The anti-pop pioneer on signing a record deal in the pandemic, making fiercely honest observations about mental health, and playing with her persona.

Baby Queen interview with Wonderland yellow boots
Baby Queen interview with Wonderland yellow boots

Baby Queen wants you to hear an opening lyric to one of her songs and think “did she just say that?!” For the musician, it’s the honesty in the lyric that makes someone stop and listen. Baby Queen doesn’t have time for ambiguities or repackaged clichés, in the first few moments of a song you know the exactitude of her emotions. Even the ones you might not want to hear.

This new London-based artist is unapologetically open, to the extent of enthusiasm and actively seeks to confront comfort zones. Last year in her debut EP “Medicine”, released with Polydor, Baby Queen navigates the difficulties of our disconnected digital epoch: social media envy, online dating, depression and loneliness. Even though we talk about mental health more and more, too often conversations are full of hesitation and dressed up in palatable language. Baby Queen cuts straight through this. In her music, Baby Queen redraws just how close to her and those difficult feelings we get. With opening lines like “I used to want to die” in the song “Medicine” and in “These Drugs” she sings “I don’t want to do drugs anymore” – the most intimate, shocking thing imaginable has already been said and you’re pulled in. Openness is inviting: Baby Queen is the girl at the party saying what many of us wouldn’t have the nerve to.

The 23-year-old artist captures difficult emotions with such accuracy in lyrics that are economic and clean. Her precision makes it look easy. Baby Queen powerfully pushes the boundaries of intimacy by diarising the conflicts of her young, digitised life. And yet, crucially, it’s the pairing of these lyrics with serotonin-producing pop melodies which will undoubtedly see Baby Queen hold her own in this industry. In her own wonderland, Baby Queen is turning content on its head. The rise in a Baby Queen chorus such as in “Raw Thoughts” makes a heavy line like “I got fucked up again, I was crying” recognisable, lighter and admittedly joyous.

Baby Queen’s blunt honesty is paralleled by her playfulness. In the music video for “Buzzkill”, a song about social anxiety, the singer satirises dismissive party-goers by dancing around in tiaras, sequinned party dresses and throwing confetti. ‘Baby Queen’ although an alias, isn’t entirely a performance. For the South African singer Arabella Latham behind the stage name it’s a way of channelling her many personalities. However, her latest single “Dover Beach” maps the most personal journey yet: a long-awaited trip inspired by the Matthew Arnold poem of the same name that manifests into an emotional trip envisaging an unrequited crush everywhere. The lines between Baby Queen and Bella Latham are blurred by design and this is perhaps where she has the most fun.

Wonderland talks to Baby Queen about her uniquely whirlwind experience of 2020 and her latest single…

What was the evolution behind Baby Queen? From what I’ve read it seems as though you’ve always known that you wanted to pursue a career in music…
For me it was like a rabbit hole I fell down. I discovered I could write. I discovered I could put words to music. That was when I was like 11 or 12. It just ended up taking over everything and I was coming home from school and writing songs instead of playing sports. In South Africa, it feels like such an island away from the global music industry. So I came here [ to London ] and I think it was a huge culture shock arriving here. I thought it was going to be easier than it was, I thought I was going to come here and immediately be able to sign to Universal. It ended up being a really long journey of finding what was unique about what I do. It took a long while to stop mimicking the people that I looked up to and doing what they’ve done. I think I ended up taking a bit of influence from a bunch of different places and then there was this whole new arena of life experiences that I was having. I think that I developed this super sarcastic, jaded personality sort of thing. When all those things merged together, the music merged, the product – the first song was “Raw Thoughts” and shortly after that I was like ok “this is the right thing to do”.

You moved to London from South Africa when you were 18 to try and get your foot in the music industry. What were you doing during this time? How did you try to get your music out there?
I came over here with like 40 demo CDs that I made myself at home. They had a little picture of me on the front, I had done paint shop pro or whatever the fuck. I was using my actual name at the time, so was like Arabella Latham. I had a little track list and an actual CD in the little cases. I was knocking, genuinely, on the record label’s doors. It was such a low quality demo and I had no idea what I was doing, I was just dropping them off and people were like “oh we don’t accept unsolicited material”. I realised that you can’t just do that. You can’t make your little demos in your bedroom that are shit. It was a huge reality shock.

It ended up by making relationships. It was the hustle, you know. It was the years of the hustle. It was like four years before I actually signed to my record label. It took a lot longer than I thought it would.

