How do you follow up a song that goes viral in the middle of a pandemic?
That was the dilemma facing US pop band Avenue Beat, who landed an unexpected hit last year when a half-finished, throwaway song exploded on TikTok.
Called F2020 (you don't need to guess what the F stands for), the laid-back pop anthem summed up perfectly the crushing mixture of anxiety, misery, loneliness and boredom that accompanied the last 12 months.
More than 50 million streams later, it was named song of the year by the New York Times, giving the band both a huge opportunity and a massive headache.
"Our team was putting a lot of pressure on us to figure out the follow-up," says singer-songwriter Sami Bearden. "And we were like, 'We don't even know what to write about! There's not exactly a lot going on right now.'"
"It was always in the back of our minds: if you don't write anything that works ever again, you're a legit one hit wonder," adds the band's lead singer, Savana Santos.
After months of scratching their heads, the band hit on an ingenious solution: Write their way out of writer's block by writing about writer's block.
"I've been sittin' here trying to write a pop song / Trying to follow up that viral hit that popped off," sings Savana on their new single, Woman. "I'm just trying to recreate what I did the first time / Is any topic even worthy of a first line?"
"It honestly came out in, like, 20 minutes," she laughs. "We got so excited about the fact we were talking about something meta. And then it just wrote itself."
The rest of the song is a smitten tribute to Savana's girlfriend, evolving into a celebration of femininity and female solidarity. Its shameless positivity is the yin to F2020's yang.
"Why be more negative?" asks Savana. "Why not lean into something a lot more sexy, beautiful and awesome?"
Talking to the band is a lot like listening to their lyrics. They're gossipy and funny but unafraid to tackle the heavy stuff - sexism, anxiety, mental health.
Their ease and lack of inhibition comes from being childhood friends, as three self-confessed "theatre nerds" from Quincy, Illinois.
"We're literally each other's only friends," laughs Sam Backoff, who completes the trio.
"All of our songs come out of that friendship. We just walk into a room, and we're like, 'What's everyone feeling today?' And some days you're feeling like a badass and other days you're feeling overwhelmed by the weight of the world. Then we just literally talk about it until it presents itself into a song."
"Which," notes Savana, "makes our job a whole lot easier".
As they prepared to unleash Woman on the world, the band jumped on the phone with the BBC to discuss their viral hit, dead cats and the dark side of the music industry.
What is the Avenue Beat origin story?
Sam: We all grew up in the same small town in Illinois. Savana and I have known each other since we were babies and, when we were 14, we started messing around with some YouTube covers, and Sami actually commented on one of them.
She was like, "Hey guys if you ever need a piano player, hit me up!" Later we found out that that was like totally a lie - she can't play piano and she was trying to fake her way into the band. But it worked!
What was the song?
Sami: Nicki Minaj's Starships.
Sam: We did not do it justice.
Savana: I remember in the middle of it, recording it, I was like, 'Oh no, there's a rap in here, and we cannot rap!'
Is it still on YouTube?
Savana: Oh no. No-one's ever gonna see that, ever.
What was the first song you wrote together?
Sami: Oh God. We called it the Pizza Box Song because we wrote the lyrics out on a pizza box and we we were trying to be quirky and different. It was nonsense.
I looked up all the songs you've published since then and there are almost 200 of them - mostly unreleased. Why so many?
Savana: Part of it was trying to learn how to write a song, because it takes so much to figure out the mechanics of it. And honestly, it comes from just writing every day, every day, every day. Even when you don't want to. Finishing bad songs is where learning how to write a good song comes from - for us, at least.
Some of the titles are incredible - Buy My Mom A House; I Should Really Drink Less; Unapologetic Needy Girlfriend...
Savana: Oh my God. You're bringing back memories!
Are they all autobiographical, or you do you like to write in character?
Savana: I think our theatre background influences the way we write now because theatre is so much about storytelling. But [the songs] are definitely better when they're based on real life experiences. That's what I've learned.
