“What the heck?”
BENEE, born Stella Bennett, is inspecting the walls of the secretive Cash Money Records conference room at her label’s (Republic Records) office, as they appear to be Swarovski-studded. There are no photos allowed in this gilded room, and cell reception is poor — rumor has it that’s intentional, so artists can conduct their business without fear of leaks.
We couldn’t be farther away from the singer’s idyllic hometown of Auckland, New Zealand, but BENEE seems right at home among concrete and crystals, uttering that phrase, which is the 19-year-old’s personal refrain of sorts. (“What the heck” applies to anything from her two-week tenure in college before dropping out, to learning she could invite other artists to feature on her songs.)
We’re meeting a few weeks before the due date of BENEE’s Stella & Steve EP, a tight handful of R&B and electronic-tinged pop tracks that showcase where she is here and now. There’s the buoyant “Find an Island,” which is about wanting to get far, far away from someone (“Find an island far away from me/ A shipwreck lost at sea”), and “Monster,” a silky, spooky ballad with a twist: “But then instead of eatin’ me/ He offers me a blueberry.”
Quirky lyrical twists like these — coupled with rich vocals and smooth production — are a trademark of BENEE’s style (which has quickly earned her chart success in New Zealand and Australia, and tens of millions of Spotify streams). That style then translates to her songs, artwork, and even the clothing she wears. All of this is what the singer-songwriter calls “BENEE vision.”
“I’m still experimenting, still molding BENEE,” she explains. “It’s like, I have this blank canvas and I’m just starting to add some paint and stuff, but it’s going to kind of create a big thing.”
Rewind to the ancient, long-ago year of 2017, when BENEE graduated high school and enrolled in a communications program at the Auckland University of Technology. University wasn’t working out, though, and she left after two weeks (“I had what I call my ‘quarter-life crisis’”).
Around that same time, BENEE met producer Josh Fountain, who Joel Little chose to take over his Auckland recording studio, and is now one of her main collaborators and so-called “musical wizard.” After playing around with GarageBand all through high school, she realized Fountain’s skills were exactly what she’d been missing.
BENEE appreciated Fountain’s patience through “dud sessions,” as they worked to shape her desired sound, and independently released her first single and breakout track “Tough Guy” at the tail end of 2017. Her breakout single “Soaked” followed in September 2018, and she inked a deal with Republic Records in early 2019.
Now, Stella & Steve is her second EP of 2019, serving as a more chill companion to the bubbly Fire On Marzz EP. “It’s a mix of old and new songs, and sad songs and happy, fun songs,” she summarizes.
As for the title, BENEE’s obviously the “Stella,” but who’s Steve?
“I call everything Steve. Since I was little, I’d go on, like, holiday and call hermit crabs Steve.” She chuckles. “And I still do. I’ll name a snail Steve. Everything is called Steve in my world. My car is also called Steve.” (Steve the Car also features in the EP artwork, with BENEE standing on top of him.)
Even if listeners don’t like the EP, out Friday (Nov. 15), BENEE simply wants them to hear it and “get a little something.” Meaning, for them to “hear a lyric and be like, ‘I hate that. That was f–king weird.’ I don’t mind that. But [I do hope] that someone can be like, ‘Yeah, I feel that.’”
Stella & Steve features a few careful collaborations in alt/blues rocker Jack Berry (on “Drifting”) and singer/songwriter Gus Dapperton (“Supalonely”), which BENEE says is “madness, because I’m a huge fan.” In particular, while finishing “Drifting,” she felt something was missing. “And then boom, I was like, ‘You can add people to it. What the heck?’” The outstanding wishlist: King Krule, Daniel Caesar and Steve Lacy.
BENEE’s also been honing her live show. At our interview, she’s fresh from a headlining set at New York City’s Rough Trade, and will have some time in New Zealand before heading back out with Conan Gray. Aside from “bad dancing,” she says fans can expect plenty of “odd storytelling” at her concerts. “Honestly, I’m the worst storyteller ever. Like, I just take so long. I’m dyslexic, and I was reading that storytelling is actually [harder] with dyslexia,” she says, then jokes: “So I’m going to use that as an excuse.”
BENEE still lives at home in New Zealand, and plans to move when she turns 21. But she doesn’t intend to move Stateside — to a land where certain rooms have doorknobs made of enormous studded dollar signs — just yet.
“I think it’s nice to have New Zealand as a base for me…it’s this little island on the bottom of the Earth. It’s this nice, quiet place.” She then seems to unknowingly reference her own song, musing, “I have found my little island.”