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‘The land and the environment in New Zealand inspires crazy, weird, but really cool artists.’
Gems in this
For indie pop artist Stella Rose Bennett, better known as BENEE, Aotearoa, New Zealand, is a place where the enriching natural environment inspires her creativity.
Since posting her first covers for friends on SoundCloud and the release of her first single, 'Tough Guy', at age 17, this prolific New Zealand musician has earned soaring success — and her rise feels unstoppable. She has supported Lily Allen, released a single featuring Grimes, headlined sold-out shows, and been awarded Single of the Year, Best Solo Artist and Best Pop Artist at the Aotearoa Music Awards — more than once. Yet, even with the excitement of life on the global stage, it's Aotearoa that BENEE calls home — with the unique and powerful presence of Māori culture, the space and support to develop her female-led record label, and the cozy beach houses to escape to. For our Aotearoa Country Special, we caught up with BENEE to chat about the creative inspiration of New Zealand and her inside list of Travel Gems to explore when visiting the North Island.
On Auckland being home
Every time I leave home to record overseas, I appreciate it more and more. New Zealand is such a good base to have, where you’re on island time. It sort of feels like a nest. It’s a safe place I can unwind, where my family and friends are. It’s a supportive network. It’s nice to go out into the bigger world and travel, and know you can come back here to this comfortable, mellow base. I’m so glad I grew up here.
On Aotearoa’s unique creativity
The really cool thing about New Zealand is our creative output. For a small country, we seem to produce lots of innovators. It may be because we are physically semi-isolated — we're on an island at the bottom of the world which is a day ahead of most people. I feel like the land and the environment inspires these crazy, weird, but really cool artists. Whatever it is, it has shaped a lot of cool humans. The place that you grow up in has so much to do with who you become.
On how travel inspires your music
I was working with my producer, Josh Fountain, who I still work with, but comparing that music to now, it's so different. It's only four years ago, but I've done two writing trips to LA since then and have worked with completely different artists, which has opened up a whole other world for creating. Those trips have been so good for getting me out of my comfort zone, meeting new people and making new music.
On your approach to songwriting
Usually I go in with a couple of ideas I’ve written down in notes on my phone. At least I did for this latest writing trip because I was worried I wouldn’t be able to record a song a day in LA. I had some ideas I had thought about during lockdown in New Zealand. I used to write on my computer because the screen acted like a kind of barrier that I could hide behind to write vulnerable lyrics.
On your creative process when recording
I usually go into the studio with a line I think sounds good, or a voice note I’ve recorded. It could be a combination of lyrics and melodies. When I’m working with a producer I’ll write for half an hour or so, then freestyle some melody ideas with them, depending on what their vibe is. Like, if I know this producer is super-into indie music, then that’s the strong point. Maybe I’ll pick an idea that isn’t saying that I’m a bad bitch, because I’ll save those lyrics for an R&B producer.
On what ‘manaakitanga’ means to you
I love the idea of extending aroha (love and compassion) to others —, being hospitable, generous and respectful to other people. I have a deep respect for the culture. There is a real appreciation for the land and everything in it, a sense of interconnectedness. The language is so beautiful as well. One of my songs, 'Soaked,' was part of a project called 'Waiata / Anthems’, where popular New Zealand songs are translated into Māori and re-recorded. I wanted to do my best to honor the translation, learn more about the language, and be as spot-on as possible in my pronunciation. There's a real movement in New Zealand at the moment to reinvigorate the language, and lots more people are trying to learn Te Reo.
'New Zealand's land and environment inspires these crazy, weird, but really cool artists. Maybe it's because we’re on an island at the bottom of the world, which is a day ahead of most, whatever it is, it has shaped a lot of cool humans.'
On escaping to Piha
Piha is a beach located 45 minutes west of Auckland. It’s my favorite place in New Zealand. It's wild and dramatic with a huge rock called Lion Rock, which you used to be able to climb to the top of (before there was a big rockfall near the summit). It's a surf beach and can be super-dangerous to swim at. I used to go there every Sunday when I was part of a surf school. Now I go there with my Mom or mates and my dog, especially if I need to just get out and be in nature. I love it when the weather's bad because the waves are so huge and crash onto the rocks. It's crazy beautiful and has real Lord of the Rings vibes. If you come to Auckland, I definitely recommend visiting Piha.
On the enriching landscape of Piha
On the way to Piha, you drive through pockets of rainforest with lots of native kauri trees. There's a lookout up on the hill just as you’re about to drive down into the town. It’s so epic, it's this crazy landscape — you'll have to look at photos to understand what I'm talking about. There's Lion Rock in the middle, and all of these other crazy rock formations. Even if you're not swimming, it's nice to just be out there in the fresh sea air, surrounded by the rich colors of New Zealand. It's my place to get away.
On staying in a beach house in New Zealand
A bach is a beach house, and often you can rent them out from other people all over New Zealand. Usually, they are places the whole family can come to stay and share. They’re very authentic and lo-fi, not fancy.
'The real selling point in New Zealand is the environment, that wild, untouched feeling that you get.'
On your must-do experience in all of New Zealand
I used to stay in this place called Tauranga Bay, which is up north. We’d go camping there with the family. The campground was literally in the middle of nowhere — we’d bring our mates and go swimming in the estuaries. There's also Waitomo Caves where you can see glowworms, which is quite fun. You can also go blackwater rafting. I think that there's something very different about the beaches here in New Zealand. Probably my favorite part of New Zealand is the beaches.
On hiking — better known as tramping — in New Zealand
There's cool stuff you can do in the mountains, like tramping and rafting, and great skiing spots. There are quite a few great tramps around the big volcano of Mount Ruapehu that lead up to the crater lake, or you could even ski up there. Right beside it is another tramp called the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which is a really cool walk.
On what makes Aotearoa so special
The rich colors — New Zealand forest greens, with black rocks and crazy deep blues of the water. All the colors in nature are really beautiful. The real selling point in New Zealand is the environment — that wild, untouched feeling that you get.
On exciting Kiwi artists you’re working with
Aidee Walker is a director that I'm about to work with who is super cool. Riley Coughlin I've worked with a lot for visuals — he’s made a couple of lyric videos for me. He's from Dunedin, which is a bit of a student town, but there is also a real creative scene there. Lots of cool artists come from Dunedin, and he’s one of them.
'I’ve always loved finding new artists and telling everyone about them. More recently I’ve found people are looking at my stuff and I can use it to create a platform, to shine a light on smaller artists who need a little bit of a boost.'
On starting a New Zealand record label
I’ve always loved finding new artists and telling everyone about them, and pushing them on my socials. And more recently I’ve found people are looking at my stuff, and I can use it to create a platform, to shine a light on smaller artists who need a little bit of a boost. Putting them in front of audiences who I know will love them was the inspiration. But it doesn’t feel like work. I’m working with people I love and think are great, which is super-cool. I always wanted to be in A&R if I wasn’t a musician.
On a window or an aisle seat
I fly window when I can. I like leaning my head on it ─ and being able to look at what's happening outside. I also get a little bit claustrophobic if I'm in between people.
On New Zealand in one word