Your first EP has a country vibe - was that the direction you originally wanted to go in?
Sam: We learned how to write songs in Nashville and all the people that we were around wrote country music... so for a while [we] sounded more country. Then we kept the storytelling elements and then made it more pop-sounding because that also inspires us a lot.
Sami: We're happy to genre hop. We all come from such different musical backgrounds that we can't just pick one.
What sort of stage was your career at when you put out that first EP?
Sam: We were like gearing up to send a single to country radio and we did a lot of touring with... do you remember the yodel kid Mason Ramsey?
You toured with him?!
Sami: It was honestly the best summer of my life. Like, I thought it would be weird because what kind of audience, exactly, would Mason Ramsey draw? But it was just like a bunch of like rowdy college kids so it was perfect. And that kid is an absolute doll. He became our little brother and I miss him every day.
Then F2020 comes along and changes everything. Tell me about that lyric: "My cat died and a global pandemic took over my life".
Sami: It is what it is. My cat Gumbo died and, a few hours later, Savana had written the song.
And you put the song on TikTok before it was finished?
Savana: Yeah, I threw it together one afternoon and sent it in a group chat to Sam and Sami.
Sami: She was like, "This is cool, but I don't know what we can do with it?" And I was like, "You shut your mouth, we are putting this on TikTok right now." And so we got together and did that video - but we never thought our label would let us put it out because, I mean, we were doing country up 'til that point and this song had the F-word like 70,000 times.
When did you realise it was taking off?
Savana: The next morning! It had like five million views or something. The notifications wouldn't stop coming and I was like, "Oh my God!"
What's it like having a breakthrough hit in the middle of a pandemic?
Sam: It's good and it's weird. We had a lot of big moments happen - like, we heard it on the radio and a bunch of big celebrities posted about it...
Savana: ...Will Smith forever!
Sam: So, yeah, we had these fleeting moments where it felt amazing and, right after, I just went back to sitting on my couch and watching Netflix.
There was obviously a lot of pressure to follow it up - so when did you write Woman?
Sami: We wrote it in quarantine - so I think a few months ago? But I'm not great at guesstimating time right now because it's not real.
Sam: But ever since we wrote it we've been like itching to put that one out. It's so exciting.
What was the inspiration?
Sami: We were all sitting there, trying to work out what to write about when Savana's girlfriend walked in, and we were like, "I guess we could write about that." She was literally our muse. It was hilarious. It literally happened exactly how we said it in the song. I wish I was lying but I am not.
What does she think about having a song dedicated to her?
Savana: She loves it. I highly recommend to anyone who is dating someone to write a song about their girlfriend because they will love you.
Did you get extra good Christmas presents this year, then?
Savana: Honestly? Yes. We're in Hawaii together!
You posted another new song on Instagram this week, calling the music industry "dark and ugly". What sort of things have you encountered?
Sami: Oh man, the general sexism of it all. Being talked over a lot. And I think having yourself on display is a terrifying thing. There are some days when you feel like a little trash goblin and you want to be at home in sweatpants and no make-up. But you still have to like be out there and put your best self forward.
Savana: There are so many parts of the music industry that honestly suck. It can feel like they're taking away your creativity from you.
Is that why you started producing your own songs?
Savana: Exactly. Being fully dependent on yourself feels liberating. I can make a song 100% from start to finish - wherever I am, whenever I want. And I love that.
You must be quite self-confident?
Savana: No, which is the thing! In high school I literally did not speak. I don't think I talked to anyone. But when I found out I was good at music, it gave me the confidence to step up.
Sami: I've seen her in the studio with incredible, incredible songwriters and producers and speaking her mind and not even caring. It's one of my favourite things to see.
Savana: But I still honestly don't know how I do that on a daily basis, because I am a shy-ass person!
So, final question: Now that 2020 is over, do you still feel the same about it?
Savana: I hate it with a burning passion but I also love it with a burning passion because it gave us everything we have now. So, thank you and screw you 2020!
Woman is out now.