Bebe Rexha and Alicia Keys Reflect on Success, Songwriting, and Self-Sabotage
Bleta Rexha, known to her fans and nearly 11 million followers on Instagram as Bebe Rexha, knew she wanted to become a singer when she was only four years old. Though she had no idea how to make it happen, the proud 31-year-old Albanian New Yorker received advice from a woman named Samantha Cox that would eventually change her life. That advice? Learn to write a proper song. And so Rexha learned to write songs, and quite good ones for that matter. Take Eminem‘s “The Monster,” which received the Grammy Award for Best Rap/Sung Performance, or “I’m a Mess” from her 2018 debut album Expectations, which landed her two Grammy nominations. Now, as Rexha prepares to release her second album, Better Mistakes—a collection of songs about lived experiences and lessons learned under the limelight—she talks to her friend and fellow singer-songwriter Alicia Keys about success, standing your ground as a woman in the music industry, and the transformative power of the pen. —ERNESTO MACIAS
ALICIA KEYS: Bebe, I was listening to the record and I was reminded of all the greatness that you’ve been able to create. This is probably something a ton of people have asked you, but I personally would love to know: How did the writing process reveal itself to you? How did you know that you were a writer?
BEBE REXHA: Life is so incredible. I’m so blessed. I started singing when I was four and I just really loved it. I didn’t know where to begin. Somewhere along the way, I met this lady at BMI and her name was Samantha Cox. She actually went to my mom. My mom is a makeup artist, and she’s always been trying to help me, and she worked in New York. Samantha stopped by her counter one day. I met Samantha and the first thing she said to me—I was about 14 or 15—was “You need to learn how to write a proper song, because that’s going to be something that will give you power in the future, and also allow you to be a better artist.” She was right. I went into all these workshop classes—country workshop classes, R&B classes. I was always the youngest person in the room, just learning how to structure songs and trying my best. I think the power of the pen is something very real.
KEYS: It really is. It really does make you so much more independent and as a release, as an ability to let out the things you’re feeling and thinking and going through. After you were actually studying the songwriting process and how to craft a song for your artistic freedom, what was your first memory of one of your songs becoming what you wanted it to be? We’re writing because we need a release, we’re writing because we’re also hoping that it touches somebody else.
REXHA: It was actually not a big song or anything that came out. It was a song called “Let Me Know.” It was the first song that I ever recorded in the recording studio and the first time I ever heard my voice, and it was so funny. I was like, “I really don’t like how I sound. I sound terrible.” It wasn’t the greatest song. I was in this girl group called Aloria and we would stay after school in high school and we would sing, write, and record songs on our little tape recorders. That song was really special to me because the National Recording Academy had this program called the Grammy Career Day. I was in the choir and my teacher said, “If anybody has a song that they want to submit, they’re going to pick the best teen songwriter and help you out.” Me and my friends submitted this song and, I think out of 700 entries, it got selected and I felt so excited because I met Tina Davis, Ray Chew, and Chris Brown—he was about to put his first single out ever. He was doing his backflips. It was the first time I felt confident as a writer. That was a really cool moment.
KEYS: It’s your memory. It was that moment that started something for you. The other thing that I was noticing is that I hear this beautiful jazz influence in your voice. I was wondering, where do those come from? Is that something that you grew up listening to?
REXHA: I’m actually sitting next to my trumpet right now. I played trumpet for eight years and I was in a jazz band. I started thinking about that recently because in some of the songs in the album, like“Die For a Man,” when I sing my melodies… I really think they came from playing the trumpet. I wanted so badly to play the piano, but my parents couldn’t afford it and they couldn’t afford the lessons. The only instrument left to rent for free in New York City was the trumpet. I was so sad cause I had braces. I always loved Gwen Stefani and No Doubt, how she had the vibrato.
KEYS: What is success to you?
REXHA: Success has changed a lot for me. I used to think it was being #1, getting Grammys. But I feel like success to me is balance. It’s health, first and foremost. Health and happiness—physically and mentally. When I got my first house, I was like, “I want to just get this house because it is a cool space where I can have my friends and family come and hang.” There is enough space for us to make dinner and vibe out. Of course, I get caught up in the numbers and the charts and this and that, but I try to remind myself that if one day, god forbid, I’m on my deathbed and I’m sick, the charts are not going to help me.
KEYS: That’s super deep. I was wondering, as a woman, as an artist, how does it feel today to be an artist to you? Do you feel pressure to be a certain type of woman? I just always wonder how other people are relating to that experience. How do you feel about that?
