INTERVIEW: Betty Who on her brand-new album and her musical liberation
Third album Betty mixes up the dance-pop with R&B, acoustic pop and an irrepressible new confidence
Betty Who is turning a new page in her career. After the Australian pop singer-songwriter (real name Jessica Newham) burst onto the music scene in 2012 with her debut single ‘Somebody Loves You’ – which went viral after being featured in a marriage proposal video – Newham quickly became something of an underground dance-pop favourite. The song hit number 1 on the US Dance Club chart, and two more chart-toppers (‘All of You’ and ‘I Love You Always Forever’) followed.
But behind the scenes, Newham was feeling trapped and powerless, tied to a record contract that made her feel like she was just a product. She walked away from the label in 2017, and her new studio album, Betty, is her first as an independent artist. Released on 15 February, the album sees Newham revelling in her newfound freedom to create her art in exactly the way she wants to.
“So much of my experience previous to this year has been coloured with a lot of negativity or self-doubt, and a lot of pain and feeling quite misunderstood,” she says. “On this record – it sounds kind of silly – but the number one thing I wanted for it was good vibes only. [Being independent] brought this passion and very sort of child-like vigour to all of us making the record because the possibilities are unlimited.”
Newham grew up in Sydney and showed an early talent for music, learning cello from age four. Although schooled in the classical tradition, as she got older she says she listened exclusively to pop music – in particular Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Usher – and then tried to write it. In 2007, Newham moved to the US to attend a performing arts school at Interlochen in Michigan, and soon after won a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston to study singing and songwriting. It was at Berklee that pop music really engulfed her classical music roots. “I couldn’t get people into my practice room fast enough to listen when I had just written a new song. But I was never, like, ‘Will you come and listen to this sonata I’ve been practising?’ So, even if I didn’t know it, my focus was always going to be pop music.”
Newham released her debut single, ‘Somebody Loves You’, as an independent, free-download release in 2012. A euphoric, ’80s-tinged pop banger, the track was followed by her debut EP The Movement. In 2013, a video of an American man proposing to his boyfriend while a flash mob danced to ‘Somebody Loves You’ went viral (it has 14.5 million YouTube views to date) and Newham found herself courted by record labels before signing with RCA. Her debut album Take Me When You Go was released in 2014, followed by The Valley in 2017.
Not long after The Valley came out, Newham chose to walk away from that record deal with RCA. “To be addressed as a product and a brand was very challenging for me,” she told Out in 2018. “Someone said to me in a meeting, ‘You’re not Taylor Swift, and you think that you are.’ … [I learned] that for them, it’s not about the song, it’s about perception and the box that everybody puts you in.”
Newham’s first release as an independent came in 2018 with the pointedly titled single ‘Ignore Me’; now, with the release of Betty this week, Newham’s rebirth as an independent artist is complete. Making an album independently was an experience, she says, that had its fair share of panic and self-doubt. “‘Confronting’ is a great word for it,” she laughs. “But, you know, often the stuff that you have to work the hardest for is the stuff that pays off the best.” Newham says having a team around her who believed in her work made the process far less daunting than it otherwise could have been. “There are so many people who are making sacrifices, who are showing up when they don’t have to, who care,” she says. “Everybody who’s here wants to be here – that makes a huge difference in your first steps as an independent artist.”
Now in total creative control of her sound, Newham has unveiled a new side of herself on Betty, experimenting with a range of sonic palettes that we haven’t heard from her before. While new single ‘I Remember’ is classic Betty Who, with its addictive pop beat, ’80s-inspired melodies and perfect-for-a-singalong chorus, on Betty Newham also explores R&B on ‘Taste’ – a gritty, sleazy funk track that erupts into a Prince-like jam – and a breezy, chilled-out acoustic-pop sound on ‘Between You & Me’.
When it comes to choosing a favourite track on the album, though, Newham reacts with mock outrage. “They’re all my babies. They’re all my children. I don’t have favourites,” she laughs. “But I totally have a favourite and it is the song called ‘The One’. I feel like it’s a song that I wish somebody else had put out, so I was like, ‘Well, I just have to make this song because nobody else will.’ It is the song that I’m the most looking forward to my fans hearing.” And while Newham says that Betty is “definitely my most pop record”, she says the process of becoming an independent artist has given her the strength to be more diverse in her sound. “It feels very confident,” she says. “I got really excited and I wanted to write the best record I have ever written and I feel like it is the most concise and punchy record I have ever made.”
And continuing to explore different styles of music is something she says she wants to keep doing. “You know, pop is popular,” she stresses. “It is in itself genre defying. Pop gives me a lot of space to do what I want to do. As long as it has the tag ‘pop’ after it, it feels like I can get away with anything – which I hope to. I want to show my range.”
Genre-defying it may be, but Newham also makes the point that the pop music made by women has historically attracted very little respect from those within the industry and the media who believe they are the arbiters of good taste. “It is incredibly difficult to be taken seriously when you’re a woman and you’re trying to be pop,” she states. “There are quite literally a billion girls who are just as pretty, just as talented, just as driven, just as hungry for the same position that you are fighting for. That is a fact that I have constantly been reminded of by men in the music industry.” But Newham wants women to stand together to end the sometimes destructive competitiveness between female artists. “There are definitely rivalries between women in the music industry,” she says. “There’s this misconception that there’s not enough space for everybody. I want to support other women in the same field as me and not be afraid that because they are doing so well it means that I won’t be successful – because it’s just not true. There is a space for everybody if you find it.”
With the release of Betty imminent, Newham is adding more dreams to tick off the list. “I am planning a headlining tour which I’m really excited about,” she reveals. “I really want to play shows in Asia. That’s my dream. And South America too – that would be amazing. I can’t wait to play these songs live.” And after a couple of years of emotional turmoil, Newham suspects 2019 is going to be one of her best years yet. “I am definitely trying to dream big and expand myself and my experience,” she says. “I’m really looking forward to this year. I have this feeling that it has a lot of good things to come.”