BENEE – ‘Fire on Marzz’ (EP) and ‘Stella & Steve’ (EP) – Republic Records
On the cusp of breaking into the North American market with her blend of uptempo, winsome R&B indie-pop with a splash of ’80s hitmaking hooks thrown in for good measure, Stella Rose Bennett — known in music circles as BENEE — was thrown for a loop while playing smallish gigs this winter on America’s West Coast.
The 20-year-old Auckland, New Zealand, singer-songwriter arrived at U.S. shores late in 2019 riding a tsunami wave of success after ruling the airwaves and dominating download charts in her home country and Oceana neighbor Australia with twin hits “Soaked” and “Glitter” from her debut EP “Fire on Marzz.” The floodgates for her opened after being signed by record label Republic Records, a division of Universal Music Group (she also recently signed a worldwide deal with mega-player Sony/ATV Music Publishing). And then came 2020 and the accompanying pandemic, which threw the planet into an uncertain tailspin that included canceled concerts and television appearances for music artists worldwide and a frustrating-at-best, earth shattering-at-worst cultural impasse for the rest of us.
But life’s “change in plans” — to put a mild spin on the global pandemic — was met by BENEE with a characteristic shrug and youthful “what are ya gonna do?” expression. Anyone who knows the lanky lynx-eyed singer-songwriter understands that a little thing like an airborne virus can’t keep a free spirit down.
BENEE’s skill as a husky-voiced clarion and cheeky songwriter is matched by her antics while performing: endearingly fresh-faced and quirky, she often expresses her awkwardness on stage by displaying goofy faces and silly smiles during otherwise sad and somber lyrical interludes. But instead of appearing jarring and amateurish, BENEE, with her uncultivated eyebrows and adorable minx-like face, only amplifies her naturally sunny, untethered outlook.
Looking for all the world like she’d dipped into Icelandic superstar musician Bjork’s gene pool, Bennett grew up in a musically inclined family that listened to Radiohead, Groove Armada, and, yes, Bjork. At the tender age of 8, she took up the guitar and saxophone at school. By the time she hit high school in suburban Auckland, Bennett started uploading song covers to SoundCloud.
Her nascent musical career almost derailed during a time when the athletic Bennett became “obsessed” with the sport of water polo. But music won out over athletics prior to her short stint as a college student studying communications. She quit after two weeks, telling her parents she felt out of place there and thought she was headed on a wrong life path. With her parents’ blessing, Bennett instead struck out on a rerouted journey toward a career in music.
Fast forward to the early months of 2020, following breaking through in the admittedly small New Zealand music scene with a couple of singles reaching near the top of the charts.
It was fortuitous for BENEE that her breakup anthem “Supalonely,” written during a songwriting sojourn in Los Angeles late last year — and performed in her typical upbeat, self-deprecating fashion — became a breakout hit in the United States, thanks mostly to saturation exposure on social media darling TikTok. Literally, thousands of the app’s subscribers tried their best efforts to shuffle dance steps to the catchy song about BENEE’s still-stinging breakup with her Kiwi boyfriend.
Fueled by the organic growth in popularity of the song, BENEE performed “Supalonely” remotely for audiences watching “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” and “Ellen.” The song has been watched a robust 133 million times on YouTube. A somber, sparing version of the song, “Supalonely [Lownely],” also has captured the attention of her fans.
Her twin EPs released last year showcase the New Zealander’s quirky creative spirit and her knack for musical hooks and a laconic turn of the phrase.
“Supalonely” is the standout song on her sophomore EP “Stella & Steve” — Steve is the name of her car back home — that also includes percussive standout “Monsta” and the plaintive ballad “Blu.”
Her initial EP “Fire on Marzz” is a revelatory collection of funk-pop sung with an optimistic, airy flair. An early favorite of BENEE devotees is the tune “Soaked,” about as catchy a pop tune as can be crafted. It’s also imbued with a funky overlay that ensures the song will linger long after its initial listen.
Soaked up in my brain
For another day
These things I’m tryna say get drenched and swept away that’s the truth
Soaked up in my brain
Don’t know what to say
Something about you boy you soak up half my brain, yes you do
— “Soaked,” by Stella Bennett, Joshua Fountain and Jason Schoushkoff
“Glitter” dominates with slicing guitars and BENEE’s meandering vocals that propel the tune into a call to action:
Let’s just make it our own party
Stick together like glitter
“Wishful Thinking” is dominated by ’80s synths and a wailing bass guitar, but BENEE’s falsetto is the song’s imprimatur.
