Bebe Rexha says the music business is 'the most toxic industry there is'

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LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 29: Bebe Rexha is releasing her sophomore album, "Better Mistakes," on May 7th through Warner Records. Photographed on Thursday, April 29, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
So many artists, says Bebe Rexha, "just write in the same style over and over again. To me that's kind of boring." (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Can it be fair to say that a musician who’s sold 10 million copies of a single is still struggling to break out?

Bebe Rexha had a diamond-certified smash with “Meant to Be,” her 2017 pop-country collaboration with Florida Georgia Line, and she’s scored other huge hits with G-Eazy (“Me, Myself & I”) and Martin Garrix (“In the Name of Love”). Before that, the Staten Island native played in a short-lived dance-rock band called Black Cards with Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz and wrote “The Monster” for Eminem and Rihanna.

Yet Rexha, 31, hasn’t quite defined herself as a solo pop star, perhaps because she’s never settled on a single sound or attitude; “Expectations,” her 2018 debut, sounded like a collection of demos intended for higher-wattage acts. She’s still covering a lot of ground on her new LP, “Better Mistakes,” which flits among sparkly retro-disco (“Sacrifice”), woozy emo-rap (“Die for a Man,” featuring Lil Uzi Vert) and low-slung electro-funk (“Baby, I’m Jealous,” with Doja Cat). But the material is stronger, and her singing has a witty sensuality that finally feels distinct.

Which doesn’t mean she’s not still hustling. When Rexha and I connect on Zoom on a recent afternoon, she’s chilling by the pool at her home in L.A. — “Oh my God, I look crazy,” she says as she catches a glimpse of her unkempt hair — until her glam squad arrives to help her prepare for a gig at Charli D’Amelio’s 17th birthday party.

“Her mom asked me to perform two songs for her,” Rexha says of the TikTok influencer. “I’m bringing the cake out.”

On “Baby, I’m Jealous,” you talk about wanting to let go of paranoia and insecurity. But you’ve said you wrote the song about an ex who really was acting shady behind your back. Doesn’t that mean you were right to be suspicious?

Yeah, but I don’t like being jealous. As a woman in this industry, I was taught this competitiveness, and when I wrote the song I was going through that — comparing myself to everybody, which is so unhealthy.

Does the competition ever feel toxic?

Are you kidding me? It’s the most toxic industry there is.

So why take part?

I don’t f— know. Because I like making music, and unfortunately I make music in L.A. And to work with the people I want to work with — people at the level they’re at — it’s like a game.

When did you discover the truth about the music biz?

I got signed — and he knows this, I don’t care, I speak the truth — I got signed by Pete Wentz on Decaydance Records, and then Black Cards was signed at Island through L.A. Reid. And one day, after two years of being in the band and traveling and literally I had no money, I got a call from the management. They were like, “Pete no longer wants you in the band.” He didn’t even have the balls to call me. I never heard from him.

To this day?

No, we’ve talked. We’re better. I kept bumping into him at every radio show when Fall Out Boy had their “Centuries” moment and I was starting to get going. I’m not gonna be a d— about it. But that was a really tough moment for me. I was depressed for years but I didn’t know it. At that time I didn’t have a therapist. My dad would force me out of the house during the winter to take walks with him.

Were you writing songs at this point?

“The Monster.”

So that came from a real place.

When I was depressed, I started looking up quotes on Tumblr that would make me feel better. I posted the quote I found on Instagram; it’s still on my page if you go all the way down. It says, “When we stop looking for monsters under our bed, we realize they’re inside of us."

Would you say you’re in a happier place now?

Hundred percent.

Describe your wellness regimen.

Cut out all the assholes? No, I work out, drink water. I try to meditate once in a while.

Do you take any pleasure in social media?

I used to live for posting. Every day was just wrapped around posting. Now I don’t do that. I know that’s probably bad. The No. 1 thing is you gotta stay in front of people and you have to constantly be putting stuff out. But I feel healthier when I’m not on social media as much. It’s hard because I want to be my true self, but I also feel stressed to be perfect with makeup. Like, I wouldn’t post a picture like this right now. This is a little bit too real.

What’s the right amount of real?

I posted a video of me in my bathing suit a couple of weeks ago and it ended up getting into this Albanian channel and they were calling me lopë — a cow. That was a hard one.

You read the comments.

I do, but then I stop myself. Katy Perry told me, “Don’t read the f— comments.”

Did you know anything about country music when you wrote “Meant to Be”?

Nothing. I always feel a little weird about the country song. It helped me a lot in my career, but I didn’t feel like it was me as an artist. I thought it was just gonna be a good song that I’d have out, and why not have some country fans? I didn’t think it was gonna be as massive as it was.

You do a lot of different things well, but do you ever feel like pop rewards artists with more focused skill sets?

I’ve written with a lot of artists, and a lot of them just write in the same style over and over again. To me that’s kind of boring. I have so many layers to myself. I grew up listening to No Doubt and Lauryn Hill. Then I had a year where I only listened to Stevie Wonder. Then I got into classical music and started falling in love with opera. Then I played trumpet for eight years.

Maybe those layers make it hard for some people to get a clear picture of what you’re all about.

Well, I was listening to “True Blue” by Madonna the other day because I wanted to hear “La Isla Bonita.” And you know what the first track is on “True Blue”? It’s f— “Papa Don’t Preach.” Do you think “Papa Don’t Preach” is the same as “La Isla Bonita”? Look at Rihanna’s album that has “Stay” on it and then also has “Pour it up, pour it up / Watch it all fall out.” One’s a Grammy type of ballad and the other’s meant to be played in the strip club. All my favorite artists have not been closed in by a sound.

What were you like in high school?

I had so much anxiety that I wouldn’t even eat in the cafeteria.

Where did you eat?

I would eat in the bathroom or in the counselor’s office. I just had really bad social anxiety; I still do to this day, I just finally figured it out. Even when I go to industry parties now, I only stay for 15 minutes.

Do you drink to cope in a setting like that?

I’ll have some wine, but I’m not a crazy partier. I try to keep my chemical balance. But when I was 15, I went to the studio for the first time, and that was the first time my anxiety went away. It felt like a safe space for me. I actually won Most Likely to Be Famous but somebody broke my trophy. When I went to pick it up, it was smashed on the floor, I swear to God.

Did you have enemies?

I was just a weirdo. I didn’t really hang around anybody. I didn’t even go to graduation I was so nervous.

Your folks are from Albania. What’s the word on Albanian music?

When you go to a wedding there, you’ll have a big guy hitting a bass drum and then you’ll have maybe a clarinet player or an accordion player — that’s it.

Not much.

Yeah, but it’s lit. The drums are like boom-chicka-boom-chicka-boom-boom-boom.

What’s the most Albanian thing about you?

When people come over, I have to serve them something, even if they’re working for me — like, my cleaning lady will have a full meal. In Albanian culture, when somebody comes over, there’s a step system of how you serve people. Let’s say you were to go over my mom’s house. She would welcome you, and we’d have a little thing of chocolates, really nice chocolates, and we’d go to everyone in the room — oldest to youngest, everybody gets a piece of chocolate. Then I’ll serve sodas or waters or juice. Then you put out a big nut tray — all these types of nuts. Then I’ll probably make coffee and serve coffee with cake. And then you finish it with fruit.

That’s some hospitality.

You have to. If somebody Albanian were to come over to my house and I didn’t do that, it would be very disrespectful. They would talk s— about me.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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