Just two years ago, she was a fledgling pop wannabe, releasing songs she’d recorded in the basement of a friend’s apartment. Now, thanks to some perseverance, the help of a viral video and a subsequent record deal with RCA, Betty Who is fast becoming one of the hottest properties in pop.
In Australia to support Katy Perry as part of her ‘Prism’ tour, we popped on the phone to the starlet to chat about her recently-released debut album, singing at weddings and the rollercoaster ride of the past two years. But she begins by explaining the interesting story of how the ‘Who’ came to be.
“You can decide whether it’s interesting or not,” she begins. “When I was a teenager I was writing songs and kind of figuring out my life a little bit. I wrote a song and I thought that the name ‘Betty Who’ for it was pretty cool. It was nowhere in the lyrics, it was just a title and I thought it was a cool name.
“To me, it kind of encompassed the idea of the song, which was that I was never going to be the perfect girl that this man wanted me to be. I didn’t fit into this mould of a woman that he expected. He wanted me to be something that was totally different. And so that was the title of that feeling to me.
“A couple of years later, I was talking about stage names and I had long since swept the song under the rug. I was in a room with a couple of people and I just piped up, ‘what about Betty Who?’ and everyone sat on it in silence for about ten seconds and then said, ‘yep, that’s perfect’. So pretty much the first idea that I came up with as a stage name was Betty Who and I stuck with it.”
Betty Who first rose to prominence via a free download of her debut single ‘Somebody Loves You’. Picked up by a selection of blogs throughout the US, it set her on the path to stardom – and to her eventual record deal with RCA.
“To be honest with you, it was such low stakes,” Betty (real name Jessica Newham) admits. “I didn’t know anything, I was a brand new artist, I was still in college, I was 20 years old. All of those things led to me just thinking, ‘I’m just going to put an EP out and see what happens’.
“My manager was 21 at the time, my producer and I were both the same age, so we were all just babies trying to figure out how to put a song out and get people to start talking about you. My manager did a really good job. He went around and introduced himself to a bunch of people on blogs, just trying to get everybody talking and thinking about me. We did it all online.
“And it kind of worked in this totally miraculous crazy way that none of us was really expecting and I gained far more notoriety and clout much faster than anybody really expected from me. It’s only been a year and a half since I put out my first EP!
“I think I signed my record deal six or seven months after the EP and that was when I said, ‘I don’t know anything, I just made this in my friend’s basement’! So the learning curve has been very intense.”
That intensity went up another notch entirely when ‘Somebody Loves You’ was featured in a video that went viral on YouTube. Salt Lake City native Spencer Stout uploaded a video of him proposing to his partner Dustin at a Home Depot store (below), using Betty’s track as the basis for a routine that would hopefully do the trick. It did – in two respects; Dustin said yes and the video went viral, going on to notch over 12 and a half million views.
“I didn’t know about it until it was up on the internet and going viral,” Betty reveals. “They emailed it to my manager when it went up and said, ‘is this okay? We gave her credit, we just really want to put this up so our friends and family can see it?’. My manager watched it and thought, ‘oh my god, this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life’. So my manager emailed it to me and said, ‘you’re going to cry’, which I did.
Not even 12 hours later, by the time I was going to bed, it already had a million views and we learned that’s what happens when a video goes viral. It was a very interesting and hectic weekend. Something like that happens and every major label is banging down your front door trying to get you to sign a contract with them immediately. The video went up on Thursday, it was viral by Friday and I signed my record deal on Sunday night. So it was pretty crazy.”
Suffice to say, Betty feels she owes the boys a lot.
“Oh are you kidding? We’ve become friends since the video – they did a bunch of press for it, they were on ‘Ellen’, they were like little celebrities for the time that this video was going viral. I always maintain that they’re more famous than I am! I said to them, ‘you’ve met Ellen, I haven’t met Ellen. That makes you more of a celebrity’.
