18-Year-Old Singer-Songwriter Ai Bendr Just Wants to Be Honest

The Michigan transplant broke out when her song was featured on ’Euphoria.’ Now she’s exploring the darker side of things while she soaks up L.A.’s color

Chioma Ai Bendors Ilozor, more commonly known as Ai Bendr, hasn’t stopped making songs since her first single, “Love Me Low,” which was featured on the latest episode of Euphoria last January. In the past year, the 18-year-old has signed with Interscope Records (where she joined artists like Gracie Abrams, Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo), moved from Michigan to Los Angeles, and released three more singles. Borne from years of learning the flute and making up tunes to sing around her siblings, Ai Bendr’s music is intimate and stirring, a portrait of the hazy and ever-universal rhythms of young love.

We recently spoke with the half-Nigerian, half-Australian-Singaporean singer-songwriter via Zoom. Wearing a necklace and matching earrings in the shape of the Chinese character 爱 (ai, which translates to love), she talked about her latest single “Coffee,” how music has brought her happiness, and where her sound is headed next.

What brought you to Los Angeles? How has it been living and working here?

First off, this is the most colorful place ever, and I’m just overwhelmed all the time by how beautiful each scene is. You’re driving down the road, and you can pick anything you want and focus on it and you’ll just start seeing all its colors. There’s so much color here. And I know I’m not going crazy when I say this because I went back home a little bit ago, and it’s just so much more gray there. So thats the first thing I’ll say. It’s beautiful here.

But the reason why I came here is because I signed a record deal. I wanted to be in the area where I could work on all the things that I had planned—not necessarily because I needed to, because you can be shelved, but I did not want to be shelved. I wanted to get my music out. I wanted to be out here and work on it.

I’ve definitely noticed the colors in your album art and music videos, the bright tones and neon hues.

I just love lots of colors in general, which is why I do that. Everything that I do is going to be super pigmented, in a sense. But I never want to come across as a JoJo Siwa type—that sounds mean to say, but that’s not where I wanna go. I love color, but with organization and thought, not just lasers and glitter and glass.

What’s the story behind “Coffee”?

I’ve been really excited about “Coffee” because it’s the only super happy and upbeat song that I have, and it makes me feel really happy listening to it.

I actually do remember—I was on a walk and I was baked, and then the tune just came to me. And I just found the words for it because I was happy, in a sense. That’s how a lot of my songs come to be. I’ll be feeling an emotion because of something happening in my life, and then a tune will come to my head and I’ll just find the words for it based on how I’m feeling.

My favorite part about “Coffee” is actually the production side, over the songwriting side. I mean, I’m not necessarily in love with anyone or want to do any of those things I sang [laughs], but I was really super happy. I think it’s not necessarily the story that we have to focus on with love songs but the emotion behind it, of just adoring someone and feeling that in general.

I love “Coffee”! It’s been stuck in my head for the past week. Can you explain about the concept behind the music video? What was the process like?

When I’m writing songs, I’m also imaging the stories and scenes that go with it. In my head, I had this almost first-person point of view and I was saying, “I want you closer to me.” I just built everything else around that. There’s also a line in the song that goes, “You’re a masterpiece,” and that’s why we’re in a museum and we’re in a coffee shop at the beginning. The ending was just this celebratory part, which was how the song’s ending felt to me. I wanted to have something really nice and big.

A lot of it came from the help of my managers and creative team too. They really helped me put everything together, and the directors I got to work with were really awesome. Totally a team effort.

I love having music videos accompany a song. It can add such a new dimension.  

It’s been so fun! But it makes me so nervous as someone who’s like, in the back of my head, “Oh my God, I wonder what everyone at school is thinking… I bet they all watched it!” [laughs]

Where do you find confidence in your work? Was there a specific turning point for you when you decided you wanted to pursue music as a career?

I don’t necessarily think it’s a confidence thing. I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot recently: sometimes confidence, and feeling good and better about yourself than others, is kind of silly. At the end of the day it is what it is, to me. When I’m making my music, I’m doing my best to almost, like, write a diary entry but in a song. I’m just trying to be honest. It’s not really a question of confidence, but I’m just always vulnerable in my music. I would like, as an artist, to release my music because I like it genuinely as an art piece. I’m not doing it because I want to get a certain number of streams or something like that.

To answer your second question, I’ve always been musically inclined. I’ve always kind of made songs up in my head to sing to myself before I was actually writing songs. For a long time I was discouraged from singing and songwriting, so I wasn’t going to go in that direction.

The moment I knew that I really wanted—needed—to pursue music was when it became a matter of sticking around, sort of. I got to a point in my life where I evaluated a bunch of different things: my life, what I wanted from it, how I wanted to spend it, and if it would be worth it. At that point, the only thing that made me happy and the only place where I felt safe, the only thing that just was entirely good for me was music and making music. So I decided to live so that I could pursue it because it was the only thing that I wanted to do. And if I couldn’t do it, then I wasn’t going to do anything at all.

I’m so happy for you for doing that.

On that topic, I say it as though it’s such an easy thing to accomplish, but it’s not and it’s actually something I continuously struggle with. That’s why I’m excited to release more music. From this point on, it’s going to go in a much darker direction and reflect my experiences and my emotions to a greater extent. I’m excited for that. A huge part of why I love music is the fact that it’s able to speak to people, comfort them, and make them feel not alone.

You were already a fan of Euphoria before your song was featured on it, right? What was it like to have your music in the “Jules” episode? 

It was crazy! I didn’t expect it. It’s funny because people in my DMs will sometimes ask me how I got my song in Euphoria. I don’t know… somebody loved me somewhere, for some reason. It was honestly such a coincidence because “Love Me Low,” the song that was featured, the person I wrote that for was the same person that I started watching the show with. That was a crazy full circle for me.

It was also just so crazy to know that the director, and some of the people on the show that I was obsessed with, felt touched by my music. I remember the moment I got the text from the producers that I worked with about it. I just started jumping. I couldn’t believe it at first. I texted them and was like, “wtf wtf wtf, don’t lie to me!” I thought they were playing with my emotions, but it was real somehow.

It’s just as crazy because I released the song in June and in December, in a last minute decision, they decided to go with my sample. That was so cool! They were just posted up, listening to Ai Bendr, woo! I feel so grateful for that. It’s what I love, so it means a lot to me.

What are you working on right now? Are there any longer term projects you’re thinking about?

 Actually, behind this Zoom window is my Logic screen! I’m always working on projects. It’s a very continuous thing. I’m planning on releasing a project later this year. All of the songs for that are already written, and most of the songs are already made. I want to put out music so much because I don’t even have that much out there right now, and I realize that.

You mentioned that some of your next songs will dive into deeper emotions. Are there any particular themes or sounds you’re thinking of exploring?

The production wave that I’m on right now—the sound that I want to give off—is something ethereal, spacey, dreamy. When people listen to my songs I want to teleport them to this world that I’m creating. And all of it is just a little bit dark; all of it has a dark feeling in some kind of way.

What makes a song stand out to you?

When I listen to a song, I really want to feel something. Every song we love makes us feel something powerful. Whether it’s “Don’t Stop Believing” or “The Hills” by the Weeknd, or “when the party’s over” by Billie Eilish, it’s a strong, powerful thing and it fucks you in different ways, all of them good.

Last question: what’s your “Coffee” order?

My favorite is Dunkin’ Donuts. I like my iced coffee with the hazelnut pump and almond milk because I’m lactose intolerant. I don’t drink that much though, and I’m not obsessed with coffee whatsoever. [laughs] I have a pretty average level liking of coffee.

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