Bebe Rexha’s voice has been all over the radio lately: first handling the chorus on David Guetta’s international smash “Hey Mama,” then scaling the charts with G-Eazy’s “Me, Myself & I” and then her own single “No Broken Hearts.” And that’s just the songs she’s singing on.
In the new issue of EW, Rexha shares her journey from New York City kid to hit songwriter for the likes of Tinashe, Iggy Azalea and Nick Jonas. It wasn’t easy: Rexha’s been signed by a record label before only to be dropped. She’s been told to give her songs away to other artists because industry pros didn’t think a “white chick from Staten Island” could pull off her own material. And she’s had to fight to get credit on songs she had a major hand in creating. Rexha harbors no hard feelings, though. “I’m proud of my work and how far I’ve come, and I’m proud of the way that I did it,” she says. “I rolled up my sleeves and said, “I want to make a mark on this world.”
For the full story, pick up the new issue of EW— on stands now—and Rexha’s steps for breaking into the music industry below.
1. Don’t be afraid to speak up
Three years ago, David Guetta was one smash chorus short of another hit. The French producer had cooked up a booming electro-trap behemoth, but something was wrong with the hook, so he turned to Rexha for help. “He was like, ‘You’re the fixer. You’re able to fix the songs,’” she recalls. Guetta’s plea came at the end of a long day in the studio, so a tired Rexha rattled off a dum-di-di-day refrain in about 10 minutes and went home. She didn’t think it would go anywhere. Instead, that song—“Hey Mama,” also featuring Afrojack and Nicki Minaj—became a Top 10 hit in more than a dozen countries.
Rexha, however, wasn’t originally listed as a featured artist on the song because the label didn’t think radio stations could handle so many names. But after hearing someone mistake her vocals for Minaj’s, Rexha fought for the change. “I was so upset,” she says. “I called my lawyer and was like, ‘I don’t care anymore, I want to do the right thing.’”
2. Never let a good idea go to waste
Before it became a No. 1 hit for Rihanna and Eminem, an early version of “The Monster” was included on a four-song demo Rexha shopped around while she was trying to get a record deal as a solo artist. One record label president—Rexha won’t say who, only that he “has broken a lot of careers”—skipped through the song “like it was nothing,” she says. But instead of giving up on the track, Rexha kept pitching it, and “The Monster” eventually found its way into the hands of Eminem’s A&R rep, who sent it to the rapper immediately after hearing it. (While Rihanna would go on to record the chorus, Rexha’s background vocals are still audible on the track.) Currently, she’s repurposing a six-year-old song she wrote in her childhood bedroom for a rapper’s new album. “The songs seem to find their homes,” Rexha says.
3. Work with people with whom you have chemistry
“It might crush a lot of people,” Rexha warns, “but I’ve never been in the room with an artist that I’ve written a song for. We write the song, then it gets played for the artist, and they somehow fall in love with it and go back in and make it their own.” There are a few exceptions: she was in the studio with David Guetta and G-Eazy, and late last year she worked with Iggy Azalea for the rapper’s upcoming album, Digital Distortion. “I just totally connected to [Iggy’s] personality and loved her whole vibe,” Rexha says. “She was very similar to me—she doesn’t beat around the bush. If she likes it, she’s like, ‘I love it, oh my God!’ If she doesn’t like it, she’ll definitely tell you that. When an artist knows what they want, it makes it a lot easier.”
4. Use your network
After discovering G-Eazy’s “I Mean It” on Spotify, Rexha knew she wanted to work with the Bay Area rapper. So she reached out to everyone she knew in hopes of getting in touch with him: her then-manager, her publisher, “just anybody in the music business,” she says. A mutual friend finally introduced the two, and within a week they hit the studio together. When Rexha played him her original version of “Me Myself & I”—which featured a house beat that Rexha’s label thought was too British-sounding for U.S. radio—G-Eazy jumped at the chance to rework the song with her. “I’ve always gone with my gut feeling,” Rexha says of picking her collaborators.
5. Learn the rules before you can break them
When Rexha was a teenager, her mother met someone at work who said that if her daughter wanted to be a singer, she should get in touch with Samantha Cox, a prominent New York City talent scout. During their first meeting, Cox played Rexha songs by two then-unknown artists she was working with: Lady Gaga and Kesha, the latter of whom was still making country music at the time. “She’s like, ‘I want you to go into songwriting classes because these girls write their own songs,’” Rexha remembers. Those classes covered a range of genres and were full of musicians who were twice her age, but Rexha stuck it out. “I remember listening to other people write their songs and being wowed by the way they wrote,” she says. “I learned a lot about [song] structure but was mostly just inspired by other people in the room. I wanted to be as good as them.”
6. Be prepared to make sacrifices
As a child, Rexha looked up to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera but worried that she didn’t have what it takes to become a pop singer like them. “They just seemed so hard to attain, so beautiful,” she says. But Rexha was determined: On top of her songwriting classes, she skipped her own high-school graduation and prom to focus on her music career. She also taught herself how to use software like GarageBand, Logic, and ProTools so she could record demos, sometimes logging 16-hour days at the computer during the period in which she was unsigned. Now, she’s quick to correct anyone who thinks she didn’t work hard to get where she is. “Let’s get one thing straight,” she tweeted earlier this year. “I’m not just a pop tart. No one ever put me ‘on.’ I write every single song I’m on. Been hustling from day 1.”
7. Let inspiration strike
Lately when Rexha writes a song, she freestyles over beats producers send her. She’ll cue up a track, record three takes, and then see if any of her ideas stick. “If it comes, then I know it’s special and I keep it,” Rexha says. “If it doesn’t, I don’t even kill myself, I just let it be.” That’s how she came up with “No Broken Hearts,” an uplifting breakup anthem that reunites her with her “Hey Mama” partner Nicki Minaj. Rexha was dealing with a breakup and some friend drama when she first stepped into the studio with producers the Invisible Men, bracing herself for an unproductive session. Instead, she found the words to the song as soon as she heard the instrumental. “I really just needed to write the song to feel better,” Rexha says. “When I listen to ‘No Broken Hearts,’ it makes me feel like everything’s better. Sometimes that’s all we need. If a three minute and 30 second song makes someone feel okay, that’s more than enough.”