She just won FOUR awards at the VNZMAs; teen sensation Benee is one to watch, and we spoke to her about making music and following your dreams
Benee is a name to remember; at only 19 years old, she’s the latest in a string of young Kiwis to make waves in the music industry. She’s chalked up millions of streams on Spotify, signed to Universal’s Republic Records earlier this year, and has a fresh new EP, Stella & Steve, is out today.
She performed last night at the 2019 Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards and, in an impressive move that speaks to her talent, took home all four awards that she was a finalist for (single of the year, best solo artist, breakthrough artist, best pop artist). She’s currently gearing up to tour with Laneway Festival over summer, and her sweet yet funky pop tracks will be the perfect soundtrack for sun-filled days and balmy nights.
We caught up with Benee (real name Stelle Bennett) in Auckland to talk about her success to date, navigating the music industry at a young age, and how our highly digitised age has changed the way we make and consume music.
When did you first get into music?
I grew up playing instruments; I played the saxophone when I was eight, and played the guitar. But I only really seriously got into [music] in 2017 – that was my last year of high school, and I just released SoundCloud covers. I’d worked on some stuff on GarageBand, but I was never really very good at it. And then I got into the studio with Josh [Fountaine} and that’s when I made my first song.
What made you decide to focus on music rather than anything else?
Well at the beginning of 2018 I was going to university; I had signed all papers and I was going to do a communications degree at AUT. I had released ‘Tough Guy’ at the end of the previous year [while still at high school]. The kind of response that I had received for ‘Tough Guy’, and even just the covers, was super encouraging and I thought maybe I can give this a shot.
So I got home after the second week [of university] and had this – I call it my quarter-life crisis – and I went home and said, I don’t want to be doing this for three years. Like I’m already not enjoying myself and surely I should be excited about it.
Then I had a chat to my mom, and she said, “You know what, you can just give music a shot and if it doesn’t work out, you don’t have to go to uni straight away. You can have a gap year and you can sort your life out and then go.”
I guess when you have that sort of momentum happening, you kind of have to seize it right?
Yeah, I would have definitely regretted it if I hadn’t fully given it a shot.
Was there a specific moment, song or event that helped you break through to a bigger audience, or was it more of a slow build?
I think definitely ‘Soaked’ was a hand up. It was released with Triple J in Australia and that kind of pushed everything, whereas ‘Tough Guy’ was a lot more low-key.
What’s been your biggest success or proudest moment to date?
I think I would probably say the Waiata / Anthems album; that for me was a ‘woah’ moment. Also the You Are Us gig. Both of those were just moments where I was kind of overwhelmed with emotion and realised that music is so powerful. Those are probably my highlights so far.
Can you tell us about your new EP?
It’s a called Stella & Steve [and it’s available now]. I’ve already released ‘Find an Island’ and ‘Monsta’, which are two songs in it, and then there are three other songs.
It’s going to have features on it; I have two features that I’m really excited about. People are featuring on my music and I have never had that before! I think only when I was putting the EP together I kind of clicked and for some reason realized that you can actually do that.
I have Jack Berry, who I’ve been loving lately, and Gus Dapperton. And I’m super excited about that.
Was collaborating a different process?
I had one of the songs which was quite old and I’d been sitting on it for ages. I had my own verses and had written my own lyrics, and then we kind of pushed it aside, but then I brought it back when we’re talking about this EP and I said: “I feel like Jack Berry would write a real cool verse on this.” So yeah, he’s on the second verse!
And then with Gus, I was on the LA trip and I wrote the song and then he actually got in touch through my A&R (artists and repertoire) person at Republic [Records], who had sent it to him, and said “I love the song! So I thought damn, maybe a bridge would be cool.
You’re playing Laneway next year for the second time, was there anything you learned last year that you can apply to your performance or do differently?
I don’t think I was as relaxed on stage [then]. I also definitely have a lot more songs now, and new music to perform. And the band that I work with, we’re just a lot tighter, so it will just be a better show hopefully.
You’re playing at all the Laneway dates in Australia too, what are you looking forward to about touring there?