The EP’s crowning achievement is “Want Me Back,” which deviates from BENEE’s heretofore unruffled, slightly detached presentation up to that point, to a beautiful, emotionally vulnerable ballad of wistfulness and angst.
I can see you kind of need me
You’ve been havin’ trouble sleepin’
Maybe we are meant to be here
Maybe I want us to happen
Sometimes I wish you would leave and
We would never speak again, but
Then there’s somethin’ ‘bout you, boy, yeah
I can’t hold myself back from ya
— “Want Me Back,” by Stella Bennett
“Want Me Back” confirms the 20-year-old artist is wholly human, fully emotive and entirely exposed to the whims of love — gained and lost. The relatable ballad is a soulful plea for reconnection to a relationship otherwise entangled in uncertainty, hurt and drama, but imprinted with a history of love and desire.
The young artist released her first single, “Tough Guy,” in 2017, followed with 2018 single “Soaked,” which was streamed more than 20 million times and climbed onto the New Zealand Hottest 100 chart. Backed by high-school friend Tiare Kelly on electric guitar and Dylan Clarke on bass, BENEE says she’s itching to perform again in front of live audiences.
Guided by producer and Leisure band member Josh Fountain, the youthful superstar-in-the-making has a guide path wide open for commercial and critical success in the career-making American market. She has hinted that her debut LP will diverge creatively from past releases, so fans are anxiously awaiting to find out what her new sound might be.
Just how long her authentic self continues to be on display is anyone’s guess, but to date, BENEE’s combination of Kiwi spunk and creative energy has won over legions of fans in Oceana — with North America awaiting more of her mix of alternative pop and R&B Lite.
ATLYS – Self-titled debut album – (ATLYS Music)
It’s not surprising that to be a musician who manages to break out in the hyper-competitive, uncertain music business as a top-drawer artist known nationally and internationally is akin to winning the lottery. Many buy a ticket to play, but few manage to achieve artistic notoriety and reap financial rewards.
It’s a bit of a crapshoot, for sure. While the rules of the game have changed, thanks to the advent of social media and the revolutionary technological advances that enable artists to create and produce their own product, it’s still a career field where talent goes hand-in-hand with enormous amounts of perseverance and a knack for self-promotion.
But for roughly half of those aspiring musicians, there’s another career obstacle to consider: being female. In a weird confluence of cultural bias and creative energy, female musicians are generating a considerable amount of attention by producing some of the top-selling, most innovative music in the business today despite cultural barriers placed before them. Country music, in particular, is brimming with female talent that is winning over new audiences, along with their purchasing power.
In the classical music genre, the battle played out between the sexes has long been dominated by men and guided by the traditional, mature audiences buying tickets and music. So, it’s particularly noteworthy when classically trained young females who play stringed instruments — two violins, a viola and a cello — embark on a musical journey to puncture old notions about what music a string quartet should play in front of an audience.
These musicians in their late 20s and early 30s, based in the Chicago area and Los Angeles, have bravely ventured forth to create original music with crossover appeal, as well as perform traditional numbers arranged with a contemporary flair. Called ATLYS, this string quartet is a welcome departure from the standard vision of staid musicians detached from their audiences. Instead, these women perform with an emotive passion and bathe the performance hall with their charismatic charm and energy.
The musicians — Jinty McTavish and Sabrina Tabby on violin, Sabrina’s twin sister Genevieve Tabby on cello and violist Rita Andrade — not only make it their mission to transcend traditional musical boundaries, they purposefully interact with audience members between numbers and after performances. The women, who have nearly 1,000 performances under their collective belt, have also collaborated with musicians outside the classical genre to create novel and compelling musical arrangements.
In their debut self-titled album released last year, ATLYS has compiled nine engaging numbers that cross the boundaries of pop (“Chandelier” by Sia); rap (“Bad Girls” by M.I.A.); Bjork’s avant-garde emotive “Stonemilker”; traditional Scottish folk (“The Corrie Man”); the poetic international song “Alfonsina Y El Mar”; and the Coldplay-inspired arrangement of “Atlas.”
ATLYS’s curated collection includes the original song “Rideshare” from the independent film of the same title and the “lady power” anthem from Beyonce, “Run the World (Girls),” both of which enliven and enrich the album’s reach across genres.
The 2017 chartbuster and Grammy Song of the Year nominee, “Issues,” written and performed by Julia Michaels, also has been given a shimmering instrumental arrangement by ATLYS, combining Regina Spektor’s “Fidelity” into a classical mashup.
ATLYS’s debut album is a promising, polished effort by these four ambitious, collaborative and creative women who are unafraid of coloring outside their musical lines.