Interview: BENEE on her 'Stella & Steve' EP.
On her brand new 'Stella & Steve' EP out today, BENEE delves further into her vulnerabilities about loneliness in 'Supalonely', fantastical stories in 'Monsta', tensions around friendship in 'Find An Island', and so much more - showcasing her musical exploration throughout this new collection of six songs.
Following on from her 'Fire On Marzz' EP released earlier this year, as well as spending much of the year touring the world - don't worry though, she'll be back to play Laneway Festival next January! - BENEE shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
We spoke with her ahead of the release of the new EP to discuss songwriting, having features for the first time in her music, and more...
...I love writing songs about dreams, because they’re things that are not in the real world. No one else can think of them. I like the idea that no one else has a song like that because it’s your dream, which is cool.
[This interview is available as part of our NZ On Air physical print zine which is free! Click here for more info.]
COUP DE MAIN: I love the new EP! Do you feel like it’s a growth in your songwriting between the two projects?
BENEE: Yeah, I think it is! A couple of them I did on the L.A. trip, and I think that was dipping into working with other writers and other producers I haven’t worked with before.
CDM: Which songs were the L.A. songs?
BENEE: ‘Blu’ and ‘Supalonely’ were from LA - they were both with the same writer, Jenna Andrews. Those were super fun, and those were the first two songs that I made on the trip. I’m super excited about the EP, and a couple of the songs like ‘Find An Island’, we made that song two years ago. There are some songs that I’ve been sitting on for a while.
CDM: How did you decide to group this set of songs together?
BENEE: We decided not that long ago what songs were going to be on it - it was a matter of going back to some of the songs that we had almost buried. For ‘Find An Island’, that one we had half-finished and then we went back and were like, ‘Oh, we really like that song,’ so very recently I did another session and did the second verse. It’s a big mix of old and new.
CDM: The imagery in that song kinda reminds me of the video for ‘Soaked’! I like that all of your visuals and lyrics feel like they exist in the same world. Do you feel like you’re naturally drawn to songwriting within the same world?
BENEE: Yeah, I think so. I definitely am thinking of pictures and images when I’m writing, and that’s something I want to tie into the songs.
CDM: Where did the idea for the ‘Island’ imagery come from?
BENEE: The song is about a tiny little argument I had with my guitar player Tia! We had some weird little bicker, and you know when you’re having a petty argument with a friend you don’t want to swear at them or put them down or anything, but I was like, ‘What would I say?’ It’d be like, ‘Find an island, go somewhere else,’ when you’re in an argument and you don’t want to be there, you kind of just want them to get lost; but you wouldn’t say that because they’re your best friend.
CDM: I love the line, “Maybe our maps go different ways.” Do you believe in fate and that some things just aren’t meant to be?
BENEE: Yeah! Because I worked on this song at different times, I think the ‘find an island’ idea was the more playful thing, and then the “maybe our maps go different ways” was steering off into more of a relationship vibe - that if things aren’t working out and if you’re arguing all the time, maybe you’re not meant to be together.
CDM: Why do you like using metaphors in your songwriting so much? Do you think about it at all?
BENEE: I don’t know! Not really! I guess I just like to be playful with my lyrics, but I don’t really think about it. It just happens like that.
CDM: It’s cool that this will be your second EP of the year. Why did you decide on this format to share music?
BENEE: I think an EP is just a nice way to release a bunch of music. I’m working towards an album, but I think that’ll come at the start of next year. But I like EPs and the size of an EP - it’s not too much, but it’s enough to be satisfied for a reasonable amount of time. And I like listening to EPs!
CDM: I feel like consistently releasing new music is a much more common model at the moment - Ariana Grande released two albums in a short span, and bands like The 1975 and Foals are doing a similar thing with two albums in a shorter span of time. Is it something you think a lot about, in terms of how your fans want to consume music?
BENEE: I think so. It’s keeping a constant flow of feeding people, and that’s why EPs are good, because you can keep releasing little chunks; it doesn’t have to be all at once. You can spread it out, and it flows nicely.
