New Zealand’s Stella Bennett, better known to the world as BENEE, has had a crazy year. After taking a leap to pursue music full-time in 2017—the Auckland native left after two weeks in a communications program at Auckland University of Technology—her career has grown at breakneck speed. Shortly after taking the leap, BENEE earned the attention of fellow Kiwi Josh Fountain, a producer and founding member of the band LEISURE, and the two started working together.
Their collaboration spawned “Soaked,” BENEE’s second single with Fountain and the 19-year-old’s first breakout hit in 2018. This year, BENEE built on that foundation with the release of her debut EP FIRE ON MARZZ earlier this June and the follow-up STELLA & STEVE in November. All that, along with her energetic live performances, laid the groundwork for BENEE’s sweeping four awards at the 2019 New Zealand Music Awards.
We caught up with the rising pop star in December about her current music tastes, her new recording style, and what’s coming up in 2020.
How did you get started making music?
I started posting a few covers on SoundCloud in 2017, and that got me into contact with my producer who I still work with, Josh Fountain. That was when I properly got started. I had a Gnarls Barkley cover—they were stripped back, acoustic versions. I played the guitar in one of them, weirdly.
So was it after you met Josh that you started writing your own music?
I played around with GarageBand before, but I’d never actually made a proper song. So it was getting into the studio with him where I made my first proper song. I’ve always loved creative writing, so I had done that as well.
How has his work and style impacted your sound?
He’s in this band LEISURE, which is really cool. But [outside of that], I think he let me do my thing and was very patient with me when I first started working with him, waiting for me to find my sound. Also, he’s got really good taste in music, and makes really cool stuff, so we work well together. [Laughs]
Where do you draw inspiration from?
There are songs from dreams that I had. Relationships, I get a lot of inspo from those. I mean, I’ve written a song about a spider. It comes from everywhere.
It’s not as hard as, say, America to release a song and be like, "Hey I’m a musician." People are constantly looking for new music—it wasn’t so hard to say, "Hi, I’m BENEE."
Are you mostly inspired by personal experiences then?
I would say so, but obviously also taking inspo from all the music I listen to as well. Everything inspires the writing.
What are you listening to right now?
Slum Village, a lot of them. I need to open up my Spotify to see exactly who I’ve been listening to. Oh! I’ve been into Slowthai—he’s really cool. And a little bit of A$AP Rocky at the moment. Some of his old songs and his [recent] one with FKA Twigs, “Fukk Sleep." I quite like it.
It’s always changing. Omar Apollo is pretty cool. And Gnarls Barkley! I just downloaded a bunch of their old stuff. I used to listen to them in the car on CD. I like to listen to a range of stuff.
What’s your process for making a new song?
I always take notes on my phone of lyric ideas. Like with the dream thing—I’ll wake up and remember everything about the dream and I’ll write it down or record it on my phone. I do it on the Voice Memos app with melody ideas. And I’ll bring those ideas into the studio, have a conversation with the producer and play Josh a bunch of music I’ve been listening to. He’ll whizz away on the production side, and we’ll bounce ideas off each other while I’ll be writing lyrics.
I’ve also been doing this freestyling thing where I’ll have a bunch of lyrics down and then we’ll have this beat, and I’ll just go on and record a bunch of random freestyle stuff. It’s been a fun way I’ve been working on some of the newer songs.
Which songs came out of that last style?
“Want Me Back.” That’s not one of my newer songs, but that was definitely one where I was sad. It's a relationship song. It was just with Josh. He put down this beat, and I had all this stuff written down on my phone. I kind of went in and was like, "Dude I’m just gonna go ham with the sad." [Laughs] And we made up this melody, and just recorded a bunch of stuff over the beat, went back into the thing with him and he comped it all up.
That sounds like such a nice, freeing way to record.
For sure. I don’t like the idea of having to go like, "We need to do this. Then we need to figure out a chorus." I feel like my ideas flow better when it’s like, "Oh, this is freestyling." It’s a lot easier for me.
When you’re making a bigger project, like STELLA & STEVE, do you think about the story for everything before? Or is it as you’re recording?
With the EPs, they’ve all been a mess of very old songs and new songs. It’s not really planned before I make the song. “Supalonely” and “Blu” were really new. And “Blu” was a freestyle one. But “Drifting” on the EP is one of the first songs I made and I sat on it for ages. I felt like something was missing. And when we started talking about the EP, I was like, "Oh, there’s something about this song. I want to put it out on the EP."
I completely forgot you can have people featuring on a song. And I got this guy Jack Berry, who I’m a major fan of, to feature on it. It really added to the song, since that’s an old one, and I didn’t plan that.
What was it like to be an artist in New Zealand? How did you break out of the local music scene?
New Zealand’s quite small. We’re quite isolated and it’s this nice, quiet place, and that inspires and drives a lot of us to be creative. And because it’s small, the music industry is pretty small here. Everyone kind of knows everyone in the industry. It’s not as hard as, say, America to release a song and be like, "Hey I’m a musician." People are constantly looking for new music—it wasn’t so hard to say, "Hi, I’m BENEE."
Was it more supportive because it was so tight-knit?
Definitely. It was more of that community, family feel where we all help each other out because we’re all on this tiny little island. Everyone’s more willing to support one another.
Lorde is also from New Zealand. Did you ever meet her? Did seeing her success and her work influence you at all?
I have met [her]. She’s really cool. I don’t know—watching how she can do her thing while she’s [from New Zealand] has encouraged a lot of that. Seeing her music and creative work is like... if she can do it, we can too. She’s put her hand up in NZ. To the world it’s like, we’re over here. There are people over here making art. She definitely cleared the way for a lot of us.
It seems like your music has also been popping off on TikTok.
I know, it’s crazy! And I’ve only found out in just the last week because people are forwarding me videos. I don’t really know that much about that, but it’s pretty insane. It’s kind of like Vine how videos go viral in no time.
Yeah, I was wondering if you use TikTok. Because you’re younger, and I know a lot of younger people do.
I’m not a user yet, but it’s entertaining scrolling through. I could see how people could get hooked on that.
Being a young rising artist, do you feel like social platforms are really integrated into your music career?
I use Instagram quite a lot. I think having platforms to interact with fans is awesome. And I guess people listen to the music and now they want to see more. They want to be able to interact and follow you and see the visual side of stuff. I definitely use my platform for the visual side of things as well.
Where do you get inspiration for your image and style?
I love the idea of collaborating with as many different kinds of creatives as possible. Ideas for a lot of videos will come from meeting up with the director and bouncing ideas off each other. I have a video coming out next Wednesday which started with me having a conversation with the director where I was just talking about the song and what it meant to me. I told her I wanted to be in a cinema and it to be quite empty, and then we added on from there. I love the idea of working with different people and—I don’t know—trying to make a bunch of cool stuff.
You’ve done a lot this year. What’s next?
I go home after this Conan Gray tour. Then I have New Zealand and Australian summer in January and February, which means I’ll be doing the Laneway Festival. I played last year in Auckland, but I haven’t played the Aussie show, so now I’ll be doing that. Rex Orange Country and Yellow Days played last year. And then I’ve just announced a headline London show, and I’m going to be announcing a bunch more. So just touring and releasing a bigger body of work, which I’m really excited about.