“Everytime I see them now when I go on tour to Salt Lake City, I say, ‘you boys changed my life’ and they say the same thing to me. They actually did change the course of my life, so I’m totally indebted to them and think they’re the most wonderful boys. I sang at their wedding, actually. I sang ‘Somebody Loves You’ as they walked down the aisle. Beautiful.”
And, as mentioned previously, the clip played more than a tiny role in Betty finally inking her deal with RCA Records.
“I’d been talking to a bunch of different labels for a long time and I was definitely leaning towards RCA. My lawyer had been talking to them and there were a couple of things in the deal that I wasn’t totally happy with. Then by the time the video went viral, it was perfect timing because it gave us leverage.”
Now she’s signed to a major label in her hometown of New York, she’s just released her debut album and is getting to tour with one of the biggest pop artists on the planet… Katy Perry. Betty admits that sometimes she’s a little tempted to pinch herself.
“Oh totally! But I think, to my credit, it’s probably one of the best things about me, because I’m still totally ‘oh my god, how cool is this? Can you even believe it!?’ I’m not jaded, I’m not bitter at all. Everyone else is saying to me, ‘it’s just a job, chill out’ and I’m saying, ‘no, this is so fucking cool, I’m freaking out’, so I’m very excitable in that way.”
Betty grew up here in Australia and spent her first 15 years on Aussie soil. That home-grown accent is still clearly audible, despite being laced in parts with a slight New York twang. She’s seemingly found the right balance.
“My mum’s American, so I definitely feel half and half. I obviously miss Australia and feel way more connected to Australia as a child, because I grew up here, but I’ve definitely found a home in America. I went to college there, I finished high school there, so by the time I was starting to talk to labels, obviously my biggest demographic was in New York City, because that’s just where I physically was.
“New York is my favourite place in the world too, so it kind of worked out ideally almost in that I ended up signing with a major label that was based there. A lot of the major labels are based in LA and RCA happens to be in New York. It just kind of worked out for me.
“And the reason that it was so organic for me, was that I felt really on the same page as a lot of the people who I met with at RCA initially. I would say something and they’d say, ‘or we could do this?’ and I’d say, ‘yes, that’s a great idea’. Everyone is super-creative and excited on the RCA team, which is so hard to find, but very important to me.”
We ask Betty whether she feels that it’s easier to try to carve out a career in the US or here in Australia. She reveals that each territory throws up its own unique set of challenges, but it’s the scope of the market in America that she finds daunting.
“It feels like an impossible job to try to succeed in America,” she admits. “I have to remind myself all that time that if my career ended tomorrow, I would have had the best run ever and it would have been so cool and my experiences are ten fold just the most incredible things ever.
“It’s just like this constant pressuring yourself to be better and to do better and to do more to get people excited, which is the whole point of it. You’re either built for it or you’re not. And I definitely feel excited and challenged by it in a really great way.
“But I think the thing about being in Australia and being an Australian artist is that people want to claim you as this home-grown girl. A bit like their baby’s all grown up and gone over to America to make it big, which I love. I felt that way too. I remember hearing about Missy Higgins doing her first tour of America and thinking ‘YES, our baby’s all grown up, she’s flown off into the world’. So I love that and I love the ownership that people feel about me in Australia.
“I’ve had a couple of people in the States say, ‘well she’s Australian, so that makes her even cooler’. That’s really nice. ‘Cause I care that I’m Australian. I love being here and I love people talking about that as part of my artistry.”
The latest fruit of Betty’s artistic endeavours is her debut album ‘Take Me When You Go’. The collection of 13 pop nuggets is diverse in its sound and although it was brought together across a number of years, with a range of different collaborators in world-class studios and apartment basements, it feels cohesive and fresh. On it, she got to write with, among others, big name pop supremos Starsmith and Claude Kelly.
“I was so lucky to work with those boys. When I heard the list of people that I was going in to write with, I was incredibly intimidated,” she admits.
