"I'm a sad girl in this big world," 20-year-old Benee sings on her breakout song, "Supalonely," a bubblegum disco cut with funky musicality that belies its own melancholy. But just before the world shut down earlier this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, the New Zealand pop chameleon was having the time of her life. "Literally in the week before we went into lockdown, I was at a techno festival," she tells MTV News. "That was really fun."
As we navigate a recent intercontinental Zoom call, I mishear "techno" as "TikTok" — a slip, perhaps, due to the blazing star power "Supalonely" has shown on the app since March. The tune's been (officially) used in over 10 million videos, and she sang it to an older virtual crowd on both The Tonight Show and Ellen. It's brought her acclaim and notoriety across the globe, far away from the North Island where she grew up, and Benee — born Stella Rose Bennett — agrees it's a good entry point for her music. The rest of her debut album, Hey U X (styled Hey u x), which dropped on November 13, hops around stylistically, showcasing a much wider range as it dips into glitchy electronic with Grimes and confessional lo-fi as she strums an acoustic guitar.
It's also buoyed by its impressive roster of guests — Lily Allen, Flo Milli, Kenny Beats, and more from across the musical landscape — who help execute Benee's vision for telling her particular story. When she invites fellow Kiwi musician Muroki (and his "smooth, smooth, vocals") into the fold for "All the Time," the tune mirrors its subject matter of vibing with a particular person while you're both under the influence. And Grimes's ethereal vocals provide the perfect counterpoint to Benee's mechanized ones on the hyperpop-adjacent "Sheesh." She says, "I just thought, yeah, I want it to be a robot."
Of course, Benee's sound is only half of it. Even amid the warm Radiohead-recalling arpeggios that lead opener "Happen to Me," she injects the anxiety she feels into her lyrics. "I hope I don't die inside a plane," she sings as frantic drums enter to echo her mood. And later, she's spinning a claustrophobic yarn along the edge of "Winter"'s groove: "Zombies surround me / I'm out of place, I feel so weak / People staring at me." But overall, Hey U X is as amiable as its simple text-message greeting of a title suggests. It also works as a message to her fans; since the coronavirus pandemic has made touring outside New Zealand largely unsafe, she's instead filled arenas at home, where the infection rate hovers around zero.
"It's weird," Benee says of the sold-out October shows in Auckland that she also live-streamed, "but there's like this new energy from people, and it's just making me excited for when everyone can go back to playing shows and stuff." Below, she dives into her former life as a water polo player, speaking up about mental health, and what you can find in the Benee starter pack.
MTV News: "Supalonely" is the song, right now, everyone knows you from. Is that the song you imagined that you could possibly send to someone to be like, yeah, this is my vibe, maybe you should start here?
Benee: I think I'm happy that, out of all my songs, it's the one that got picked up. I feel like I was super experimental in the session. I put lots of Auto-Tune in the verses, and I did, like, a spoken-wordy thing and had weird ad-libs going on, and I was swearing. I feel like it leaves the boundaries from whatever else I want to make, which is nice. It's always a new, weird life that comes to a song when you perform it. You have to take it away from the studio, but some people know it as well. It's pretty wild to perform.
MTV News: You mentioned Auto-Tune, which plays a huge part in "Sheesh." Did you know that you needed Grimes on that from the beginning, knowing you were going to take this futuristic tone? At what point did she come in?
Benee: I knew that I wanted to have a feature on the song, but I didn't even think about Grimes because she's just like — I'm such a huge fan, and I was like, she'd never want to do that. No, that was Sony/ATV [Music Publishing that] suggested she be featured on there, and I was like, oh, my... far out. But if I had thought about her at the start, she would have been perfect on it, I think. She smashed it.
MTV News: In making a song like that, is the Auto-Tune something that you start with, or is that something that comes in later as a way to try the song in a new way?
Benee: I think I recorded that with the Auto-Tune. Yeah, I did. With songs like that, I want to have tons of effects on my voice when I'm recording because it gives me this weird confidence, and I'm like, OK, I'm going to do a crazy-ass EDM song right now. And I just thought that, yeah, I want it to be a robot, so it worked out.
MTV News: Another guest on the album is Lily Allen, who you had opened for in Auckland. Had you kept in touch since that show where you played?
