From Supalonely to superstardom: Benee talks TikTok, lockdown and 'queen' Jacinda Ardern

There's something about the self-loathing hook, "I know I f**ked up, I'm just a loser", that strikes a fragile, frequently-strummed chord as I shovel grilled cheese into my mouth. 

I have f**ked up: My resolution to attain an enviable six-pack has been stomped on by hordes of Instagrammers waving banana bread in my face. Shut inside my bedroom with the cat meowing plaintively at my sandwich, the line "I've been lonely, mmh, ah, yeah" just hits different. 

If there was ever the perfect time for Benee's 'Supalonely', a song lamenting the woes of a "sad girl in this big, mad world", it's during a global pandemic. Beneath its sweet, candied shell is a bitter crunch - a perfect metaphor for a world masking its fears with layers of baking, yoga and full-coverage concealer. Still, social media provides a welcome departure from a scary, uncertain reality, shrouding our anxieties in a sugary coating of '#positivity'. 

Enter TikTok: A video-sharing platform proliferated with escapist entertainment, popularised by its snappy dance sequences set to 15-second song snippets. There, 'Supalonely' has been adopted by TikTok's largely-teen user base as the pop song of the pandemic. Released on Benee's Stella & Steve EP last year, the song has inspired the likes of J-Lo, Emily Ratajkowksi and some 10 million others to take part in the 'Supalonely' viral dance challenge. 

"It's been very weird having 'Supalonely' go off now when there's a global pandemic, it's very weirdly timed," Benee, the moniker of Grey Lynn girl Stella Bennett, told Newshub. 

"I only found out about the app because my other song, 'Glitter', got picked up on it, but it's been great for me, watching people all over the world do this cute little dance. It's been interesting watching it take off on the app while I'm in isolation, it feels very weird to me."

'Supalonely' is seemingly innocuous, even superficial at first - but a second listen reveals something darker, in a similar vein to alternative pop powerhouses Lana del Rey and Billie Eilish. It's melancholic, wrapped in Benee's experimental brand of upbeat, cartoonish indie-pop - running the gamut of everything the genre can be in 2020.

"When I was writing it, I was pretty sad. I would not have ever expected this kind of thing to happen, for people to relate to it for these kinds of reasons. But what's kind of cool about releasing music is that people take away different things from it," Benee explains. 

"I was trying to make a song that made me feel good. The response I'm getting is that it makes others feel good too. I think it's fine that people are finding some kind of comfort - a song called 'Supalonely' lightens their spirits. It's upbeat and fun, but it was written about a sad thing."

With over 168 million Spotify streams at the time of writing, 'Supalonely' has scaled the Spotify Global Top 50, US Top 40 Radio, New Zealand Top 50 and Billboard Hot 100, to name a few. The gold-certified song has skyrocketed its 20-year-old hitmaker - crowned the 99th Most Listened to Artist on Spotify last month - from 'Supalonely' to superstardom. 

"It feels very surreal to me. I don't really feel it properly. I don't really get it - [I see] people like J-Lo doing the dance, I'm like: 'What, what's happening?' I feel I'm in a weird little isolation dream bubble."

"I don't really get it" is typical of Benee's unbothered attitude, almost impervious to her eye-watering success. Quirky with a crop of coloured hair and a penchant for loose-fitting jeans, Benee has a certain panache reminiscent of the idiosyncratic flair of 90s' rock icons. Almost too cool to be affected by the concept of fame.

"I think it's opened up a bunch of doors for me coming out of isolation," she acknowledges. "Rescheduling tours, there are going to be places I can go that I wouldn't have been able to go to before because they didn't know about me - it's been all good things coming from that for me."

'Supalonely's' meteoric ascension of the charts also coincides with NZ Music Month, firmly rooted in our cultural landscape as the celebration of homegrown talent. This May, however, supporting local music is imperative, a critical lifeline to the industry's survival. Musicians and behind-the-scenes personnel are bearing the brunt of nationwide venue closures, shelved events and gig cancellations.

"It's important to think of how many people are putting on the shows being cancelled. There's behind-the-scenes workers who we need to keep going. It's about recognising how we're all being affected and helping each other," Benee says. "I'm gonna be streaming the heck out of all my New Zealand music friends. There are lots of charities you can donate to, to support [people in music]." 

One such charity is MusicHelps, a local organisation running an emergency appeal to help New Zealanders in music navigate the devastating fallout of the five-week lockdown, providing counselling and financial assistance. The charity's Give A Little, which has amassed more than $55,000 in donations, is currently promoted on Benee's Spotify.

The TikTok success of 'Supalonely' has skyrocketed the 20-year-old Kiwi singer-songwriter to international stardom.
The TikTok success of 'Supalonely' has skyrocketed the 20-year-old Kiwi singer-songwriter to international stardom. Photo credit: Imogen Wilson / Supplied

Although Benee is "gutted" over the cancellation of her upcoming tour, the 20-year-old, who has been isolating with her family, is otherwise in good spirits. She has been painting, writing and walking the dog with her mum, she says, and is grateful to be home during this period of uncertainty.

"We are so lucky to have the Government that we do and Jacinda, the bloody queen... I feel so safe - something the majority of the world right now doesn't feel, which is really sad. I'm just super grateful I am where I am right now and I'm hoping that our Government and what's happening here can be a good example," she explains. 

And there's good news for Benee supafans - new music is on the horizon. 

"I'm releasing a bunch of music soon and I'm working on an album, which will come out hopefully shortly-ish, probably before I can tour. I've been super experimental, trying out new genres. I think it's very different to the previous EPs I've released. 

"I just want to keep feeding people stuff. I feel like that's what people need right now."

'Lownley' in lockdown: Quickfire Q&A with Benee

Top three songs you've been listening to in lockdown: 'Saw You in a Dream' by The Japanese House, 'What Kinda Music' by Tom Misch and 'Drowsy' by Bane's World.

Top three Netflix series you've been binging in lockdown: Unorthodox, Tiger King, Love is Blind.

Is Dr Ashley Bloomfield hot, yes or no? I feel terrible saying no... you know what, he's beautiful. Maybe just a bit old.

Who is in your lockdown bubble? Mum, dad and my little brother.

Takeaway you're most excited for: Cotto. I used to be the dishwasher there.

Most famous person you've messaged in lockdown? Probably Clairo... but I'm usually too scared to message famous people first.

One shameful lockdown confession: I haven't vacuumed my room.

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