Your EP “Medicine” came out last year, is this a snapshot of a certain time in your life or are the songs ones you’ve been wanting to share for years and years?
So the stuff that came out last year was actually quite recent stuff. There are songs coming out this year that date further back than those songs do. I do feel like the EP which came out last year and the music coming out this year are in the same era sonically. I feel like visually there is a shift but sonically, it’s all part of the same three years of my life.

Your songs really speak to being young in this current complicated and weird time that we’re living through right now. Where do you find inspiration for the lyrics? Is it conversations with friends? Online conversations?
I find the lyric writing process really quite difficult. The more music I’ve released, the more difficult the music writing process has become because I feel as if I’ve set a standard for the lyric and everyone expects that standard of lyric. And so now sitting down to write music I feel the pressure, definitely. I will sit for hours with those lyrics, I sort of write it like in quite a scholarly way. I’m really obsessive about it. I’m a big lyric collector. I will think of lines and write them down in my notes. Then, I will divide the collected lyrics up into categories of themes. So usually, a song ends up being an amalgamation of things that I’ve thought over a long period of time as opposed to what I feel right there in that moment. But yeah, I find the lyric writing process fucking painful, to be honest.

In your song “Raw Thoughts” there’s the line “I was writing notes on my phone”. Do you write lyrics on your phone on the go, regardless of where you are?
Yeah all the time. It’s even worse than that because I find it difficult to listen to another song without it giving me an idea for my own songs. So like I’m permanently singing. I’ve got voice notes where I’m having a chat with my manager and then the voice note starts and he’s trying to talk to me and I’m like “w-wait wait” *sings*. Some of my best lyrics were written on trains and sometimes you’re just like walking around. All the time, I feel like I rhyme things naturally. If I have a thought, I will rhyme it with another thought. It’s a bit weird.

You’re so open about mental health. In “Medicine” you talk about antidepressants being a game changer and saving your life and in “These Drugs” you talk about partying actually having a self-destructive impact on your mental health. Are you this open anyway? Or this the way you express how you’re feeling?
I feel like I wasn’t always open growing up. I think I was like quite secretive. I grew up with depression, eating disorders and so much shit. I grew up being like really ashamed of not knowing what my sexuality was. All of this stuff was so secretive and so kept inside. I think that when I opened the tap on it and started speaking about it I never, ever stopped. So, I think that now I’ll be at a pub and go up to someone I’ve never met and be like “Hi I have clinical depression and want to die most of the time”. Now, I don’t give a fuck.

I’m really open because it’s something I’m actually proud of. I’m proud of getting to the other side of a lot of these negative feelings and still being alive. I think it’s cool. I think that being fucking tortured is cool. So I am a really honest person now, but I do feel like I even push that honesty. I feel like I like to shock. I want the lyric to be the most shocking. I want people to hear it and be like “did she just say that?” I feel like the only way to do that is to dig for honesty. Sometimes I will just make a note on my phone which is titled ‘What Do I Think’. It’s just things that I think that are really intense, half of this can’t go in the song.

You’ve spoken about honesty being so important in your work. But how do you create boundaries in terms of how much of yourself you’re putting out there?
I think I’m trying not to create those boundaries. I think that the music is the one place in which I don’t think the boundaries should exist. I think music is better when those boundaries don’t exist. So, I’m trying to not have those boundaries in my music, but have boundaries in my actual life with how much of me I feel like I’m sharing on a daily basis, with more stuff like social media. That’s the place where the boundaries need to be. I feel like in the music is the place where you almost have to push yourself to be brave enough to completely let those boundaries go.

You’ve had so much success during a pandemic. What fuels your work ethic?
I thank god for my work ethic. I think it’s like an unrelenting ambition. It’s almost like a belief in my mind that I’ve always had that I’m going to get to a certain point. It’s almost like kind of delusional in the way that I don’t even see a reality in which that’s not the place where I end up. So, it’s sort of like- I mean I will do anything. It’s difficult because I always feel like I should be working harder. But it’s impossible for me to work harder because I don’t have any more time in the day. It’s a difficult question because I feel like I’m really hard on myself and that’s where the work ethic comes from. A place of feeling like I’ve not done enough, it’s not good enough, my album isn’t going to be good enough, people aren’t going to connect in the same way, like it’s not going to translate over to the United States, I’ve got competition with this [person]. It’s like the voices that you constantly have as an artist that tell you you’re not good enough are the things that make you work harder and harder and harder to get better. So yeah I think that the work ethic is in me because this is my life. Baby Queen. I dream about it, I wake up and I don’t like any friends outside my management company and my family – because I can’t do it. It’s everything.

