Embracing her ‘Quarter Life Crisis’, Baby Queen’s debut album is a poignant journey of self-discovery, blending catchy cynicism with heartfelt reflection and unapologetic honesty.
Words: Finlay Holden
Photos: Jennifer McCord
Styling: Amy Stephenson.
Hair: Bjorn Krischker.
Make-up: Phoebe Walters.
“My existential crisis began about five years ago.”
Bella Latham has been through a lot since her ambitious relocation from South Africa to the UK. She now sits atop a mountain of successful releases under the Baby Queen moniker, but it’s perhaps the darker moments she’s experienced that have been the most formative. “I was in a really bad place,” she recalls. “I would smoke a zoot and then just sit back and think and think and think. I believed that if I thought hard enough, I could discover the purpose of my life.”
The name of her just-announced debut album, ‘Quarter Life Crisis’, was inspired by this period of intense soul-searching; the realisations from this time changing the now London-based artist’s attitude entirely. Her recent single ‘We Can Be Anything’ is a bold example of this, twisting a complete meltdown into an embrace of infinite opportunity.
“I realised that I’m never going to get the answer that I want, so all you can do in your short life is be happy, be nice to other people and live your truth,” Bella explains of the song’s central message, which she sings joyfully over a wall of synths: ‘We can be anything; that’s awesome, don’t you think?’.
“The great thing about that chorus is that it could be about anything – your sexuality, your ambitions and dreams, your very freedom to exist. It can be whatever you want it to be and whatever you need it to be.”
This might sound a million miles away from the biting irreverence of early Baby Queen cuts (‘Flaws don’t make you special, they just make you flawed’, declares 2020’s ‘Buzzkill’), but that jaded tone has never really dissipated; it’s just been refined. If you want to understand what defines Baby Queen in 2023, it’s catchy cynicism with a pinch of self-reflection.
“I love it when there are two opposite things that have creative tension,” she confirms. “That’s what Baby Queen is, really; this dichotomy of two very different things. This innocent naivety and the grit of real experience.”
That succinct description could quite accurately describe many people’s early twenties. Still, that brutal hit of blunt realisation strikes even harder when you’re mining self-aware material for your first full-length project.
“It became really obvious to me that, thematically, I was talking about all these difficult things you feel at 25 – the inability to grow up, loneliness, suffocating levels of ambition – and it seemed very much like I was singing about having one foot in my past and one foot in the future,” she shares.
That uncomfortable position she found herself stuck in – aware of her issues but having no idea how to deal with them – has enabled the mindset of ‘Quarter Life Crisis’, one that will resonate with like-minded listeners. Balancing that vulnerability with Baby Queen’s larger-than-life persona has been something of a learning curve for Bella.
“It has been difficult trying to merge the idea of Baby Queen in my head with allowing myself to be completely transparent, totally raw and honest,” she considers. “Even though Baby Queen is all about honesty, there are strict parameters I’ve essentially set for myself as a songwriter.
“I always knew this alter ego as a specific character with a specific way of communicating – with satire, humour, sarcasm and negativity – but then Bella wrote some sincere songs that ended up on a Baby Queen album. I’m not hiding behind humour anymore.”
In fact, Bella isn’t really hiding anything these days. Having already explored body image (‘Pretty Girl Lie’), unrequited love (‘Want Me’), narcissism (‘Narcisisst’) and self-destruction (‘These Drugs’), it may have appeared that all her cards were on the table, face-up for all to see. However, the first track revealed from her full-length debut showed there was plenty more to come.
‘Dream Girl’ plays with the classic girl-meets-guy trope, instead spinning a tale of girl-meets-guy-but-actually-fancies-his-girlfriend. A simplistic but self-aware fantasy, the track was the first time Bella had explicitly referenced her bisexual identity.
“I didn’t want to bring my sexuality too directly into the spotlight because I didn’t want it to become my defining quality,” she says. “I don’t want to be referred to as ‘the bi-musician’ or ‘the LGBT artist’; I want to be described as a great lyricist. My sexuality is not who I am. It’s actually a very small facet of me as a person; I don’t ever date anyone or have sex because I’m too busy working the whole time.”
“I had a lot of shame around my sexuality and wasn’t at that accepting place for a long time,” she adds. “I am now; I really don’t give a fuck anymore.”
It wasn’t a smooth road to reach this point, but it did become easier to navigate when Baby Queen met Heartstopper. The British rom-com and queer TV triumph achieved instant success last year with its charming coming-of-age story and carefully selected soundtrack, including Baby Queen’s ‘Colours Of You’, which itself follows the gradual acceptance of a non-heterosexual identity. Her close involvement with the show, its themes and its cast inspired her to address topics that “would make me want to actually die two years ago.”
“Heartstopper created such a safe space and community and brought a very accepting group of people to my music, all of which made it more natural to become more confident with who I am. I’ve still got work to do in terms of self-acceptance, I’m not 100% there, but I’ve come a long way. It is all a journey, and it’s one the fans are going on with me. I don’t mind my sexuality being part of the conversation; I just don’t want it to be the conversation.”
“All you can do in your short life is be happy”Bella Latham
Self-discovery is intrinsic to ‘Quarter Life Crisis’. One song, in particular, took even Bella by surprise when it was born from a remorseful breakdown; the minimalistic ‘Obvious’ shows the ever-evolving artist stopping to acknowledge her roots.
“I am always, always looking forwards, but while making this album, I looked backwards for the first time, for the very first time in the whole life of Baby Queen,” she recalls.
Since uprooting her life and moving to London to chase her dream of becoming a successful musician, Bella has considered herself an entirely new person. Immersing herself in a new culture that felt exciting and freeing, she left her hometown of Durban without much thought for what she was leaving behind.
