She’s the Grammy-nominated songwriter who uses her talent – and 7.6million Instagram followers – to shine a light on mental health issues. Sophie Goddard meets Bebe Rexha
Selena Gomez, Iggy Azalea, Rihanna and Eminem… she’s responsible for some of their biggest hits, and now Bebe Rexha is stepping into the limelight herself. But what you might not know, is that Rexha’s recent transformation from writer to solo artist isn’t her first rodeo. Back in 2010, she was spotted by Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz and the pair went on to form the band Black Cards, before Rexha landed a solo deal… which quickly went south (‘they weren’t passionate about me,’ she says). Her second shot at stardom, though, is going much better – well, that’s if two Grammy nominations, including Best New Artist, are anything to go by. Her 2018 debut album Expectations (featuring hits like I’m A Mess and Meant To Be – the song that scored the 29-year-old her second Grammy nomination) won her mainstream success, and her second album is due later this year. But, while her impossibly catchy earworms have seen her collaborating with major artists like Cardi B and Rita Ora (like Ora, Brooklyn-born Rexha is of Albanian descent), there’s plenty below the surface, too. Here, multi-platinum-selling singer-songwriter Bebe Rexha tells all…
Firstly, congratulations on being a Grammy-nominated artist!
Thank you. It felt like every bone in my body went when I found out. I was Jell-O. My parents kissed – the first time they’ve done that in front of my brother and me, because we’d be like, ‘Ew, nasty!’
Was that your biggest pinch-me moment?
My whole career has been a series of those moments. The industry is so hot and cold – you’re not going to be on top forever – so every time I shoot a video, I’m like, ‘I can’t believe I’m still doing this.’
You’ve written for some incredible artists, what made you want to become one yourself?
I was creating records like, ‘This is how I want to do the video’ or ‘this is how you perform it’. I wanted to use my creativity, I wasn’t satisfied just writing songs.
Handing over a song must feel like handing over your baby…
Yeah, but you have to understand it’s no longer yours. You need to allow the artist that takes the song to do what they want.
Has anyone performed one of your tracks in a way that you’re not happy with?
Yeah, a lot! Sometimes I’ve had to pull them back. They have to make it their own – that’s what makes an artist an artist – but if I don’t think it sounds great on the person’s voice, that’s different.
When did you write your first song?
At 14 or 15. I wrote poems when I was eight, but didn’t properly form songs until high school. I played the trumpet and was always musically involved – inspired by Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé, Tracy Chapman, Alanis Morissette, Madonna and Cher. I like strong powerful women, who have something to say and are unapologetic.
So that’s how Women In Harmony (Rexha’s initiative for female music creatives) was born?
I couldn’t believe there’s never been a get-together for female music creatives – it hit me, like, ‘I want a safe space for women’. I threw my first dinner for 50 people in LA, then one in London, and now I’m doing a brunch for 150. It’s becoming this community – I want to get to a point where I do workshops, give scholarships and for it to continue when I’m gone.
What do you think it’s achieved?
For a long time, I compared myself to other women in the industry, and if you’re constantly comparing yourself, you’re never going to be happy. And I don’t know about other girls, but I’m a hermit. I don’t like going out; I get really anxious. People say, ‘Go out, be seen, play the game’, but I’ve never been that girl, and I’ve struggled to make friends in the industry. This way, it breaks the ice. Nobody is allowed a plus-one – you have to mingle.
Which stars’ careers would you like to emulate?
Pink. She had success, then had her family and managed to balance that. It’s something I really look up to because my career is everything, but so is balance. I want to enjoy my life. I reached out to Alicia Keys for advice on the music business. Any time I need help, she’s willing to give it to me, and that’s really hard to come by. She always responds right away and is really respectful. I admire that – a lot of successful females could easily be like, ‘Oh, no, you’re an up-and-coming artist, why should I help?’ She’s really kind.
Is it a big pressure having 7.6m followers on Instagram?
I’m used to it now; I just don’t care. If I don’t want to post for a week, I don’t. If I want to post every day, I will. I do it when I feel strongly about something. I want to stand for something. If I have fans who feel insecure, if I show them I’m also insecure about things, they know they’re not alone. I need to stand for something other than just writing catchy songs.
Tell us about that Grammy’s video (in which Rexha was vocal about designers only lending sample-sized clothes)
I understand models are models, and there’s nothing wrong with having that type of body – I think all bodies are beautiful – but it gets frustrating when designers send pieces that don’t even go halfway up. I’ve heard things said about models who are ‘too big’, and that’s really upsetting. I refuse to stand for that.
Being open about your mental health, is that important to you?
Absolutely. I’ve had moments when I didn’t want to leave the house, or I’d get super nervous at parties; I’d be in the corner freaking out. I didn’t know that was anxiety. I finally saw a therapist and found ways to control it – like exercising, eating healthier and changing my priorities. That helped so much and I’m not ashamed. If I can shine a light to make my fans feels less alone, that makes me feel good. I started seeing a therapist in my early twenties. It was after I got dropped from my first record label – they wouldn’t let me go, but didn’t want to put my songs out, so I was hopelessly stuck and I think that triggered it. I was literally so depressed. I wrote a letter to the CEO, like, ‘I don’t want to be alive, you guys are making my life miserable; I’m sad every day and stuck in a place where you’re keeping me hostage.’ As a human, I could never do that to somebody. Ever since I saw how dark the industry could get, that really affected me. It took me a long time to accept that but, once I did, I got so much better.
Is that what inspired you to write The Monster for Eminem and Rihanna?
Yeah, it’s about hating that part of myself, my anxiety. It’s like, ‘We stop looking for monsters under our beds when we realise they’re inside of us.’ That’s what inspired me.
Have you been told by fans that these songs resonate with them, too?
Absolutely – about I’m A Mess especially, and I’m Going To Show You Crazy and Me, Myself And I. I’ve had fans come up [to me] with their mothers crying, and saying, ‘Thank you so much for getting my daughter through these hard times.’ I tell myself I’m here to help people feel better, even if it makes me feel bad sometimes… I’m really big on energy. I think that’s why I’m able to be a songwriter, but sometimes it can really affect you.
What else makes you happy?
Music. When I’m in the studio, I feel like nothing sad in the world exists. It’s a safe space, as if nothing could harm me. It’s like my therapy.
Has your confidence changed with age?
Yes. I’ve had men in the industry say I’m getting too old and I should retire. I’m 29, my grandmother is old! I’m edging closer to my thirties, but I’m not faking my age like I’m supposed to. I don’t feel like I need to prove anything to anyone, or search for anybody’s acceptance any more.
Bebe Rexha’s single, Last Hurrah, is out now.