While dropping out of university after two weeks to pursue a career in music might seem like a risky move, it was the leap of faith needed to transform 20-year-old Stella Bennett, aka BENEE, into a global superstar. “It was a little bit scary,” says the singer-songwriter, who juggled recording sessions with shifts working as a restaurant dishwasher and at a pizza joint before things took off. “I’d been working away at music, and when I got to university, I just felt it was slowing things down, so I decided to drop it. My parents were fully supportive, and that was definitely what I needed at the time. They said I could go back if music doesn’t work out in three years.” The rest was history.
BENEE is now one of the 100 most listened to artists on Spotify. Her single, ‘Supalonely’, which was released in November as part of her second EP, STELLA & STEVE, has become a viral hit with over 12 million videos made to it on TikTok and 400 million streams worldwide. As we chat via Zoom, Bennett is at home with her family in Auckland, taking in her success as New Zealand comes out of lockdown. “It’s very weird to have a viral song when there’s a global pandemic going on,” she says. “But, it’s been nice for me in a way, because I was at home when it was really happening. Normally I’m running around doing stuff, or I’m on tour, and I’m always distracted, but now I’ve had six weeks to watch TikToks and let it sink in, which has been kind of insane.”
The singer has watched her track reach dizzying heights from the safe confines of her bedroom, where she started posting cover versions of songs to SoundCloud during her school years. When she was 17 years old and in her final year of high school, her now-manager Paul McKessar stumbled across her account and shared her covers with local producer Josh Fountain, who invited her into the studio for a session. After some experimenting, it became apparent that beyond her voice, she had a natural flair for writing songs of her own – something she’d pursued in private previously, but lacked the confidence to share. “The only songs I wrote, no one even saw or listened to. They were made on my old MacBook on GarageBand,” she explains. “I had always loved writing – especially creative writing – but I was struggling with it at school because I’m dyslexic. It was always like, you had to write in a particular way. Switching to songwriting kind of made me realise, huh, maybe I am good at this.”
Releasing her debut track ‘Tough Guy’ at the end of 2017 gave Bennett a taste of what a career in music might hold. And after dropping out of uni in 2018, she was reassured she’d made the right decision when her catchy hit ‘Soaked’ caught the attention of record labels worldwide. She struck a deal with Republic Records in New York and saw an even more successful 2019, releasing her two EPs, FIRE ON MARZZ, which came out in June and STELLA & STEVE, which dropped in November. In the same month, BENEE scooped an impressive four wins at the New Zealand Awards: Single of The Year for ‘Soaked’, Best Solo Artist, Best Breakthrough Artist and Best Pop Artist. “It was all very surreal,” she says. “The whole night felt like I was dreaming. You know when you feel a little bit sick, and kind of like you might faint?”
While she’s still struggling to get her head around it all, Bennett tries her best to keep up with her fans. “I follow pretty much every BENEE fan account on Instagram and talk to them a lot.” And alongside her main account, she runs another page, which is dedicated to her life-long habit of naming things, Steve. “I’ve just had a weird obsession with calling objects and animals Steve since I was about five years old,” she explains. “I have an account called @iseeyousteve, where I find things and call them Steve and post photos of them.” Her car, a 20-year-old Honda Antigua, also called Steve, is her joint namesake for her EP and features on its artwork.
Although the tracks on STELLA & STEVE feel catchy and upbeat, Bennett says that her inspiration comes from “relationships and fears”. “I wrote ‘Blu’ the day after I wrote ‘Supalonely’ and they were both pretty much about the same thing: a sad breakup. ‘Monster’ is about a fear I have about being taken in the night by someone.” As for the other tracks on the EP, ‘Find an Island’ was inspired by an argument with a friend, while ‘Drifting’ was based on a more conceptual idea about people floating through space. But while she tends to write about things that upset her, BENEE’s witty and self-deprecating lyrics are a reflection of her coping strategies. “If I’m feeling sad, I tend to laugh stuff off, or make jokes. I don’t think any of my songs were written about something happy, but the majority of them sound happy.”
To reconnect with the song’s original meaning, BENEE recently released a more mellow, version of ‘Supalonely’, called ‘Lownley’. Recorded on the night that New Zealand went into lockdown, the lyrics, “I’m a sad girl in this big world” take on new meaning and the stripped-back production allows us insight into the 20-year-old’s state of mind when the song was written. “I wasn’t happy, so when I listen to it, I’m like, shoot, that sucked,” she says. “You can’t tell that ‘Supalonely’ is a super sad song, because now there’s this fun dance made to it on TikTok. I thought it would be fitting in this very weird time to give people another side of it. It’s the exact same lyrics, but completely different vibes.”
As for projects in the pipeline? “I’m currently working on an album, which I’m very excited about and I have a single coming out next month.” And after the disappointment of having to cancel her tour dates, the singer-songwriter is looking forward to getting out there and performing again. “I was so gutted when I had to cancel my shows, but I’m just excited now for when I can get back to it,” she says. And when she can, she plans to enjoy it as much as possible. “I still get nervous, but I try not to take myself too seriously, which I think a lot of my hardcore supporters connect to. I’ll get up there wing it and hope that I stay in key, don’t forget lyrics and don’t say anything too embarrassing,” she laughs.