One day, while working in the studio with a pushy male collaborator, Bebe Rexha knew she’d had enough.
Her partner at the session was having trouble with ProTools. Rexha knew the recording program well, having mastered it during her years as a teenage songwriter, when she couldn’t afford producers, engineers or studio time. So she decided to offer some assistance.
“I remember being in the session and I said, ‘Hey, why don’t you try this?’ and he shushed me like I was nothing,” she reveals over the phone the morning after a recent concert in Manhattan, her New York accent thickening as she recalls the experience. “So I got up and I fucking left. He was a really big artist at the time, but I refuse to be around a man who made me feel small.”
Spending 10 years on the come-up during one of the music industry’s most trying times has taught Rexha a thing or two about tenacity. Earlier this summer, she finally released her debut full-length, Expectations, a highly personal album for which she co-wrote every song, including the current Top 20 hit “Meant to Be.”
During the past decade, the 28-year-old has been everything from a behind-the-scenes writer for smash hits like Eminem and Rihanna’s “Monster” to the fresh-faced singer for Black Cards, a band that Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz formed during his main group’s hiatus. All the while, she seemed poised for a real pop breakthrough but never quite got there.
Born in Brooklyn and raised on Staten Island, the daughter of Albanian parents began writing songs when she was eight and began to take the craft seriously at 16. She grew up drowning in pop and R&B, falling in love with Britney Spears, Destiny’s Child, Aaliyah and Keyshia Cole.
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“I was always into music,” she says, noting that she played the trumpet, guitar and piano as a kid. Her early songs leaned more toward neo-soul, and she’d make her own beats. “It was a lot of 808s because I was listening to so much Swizz Beatz and Kanye West at the time,” she says.
Rexha and two of her friends started a girl group. “We would stay after school for hours and beg our teachers to let us stay [and write],” she says. “We had nowhere else we could meet up, so we would sit outside the auditorium, write songs and record them on our cassette-tape recorders. It was so much fun.”
A turning point came when she won Best Teen Songwriter at a Grammy Day event. She signed with a talent scout and began to trek to Manhattan to take songwriting classes. A chance meeting with Wentz at a studio in New York led to her joining Black Cards at 19, a whirlwind experience that was her first taste of the fast-paced pop lifestyle.
“At the time, I thought music was literally just writing the songs and performing them,” she continues. “[My] first time leaving the country alone was when I was 19 and we went to Dubai because we had a festival. That was really scary for me, but that’s when you really learn instead of people telling you what will happen.”
Rexha and Black Cards parted ways within a couple years, an early lesson in industry politics and disappointment. She picked herself up and started back at square one, this time as a solo writer and performer. She began writing for artists like Selena Gomez but her luck changed when Eminem picked out the chorus from her demo of “Monster.” Even though Rihanna would sing her hook on the final version, a Grammy-winning Number One was a major boost for Rexha’s songwriting resumé. Simultaneously, she began releasing solo singles that helped to build her audience, including “I Can’t Stop Drinking About You” and “Hey Mama,” a collaboration with David Guetta and Nicki Minaj.
Three EPs and countless singles later, Rexha has finally released Expectations, an album that touches on her winding road to a stable career in pop.
“I had been thinking of the title Expectations for years now because nothing ever goes as expected,” she explains. One of the most fateful surprises was “Meant to Be,” her 2017 country-pop collaboration with Florida Georgia Line – originally released on her All Your Fault: Pt. 2 EP – and her first Top 10 hit as a lead artist. The track’s domination of both radio and streaming this past winter is what inspired Rexha to finally hunker down and create her first full-length album.
“After I put out [the EP] All Your Fault: Pt. 2, I was like, ‘OK, this is crazy that I have a pop-country hit out. It’s kind of weird and cool and amazing.’ That [country] world inspired me to write songs that I love, so the project started coming together.”
She wrote most of her latest album in her bathtub, inspired by her life and relationship experiences during the past few years. Songs like “Knees” and “I’m a Mess” are empowered looks at romance dynamics and self-esteem, while “Ferrari” has her reflecting on how her ambition and career have left her feeling isolated (“Living in the fast lane is getting kind of lonely,” she sings on the booming but sullen chorus).
“I don’t think you can have both,” she says of balancing her romantic life with her career. “For me, it’s one or the other. It’s either my music or love. Right now, it’s all about my music.”
The same goes for platonic relationships. “I don’t have many friendships,” she admits. “I have very few but very strong friendships. FaceTiming is a godsend and really important. It’s tough but it comes with the territory.”
For Rexha, she found intimacy with others in the studio, breaking down emotional barriers with collaborators like Justin Tranter to make an album she feels is an honest, authentic representation of her life.
“I think that a lot of people who I work with have gone through something in life and I really relate to those people,” she explains. “We all kind of have this bubble around us that really protects us. This invisible wall. I really connect with people who can break down that wall. When you’re writing, everyone in the room needs to be at their most transparent to write a really incredible song.”
This time around, her collaborators were receptive to her input. But she stresses that she’s had her share of trying experiences when navigating the industry prior to Expectations. “I was in tons of rooms with tons of men and some of them were really sleazy and shitty, but for me it was all about the art,” she says. “If I felt I were being taken advantage of or disrespected, I’d leave. I’d be like, ‘Fuck this person. I’m gone.'”
Even with an album out that has her in control of her sound, Rexha has no desire to slow down anytime soon. She wants to get back in the studio this summer to work on a project that could be released as early as this winter. She’d also like to return to Nashville to write and record, though not for another country project at the moment. “There’s a lot of incredible writers there, and I’d like to write some great pop songs with them,” she says.
Now that the long journey to her debut album has come to an end, Rexha says she wants to visit Japan and Australia for the first time, get around to interior-decorating her new home in Los Angeles and, most important, get on the road to tour the new music and see her fans. She’s setting her expectations higher than ever but keeping an open mind.
“Life is going to blow you in the direction that it wants you,” she says. Clearly, she’s speaking from experience.