26-year-old Bella Latham – the brains behind the indie/grunge existentialism of Baby Queen – has charted a career that feels both like a whirlwind and a long time coming. After signing to Polydor via a COVID-era Zoom call, the last two and a bit years have seen the South African born artist curate a cultish following within the so-called Baby Kingdom; produce a vast body of work including 2021’s EP ‘The Yearbook’; feature in Netflix’s viral hit Heartstoppper, and crown it all with the announcement of her debut album, ‘Quarter Life Crisis’.
Established across her existing catalogue, Baby Queen’s brand of drily nihilistic or else startlingly honest lyrics set to breezy pop beats has found home on her first full-length, which offers the chance to dance and twirl to a searing assessment of her own early 20s.
Clash sat down with Baby Queen to talk through fandom, pigeonholing, and the pitfalls of pop music.
Where are you right now?
I’m on my tour bus. We’re in Norwich right now, we just pulled up here this morning. It’s a strange little place!
How do you feel about your debut album finally coming out?
We played it for the first time last night on tour! It’s a really good feeling to finally have it coming out in the world. I’m excited, but I know that when the songs come out I lose them; as soon as it’s out it belongs to everyone else. I think there’s definitely going to be a comedown or an anticlimax feeling. But I’m excited – for people to finally hear it, for that chapter of my life to be closed, and to start another one.
Does repeatedly talking about it in the press feel weird?
I think so. I catch myself saying the exact same sentence and I’m like ‘oh my God, I sound like I’m media trained’!
Does the album you’ve ended up with match the one that was in your head going into the project?
As far as being an album that I’m incredibly proud of, and having no song on there that’s not on there for a reason or that doesn’t mean anything; that’s definitely what I wanted, but when I first started making this album it was a completely different record. I wanted to make a rock album, like scuzzy rock. There are loads of songs that never saw the light of day, and the album twisted and turned so many times. You just don’t know what you’re gonna make, and then all of a sudden you’ve got it, and you can understand it a lot better in hindsight.
What timeframe was it written over?
There’s a song on there that I actually started writing before any other Baby Queen song: ‘every time i get high’. I wrote that chorus and the melody of that verse maybe seven years ago, but I came back to it and changed and altered it a lot – it wasn’t good enough or dynamic enough, and the lyrics weren’t good enough. It was a case of really rescuing that one from the past.
There are songs that were maybe four or five years old that the same thing has happened to. It took three years, I would say, barring those few satellite songs, then the really intense period: a year of it really being at the forefront of my mind, and three months of fucking hell at the end!
Was it strange mining so deeply into the emotions and experiences of your past? Or was it therapeutic?
I think the reason those songs really work is because they’re still so relevant. I wrote ‘every time i get high’ when I first discovered a joint – I would take two puffs and literally lay paralysed in my bed. I was just discovering smoking, and I wrote that song, and now I’m a smoker. It’s so much better now, it makes more sense than it ever did. I feel like I predicted how addicted I was going to be to weed! It’s cool. Instead of choosing songs that are in the same world and the same vibe, the best thing to do is to choose the best songs that you haven’t released. There was some really good stuff I did at times in my career where I feel like there was something really magic about it, and I’m really glad that I pulled those songs back.
What do you want your fans, the Baby Kingdom, to take away from this album?
A lot of the album is about the tumultuous period of time in your twenties: the chaos and beauty and innocence and experience; all of those things existing in the same place at the same time. The start of the album is a really hopeful song, and at the end of the album it ends on this line: “try to be happy / you might be if only you knew / that your wildest dreams came true”. With an album called ‘Quarter Life Crisis’ it was really important to me that this wasn’t a negative record. I want to leave the message with people that life is painful, traumatic, horrible, but it is also incredibly beautiful, and there are so many things worth being alive for. That’s it, really. We keep going, we choose to be alive, and we choose to experience this huge array of emotions. It’s just a message of hope.
‘Letter to myself at 17’ is one of my favourites from the album.
It’s a really special song to me. I wrote it with my guitarist [she pulls the laptop round to reveal her guitarist, Nathan Challinor, curled up on the other side of the bus] who’s making some beats over there. It was at the end of the process of making the record, and I was in a fucking panic, a zombie human being. I was not okay, and Nathan came over to my house and we made that song. It was the last song to make it onto the album, and it was really clear that that was the final song on the record.
If, in a few years time, you were to write a letter to yourself at 26, what do you think you’d say?
Oh God! I think it would have to talk about what I’m struggling with now, that I would hopefully have perspective on. Basically, what I am struggling with now is fear of failure, self doubt, and being extremely hard on myself – and then also being incredibly lonely, thinking that I’m never gonna find anyone that understands me. Maybe it would be from a POV where I’m not forever alone, and maybe consoling myself about that. Or maybe I’ll still be fucking lonely in six years time, who knows?
Your line “the thought of flirting makes me sick / so maybe I’ll die alone” is so real.
It’s so real! Especially because I feel like I’m such an awkward person. I feel like I friendzone people really quickly because I’m so YOOOOOO! Do you know what I mean? Being flirtatious is just so not in my nature, so I was like [retches] ‘that’s horrific, I’m not getting involved in that’!