CDM: Does it also mean the music you are putting out feels more ‘current’? As opposed to working on an album for a year and then some of the songs feel old?
BENEE: Yeah, I would say so. I can make a song a month ago and then release it now! That’s literally what I’m doing. I can get excited about a song and be like, “Wait, I can release a single right now.” I don’t need to wait for this massive album.
CDM: I used to interview people and they’d tell me about songs on their album that were years old that they’d been waiting to release.
BENEE: You can get so sick of them! When you finish a song that you really like, you get really excited about it. I can’t imagine having to do an album, you have to wait so long, and the excitement would kind of pass. Even for ‘Want Me Back’, that was a song that I made two or three months before I released it. I was excited about it still when I released it, so that was nice.
CDM: Can you tell me the story of what you wrote ‘Monsta’ about?
BENEE: It’s inspired by this serious fear I have that is eating away at me at night. I moved out to my sleep-out at home, and I’ve convinced myself that I’m going to get kidnapped, or that there’s someone outside. I embarrassingly said in front of everyone at The Powerstation show that I have gotten my mum to sleep with me, and still low-key sometimes do that… I don’t know what it is, but I’m paranoid of being by myself outdoors. I’m still next to the house, but I’m still scared about it! I wanted to write a song about it, because I got into the studio and I was like, “I actually have this stupid fear...” I mean, I’m sure a lot of people have it though. Everyone does! I kind of wanted to play around with that idea and make it somewhat lighter, so I turned a guy outside into this monster who takes me in the night--
CDM: And gives you a blueberry! Such a great line.
BENEE: <laughs> Thank you! So he steals me, and takes me to this cave. But it turns out that he’s not actually a bad monster, because he tipped my head into this pot and shows me that my room was actually catching on fire, so it’s a plot twist! It’s actually a good monster. But it is a real fear that I have, that I wanted to make it into something not so dark. Listening to the song makes me feel a little less stressed out about the situation!
CDM: You’ve said that ‘Afterlife’ was inspired by a dream you had. How much of your dreams play a part in your songwriting?
BENEE: I think dreams are a cool area to write about for me because they dip into fantasy, and I get some wacky dreams!
CDM: Do you eat lots of cheese in the evenings? That can cause crazy dreams.
BENEE: No! That’s weird. But maybe I’m going to try that. Apparently, also if you tell yourself that you’re going to dream, you’ll dream. You always dream, but it’s whether you remember it or not. I’m fascinated by dreams, and what goes on when you’re asleep - it’s weird, and we don’t know! When I have dreams like this I’m like, ‘What the heck is going on?’ But I love writing songs about dreams, because they’re things that are not in the real world. No one else can think of them. I like the idea that no one else has a song like that because it’s your dream, which is cool.
CDM: What other things inspire your songwriting?
BENEE: Personal experience. Relationships have been pretty good… I’ve just gotten out of a relationship with the dude that I was with for just over a year, and I’ve written so many songs about him. But, thank you! <laughs> I think something like that draws out so many emotions and you feel so strongly towards something. They bring out the best lyrics too, and some of my favourite songs have been about that kind of thing - like the song ‘Blu’, I broke up with him before I went to LA, and then got this song that’s now my favourite song!
CDM: Do you find that it helps you deal with those situations, writing about them in your music?
BENEE: 100%. Definitely. I love writing about that kind of stuff, and even if I’m not writing songs I’m always writing thoughts and feelings in my notes - I find it’s a good way to vent and almost have a conversation with myself about it. Then you can listen to other music which is around the same topic which is nice.
CDM: It’s like a way to get to know yourself better!
BENEE: You learn so much about yourself.
CDM: ‘SupaLonely’ is my favourite from the EP! I love the slightly distorted vocal at the beginning of the first verse! Have you enjoyed experimenting more in these new songs?
