It’s an overnight success story—during a pandemic, no less—that’s two years in the making. South-Africa-born, London-based pop singer-songwriter Baby Queen didn’t sign her first record deal until last April.
The Zoom signing was quickly followed by numerous witty singles and an EP that made 23-year-old Bella Latham one of the most buzzworthy U.K. artists of the year and on the verge of breaking out as soon as she can actually step onto a stage. Maintaining the hype won’t be an issue because Baby Queen has a new collection of songs banked and ready to drop later this year.
“I pretty much just wrapped the music that’s coming out next year, which is exciting,” says Baby Queen, joining a video call a few minutes late because of a delay in her Uber ride from her studio to her home. She lives in an annex next to her aunt and uncle’s home in London. The rush of making music (or at least the rush to get home) is clear on Latham’s face; her cheeks are pink. Behind her is a Christmas tree and some props from a video shoot.
The music of Baby Queen is insatiably catchy, mixing the crunchy guitar playing of ‘90s and early aughts’ alt-rock with new wave synths and rhythm section. It’s made even better by Latham’s sardonic pull-no-punches delivery, which ranges from candy pop to completely deadpan. On the EP’s six songs, she sings about body dysmorphia, depression (and suicide), the evils of internet culture, bullying; and the ways in which we fake a public persona. Fans of Charli XCX will find a new obsession in Baby Queen.
Latham began writing songs at 12 years old, living in a suburban part of Durban, the third largest city in South Africa, which is the easternmost part of the country, near Johannesburg. The country is larger than both France and Germany combined. Those songs sounded an awful lot like her own idol: Taylor Swift, down to the Southern twang and drawl.
“Oh my God, you have no idea!” Baby Queen says. “I got obsessed with Taylor Swift, who was obsessed with Shania Twain and The Dixie Chicks. … There was an American accent pretty much until I moved here, and even then, for a while. I dropped the American accent when I was recording the first Baby Queen songs.”
She mentions finding computer-recorded songs just a couple of days earlier with a much younger Latham singing in an American country accent.
Around the age of 15 and 16, Latham began feeling boxed in and like she no longer fit in. She says she wanted to be more than she was going to be at that point—even though she describes her childhood as happy, with supportive parents and a sister three years her senior, friends and school. But before she focused on music as a career, she had her sights set on being a safari ranger.
“The one thing that I missed the most about South Africa is me and my dad would take these really long road trips to the game reserve almost every second weekend, which is what I think you guys call safari,” she says. “It’s just the wild, and I was absolutely obsessed. … I wanted to be like one of those people that lives in the wild and does tours and shows the animals to other people. I know that entire ‘Birds of Southern Africa’ book from back to front.
“That’s just not really a part of my life anymore, being in a city like London. Even if you do go to parks and stuff, there’s loads of pigeons and crows and stuff, but it’s just not the same.”
The “unspoken rules” in Durban limited Latham’s creativity and kept her from becoming herself, she says. What rules?
“Who you are supposed to be, how you’re supposed to dress, how you’re supposed to behave, what you should say, what you shouldn’t say, who you should date, where you should study,” Baby Queen says. “All of the stuff is very set in stone, and it’s like everyone is like a carbon copy of everyone else. That’s how I felt growing up.”
It eventually led her to move to London at 18. There, she eventually discovered who she was, but only after falling off the wagon and going in the complete opposite direction: Tattoos! Drugs! Booze! To describe just how crazy her life had become, she says her experience could stack up well next to that of Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe. She and her newfound group of friends didn’t have jobs and filled their time with vices.
She was writing songs and playing in a band at the time, but had forgotten her original goal.
“I think that I was also depressed,” she says. “I’ve definitely run the circuit, shall we say? I’ve done it all, basically, and come out the other side. Honestly, it’s not that great. I like my life a lot better now.”
Eventually, Latham was able to find a middle ground and balance her life. Her experiences from that time find a home in her songs, however; warts and all. The tipping point came in 2018 when she started crafting her scissor-sharp Baby Queen songs with producer King Ed, who’s credited on all of her songs.
Some of those early songs won’t be released until later this year. Others have already been oft-talked about, such as sad loner first single “Buzzkill.” “You are what you eat, so I’ll become nothing/ I alter my face and they call me stunning,” she sings on “Pretty Girl Lie.” On title track “Medicine,” she addresses her own depression, and the anti-depressants that helped her out of a hole: “I used to wanna die/ But now I wanna live forever.”
The songs rip into substantial topics but don’t feel overwrought because the only person Baby Queen attacks specifically is herself.
“It was really important to me—and it still is—that when I write music, you cannot criticize society without criticizing yourself,” she says. “You cannot criticize a generation without being self-deprecative. If I ever did write a lyric that felt accusational, we would go back and rewrite it for that purpose, because that’s not the message that I was trying to get across.”
Baby Queen describes her songwriting as very purposeful and obsessive—she writes for quality and not quantity—and credits having two records’ worth of music completed to her fast success in 2020. She was “discovered” by the boyfriend of the woman who would become her A&R rep at Polydor, after he found her on Instagram. They had one meeting at the beginning of the year and attended a performance. That led to the quarantine Zoom signing.
She hasn’t enjoyed any of the traditional benefits such as playing in front of people, but she’s getting noticed within the London music scene regardless. The 1975’s Matty Healy stopped by the filming of one of her videos recently.
“Everything has happened since April,” she says. “I only met with them at the beginning of April. It’s mad.”
The next batch of songs to be released will include a few new big-issue topics, for which she does research to do justice to the issue she’s addressing. She began the year by releasing “Raw Thoughts” earlier this month.
“It’s almost like studying,” she says.
But also—for the first time—some intimate romance and heartbreak tunes. It will again have a mental health angle, but the vessels for such conversations won’t include the internet, something she feels she covered in depth the first time around. Visually, the upcoming music will live in a different world, while the songs are even more honest and “intense” than what she’s released so far. Some of them she didn’t think Polydor would allow her to release. The songs will again include a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek satire and cynicism.
“There’s a bit more of real lived experience in what’s coming out,” she says. “I feel like it sounds quite manic, like manic depression. So, it sounds like the vacillation between euphoria and the other side of it, and it feels quite adolescent; it feels quite young. It feels like it soundtracks the phase in your life where you’re trying to figure out who you are, your identity, where you belong and what you stand for.”
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.