Benee: We hadn't actually, to be honest, talked at all after the show, but she works with this girl called Gina Andrews, who I made "Supalonely" with. As soon as I had finished playing, I had this really, really bad second verse, where I tried rapping, and I was like, this is not going to work, I need a rapper, I need Lily Allen. I knew that I wanted her in the song, and yeah, Gina hinted that if I wanted to — she did send me a song that she had been writing with Lily and asked if I wanted to be featured on it, so I was like, oh, maybe would she like to be featured on this one? And then Gina and her wrote the verse together, and boom. But I knew that I wanted her on the song because she's the queen of pizzazz.
MTV News: "A Little While" is the only song that you have sole writing credit on, and that song seems super personal. You use it to talk about having been hurt in the past and trying to get through this wall. Can you tell me about how that one came together?
Benee: That was a lockdown song that I made in my bedroom, and I was working on Logic. I played the guitar and recorded the bassline on the guitar, because I like bass, but I don't know. I loved working on it in my room by myself, to be honest. I like writing my own songs, but even when I'm working with [writer and producer] Josh [Fountain] on all of the other songs in the album, it would be my lyrics, but it's Josh's production. It was weird just for me to do the production, and a lot harder. Josh is so good at it, and he makes it look very quick and easy, and I'm like — I sit there for literally a day, trying to figure out this bloody thing. It's nice to do it by myself for a change.
MTV News: The very first words on the album are "I hope I don't die inside a plane." You're not afraid to say explicitly that you're sad or lonely or afraid. Is that always how you have written? Did it take time to settle into a confessional style where you could be that honest?
Benee: Even from the first couple of sessions, they were still quite sad and honest, but I think now I've become a lot more vulnerable with my writing. I've been exploring topics that make me uncomfortable, [that] happened to me. It's about anxiety and stuff, and I hate talking to people about that, but I realized that songwriting for me is such a good way to vent, and I don't have to talk to anyone about it. I can just write about it. So I think it's definitely changed, and I'm even more honest.
MTV News: You're very open on social media, too. For World Mental Health Day, you posted a series of photos where you'd been crying with explanations. Do you try to connect with other folks about your struggles?
Benee: I feel like people can kind of forget that artists are very sensitive humans. And it's like this weird fricking thing where people think that musicians are not normal or anything. So I think that definitely getting a bigger platform, I want to just really make it very clear to people that I have feelings and that I'm sensitive. And I think that it's important to remind people that it's OK to be sad, and to cry is also really good, and to cry because you have no reason at all, because there's no reason at all. Talking to people about it is so important, and I think that that's kind of why I was posting. It's just important to keep the mental health conversation going, because it can so easily be pushed under the bus, and that's when things get really bad. You compare your life to, I don't know, a Kardashian, and you're like, oh my gosh, I don't get to be on vacation. I don't really look this happy in every photo. So I think it's nice to mix up a bit of the raw stuff in there.
MTV News: You're turning 21 in January. What are your goals for the rest of your twenties?
Benee: Oh my goodness. I don't even know. People ask me about goals all the time, and I actually don't — I feel like I have some internal goals, that when I do something I'm like, OK, yeah, that was satisfying. But I don't really feel like I'm someone who wants to do stuff before a certain time. I mean, hopefully, I've released another album. That's a goal, isn't it? And maybe, hopefully, I'm still happy at 26. That would be great. Yeah. There you go. There are my goals.
MTV News: You also lived a past life before getting into music as a water polo player. What's something that people might not know about water polo?
Benee: It's pretty aggressive. At least when I played it, it was. It's far out, man. It's pretty ruthless. You have to be so fit to play it, and I know that now, because I'm not that fit, and I'm like, holy crap. I used to be able to do so much stuff and not get tired, and now, like, your gal walks up a fucking hill and I'm coughing, so people who play top-of-the-league water polo, they are so fit. I used to have to train every day. So hey, respect to them. Respect to the polo players there.
MTV News: And finally, what's the Benee starter pack?
Benee: The Benee starter pack is a big hill. A grassy hill is in the starter pack. Oh my God, a chinchilla is on the hill, and there's a packet of — oh, no: a jar of jalapeño-stuffed olives. That's definitely me. And some Crocs. That's the Benee starter pack. Oh, and some headphones.