Sasha Samsonova
June 21, 2018 at 09:30 AM EDT

Bebe Rexha‘s breakfast interview in West Hollywood is like a hit-and-run. She enters and exits via a chauffeur with a wet head of hair under a Gucci cap. Her schedule is jammed. Rexha, whose debut album Expectations drops June 22, is an in-demand songwriter-for-hire (penning for Selena Gomez, G-Eazy, Nick Jonas, etc.) and a pop star in her own right. She was recently featured on Rita Ora’s “Girls” alongside Cardi B and Charli XCX, while “Meant To Be,” a pop/country crossover hit with Florida Georgia Line, elevated her already credible reputation.

At 28, Rexha’s an emblem of the evolved pop machine in which women beyond their early 20s are no longer considered benched. The studio is her happy place. “There’s one around the corner from here,” she says, longing to escape a day of fittings and photoshoots. For now, she’ll have to make do with talking about her secrets to hits-making success…

Don’t overthink it

“I’m a control freak,” she says. “But there’s no controlling anything, especially in art.” For Rexha, there’s no knowing when an idea might connect so trust your gut. Take “Meant To Be.” She wasn’t into it the day she wrote it, but changed her mind the next morning — and had to convince her producers not to over-egg the final version. “It needed to be stripped back,” she says. “Making it this big record would have ruined it.” That’s her approach to cutting vocals, too. Rexha only ever works with a first take. “I don’t care how bad a recording is, I refuse to go into the booth again. It’s about feel, not mathematics.”

Baths are inspiring

“I take a lot of baths,” says Rexha, laughing. She came up with most of Expectations in the tub, including “Grace,” a piano-led song about a perfect other who somehow doesn’t fit the bill. “I was sitting under the running water thinking, ‘There’s no easy way to break his heart. I could fly him to Paris and do it on top of the Eiffel Tower, but he’s still gonna hate me no matter what.’ She immediately grabbed her phone. “It was soaking!”

Find your executioner

“It’s very hard to find finishers,” says Rexha (she means engineers, not assassins). “The songs always come fast but sometimes execution kills them.” For “Grace,” it saved the song. It started out on vocoder with no piano. “I was over that song. I hated it.” Behind Rexha’s back, the producer changed the treatment and it became central to the record.

Rich Fury/Getty Images

Be vulnerable

While writing the album, Rexha went to the studio owning feelings of despair rather than putting on a brave face. “I’m a Mess” came during her first encounter with songwriter Justin Traintor. “I walked in f—d-up, crying, mascara running: ‘I’m sorry I’m late, I’m a mess.’ Justin said, ‘Sit down. That’s the song title.’” A few tokes of weed later and they’d written a smash about owning your insecurities. “I said, ‘I’m a loser.’ Justin goes, ‘Amazing! Tell me all the bad things you feel about yourself.’”

Don’t feature a big name for the sake of it

Rexha’s album has features from Quavo and Tory Lanez but bigger names weren’t working for her so she dumped them. “I’ve had verses from so many other massive names who have cut songs on this album and I’m like, ‘No.’ Sometimes it doesn’t feel right.”

Never write with anyone in mind

Rexha takes the same approach to a song, whether it’s for herself or someone else. “If you’re trying to write a song for Britney, you’ll try to re-write ‘Toxic.’ Britney doesn’t want ‘Toxic’. Why would you copy an iconic song?” After the song’s written, however, sometimes you just know who it’s for. When she wrote “Monster” as an unknown, she called it right away: Eminem. “My people were like, ‘You’re crazy.’ I said, ‘I swear on my grandfather who died from cancer.’”

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