“I don’t know if this will change and where that moment is when you think, ‘oh I’ve made it, now I feel important’. I don’t feel important ever, because I respect these people so much and I’m such a fan of pop music and of pop production, so when I walk into a room with Claude Kelly, I sit there and want to say, ‘tell me everything. Teach me your ways’. So for me, writing the album was this totally awesome, really exciting and geeky experience for me where I’d walk into a room and say, ‘hi, I’m such a huge fan and I’m sorry I’m geeking out right now because we’re supposed to be writing for me’.
“Actually the really nice thing about it is that all the people that I wrote with are really well respected and have had such incredible success. But then they heard what my music was doing and where my music was going and they were super into it and really respected it, which is why they came on board. That’s the coolest thing ever, because not everyone’s going to do that. Not everybody is going to take a chance on an artist that they don’t know a lot about, just because they think it sounds cool. So I’ve really made some incredible relationships because of that and from making this album.
“It came together over a course of two and a half years. A handful of the songs on the record are from old EPs or songs that are from before anything had every happened to me – in my producer’s basement in Rhode Island. So from ‘Somebody Loves You’ being written in my producer’s basement in Rhode Island to ‘Dreaming About You’ or ‘Glory Days’ being written in the Micheal Jackson studio D in West Hollywood and recording the piano that Sir Paul McCartney played on for ‘The Girl Is Mine’ for the ‘Thriller’ record, there’s a huge difference in that respect.
“Half my vocals were recorded in one of the best studios in the world and the other half are recorded in my producer’s bedroom. So I definitely wanted to keep that, ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it’ kind of idea to it. So even the new songs, I recorded some of those vocals in my producer’s bedroom.”
Though she may be getting to lay down vocals in some slightly flashier establishments these days, something that hasn’t changed about her vocal is the distinctly Australian accent laced throughout. And, Betty tells us, it’s always been a conscious decision for her to ensure it remains that way.
“I never want to lose my Australian accent in my songs. I think it’s what makes it special,” she admits. “Whenever I hear a British singer singing in an American accent, I think, ‘no, stop! Your British accent is what makes you so special!’. So I really love doing that and I love it when people say, ‘I love the way she sings!’. Americans love a good Aussie accent, so it’s also a bit of a gimmick in a way.”
No surprise to find out then, that Betty’s a huge fan of Missy Higgins, who’s penchant for the Aussie vocal is legendary.
“She’s the queen of that! That’s what I love about Missy Higgins,” she exclaims. “I listen to her songs and it feels more honest. It’s not a production, it’s not a play, it’s not put on. When I listen to her songs, I imagine sitting in her home an hour outside of Sydney on bushland somewhere drinking tea and talking to her. You feel like you know her.”
Suffice to say, if Missy Higgins does indeed live on a bushland property an hour out of Sydney sipping tea, she may be inclined to think that a certain ‘Who’ is a bit of a stalker.
“I’m hoping she doesn’t now you’ve said that,” she laughs.
We conclude by asking Betty what she thinks is the biggest false perception the wider public has about pop artists.
“That’s a really good question,” she responds, pausing for a moment to think about her response. “I think there are a lot of them. I think that a lot of conceptions about pop artists are very misconstrued and confused. But I think one of the biggest ones that’s crazy to me is that people just assume that you don’t work hard.
“It’s so much work. There’s so much to think about and you can’t even imagine how much you have to keep in mind to do this kind of work. So when people say things like, ‘life is soooo hard… you get to play shows and have fun all the time and be a pop star’, I say to them, ‘no! This is hard! I’ll swap with you! Nine to five sounds like the most relaxing thing in the world right now’.
“That’s something that people have definitely said to me. I said, ‘well you don’t know anything about what I do then, apparently!’ I watch Katy do it! The Katy Perry show is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life. It looks like such hard work. She must be so tired at the end of every night. So people who say, ‘oh well she doesn’t really do anything and other people make all the decisions for her’, I say, ‘no, this is her vision’.
“And what I’m doing is my vision. I have articulated and I have made this happen for myself, with the help of a hundred odd people, of course. But at some level, you’re spearheading it and a lot of people don’t give, particularly women in the pop music industry, credit for that.
Betty Who’s album ‘Take Me When You Go’ is available physically and digitally now.