BENEE: For sure. I had been listening to a bunch of really auto-tuned rap and James Blake’s song with Travis Scott - he has an effect on his voice in that song too - and when I got into that studio session, I said to Josh [Fountain], “Put some auto-tune on my voice and make me sound like a SoundCloud rapper.” We’ve also got Gus Dapperton on the song too, which I’m so excited about! He’s done a bridge on it which I really like.
CDM: Did you work on it together?
BENEE: No, my A&R dude from Republic is good mates with him and messaged me the other day. Gus and I started texting about it and he was like, “I love the song!” So I was like, “Maybe we can put you on the bridge,” and I was low-key fan-girling. But that song is one of my favourites as well.
CDM: The line, “I’m a sad girl in this big world,” is very relatable. It’s weird how loneliness is such an isolating feeling, but something that I feel like songwriters are writing more and more about in their music, which is kind of uniting. Do you find writing about emotions that are hard, a good way to share them with people who might be feeling the same way?
BENEE: I think so. Even when you’re listening to music and you hear someone completely pouring out their emotions and saying, ‘I’m depressed,’ you’re like, ‘Wow, it’s not just me.’ Just being able to relate to lyrics like that, when you are feeling lonely or down, that’s the best thing to be able to listen to something and realise they are going through the exact same thing. I don’t think I’ve really gone into those lyrics before--
CDM: I feel like that song is the most straightforward in terms of sharing your vulnerabilities.
BENEE: For sure, and in that session I was like, “I want to be super self-deprecating and low-key take the piss out of myself.”
CDM: “I know I fucked up, I’m a loser,” is another great line.
BENEE: <laughs> And taking the piss out of myself being so sad. I try to do that with a lot of my sad stuff, I try to flip it and make it fun. But with songs like ‘Want Me Back’ and ‘Blu’, those are just sad... just downright sad.
CDM: I like the line, “You’re out there drinking, I’m just here thinking.” Do you think of yourself as a deep thinker? Do you tend to think about things as they are happening or more as a way of reflecting and looking back on past events?
BENEE: I think I’m a deep thinker, but I’m both. I overthink the heck out of everything. I am literally overthinking everything, to the point where it’s ridiculous. If I’m with friends and I’m overthinking, they’re just like, “You need to chill out, you’re an idiot.”
CDM: It’s also the first set of music which will have features on it. How did you find collaborating with other musicians where they feature on your songs?
BENEE: I’m super excited about it, and I kind of forgot that you can collaborate with people. I’m such a fan of Jack Berry and Gus Dapperton, and when it clicked I was like, ‘Whoah, other people can drop in on these songs,’ and it opened this whole other world where I can mix so many different flavours together - being able to have a song that I’m happy with and finished and then give it to someone and be like, ‘This is your space, do your thing on it.’ I’m so happy with both of those songs and how the collaborations have elevated them to another level. Having those finished songs, I liked them but I thought they could be better, but I felt like I had done my part on it.
CDM: Do you think you’d ever expand to work in hip-hop?
BENEE: I would love to! This is only the beginning. I want to tap into all different type of genres in the form of collaborating.
CDM: You have such fantastical and otherworldly concepts in your songwriting and music videos, how do you conceptualise these things?
BENEE: Hmmm! I think when it comes to making a video, the most important thing for me and the team is to get the vision, and everything that I’m about, and pass that onto the director so they seriously get it. Even when it comes to looking at video treatments, my label goes out and reaches out - they know what I like. We’ve had a video flop though; we tried an ‘Evil Spider’ video. It was a little while ago, but it was not the right kind of thing - I’m sure some people would like it, but it didn’t show my personality, which is really important for me.
CDM: I like that you’re able to say no to stuff like that!
BENEE: And we even made that video! With a video like ‘Glitter’, that was so right. Even from the beginning with Steven Mertens, I had looked at his work, and just working with people who have their own thing. I know when it’s right now; I know what I want. I think it’s working with people who get you, you get along obviously.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KAREN ISHIGURO
MAKE-UP BY HAZEL XU
BENEE's new EP 'Stella & Steve' is out now - click here to purchase, and listen to 'Monsta' below...