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Photography Ophelia Jones

New Zealand pop idol Benee is a voice of the pandemic generation

Fresh off a world tour, the singer opens up about her viral rise to fame on TikTok, writing about Gen Z anxieties via her 2022 EP Lychee, and the importance of supporting smaller artists

Even if you don’t know Benee yet, you’ve probably heard her songs. A few weeks after the world entered lockdown, the 22-year-old New Zealand songwriter’s alt-pop breakup banger “Supalonely” became one of the first of its kind to explode on TikTok – with celebrities like Charli D’Amelio, Emma Chamberlain, Emily Ratajkowski, and Jennifer Lopez (yes, even J.Lo!) performing the track’s viral dance routine while cooped up in their homes. 

I’m a lonely bitch!” Benee (real name: Stella Rose Bennett) sings on the track – which has amassed over 635 million Spotify streams to date – while conjuring up melodramatic scenes of herself dancing alone in the club, sobbing in the bath, and longing for a backrub. Together, combined with Benee’s signature, playful beats and honest lyrics, the track manages to transform one of the most universally miserable feelings of 2020 into something impossibly fun. 

Off TikTok and IRL, the musician went from anonymous artist to Gen Z pop idol. Weeks after “Supalonely” went viral, Elton John invited her on his “Rocket Hour” radio show – spotlighting her music while they discussed New Zealand’s music scene. “I think (‘Supalonely’ is) going to be a huge hit throughout the world,” he prophesied on the show, encouraging her to keep writing her own music. A few months after the country exited lockdown, Benee performed the track to 12,000 ecstatic, concert-deprived fans who screamed along to the lyrics at Auckland’s Spark Arena. 

“It had been a frustrating period for everyone – having this hunger and wanting to tour so badly after having a bigger audience come in and start listening, but just not being able to do anything about it,” the songwriter tells me with a smile, projecting her voice over her band who’s sound-checking on stage. Right now, we’re sat in an empty corner of a bar in Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London – where Benee will perform tonight – and everyone’s laughing as her mum spritzes perfume around the room to mask the musty beer smell. 

“It’s nice to be able to reconnect with people again now,” Benee continues. “Just getting to meet with everyone after the shows has been really sick.” Later that night, after Benee plays her opening song, she takes a few minutes to greet every section of the audience; the venue is lit up, and she’s waving at the girls in the front row, the fans up top, and the couple who danced together the entire show – all of whom might not have had a chance to hear the musician’s music live until now. 

Back in 2020, one month after her Auckland stadium show, Benee dropped her debut studio album, Hey u x – a fun, yet vulnerable record, walking through her experiences in lockdown. Featuring collaborations with artists Lily Allen, Grimes, Mallrat, Flo Milli, and Gus Dapperton, the “Supalonely” follow-up resolved any suspicions of Benee existing as a one-hit-wonder – instead, establishing her as Gen Z’s latest alt-pop name to watch. “It’s fun being able to work with artists that you love,” she recounts. “Hey u x was basically just me fangirling out and being like, ‘I want to work with these people!’ and magically being able to have them.” 

“I’m so grateful that it all happened because it opened up this completely different world for me, but I didn’t want to be branded as a pop writer. I didn’t want to try to be a charts artist” - Benee

While working together during the pandemic – whether via FaceTime calls, emails, or sliding into each other’s DMs (in Grimes’ case) – Benee notes that she didn’t like to give too many instructions. “It’s just nice to have them take (the track) and do whatever,” she says. “It just creates this different kind of sound, and having fresh ears and a completely different way of how an artist interprets it can be something I wouldn’t come up with. It brings this new kind of life to the songs.” 

Of course – as collaborating with some of the world’s biggest artists is no small endeavour – the release came hand-in-hand with some nerves. “I definitely felt a pressure to release another hit,” Benee explains, admitting that she felt “in battle” with herself after her first single’s success. “I’m so grateful that it all happened because it opened up this completely different world for me, but at the same time, I didn’t want to be branded as a pop writer. I didn’t want to try to be a charts artist.” That said, instead of trying to churn out the next viral single, the artist hopes to create organic music that reflects her creativity. “Just making music that I love!” she says.

