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Twelve hours before Bibi Bourelly was set to make her television debut on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, the German-born 21-year-old singer was just hanging out with her team, eating olives from the jar, talking about where to film her next promo shoot. Tunisia, Jamaica, Australia, Cuba — these were all feasible places for Bourelly to go and show the world that yes, the woman who wrote Rihanna hits like “Bitch Better Have My Money” and “Higher” was an artist in her own right, ready to infect your ears with sexy, confident R&B jams.
Though Bourelly first became known last year after Rihanna released “Bitch Better Have My Money,” she’s been writing music ever since she was a child in Berlin (her father is guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly). But after failing out of high school when she was 19, she decamped to Los Angeles. There, she was introduced to her manager Pete Dinero through a friend on Facebook and she holed up in a studio, met Kanye West (who introduced her to Rihanna), signed to Def Jam, and spent the better part of last year working like a maniac to ensure 2016 would be a smash. “I write songs every day, 14 times a day,” she tells EW.
She put out two excellent singles — “Ego” and “Riot” — in 2015, had a monstrous run at SXSW Music Festival, where EW named her one of the best artists to see, and debuted a new track “Sally,” which she performed on Fallon Wednesday night, in February.
Below, Bourelly reveals what it’s like to give your songs to Rihanna, what’s in store for her debut project Free the Real, and how this whole fame thing is working out.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Writing “Bitch Better Have My Money” was the first time people really heard from you on a larger scale. How did it feel being known first in the public as a songwriter before an artist?
It was bittersweet. It was sweet because it’s f—ing Rihanna. I haven’t been shopping records; I haven’t been in the game a long time. I’ve been doing this a year and I got a single with Rihanna, so it was an incredible accomplishment. I come from failing out of school. It was sweet because she’s such an icon in culture today. I got to skip a lot of steps, you know what I mean? If Rihanna wouldn’t have done what she did in culture as an icon there wouldn’t be me. But it was obviously difficult. It’s hard to give your song away. They’re like your kids.
Was that one you wanted to keep?
No. But it’s still hard. It’s like you writing up an article and having to give the byline away. It’s difficult.
“Higher” sounds more like some of the songs you’ve released recently. Was that one you wanted to keep?
“Higher” was never designed for me to keep. I didn’t understand the songwriting game at the time. The way I write music for other artists is the same way I write music for myself. I’ll pick up the guitar and I’ll write music and if I don’t use it I have like 500 other songs. If I don’t use it I give it away. For “Higher,” Kanye was like, “Work on this beat.” And I went in and did what I would do. It was hard to give away but it was worth it.
What’s happened since “Bitch Better Have My Money” came out?
My entire life has changed. A f—ing 360.
And now, what is it like to release your own music and have people respond to it?
Dope! Before I was working professionally, I would do YouTube covers. But as a creative person, it was really hard for me when I wasn’t releasing my own music. That felt unnatural to me. I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.
How did you make the transition from YouTube covers to Fallon and Rihanna?
I met the producer that produced “Sally” and “Ego” on Facebook through one of our mutual friends and he ended up flying me out to Los Angeles where I was introduced to Pete, manager and when Pete and I met my career really took off. We began to build things, etc, etc.
What was it like to move to Los Angeles?
It felt super urgent, a lot of pressure. It was lonely sometimes too because I would just be in a studio. But we’re here now and I got to the position I could be around my friends again.
Friends from growing up in Berlin?
For the longest time when I left high school or when I left Berlin, it was like me in L.A., me realizing as I’m flourishing and growing into my career or my new identity, how many people fall off, I felt really sorry for myself for a long time because I was like, I don’t have any real friends, I feel like my old friends can’t relate to me anymore and I have no one to talk to and it’s so lonely but in the weirdest way I think every 21-year-old, every 20-year-old, we’re all f—ing awkward and f—ed.
Have you been writing about that?
I think I subconsciously write about all of that. I write how I speak.
Where are you with your Free the Real, your debut project?
I’m writing all the songs. It’s hard for me to talk about because like when “Sally” came out, I knew as little about her as everyone else did. It wasn’t until a year or two later when I listened to “Sally” that I was objective enough to determine what it was about. It was like I was subconsciously talking about those girls at my school.
I feel like my album right now is about me fighting to be accepted for the things that I am and me not being timid — not just me, but everyone. Don’t be f—ing timid. That annoys me. Stand up for yourself! Do things for yourself!
Do you hear from your fans on social media about this idea of not being timid?
Yeah, but not being timid doesn’t mean you have to be as belligerent or as reckless as me. What I mean abut not being timid is having enough like courage to do things you know are right even if you’re scared of them. I don’t want to inspire people to be like me. I want to inspire people to be the strongest version of themselves and to feel comfortable with who they are.
What do you want the next few years of your life to look like?
I just want to be happy. I have to be careful using this example; it’s going to sound like Bibi the badass, Bibi the rebel. But I’m going to do it because it’s true. I got home the other night in LA from a party — the Grammys — and there was this guy outside my apartment complex. I thought he was a homeless dude. We’re having a conversation, smoking a cigarette and he was like, “I love drugs, I love crack.” Like, chill, I don’t hate you. Just f—ing admit to your sins and we can have a real-ass conversation. Let’s not pretend like we’re not f—ing perfect.
What the f— has my life even come to? Two years ago I was failing out of high school.
Are you happy?
Yeah. I won’t be happy until the people are happy.
The world. Until I feel like like I’ve done something that has actively contributed to humanity.