Baby Queen interview with Wonderland lying down
Baby Queen interview with Wonderland jumping
Baby Queen interview with Wonderland lying down
Baby Queen interview with Wonderland jumping

Your latest single “Dover Beach” is out now – what’s it about?
Well, I was obsessed with this poem in school called Dover Beach by a poet called Matthew Arnold. I always wanted to go to Dover Beach because I remember looking it up on Google and looking at the white cliffs and everything and thinking “there’s no way that place exists”. When I was going to go on a writing trip I was like I want to go to the ocean, I want to go to Dover Beach. I booked this train, went there all by myself. I was like I’m going to be a poet now. So, I went to Dover Beach and I stayed in this Victorian beach house. It was amazing. I was so excited to go to this place and then the whole time I was there I was seeing a mirage of this person I was obsessed with. So it was like “fuck you” because I came here to sit on Dover Beach and now all I can see is you. So that’s basically the premise of the song.

When did you write this song? The lyric “The world ends and it’s you and me in my head” feels like it really resonates with the time we’re in now in which we’re all separated from one another. We’re trying to connect with people when we physically can’t see them.
I wrote this song around about October last year – because it was just before the “Want Me” music video came out. I was away at Dover, I remember the voice note and it’s titled ‘idea from the beach’ and it’s like [sings high intro to Dover Beach]. It’s so sick. It was just a magical experience. Sometimes it’s just like writing a song or being in a place is just like shrouded in the memories. You know when a memory is just really beautiful. It was just sick.

That post chorus [“The world ends and it’s you and me in my head”] that came at a later stage to the song. I just wanted it to feel like a romance story like that you have this person in your head but it’s a bit fucked because it’s not real. I get the lockdown – because there are lyrics like “in my self-made isolation.” It’s same premise as lockdown really, except it’s not because of a virus that I can’t be with this person it’s just because they don’t like me back *laughs*.

That said, you have a really loving fan base. What is your relationship with the so-called Baby Kingdom like?
Yeah it’s amazing I absolutely adore these people that I’ve been able to meet. It’s almost like the kind of people that listen to my music are people who are like me. Because a lot of the feelings that I talk about are quite niche, or they feel quite niche – they’re probably more universal than we would think. But yeah it’s been amazing to connect with these people across the world who are so similar to me, who have similar interests to me. It’s like having a whole bunch of friends who I can talk to about Taylor Swift because I’ve never had friends who listen to Taylor Swift. It’s stuff like that. We have a group chat and I speak to them over face time a bunch or whenever I can.

The Baby Queen wardrobe is full of different styles and characters. How did this style come together? Are you consciously playing with characters and perception?
I don’t see myself as naturally stylish or fashionable at all. It’s actually something that never, ever came naturally to me. I would like leave the house in a tracksuit but I feel like there’s something about putting on an outfit that allows you to embody certain aspects of your own character. You know if you go and put a suit on, you act in a certain way. I think that there’s so much play with Baby Queen. Especially this year, there’s a lot of play with different characters. I think that I am a million different characters, I genuinely think that’s my personality. I feel like I never know which one I am catching on which day. And I think that’s something I did want to get across, especially this year getting to play the different characters as they come out as the character for the artwork for each song. I think for me, more than anything clothing is like armour. It’s like putting on armour before going to war. If I leave the house in a tracksuit, I feel exposed. If I leave the house , you know as Baby Queen , I feel like I can embody that confidence. For me, it’s more a way of being able to slip in and out of different facets of myself through using the confidence that clothing gives you.

So much of your career has happened in a pandemic. You must be looking forward to performing when things begin to open up this summer. What are you most looking forward to this year?
There is so much. There are loads of festivals. There’s one festival that’s already been announced in Hertfordshire. There’s a tour with Sea Girls in October through the U.K. Then we’ve got some really sick summer festival announcements, hopefully that goes through. And then, really big announcement for the end of the year that I can’t say what it is yet. We’ve got loads of festivals booked like all over the world next year. I mean fuck, I haven’t met one person who listens to my music. I have not met one person who listens to my music. They exist on the internet. Other than my family who has to listen to my music to be polite, I haven’t met one person who actually likes my music. It’s crazy.

The single Dover Beach is out NOW.

Clark Franklyn
Bea Hartshorn

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