The 21-year-old musician known as Benee first garnered attention in her home country of New Zealand when she started uploading covers of songs on SoundCloud, followed by originals like “Soaked” and “Glitter.” Meanwhile, placement on Spotify playlists like Lorem started to earn her a growing international fanbase, but the surprise success of her song “Supalonely” on TikTok at the beginning of the pandemic put her on a whole new level. The song, a collaboration with the American singer Gus Dapperton, became a Top 40 hit around the globe, and was streamed more than 6.9 billion times on TikTok in March 2020 alone. Its lyrics about being, well, “a lonely bitch,” were particularly fitting for the time. Benee, though, was barely aware of what TikTok was at the time. Instead, she was doubled down, finishing her debut album Hey U X, which features collaborations with Grimes, Flo Milli, and Lily Allen. As part of a larger exploration of Spotify’s emerging Lorem playlist, we spoke with Benee about her love of James Blake, dog adoption videos, and fighting to stay in music for the long haul.
When you first started uploading music to SoundCloud, how were you producing your tracks?
A couple of the covers were just free backing tracks that I found online. I did The Internet’s “Special Affair,” and that was definitely not produced by me. For “Ocean Drive,” I was just playing my acoustic guitar into my Beats microphone and it was terribly recorded, I didn't really know how to use Logic or anything then.
When you were contacted by a manager and labels, did you have anyone you were thinking “I'm going to model my career after this person?”
Not really, to be honest. I didn't really have any idea of how it would pan out. I think one of the first meetings that I did have with Universal, they were like ‘“Let’s release a covers album.” I was like, “Oh no, no, no, no, no, no, no. I want to write and record my own music.”
It seems like a lot of musicians of your generation, they start out by doing covers online, but they really want to write songs themselves. Was that how it was for you?
When I released the covers, I didn't think anything of it. I did not expect to be reached out to. I did not expect that I would be doing music at all. I think it was more of a kind of fantasy thing. Like, “Oh, yeah, it’d be really cool to be a singer, but I'm enrolled in a university in New Zealand to do a communications degree. I'll probably work in radio or something.” But when I got the opportunity to go into the studio, that was when I was like, “Okay, no, this is definitely what I wanna do.”
You had some hits in New Zealand early on, and you started getting traction internationally on Spotify, but then “Supalonely” goes viral on TikTok. At that point, did you know that songs could go viral like that on the platform?
When it first started picking up, I really had no idea what any of it was about. Someone said to me, “Well, Lil Nas X’s song went viral on this app.” That's when I kind of was like, “What's actually happening?” I was starting to realize the level at which it was taking off, and to understand how the app worked.
So you weren’t even on TikTok yourself at this point?
Are you now?
I am guilty of spending far too much time on it. The algorithms have meant that my whole feed consists of dog and dog adoption videos. I will happily spend hours scrolling through animal videos.
Who are some of your biggest musical influences?
The first artist that I really got hooked on was James Blake. Like, he was an artist whom I kind of went out and found myself. I thought he did a really good job of blending genres. You see him now collaborating with Travis Scott and all of these crazy different artists—it shows that he can really do whatever he wants to do, which is a dream for me, too.
Do you have any dream collaborators?
I have a massive list. Rosalía, obviously. James Blake, still on the top. I also like Daniel Caesar. I think he's great. Steve Lacey is cool. Travis Scott.
Do you have any major career milestones you want to hit?
I’d like to play some big festivals. Coachella has been something that I’ve been talking about for ages. Mostly I just want to make it long-lasting. I want to be here for ages and I want to be like an old rocker, you know, still making music and touring and stuff.
There’s this notion some people have that younger musicians with viral songs are just like influencers with songs or one-hit wonders, but the reality is that many of you are very serious about songwriting and making this a career.
Having “Supalonely” blow-up has been a bit nerve-wracking. Obviously, you get this huge amount of new followers, but you don’t know whether they actually want to sign up to your whole project or whether it's just like a one-hit kind of thing. I want to build the relationships that I have with the fans who have always been there.