There’s a group of teenagers dancing on-stage in the empty O2 Arena. It’s a Saturday afternoon, and 19-year-old indie singer-songwriter Beabadoobee has just wrapped up soundcheck with her band; now, she and her bassist Eliana are jumping around the stage, playing air guitar and thrashing their dyed hair to the sound of Bea’s own song “She Plays Bass” (which, of course, she wrote about Eliana).
If Bea’s nervous about playing the 20,000 capacity venue later tonight, when she supports The 1975, she’s not showing it. In fact, backstage, she strides happily along the corridors like she’s been hanging out behind the scenes at the O2 her whole life, as she leads me into a secret, soundproofed lounge for our interview. The only thing to suggest that she’s nervous is the amount she laughs, loud and often; but it’s part of her fast-talking charm, whether she’s shrieking with glee at a signed Lily Allen photo on the wall, or apologising winkingly for eating so much Five Guys that she burps several times throughout our interview.
Playing the O2 is perhaps just a slightly weird footnote to an extremely surreal few weeks for Bea, who hit plenty of ‘ones to watch’ lists at the beginning of this year, including the BBC Sound of 2020. The week we meet is the same week she attended the BRIT Awards as a Rising Star nominee, only a few days after she also met one of her heroes, Robert Smith, at the NME Awards. “I told him ‘She Plays Bass’ is just a Cure rip-off,” she laughs. “I was so drunk, just shouting at Robert Smith, ‘You’re a fucking legend!’” The same night, both Harry Styles and Taylor Swift came up to her and told her they liked her music. And tonight, US breakout star Clairo (who Bea describes as like a “big sister”) will come to watch Bea’s show, after bringing her on tour in America last year. But the real guests of honour at the O2 tonight are Bea’s parents.
Bea overflows with adoration when she talks about her mum and dad, saying that they moved to the UK “for me – that’s why I want to do everything for them. Even though I can be a cunt sometimes.” She was born in Iloilo City in the Philippines in 2000, where she says her parents were well off, her dad working as a representative for a pharmaceutical company. “They wanted a better education for me,” explains Bea. “My dad had a super intense life as a kid. He was in the slums, shining shoes and shit. So it was his life goal to not make me go through any of that.” When Bea was two, her mum, a nurse, moved to London; a year later, Bea and her dad followed. Her dad then trained as a nurse too, and Bea's 11-year-old brother (who has ASD, and who she describes as “fucking amazing”), was born a few years later.
Bea’s parents spent her childhood filling the house with OPM (Original Pilipino Music), including bands like Itchyworms and APO Hiking Society, as well as the Smiths, the Cranberries, and Sonic Youth. They’re more stoked than anyone that their daughter is playing the O2 tonight (“I’m pretty sure my mum low-key always wanted to be in a band,” says Bea). But a few years ago, it wasn’t their plan for her to skip university to pursue music. They enrolled her in a prestigious all-girls’ Catholic grammar school in west London. Bea hated it. “The teachers were really mean, the girls were really mean,” she remembers. “There was not a lot of Asian girls in my school, they were predominantly white and rich – and I was not” – she lets out that bright, boisterous laugh – “I was a migrant!”
“I always felt like I was an outsider. I always felt like no one really got me, or I was different because I was Asian. It’s as simple as that” – Beabadoobee
The group of friends that Bea found solace in were the school stoners. Their version of “pulling all-nighters” was less about essay-writing and more about experimenting with MDMA and psychedelics; one morning, she woke up and realised she had spent the night sleeping on Primrose Hill. “There was definitely a stigma around our group because all the other girls in school knew what our group did,” Bea says. “And especially like, an Asian chick doing it – it’s just a bit strange. I wasn’t, like, doing my maths homework. That’s when the backhanded shit started happening from the popular girls. Where they’re not obviously mean to you, but doing it in a way where it just makes you feel a bit shit.”
At the end of Year 12, Bea got a shock when the school told her that they wouldn’t allow her back for Year 13, and she would have to finish her A-Levels elsewhere. She says that she technically had the grades to continue, but the teachers had come to resent her and her friends for smoking in the toilets, being late to classes and not doing homework. At that point, 17-year-old Bea’s vague life plan was to become a nursery teacher. After finding out she wouldn’t be going back to school, she “cried the whole day. It was traumatic. Like, honestly, what the fuck am I gonna do now?” It took a toll on her, during a time that she says she was suffering with “bad mental health”. Her ground dropped away from under her feet.
Eventually, she did find a place at Hammersmith Academy for Year 13, thanks to a family friend. But in the meantime, to make it through that uncertain summer, she turned to the guitar her dad had gifted to her. Even though she had never played before (though she had seven years of childhood violin lessons under her belt), she found comfort in learning how to play “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer, and a couple of Elliott Smith songs from YouTube tutorials. “And then, I wrote ‘Coffee’,” she smiles. “That was literally the first song I wrote.”
