheesh,” or Mallrat’s turn on the ethereal, glittering “Winter,” point to a superior A&R instinct and a deep understanding of artistic identity. It’s also partially why Bennett has started her own label, Olive. “I love A&R work. Even when I was first meeting record labels before signing, I was talking to them about A&R,” she says. “Finding an artist that no one knows about and helping them get discovered…using the reach I now have to a bigger audience just feels like the right thing to do. It makes me angry that there are so many artists who are so talented...everyone should know about them, and they don’t.”

In a sense, Olive is a direct extension of the world Bennett is building on Hey u x. Musical genres are to be explored and adopted, songs are constructed from otherworldly concepts, and a sense of playfulness infuses even the most melancholy moments. Like much of what Bennett has achieved thus far, it all seems so casual that it could be accidental, but there’s a deep purpose behind her music and her worldview. “I love listening to pretty much every genre that you can think of. There’s going to be some element in every one that I am obsessed with, and I somehow want to work it into a song of mine,” she says. “I love the idea that you can pull an indie guitar and pull a trap beat and there is a way to make them work together, and it’s so colorful and fun when you’re blending everything and making a new fresh soup.