“For so long, I really was just running,” she confesses. “I did turn my back on where I came from, and there is that sense of guilt, that sense of sadness with me all the time that I try to block out. I had to block it out to cope with the fact that I couldn’t be there, and at the time of writing this song, I finally stopped to acknowledge that I abandoned people that I loved to chase something new.”
“I went four years without seeing my dad and only went home for the first time in five years after I delivered this album,” she shares.
She returned after finally completing what seemed to be the culmination of a life’s work. Touching down in that plane with a stomach full of anxiety, she soon discovered that nothing was the same. “I lost everything, but I never had a chance to grieve because I couldn’t bring my mind back to that place,” she explains. “I started writing, and this all came out of me; it was like opening a floodgate of emotion that I’d been holding back for so long.”
“I’m not hiding behind humour anymore”Bella Latham
That tearful process speaks for the whole creation of this LP; a painful, strenuous challenge that was endured with difficulty, but that also spawned the most healing and authentic art in her discography. As Bella explains, “I couldn’t have an album called ‘Quarter Life Crisis’ without broaching this topic, but it was a difficult one to get out of my system and unlocked a lot of pent-up emotion. The whole process has been incredibly healing, and going back home at that moment was incredibly poetic.”
These homesick revelations stuck like lightning at the exact time they were needed. Similarly, much of the material on this record would not have worked if it was any other version of Baby Queen putting it together, thanks in part to Bella’s sharp instinct for what the Baby Kingdom needs to hear.
Take social media; it’s something that debut single ‘Internet Religion’ touched on immediately, beginning a streak of releases commenting on the dismal tendencies of our time. As well as being a certified bop, ‘Kid Genius’ reignites that past snark while noting current trends and looking into a bleak future. ‘Try not to communicate because the kids we’ve given a voice to have nothing to say’, the song declares.
“We have these vapid voices and all this influence on us, but the people in power on these platforms don’t have the vernacular to responsibly sit in that position,” Bella explains. “It’s not something I couldn’t have accurately expressed a few years ago, and that’s becoming more real every day; any one person can have an opinion heard by millions.”
At the other end of the LP, we have ‘Get High’, about trying to numb yourself to avoid life’s complications. “You can abuse anything. It truly is everything in moderation,” she says, revealing that this track was actually the first one she ever started writing as Baby Queen. “It’s never good to lean too far into something that you’re using to escape something else, which is obviously what I’m doing; trying to escape one feeling and find another. I think I probably need to go to therapy about that too.”
Old habits die hard, and it would seem that new patterns of behaviour are born hard as well. Pulling them all together is King Ed, the producer with whom Bella has collaborated on all Baby Queen projects to date, including the name itself.
“If I’m going to come out with a debut album, it’d be weird to make it differ from the fundamentals of Baby Queen,” Bella explains, “and my fundamental sound is one that I created with King Ed. We nurtured and grew it together in the same four walls that I recorded this album in. He understands every intention because he helped create this; his instincts, paired with my instincts, are what people have come to know as Baby Queen.”
‘Quarter Life Crisis’ is no star-studded affair. It doesn’t offer any features, not one co-write and certainly no one else touching the music – no one but Bella and Ed. “It was important for the record to be an amalgamation of both our creative minds. He’s someone that I can always trust to get right, and I don’t trust anybody with my music.”
The pair have been on quite a rollercoaster over the past two years, specifically. Following the release of her mixtape, ‘The Yearbook’, Bella started to rebel against the pop overtones her music was starting to radiate. Having found that image restrictive on stage, a series of deliberately boundary-pushing singles followed; the laidback and moody ‘Wannabe’ directly addressed external observations on her output, ‘Nobody Really Cares’ dismissed them entirely and ‘Lazy’ (thematically) sacked it in altogether. Behind the scenes, Baby Queen was quietly realising that you can’t put anyone’s expectations on your art, even your own.
“When I set out to write this album, I was like: ‘I wanna make an album in this genre, and I want it to be sonically cohesive with this specific type of sound’. It took me a while to realise that you cannot pre-empt the music that you’re going to write,” she states matter-of-factly. “I cannot turn my back on the fact that every single time I sit down to write a song, it is pop melodies that are coming out; I’m very much a pop songwriter. It’s never a question of genre; it’s just – which songs are best?”
“Making an album makes you question every tiny thing about yourself”Bella Latham
This self-fulfilled confidence allowed Baby Queen to evolve; fresh directions were permitted as long as the core groundwork was firmly in place. There are some surprises left in store, but ‘Die Alone’, ‘Love Killer’ and ‘Dream Girl’ are the kind of tracks that remind you who it is making this record.
“I feel that that’s where the bulk of the work had to be,” Bella agrees, “in that space where there’s absolutely no one else in the world who could write or sing those songs. It would be really weird if anyone else did.”
So, it seems like this journey has established some touchpoints amongst the existentialism after all. Bella squirms at this suggestion, “Making art is so complex and intricate; there’s so much back and forth and confusion. You go through waves; you never know who you are. There’s no point where you can sit back and think, now I finally know. That’s never going to happen. Making an album makes you question every tiny thing about yourself. I lost that confidence but eventually reclaimed it. Going back into any form of creative process, I’m sure that will happen all again.”
Before that conversation begins, she will first conclude this chapter with a reminder of everything achieved to date, an epilogue to the person she is in this moment and has been. Bella Lathum takes a second to think about all this life means to her past selves, and the final message she has already come up with reads: “Try to be happy; you might be if only you knew your wildest dreams came true.” ■
Taken from the August 2023 edition of Dork. Baby Queen’s debut album ‘Quarter Life Crisis’ is out 6th October.
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