I’m just looking forward to the whole darn thing. Laneway was definitely one of the best shows I think I’ve ever performed. I love Laneway. I’m looking forward to even just going to Australia, I love playing there too.
Are there any artists who are playing Laneway that you’re excited to see or meet?
I really like Omar Apollo. Also, I don’t really listen to her music that much but [I’m excited to see] Charlie XCX; I went to the after-party she did after the Taylor Swift concert and it’s was a really good show.
How does it feel to be acknowledged at quite a young age, such as being a finalist for four VNZMA awards?
It’s a bit nutso, yeah it’s crazy. I’m still kind of processing it all. I think this whole year has just been like, “What the fudge is happening to me!” I’m just happy to be nominated.
Are you nervous? You’re also performing at the awards right?
I’m excited, definitely. My mum was talking to me and saying, if you get an award you have to go up and say stuff. But I’m not thinking that I’m going to get it.
Singing in front of people is fine – I actually enjoy that – but speaking in front of people and speeches, even watching people give speeches… I was at the Silver Scrolls and watching people give their speeches and oh my goodness [I felt] anxiety and stress for them.
So you’re still only 19, what’s it been like navigating the music industry at a relatively young age?
I don’t really know ay, I’m a bit loopy – I have this constant like confused state where I don’t really know what’s going on. But it’s been good! I think I’ve got a nice little tight support team which has been good: Poppy and Paul, my management. Yeah, it’s been really good. I’ve been enjoying myself.
I embarrass myself all the time, but I think it’s better to be honest and just lay your whole self out on the table.
You’re part of Generation Z, who are often referred to as digital natives, how have you used things like social media to promote your music and foster your fan base?
It’s been pretty wild. Platforms like Instagram have been crazy with people being able to message me and stuff. It’s like this whole other level of being able to connect to fans who are in places like Mexico. And you can look on streaming platforms like Spotify and see how many people are listening to your song in which countries, and there are countries I didn’t even know existed.
And SoundCloud was how you got your big break right?
Yeah! SoundCloud is crazy as well because, what I didn’t know, is that there are so many people that are actually looking on there – like there are fricking A&R people looking on SoundCloud, you know? Yeah. It’s crazy.
Do you think the internet has changed music for better or worse?
I think it’s different. I think right now it’s working for a lot of people. I think maybe it’s better.
Even just the thing of releasing EPS; you don’t have to release a whole album anymore, it’s more this constant flow of music playing. I like it! I love it when I’m listening to people and they’re just feeding me all the music.
Do you have any advice for other young people who are wanting to get into music or just try things out?
I have a lot of friends who are asking me about this, and I say to just fricking give it a shot. I guess it’s kind of scary when you think about big picture stuff and you’re like “Oh my God. What am I going to do with my life? Should I do music?” I think just at least give it a try.
I was working a pizza job and washing dishes and making music a couple of days [a week]. So I think just try it – give it a couple of years. The biggest thing for me was not being willing to be stuck doing something that I didn’t like.
What do you do when you’re not making music?
I do a lot of sleeping. I’m quite a homebody; I tend to hibernate in my room. I’ve been hanging out with my friends a lot lately. I just got back a few weeks ago, and it’s been so nice just going to the beach and stuff. The other half of my friend group is coming back [soon] and I’m really looking forward to the summer.
Obviously your personal style is really cool, what informs your approach to fashion?
I get a lot of my clothes from SaveMart – although right now I’m actually wearing a Leisure top. I just look at stuff and I either like it or I don’t. But I think I have been branching out lately; I’ve been buying a couple of dresses and stuff that like at flea markets. I like colourful clothes and patterns and jewellery – lots of jewellery.
What five songs will you be listening to this summer?
I was actually just doing a list of my songs for summer! I love Jack Berry; he just released a song called ‘Psycho’ and I’m a big fan. Fat Freddy’s Drop have just released a new song too ‘Kamo Kamo’ (I love New Zealand music). There’s a song called ‘Something Holy’ by Alice Phoebe Lou, she’s really cool. I listen to a lot of Still Woozy, he’s a good summer vibe. I’ve also been listening to Fleetwood Mac and blasting that through Grey Lynn.