REXHA: My pop girls were Britney [Spears] and Christina [Aguilera]. When I was a young girl, I was like, “How can I look like them?” I have Albanian roots. So my grandmother has big hips, my mom has big hips, we all have curves. I love them now but when I was younger, I was always trying to figure out how I could fit that mold. It’s definitely been something that’s stuck with me. I’ve learned to love my curves. I would love to be super fit and skinny, but I need to do what’s good for me and what’s healthy for my body. I remember watching you perform, always being like, “Wow, look at her, she’s fit. She’s strong. She’s got a sick stomach.” But you had thighs, you know? That made me feel like I wasn’t alone. A lot of times I can be my own worst enemy and I can get in my head. As a female in the industry, the actual business part of it can get hard. Because I’m from New York, I come from Albanian parents. In my family, we are loud. We don’t hold anything back. So when I walk into a room, I’m like, “I want this, this, this, this and that. I would like it this way.” There have been times where I’ve had male executives tell me, “You need to be a little less harsh.” A lot of people are thrown off by that, but I don’t give a fuck.
KEYS: I think there are circumstances where certain men do feel like they can intimidate women in these ways, especially girls. I found that that happened in my experience too, because I was so young and they knew I didn’t know much, so they felt like they could manipulate me with those things.
REXHA: When I’ve been around you, when we did that performance, you could tell that you’re at peace. I’m not there yet as a human and that’s something I’m trying to figure out.
KEYS: Me too.
REXHA: Right now it’s like, nobody’s going to fuck with me. I have my business together. I read my contracts. I’m a businesswoman. I write my songs. I’m not going to just sit there. I think the thing for me was I learned that your team is so important. I could never do this alone. It’s about having the right team.
KEYS: I’m really glad you shared that, in regards to being able to stand up for yourself.
REXHA: The reason why I really wanted you to interview me, out of all the people that I’ve known, is because I try so hard to make friends in the industry. I’ve tried so hard to get along. The one thing that I’ve noticed is that everybody’s super cordial and super nice, but it’s really hard to be able to call somebody and ask them for advice. You’ve been the only person that really opened up their arms and tried to help me. I’m really thankful for that. That’s why I wanted you to do this.
KEYS: Oh, that’s so beautiful. I’m so happy that we could connect like that and that we can continue to because we do need each other. This world is crazy. What song on the album defines you most right now?
REXHA: I would say “Sabotage.”
KEYS: “Sabotage” really stuck out to me, actually. Tell me a little bit more about the meaning of it for you and what sparked you to write it.
REXHA: In my life, I’ve definitely dealt with a lot of anxiety and depression. I finally figured out a way to accept it being part of me and my life. As much as I want to wake up and not have to be stressed out by a little thing that happens to me or cry, I have this cloud that always follows me. I feel like throughout my life, it’s been very hard for me to enjoy. That’s something that I’m constantly trying to break through, and it’s real. That song was really important for me because I feel like it literally represents me as a human. Sometimes I get scared to write songs that are so close to me, but I feel like this one was more of an empowering thing for me.
KEYS: I relate so much. I think that’s really powerful and you can hear it in that song. That one really stuck out to me a lot and I think that a lot of us really do battle with that and feel like we don’t deserve the good things in our life. We don’t even know how to accept it. A lot of times I’m realizing that I’ve done that to myself for so long. Another one that stuck out to me was “Empty.”
REXHA: “Empty” to me is like, honestly, sometimes I just feel like I’m drained; I’m drained of myself. Like I’m kind of sick of myself. I’m just empty. I feel like I’ve drained myself of all the blood and everything in my body.
KEYS: The other one I really liked, that I thought was quirky and awesome, was “Better Mistakes.” “Better Mistakes” was fire.
REXHA: I used to think when you grow up, you don’t make any more mistakes in life, and that’s not true at all. I feel like as you grow up, you make better mistakes, but you’re still making mistakes. That’s what I’ve learned. The lyric, “I should have another breakdown”—sometimes I like to be sarcastic with my lyrics, just because I feel like I’m very sarcastic actually in real life with my friends. I like to make fun of myself. I think that’s important.
KEYS: Very important. You had a lyric in one of your songs and it said “a diamond life,” and that really stuck out to me. What is a diamond life to you?
REXHA: For me, it was living the perfect life, whatever you consider being a perfect life. Trying to live a diamond life is trying to live up to what the media and society say is amazing, which is to be super rich and have nice things, have nice cars, be super famous. That’s what I thought.
KEYS: What do you think now? What do you want?
REXHA: I think a diamond life for me is to be able to live closer to my family. My diamond life would be to wake up in the morning, make my coffee, kiss my dog hello, walk down the street to where my parents live, and enjoy barbecues and swimming and chill vibes. Enjoying life. Maybe I go on a vacation here and there. And writing music, because I love writing music.
KEYS: That’s amazing. I wish for you this diamond life continues to reveal itself and for you to continue to be able to really see the things that are really good for you, and have that strength that you have in that beautiful Albanian blood and that beautiful New York energy that you carry. I wish you this diamond life in its highest form. I’m definitely a sister to you. You can always call me any time, and I really appreciate you showing up for me as well. I’m super excited for this new chapter, for this new record. Congratulations, mami.
Hair: Melissa Dominguez
Makeup: Dom Della Maggiore