Hit-Maker To Showstopper
FULL EXTENDED INTERVIEW
Some artists just have a natural ability – that indescribable star quality that transforms the world around you into something else. For many reasons Bebe Rexha is the anti-popstar, someone who could easily have had a go at the music business solely as a songwriter (she wrote Eminem and Rihanna’s #1 single “The Monster” among other hits). Rexha also writes and sings about personal demons, struggles, being “crazy” and not fitting the mold of what a culture wants you to be. But Bebe is also glamorous, a total bombshell with charisma to boot, and a true stage presence that cannot be fully interpreted unless seen live in all of her stunning madness, often in a leather jacket, hair thrashing and eyes fixated deep into the darkness of the crowd. Bebe Rexha had one of the most infectious songs of the summer, singing the hook on “Hey Mama,” an electro-house track by David Guetta, Nicki Minaj and Afrojack, which reached the Top 10 on the Hot 100 and also #1 on the Billboard Hot Dance chart. If the vocals sounds familiar, you may also remember Bebe lent her voice to Cash Cash’s inescapable 2013 dance smash “Take Me Home” (the acoustic version is a recommended vocal to check out as well). Rexha recently wrapped the Vans Warped Tour and this fall she opens for Nick Jonas around North America including his Terminal 5 date on September 9. Though electronic music has been at the forefront of Bebe’s biggest hits thus far (“I Can’t Stop Drinking About You” and “I’m Gonna Show You Crazy,”) she can rock with the best of them with hints of alternative in her songs and she writes a solid ballad as well. Rexha took a somewhat different direction featured on the recent Nico & Vinz tune “That’s How You Know” with Kid Ink, a more folky pop song. While on Warped Tour, Bebe took time away to talk with NYC Monthly about growing up with a dream in New York, how she commands the stage when the lights come up and how she likes to spend her free time in the city…
NYC Monthly: Bebe, “Hey Mama” is a worldwide smash, and even though this is also David Guetta, Afrojack and Nicki Minaj song, I think you 100% are the focal point of the song. It’s one of the strongest hooks from the entire summer – what’s it like to be included among such a massive roster of talent?
Bebe Rexha: Somebody from a radio station hit me up and texted me while I was doing promo. I sat down with Sean Douglas, we wrote the hook in like 10 minutes, we were joking around about it, it was super quick. I just wanted to write something fun. We would sit there with our pens and paper banging our heads on the desk. David Guetta played us a beat that had writing on it from Ester Dean but there was no pre-chorus and he wanted us to write to the beat. We knew the BPM, but me and Sean decided to go to the piano and take a chance. We like writing with a guitar or piano, but we got the vibe of the song and wrote something and changed the chords up a bit. Honestly, I knew that I was going to be on his album [Guetta’s “Listen”] but that record in particular, I thought they were going to replace my vocal with someone else.
NYCM: You were born in Brooklyn and raised in Staten Island by Albanian parents where you took part in a lot of musical theater and also won an award as a teenager from the Grammys. How does a place like New York City prepare you for a career in the music and entertainment industry?
BR: I think #1, New York City is the world’s biggest melting pot. My best friend is Italian and I’m Albanian and all my friends at school were Puerto Rican and black and everyone came to school listening to what they love. Everyone’s culture – it’s just urban life, I just listened to so many different styles because of that. The thing I love about New York City is there are so many opportunities everywhere you go. In California you have to drive everywhere, but you can walk everywhere in NYC and meet someone every second. It’s an amazing place for music and a lot of up-and-coming artists. It’s the grind, the influences and a small area with all these people – you look at LA and New York, you don’t see many people walking in LA.
NYCM: What about living in New York inspires your creativity? I’d imagine you spend a lot of time in LA now, but how do you like to indulge when you come back to New York for a visit?
BR: Kind of all my life – for relaxation, I just love food. I have go-to spots when it rains, I love going to a certain Vietnamese restaurant and there are certain places that just relax me, very mom-and-pop. Obviously Central Park, shopping and eating. There’s a place called Saigon Shack, it has the best pho. Every time it rains in NYC I call my friends – it’s incredible, it’s cash-only and they serve you the best pho in the world. Also shopping in Soho with an amazing cup of coffee walking up and down Soho or Canal Street. Walking on the city streets, cup of coffee in my hand, going into my favorite shops and bargaining on Canal Street. That’s why I love Staten Island, it’s super chill and you can have a backyard and barbecue, my family will grow tomatoes and peppers and onions. New York is a place where I throw on a pair of headphones when it’s not crazy-packed on the subway and take the train and get off with my headphones on, it’s so relaxing and inspiring. Living in New York I used to walk so much with my headphones on, from 57th street to South Ferry.
NYCM: You’re playing Terminal 5 with Nick Jonas. You are not just a songwriter and singer but also a performer who knows how to work a stage and make a reveal. What can people expect who know your music but maybe have never seen you perform live?
BR: A lot of people will know of my music and I will always perform originals “Monster” and “Hey Mama” and all the songs off my EP [“I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.] When you watch the show it’s going to have a lot more rock side, a live guitar and bass player and drummer. We really go hard, it feels like a rock show. It’s really cool. People watching me live say “whoa, we weren’t expecting that.” There’s nothing like live music. I think when people watch me and they don’t know who I am they become fans because I really express myself on the stage. A rock-ified pop performance. I just feel like, I’m on Warped Tour right now, we’re coming to play Jones Beach so I think doing this tour especially prepared me for when I come to Terminal 5. You’re just so ready. I did about 43 shows in 50 days on Warped. I’m just excited to be in my hometown.
NYCM: A lot of your songs sound deeply introspective and are about some really personal topics that most people would probably steer away from. What can you say about your writing perspective and your voice in terms of what you are trying to express?
BR: A lot of artists have amazing songs, but I don’t know what it is inside of me – that’s the time when I erase all that I’m going through – it’s my moment – my body is detoxifying itself. I take my stage performances extremely seriously. I feel that that’s going to make me stand out from other artists. First and foremost, it’s great to have a song especially one that you write, but to make it come to life is something I want people in that 30 minutes to an hour to forget what they’re going through and really transform into another world. I’m excited to grow my show, which comes with time, hopefully in the next few years. I’m just excited to be on the road.
NYCM: “The Monster” written for Eminem and Rihanna was a #1 song around the world and was originally supposed to be on your debut album. How did this end up in the hands of Eminem and Rihanna?
BR: I was shopping it and none of the record executive had heard it. I think my friends had played it for Riggs Morales (now at Atlantic) in his studio, he wanted to hear new music and he loved it and immediately sent it over.
NYCM: On “I’m Gonna Show You Crazy” and some other songs you talk about your inner struggle, your psyche, and how our #1 enemy can often be ourselves. Why be so honest and vulnerable about this really personal concept?
BR: I think everybody has something in their lives that really affects how they feel – everyone goes through stuff- when you hit a very low point, you honestly have no other way to go and you have nothing to do. When you have nothing to do you can put your ego aside. I’ve been in super dark places, I’ve been very sad before, but when you honestly – it becomes your therapy talking about everything and being real. What I’m learning is when I’m being completely honest in songs, the ones that are most successful – “I’m Gonna Show You Crazy” – I’ve been on Warped Tour and every show I’ve done the audience knows every lyric to that song and it hasn’t even been on the radio. When I’m completely honest and real in my songwriting process that’s when I notice people connect the most. When you have nothing to lose that’s when beautiful things start happening.