When you’re writing, do you ever feel pressure to meet your fans’ expectations?
I’ve never ever felt pressure from my fans. I’ve never felt worried about what they’re gonna think. That’s never been a source of pressure for me because I’ve built that fanbase by just being honest, so I know that all I have to do is tell my honest stories, which I think is what you want to do as a writer anyway. I don’t think the pressure comes from there. When I was making my record I knew they’ve got my back.
I think the pressure comes a lot from myself, from comparing myself to where I want to be and where I’m not. Also, while you’re making a record you have so many voices – people that are listening to the songs and are part of your team – and there’s so many different opinions. I had a really difficult time writing this record, because I so badly wanted it to be incredible. I was so aware that good wasn’t good enough, and great’s not good enough – it has to be phenomenal. I think a lot of that pressure comes from my high expectations of myself, and fear of failure.
Why do you think your music connects so deeply with your fans?
I guess what I’m talking about is putting into words a lot of people’s realities. At the time I’m just being honest about my unique experience. Sometimes I know that people are going to relate to something, but for me it’s a very unique experience, and on some of them I’m like ‘no one’s gonna get this’, but they do. I’m just trying to be as honest as possible, and I think it’s that honesty that’s really made people feel like they’re not alone in these strange, chaotic thoughts that we have as human beings.
I first saw you at Omeara two years ago, and fans came backstage to play Mario Kart beforehand. Is it hard to keep that community bond now that the Baby Kingdom has grown so big?
Naturally you can’t have that level of proximity with so many people, it’s not possible. I do really try to have that personal connection with the people that come to loads of my gigs and I see a lot of, because I get on with them really well and I really appreciate them. To fly out to multiple shows, I appreciate it so much. It was really nice in festival season, especially at the European shows. There’s obviously not going to be hundreds of people that know me, it’s just people that have flown in, so I was able to go and get drinks with some of them and go and watch some bands with them. That was really cool, and being able to do that sort of thing is amazing, but obviously you can’t do it in a setting where there’s loads of people and you’re just picking some people to give your time to. It’s a difficult one, but I’m really big on the people that were there from the start and the people that were there when no one gave a shit. Those first fans are the people that make you, so I feel very loyal to them.
Your music spends a lot of time lamenting parasocial relationships and social media. Do you worry about fans forming parasocial relationships with you?
It feels authentic, but nothing’s ever authentic on the internet. It’s never going to be me. It’s not me. Even Baby Queen, and what people perceive to be me, is not me, because no one knows who I really am. No one gets to see me in my darkest moments. It is this difficult thing where you’re being really honest in your music, and you are really showing who you are, but people don’t know you.
I do feel like it’s authentic, but being a fan is having a parasocial relationship, and I do realise that because I was such a massive Taylor Swift fan. I had my fanpage on Twitter when I was thirteen, and it is a fucking parasocial relationship! I genuinely thought Taylor was my best friend and my older sister. In my head, when she met me we were going to be best friends, and I was different to every single other fan. I really understand that – that’s what it means to be a fan, and I think I’ve got this really personal understanding of that experience. So I do absolutely get it, but obviously at the same time you’ve got to be protective of yourself and be protective of the fact that there’s very few people in the world that actually know who I really am. I’m very aware of that.
Does it ever trip you out having to juggle Baby Queen with Bella?
Yeah, it can get very confusing. Sometimes I feel like we’re one and the same, and it’s very normal, and then sometimes I have these crises where I feel like I’m having an identity crisis and I feel like there’s no space for Bella in my life because Baby Queen is taking the whole thing up. I was working on this song the other day, and I wrote this line that went: “I’m buried below my alter-ego”. Sometimes I feel like that, and it’s difficult because there are things about Baby Queen that I feel like I’ve created and invented, but I also feel like there’s so much about Baby Queen that is me. I want them to be the same thing. I think we are the same thing, but I almost don’t want to admit it, I don’t want to admit that I am Baby Queen – it’s a bit scary! It’s a weird one. It’s definitely an identity crisis, on and off.
You’ve said before that you don’t want to be pigeonholed as a queer artist, but this record is a lot more open about sexuality than your previous projects. Was it ever scary to broach those topics?
The songs that are the most openly queer, ‘Dream Girl’ and ‘23’, I wrote when I didn’t feel so comfortable in my sexuality. I actually was like [retches] ‘this is horrific, never fucking seeing the light of day’! I think I just slowly but surely started to get to this point where I fully accept myself. I fully, fully accept myself. I know that there’s so many people in the world that don’t accept me, and I’m totally okay with that. It’s very very hard to continue to lie when you accept yourself. Once you accept yourself you think, ‘why are you pretending to be anything else?’, you know? I don’t really care anymore.
I still stand by the fact that I don’t wanna get pigeonholed into anything, because I think that it does nothing but wound your career. My sexuality is such a fucking small part of who I am. It’s not who I am as a person, it’s who I have sex with and who I fall in love with. I just feel really different about myself and I feel really different about sexuality, and it took me so fucking long to get there – so long. I used to do interviews and say ‘I don’t care anymore’, and I still did care. I actually do not care, and I fuck with myself so much more than I ever did, so I don’t wanna pretend anymore. I’m proud of who I am.