Bea shrugs nonchalantly when talking about what she calls “the stupidest song ever”, with acoustic chords borrowed from “Kiss Me” and a simplistic, looping melody. There’s a kind of bravado to how she laughs about the fact that the song is all about making a cup of coffee for her boyfriend, Soren, even though in reality, neither Bea nor Soren drinks coffee. But the song isn’t just a meaningless ditty about hot drinks; it has a profound sting to it. “I pro-oomise that one day I’ll feel fine,” goes one refrain, heartbreakingly contrasting Bea’s small, hopeful voice with what is a huge and unknowable promise from someone who is – as she was at the time – dealing with depression.
When she recorded the song with the help of her friend Oscar and put it online in late 2017, it was a slow-burning semi-viral hit. She followed it up with Lice, a four-track release of scratchy acoustic songs she recorded in her bedroom; this caught the attention of Dirty Hit, The 1975’s label, who discovered her on Spotify. With their backing, she released Patched Up, a proper debut EP of lush textures and hushed songwriting, at the end of 2018; in spring 2019, she followed it with Loveworm, a series of electrified, angsty relationship songs.
She first met The 1975’s Matty Healy very briefly at a gig, but their first proper hang as labelmates was a surreal night in late 2018, around the same time she released Patched Up. It was an otherwise regular Monday night. “I was crying in my bed – because I was depressed as shit, me being me,” Bea says. “And then I get this call from this unknown number, and I’m like, who the fuck is this?” Miming a phone with her hand, she gives a hokey impression of a miserable teenager answering: “What?”
It was Matty, inviting her to be his guest to the Fashion Awards. “It was fucking weird, I was so stoned,” she giggles. “It felt like I was in a simulation.” As a former 1975 stan, she tried not to freak out as she went to Healy’s house to have her make-up done and be styled. The reality of it all hit her, naturally, when she used his loo. “I’m taking a piss in his toilet, and I’m like, ‘If I told my 15-year-old self I would be in Matty Healy’s toilet taking a wee, I’d slap myself in the face’,” she says. At the awards ceremony itself, she remembers sitting across from former One Direction member Liam Payne, and Matty introducing her to everyone as “the next Elliott Smith”. “I found it so surreal, that someone I used to look up to was getting gassed about me.” The next morning, she woke up still wearing her professionally done make-up, and went to school in it.
“If I told my 15-year-old self I would be in Matty Healy’s toilet taking a wee, I’d slap myself in the face” – Beabadoobee
The changes in Bea’s life came thick and fast as she released her next EP Space Cadet, a collection of ambitious, mature indie anthems, in October 2019. “You say I don’t write happy songs,” she trills on the sunlight-streaked title track, “...So I guess this is the first one.” The songs show a different side to Bea, as she sings over fuzzed-out, wide soundscapes, and writes optimistically about her loved ones and her heroes: “I Wish I Was Stephen Malkmus” is a straightforward ode to an outsider rock legend, while “She Plays Bass” is of course all about the best friendship that swept her off her feet. When Bea first met Eliana, she says, “we just couldn’t stop talking. We got about 20 tattoos in two months. We were obsessed with each other.”
Throwing back her head in laughter yet again, Bea says that the Space Cadet theme was inspired by “Area 51 memes”; but she also gets sincere for a second, admitting that there’s a deeper level to the whole thing. “I found a link between space and me; realising that I’ve always felt... not myself throughout my life,” she reflects. “I always felt like I was an outsider. I always felt like no one really got me, or I was different because I was Asian. It’s as simple as that. I went through a phase where I hated being different, and I hated being Asian. It makes me sick saying that. Because I’m like, Why? Why was I so embarrassed of who I actually was? And writing Space Cadet made me so happy to be who I was. Like, ‘Yeah I’m fucking different, yeah I’m this and this and this. And I write sick tunes!’”
That elevated confidence came not only from leaving school and accepting herself, but also from growing as a musician. Bea has literally learned how to play the guitar alongside releasing music, and her EPs show a clear musical progression, as well as her personal journey. “Every EP had a phase,” says Bea. She links each one to the colour she dyed her hair at the time. “Patched Up was the burgundy hair phase, and that was when I was cute and new to everything; Loveworm was the red hair phase, when I had shit going on in my relationship. And now there’s Space Cadet, where I actually finally accepted myself.”
Now, she says she’s working on an album. “I want to do a mixture of everything – be vulnerable, and talk about love, and also talk about acceptance, and everyone else’s experiences.” Alternately screaming, giggling, and singing on-stage that night at the O2, she’s a mirror to the many thousands of other teenagers in front of her, disguising her real vulnerability with flashes of a goofy, carefree attitude. All of her deceptively intricate songs are written alone in her bedroom, on her guitar; but somehow, they fill up this huge space. With the album, she tells me, she’s aiming even bigger. “I want it to be timeless,” she says. “You can listen to it at any age, any time, and it would still hit you like a fucking rock.”