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Baby Queen interview: The music industry puts female artists against one another

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aby Queen, real name Bella Lathum, may only be at the start of her career, but she already counts the likes of Courtney Love as one of her friends and mentors. “I went through a period of time where we were hanging out a bit and she gave me the best piece of advice in the whole world,” the 24-year-old smiles from her London flat. “She said: ‘don’t call yourself a pop star, call yourself a rock star – they stick around for longer and they get away with more.”

The Hole frontwoman posted about her love of Lathum’s music on social media and the pair started to message each other online. Soon after, Love asked Lathum to meet, and she flew out to America to Love’s home. “I went there and was like ‘who knocks on Courtney Love’s door?! It was absolutely f**king ridiculous,” she laughs, saying standing on Love’s porch, waiting for her to answer, was a surreal experience. She offered Lathum some “inspiring” advice – something she says she could have done with aged 18, when she left her home and family in South Africa for London, with dreams of pursuing a career in music.

The journey to Lathum’s acclaimed 2021 mixtape, the angsty pop-punk collection The Yearbook, wasn’t a smooth one. Once here in the UK, Lathum first attended music college and found the experience challenging – not least because the environment did little to support her ADHD. It meant she would often talk in class, fidget, or daydream – something that frequently got her into trouble. “My teachers were like, ‘Stop drifting off, come back to earth!’ But I thought: ‘don’t come back to earth’, because that’s where I was in like my own little magical world and that’s where the music came from. It didn’t come from the environment I was in: I had to dream it up.”

Lathum soon stopped attending class. “My attendance was horrific because I was just smoking weed in a nearby park,” she laughs. “Songwriting isn’t something you can sit and learn in a room and that’s what I was doing. What did happen was that I met [music industry] people through [college] and I was very driven, meeting people, staying with them,” she explains, saying she would play her music to anyone who would listen in between sending demos to labels. The experience was much tougher than she ever imagined. “I went to every single record label…and no one gave a s**t,” she recalls. Eventually, some did show an interest – but they didn’t have her best interests at heart.

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Her first managers wanted her to follow what everyone else was doing, in the hope of making as much money as possible, as quickly as possible. “A manager’s responsibility is to look after the health of the artist. There were a lot of things nobody prepared me for and there were a lot of things I felt very unsupported in… it was nothing more than a business deal.” Lathum says they constantly asked her to look at what other “more successful” female artists were doing in the hope she would just imitate them.

“It was all very much: ‘you are doing this trend’”, she says of the way she was pushed into a corner by industry professionals. “It got to a point where I had a complete identity crisis. I was laying on the couch and I couldn’t move for days…it became really hard for me to piece together what I stood for as an artist and what I was being forced to do on the internet. It’s been the hardest thing of my whole f**king life, trying to stay true to who I am. The more you let other people get in your ear and tell you to do stuff, [the more] you’re going to stray away from what you really stand for as an artist.”

“The music industry is designed to put female artists up against one another,” she continues. “Labels will be like ‘Look at what she’s doing…have you seen her TikTok?’ You’re designed to be compared and it’s the thief of success. I always say that if you put your blinkers on and run your race, you’re going to get there but if you look at what [another person] is doing, you’re going to trip and not get to your finishing line.”

For a time, Lathum was in very real danger of not reaching that finishing line. The pressure to follow others continued, both in music and behind the scenes where she was now being introduced to a world of drink and drugs at a young age. Unhappy in the direction she was being taken (“I was really, really depressed”, she says), she started to frequently “get wasted” as a means of escape. “The music industry is the worst,” she scowls, saying it did little to protect vulnerable teenagers coming into it for the first time. “The whole industry is f**ked and everyone is just wasted, all the time. When you’re really broke, you’re lost, you feel like a piece of shit, you feel like a failure and I felt like an absolute f**king joke, it’s really easy to feel like there’s no point, and it’s easy to slip into bad habits when you’re that low.”

Things continued to spiral. “It got really, really bad, so bad that I was completely suicidal.” Recognising how serious things had gotten, she made a decision to cut many people out of her life – including those who were in charge of her career as well as some friends at the time. “They all f**king hated me for it and they thought I was a b****, but I realised…being with them meant I was going to take drugs for the rest of my life.”

A turning point came when she was offered a deal with a major label and found herself surrounded by people who cared about her mental health and well-being for the first time since coming to the UK. “I am in a good situation now, but I was in a terrible situation,” she reflects. “I keep thinking about the next girl that gets found,” she says, looking back with distress on what happened to her. “I had no idea that I was the boss.”

Her new label gave her free rein to pursue the musical direction she wanted to follow, rather than anyone else’s and she saw herself, for the first time, as that boss. She channelled her previous experiences into the critically acclaimed The Yearbook, with each song a cinematic vignette or movie reel of a moment in her life, be it her depression, her undefinable sexuality (she refuses to put this into a category), her issues with substance abuse or the pressure of being compared to others in the digital age.

The latter in particular resonated with a generation of young people who spent their teens growing up through the lens of social media. On standout mixtape track, ‘Internet Religion’, Lathum sings “If you can go online just to become / The identity that you construct /…let’s warp the londonbusinessblog of beauty / So none of our little sisters want to eat.” She says social media caused her many issues growing up, including body dysmorphia. “It’s all so f**king fake,” she says of the platforms, “so vapid and unreal…no one can be real on the internet…even by the nature of deciding what part of yourself you are going to show, you’re never going to be real.”

She continues: “I think the jealousy, the boasting and all those aspects of the internet are still really, really bad. I lost my phone on Friday, so I’ve had a weekend without my phone and it’s the first five days I’ve gone without comparing myself to another artist… it’s because we only post the best things that happen to us, so it really becomes a boasting platform…we have put the importance on this numbers thing,” she says of the quantity of ‘likes’ a post receives. “It’s becoming a way of classing how significant and important you are.”

Lathum says she will continue to explore topics like this on her new album as she continues to “figure it all out.” She is writing that now and points to three guitars that are hung on the wall behind her. “It’s got more guitars than I’ve ever had before,” she says, like on preview track Wannabe, that arrived late last year. “I was listening to a lot of 90s rock”, Lathum says of writing the track, with Love having made her a playlist that featured bands like Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Radiohead. The result? “It’s the best s**t ever,” she says of her new songs, excitedly.

As for the future, she’s in this for the long game, and circles back to Love’s quote about the longevity of rock stars. “I was very driven to get where I wanted to go… the thing about the music [industry] is that it constantly kicks you down. You’ll be in the f**king dirt, but I left my f**king home when I was 18, my whole family, so there’s no giving up,” she says determinedly. “There’s death and there’s carrying on, literally. You get the f**k up, you sort your shit out and you go again.”

Baby Queen performs at the Electric Ballroom on April 27. Her single Colours of You is out now.

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