Betty Who: Pop Music’s Classically Trained Star

LONDON AND NEW YORK VIA PHONE—For a famous pop singer, Betty Who (real name: Jessica Anne Newman) is refreshingly open, warm and bubbly. And when I share that I met her friendly American-born mother on a flight from Traverse City, Michigan to Chicago a few years back, she is even more effusive. “I think you are the first journalist to have met my mom first,” she said with a laugh. “She’s great and I wouldn’t be here without my parents’ support.” That support not only included starting their musical daughter in cello lessons at the age of four in her hometown of Sydney, Australia but also when at 14 their daughter was accepted to high school at Michigan’s prestigious Interlochen Center for the Arts, they moved with her to the Northern Michigan woods.

However, she also had a deep love for pop music—having grown up a fan of music like the Spice Girls, Britney Spears and Destiny’s Child—and she whiled away hours of her teenage years dancing in her bedroom. “I always told people I wanted to be a cellist,” the 25-year old Los Angeles-based musician said during a recent phone conversation, “I did not have the guts to tell people I actually wanted to be a singer because I had never studied singing. So I thought I would not tell anyone so it meant I could still study music all the time.”

Her secret teenage plan has obviously paid off; on February 3 the first single “Some Kinda Wonderful” from her second album “The Valley” will be released (the album drops in late March). And she recently announced an upcoming tour – “Party in the Valley” –which kicks off April 12 in New Haven, Connecticut and includes other stops in cities including Chicago, Seattle and Boston. She’ll also be playing the Great Escape Festival in Brighton, U.K. in May. All this comes on the heels of her successful 2014 debut album “Take Me When You Go.” That record had three hit singles—“Somebody Loves You,” “All of You” and “I Love You Always Forever”—that reached number 1 on the U.S. dance chart.

Another song “Heartbreak Dream” appeared on the “Pitch Perfect 2” soundtrack and she was an opening act for both Katy Perry and Kylie Minogue on their Australian tours. Not too shabby for someone who used to write pop songs instead of studying her cello. “I feel she has a deep talent, which may take her farther than just being a pop star,” said her former Interlochen cello teacher Crispin Campbell. “She has an affinity for progressive folk styles, Brazilian music, blues, and many other lyrical styles, which I’d love to see her pursue. She’s a special soul.”

Ms. Who credits Mr. Campbell for not only being one the best teachers she ever had, but of also encouraging her to pursue her dreams of singing by applying to Boston’s Berklee College of Music summer program after her junior year of high school and helping her record audition material for her college application to the school. “I told him straight up ‘I don’t think I will apply for cello in college, I think I will only apply for schools for songwriting,’” she reminisced. “He was kind of sad but then told me to bring my cello for my next private lesson, and he taught me how to sing and play my songs on the cello [plucking] the strings like a double bass and singing at the same time. I remember thinking ‘this is the coolest thing ever’ and to this day it is the coolest thing I can do.” Self-taught on piano and guitar, she was accepted at Berklee and even before graduating from the school in 2013 she and producer Peter Thomas released “Somebody Loves You” as a free download. The song gained even more traction after it was played in the background of the video of a Utah man proposing to his boyfriend that went viral.

Ms. Who acknowledges that after having such a successful debut, there is some slight anxiety for her to follow up not only with a commercially successful album but also with something that is critically accepted too. “When I made my first EP, [I] did not expect anything to happen and it did,” she said. “I think there is some pressure. Once the writing started to slow down and then the self-doubt kicks in it’s like, ‘what if no one likes it? I have heard these songs a trillion times and I don’t know anymore.’”

But if her first single “Some Kind of Wonderful” is anything to go by, she shouldn’t be worried; while the song has a new edgy, hard, street feel to it, the chorus is rest-assuredly catchy and certain to be a club favorite this spring and summer. “I pushed my boundaries a lot on this record purposely,” she said. “I was looking for challenges and it made me feel like I had grown as a human. So I think that shaped the way I wrote the record so I am definitely looking forward to having people hear that side of me but a lot of the stuff too is reminiscent of the old album.” Being exposed to other styles of music while touring over the last few years also rubbed off on “The Valley.” Ms. Who said that being stuck on a bus for long hours going from city to city was eye opening because, “you are with people who have different musical taste than you so you have to listen also to what they like.”

There was also a sharp learning curve for Ms. Who in terms of learning about the business of the music industry and finding out who to turn to when things got stressful. “When I was in a tough situation, I hit up a friend who has more experience in the music industry,” she said. “I texted her and said, ‘I know you are on tour but can I buy you a bottle of wine when you get home because you know so much more than I do. And you are so gracious and I want to learn from you because I am coming from a place of anger and I am not interested in that anymore.’”

Though young pop singing successes like Taylor Swift have promoted the idea of having a “girl gang” of models, actresses and fellow musicians as friends, that sorority sense of inclusiveness between young rising female pop singers can sometimes be more smoke and mirrors than reality. “I think it is hard when you are a massive pop star and you look down at someone and say, ‘I don’t want to help you because what if you take my spot’ and there is a sense of foreboding fear that there is not enough space for everybody,’” she said. “It is literally like high school.”

But Ms. Who said that over the last year or so, she has made a point to reach out to other up-and-coming female singers in the industry to band together a bit more and be champions for each other and their work. “And 99% of them have come back to me and said, ‘Yeah, of course, are you kidding me,’” she said with a chuckle. “And it is a testament to how many spectacular young women are taking care of each other. We have to stick together because no one else is looking out for us.”

by Ginanne Brownell Mitic

Photos courtesy of Sony Music 




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