If ‘Dream Girl’ and ‘23’ were not originally intended to be heard, how did it feel to eventually show them to people?
I made ‘Dream Girl’ with my producer, and he would not let that song go. I thought it was a shit song but he wouldn’t let it go, he’d bring it up all the time. When the album started coming together, my management and I sat down and we listened to every song that I’d made in the past four years that wasn’t released, and everyone said ‘Dream Girl’ was a really good song. I agreed it was a really good song, but what was bothering me about it by that time was no longer the sexuality thing. I was like, ‘I don’t fucking care about that’. It was the fact that it was so pop. I know I’ve made a pop album, but pop gives me the fucking ick! It was really fighting with myself: knowing that the song was great, and it was better than a lot of the other songs that I’d written, but one side of me’s like ‘oh, it’s not cool’, and one side of me’s like ‘but it’s a great song’. Eventually the ‘great song’ side won.
Why does pop give you the ick?
[Pulls a face] You know what I mean? I think what gives me the ick about pop is that it has such a bad reputation. I think it’s very hard to make very good pop music, and it’s very hard to get people to take you seriously as a pop artist. I’ve heard so many indie bands that would think they’re a lot cooler than me, and people would say ‘that’s cool music’, but you listen to the lyrics and think ‘this is not cool, this is as lame as a session pop song! This is shit, it’s just cloaked in cool grunginess’.
I love pop music, I’ve always loved pop music, and I can’t deny my love for pop music, but I don’t think pop music is always very cool, and it’s hard to put on a great live pop show. Also, I’ve never felt like this perfect put-together popstar. I carry myself a lot more like a rock musician, and I wanna carry myself a lot more like a rock musician, so doing the whole shiny pop thing feels lame to me. I think I’ve always been rescued by my lyrics, in that you can have a song sound as pop as anything, but the lyric will always be this more intelligent thing going on.
I just think pop music’s fucking shit. Honestly, 90% of pop music is fucking trash, it really is. This whole business of female artists shopping themselves around to sessions with three 40-year-old men in a room on RhymeZone, and someone says ‘oh, this ends with ‘cat’, let’s rhyme it with bat’’. It’s so obvious these lines don’t mean anything, that is what the bulk of pop music. There’s great pop music: there’s St. Vincent, there’s Caroline Polachek, there’s Charli XCX. There are fucking brilliant pop musicians, but when you’re looking at pop music as a genre 90% of it – 90% of Top Hits UK – is fucking shit, you know what I mean? Pop music has a shit name.
Is it another instance of you not wanting to get pigeonholed?
Oh, 100%. It’s really fucking annoying, because I was in rock bands before, and I know that I could be this really underground, poetic rock artist. I could do that better than all the fucking poetic rock artists, but this is just what I did first, you know? It is something that really grinds my gears, because there’s such strict parameters around the character of Baby Queen but I know I can write outside of that. I think that’s the challenge for me moving forward now: it’s how to evolve this thing and change the font – not the actual font, my manager’s said ‘if you change your logo one more time you’re fucked!’, but the font of the music – and to grow and mature it. You can’t be this bratty and satirical, funny, complaining character your whole life. There’s only so much you can complain about before you just start to sound annoying!
Do you feel like there is space within the Baby Queen character to evolve and grow, or do you feel penned in by people’s perceptions of you?
I felt quite penned in with this album, because I felt like it had to sit within the world of what people knew Baby Queen was. But I don’t feel boxed in now. With the fanbase I’ve got I do feel like they’ll come with me, and I do feel like whatever kind of music I make it’s going to have Baby Queen in it. The lyric will be the thing that holds it all together, so I don’t feel boxed in anymore. I’m trying to give myself the space to experiment with things that people wouldn’t expect Baby Queen to do – why shouldn’t I do it, just because people know me as something else?
Does that mean the next album will be heavy rock?
Actually, I think it’s gonna be more word-vomity and almost more hip-hop-esque in the flow. I’ve always thought that hip-hop and poetry can sit really well side by side, and I’ve got some of that flow in ‘23’ on this album. It’s not rap music – I’ll never be a rap artist – but I’m enjoying the freedom of syllables to be able to say what I wanna say. But I’ll definitely put some guitars in there – it’ll probably just end up being a pop album!
One day I’m gonna come out with my fucking crazy pop album, and all those bitches are gonna be shocked! When there’s a great pop album it’s so exciting; ‘MASSEDUCTION’ by St. Vincent was really just the most exciting record ever to me, and I thought it was so cool because it’s such art. It’s art pop; it’s concept pop, and that’s really awesome to me. It’s seeing a really capable, really genius brain behind pop music. I think genius brains run away from pop music – they wanna be a lot cooler and obscure – so it’s really cool to see someone tackle it.
‘Quarter Life Crisis’ will be released on November 10th.
Words: Caitlin Chatterton
Photo Credit: Nicole Ngai