Today, the musician is following her own advice. This past March, she released her seven-song EP, Lychee – an introspective record bending between alt-pop, house, trap, and drum and bass while encapsulating all the very relatable emotions she felt across the past year. “(It’s) eclectic, colourful, experimental,” she says of the project. In a statement online, the singer explained the record’s backstory: “This record was inspired by the thoughts that are always jangling around my brain; I find it really hard to switch off! I’ve spent a lot of time by myself, thinking about my friends, relationships, and place in this crazy, mixed-up world we are living in.”

This time around, by abstaining from using artist features, Benee hones in on her own sound and songwriting – showcasing how far she’s come since her 2020 debut. In fact, in Lychee’s lead single, “Doesn’t Matter”, she opens up about the anxieties embedded in Gen Z life. “Why are you scared of these things? / How do I even explain / Hide under a pillow / Something’s at the window,” she sings on the track, heartbreakingly contrasting a loved one’s reassurances with her own questions: “Does it hurt me?” “If I medicate, would it help me?

“I think it’s really sad, but also, opening up the conversation about mental health is exciting as a songwriter because you can make a song about your struggles and a bunch of people will be able to relate to it” - Benee

“I don’t know a single person who doesn’t have something,” she confesses, referencing 2022’s mental health epidemic. “I think it’s really sad, but also, opening up the conversation about mental health is exciting as a songwriter because you can make a song about your struggles and a bunch of people will be able to relate to it.” She continues: “It’s hard, but at the same time it’s like, we're not alone in this… it’s almost like therapy.”

On the other hand, the EP’s closing track – “Make You Sick” – layers lyrics freestyled from Benee’s stream of consciousness in the studio over six-and-a-half minutes of unstructured, experimental beats. Before COVID hit, the song was meant to soundtrack a local runway show in New Zealand. “I was envisioning myself coming down the runway and thinking, ‘What kind of music would make a model feel bad-ass?’” says Benee, who sings about flashing lights, bags of cash, and covering up tattoos for a lover in the track.

“It made me realise what was really exciting for me to make and how I love to work, which is a lot of free-styling melodies and seeing what comes when you listen.” She adds with a laugh: “It was 13-minutes-long at first! We had to cut it down, there were a lot of bits that repeated for a while.”

Elsewhere in the record, on “Beach Boy”, Benee returns to her signature catchy hooks and earworm-inducing lyrics – interchanging between “beach” and “bitch” while singing about the ups and downs of being in the honeymoon phase. On stage, she’s twirling around, dropping it low, and imitating TikTok-style dance moves with fans as she performs the track, as if inviting the audience to jump inside their For You Pages from the past year.

When she’s not touring, writing, or posting ASMR clips on TikTok, Benee’s pouring her energy into discovering and promoting new artists with her female-run record label – Olive – which she founded in 2020. While Benee’s entrance to the industry was viral and sudden, she recognises that it’s not usually that way for other New Zealand-based artists and wants to pay her success forward. “It can be really hard for some artists to put their hands up, especially when you’re from really small towns,” she tells me. 

In fact, her first signed artist – Muroki (who features in Hey U x’s “All The Time”) – is from Raglan, a small, New Zealand coastal town home to less than 3,000 people. After stumbling across his music online, Benee brought him on tour, helped him get into the studio, and introduced Elton John to his music during her time on his show.

“I think it’s a nice way to look at who I love and give them that boost,” the songwriter explains. “It’s like the bigger artists who have helped me.” She adds: “It’s all kind of a support thing, where we all just have to help each other.” For now – as she wraps up her 2022 world tour and releases “OTT”, a new track and dreamy music video in collaboration with indie band Easy Life – it doesn’t seem like she’ll be logging off, herself, anytime soon.

Lychee is out now – stream it here. Check out Benee and Easy Life's “OTT” music video below.