FeaturesWritten by Jackson Langford on February 18, 2019
Australian pop expat Betty Who has spent her entire career creating positive pop music. Her synth-laden poptimism marks a refreshing change of course for where pop music has taken us – it’s more chill, more emotional, more “vibey.” For her previous two albums, Betty has given us unashamedly sun-drenched tunes under the watch of a major label.
But now, Betty Who has stepped into her own with her first completely independent album, BETTY. As 27-year-old Who – real name Jessica Newham – steps out on her own, she spoke to Music Feeds about the liberation of independence, how it helped her realise her full potential and how she learned to not measure her success by other people’s standards.
Music Feeds: We’re on the cusp of your third album, and more importantly your first independent album. how exciting is that? How are you feeling about it all?
Betty Who: You know, I’m feeling good. I am nervous as I think anybody would be. I am just ready for it to be out in the world. It’s this child that’s been in my body for a million years now, and I’m ready to give birth.
MF: The album is that refreshing, euphoric pop that we need. It’s so refreshingly positive, especially when music in general has become much more chill. What inspires you to keep your music so consistently positive and optimistic?
BW: I learned very early on that my music had to reflect what I wanted to do live. Every time I write a song that’s kind of slower, I’d be on stage and think “Boring! I hate this, I wanna do something fun.” I’m sort of like a petulant child when it comes to my attention span for a performance and I want it super high energy. When [my career] was very early on, I wanted it all to be fun and I wanted my records to be really fun. That’s a much easier show for me to pull off. It feels really in my wheelhouse to show up and give it everything I’ve got. I wanted my records to be like that as well. I wanted them to be almost too confident or overly confident. My favourite part about my music is when people come to my shows and say things like “I proposed to my fiancée with this song” or “my boyfriend broke up with me so I drove the coast of California and listened to this song”. These stories that people tell about their relationships to the music – I kept them in mind a lot when I was writing these songs.
MF: If we talk about how you’re making music for yourself with regards to what you want to perform live, you’re also calling the shots now not releasing ‘Betty’ through a major label. Was that a scary jump to make?
BW: Terrifying. Completely terrifying. I feel like I graduated school. I imagine it like you have just passed the bar exam, and all of a sudden you’re supposed to be a lawyer in the adult world and you’re like “oh wait, this is real now.” That is sort of what it felt like to me once I got out of my major record deal. It was like “oh, I’m now like a tiny insect all by myself and I have to fend for myself and make sure this is good and that I’m doing myself, and my fans, justice. That’s definitely the scary part.
More than anything, I was just excited to make decisions for myself and not have to jump through a bunch of hoops to convince people that I knew what I was talking about. I have good instincts when it comes to what I need and what I want. I’m a grown up now. I know the kind of music I want to make. To be able to say, “I love this song, I think it’s a single” and have everyone else go “great, let’s do it.” It’s so easy, I couldn’t believe it. That’s the really cool part.
MF: Yeah, of course. I’d also imagine it’s probably really freeing to have people so supportive of your decisions now you’re the boss.
BW: SO FREEING! Also that means the music comes out faster and I can make decisions like “cool, let’s do it now” and everybody just gets on it. It’s really hard to hold on to momentum for a song for two and a half years waiting for your record to come out. I heard the last version of a song on this album over Christmas break, and I was at my fiancé’s cabin in the woods in the middle of nowhere trying to get enough service to hear the final production so we could send it to mix in time for the album coming out. It’s really fast, which is how I like to do it. I want to make music and then go “I can’t wait for my fans to hear it” and only have to wait a couple months as opposed to years.
MF: Do you think the change in pace has improved your work?
BW: Definitely. I also don’t doubt myself as much. Now, I’m super excited and can’t wait to get out there and show everybody what I can do. That’s such a different feeling compared to when I used to be like, “If I could get out there, I would show everybody what I could do, but I’ve never been given the opportunity to do so.” That’s how I always felt. Now, in my new set up, I’m much more forced into action. It’s like, “You wanted this, now you’ve got so what are you going to do with it?” It’s really exciting to me. I want to live up to my full potential. I’ve been dreaming about this since I was five years old. It’s literally a life-long dream, and to be able to live it every day and to see it come to fruition. I feel very present, I’m trying to really experience it and be excited about it as opposed to thinking ,“I’m trying to get to this place and how I get there doesn’t matter” – that’s not what this journey has been about for me. It is about the experience, and not about the destination. I’m trying to be true to myself and understand how cool what I get to do is. There are a million people who would want to take my spot on any given day, and I’m trying to be really grateful for that.
MF: It’s interesting you say that you’re trying to live to your full potential of what Betty Who can be, because the album is self-titled.
BW: That was sort of the inspiration. It was kind of the whole point of it. I had always known I wanted to make a record and call it BETTY. But I was sitting on it, thinking that I would be Beyoncé and one day it would be my opus. But then I was like, “Wait.” To me, personally, I’ve learned a lot about how people measure success in this business and even though I might not be where I thought I was going to be at this stage – or where other people think I should be – I personally have checked off so many of my boxes in my career. So it was like, why am I waiting for this big moment in my career when it feels like this might be that? There’s no time like the present because I truly feel like I’ve been able to make the album I’ve always wanted to make, and the music I’ve always wanted to make and put the show on that I’ve always wanted to make. I’m so proud of myself and my team for making it this far and holding on for as long as we have.
MF: If you can articulate it, how did you learn to measure success by your own terms and not by what the industry or what fans would expect success to be?
BW: I’m still learning. I’m still figuring it out. I think my answer before came from the fact I’m on this upward swing and all this cool stuff has happened. If you asked me on a bad day, I don’t think my answer would as prolific or enlightened as it is now. On my sadder days or tougher days, it’s easier to buy into what other people think my life should look like or what they think of my “lack of whatever” or that I’m not where I should be and that’s because of me. There’s so much pressure on me personally given that, at the end of the day, there are 150 people involved in this project but if it doesn’t work it’s nobody’s fault but my own. That’s kind of stressful and scary.
I think now I try to set goals for myself that aren’t about what other people think, or what I used to think I should’ve had. Right now, it’s more about me taking stock and really looking at my life from a birds-eye view and think “okay, what do I actually want? What are the things in my life that I’ve always wanted to do?” For me, a couple years ago I got to sing at a Democratic event in New York for President Obama at the time. He was there and I have this video of him saying ,“Give it up for Betty Who!” and it’s 100% the coolest thing I’ve ever done. I’m not here because I’m supposed to be filling out a stadium right now at the age of 24 – I’m 27 now. There’s so much that used to cloud my judgment and make me think I was supposed to do better or different than I was. Now the goals I set are the ones that I think are really cool.
I got to watch the ball drop in Times Square after playing a New Years party this year, and I’ve always wanted to be in New York for the ball dropping but being in Times Square sounded horrible. And now I got to do it for work – I was there and I sang on New Year’s Eve and I got to watch the ball drop. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do in my life and I’m 27 and I got to do it with a bunch of friends around me. How cool is that? That stuff is what really validates me. The only reason I want to be successful is so I can do really cool things for my friends and family. I want to be famous enough that I can introduce my Dad to Sting. My actual goal.
MF: It’s part of the human experience that your goals change and your life paths change because you grow as a person and you learn different things about yourself.
BW: And you also learn about the reality of life. You learn that things take a lot of hard work and a lot of the time and energy. I’ve put in my time and care a lot about what I do. If I show up every day and have a good attitude and remain really grateful for what I have, I’m currently living my dream. If somebody else doesn’t think I’m worth their time because they’ve never heard of me before, that’s fine. That doesn’t bother me anymore. I’m much more psyched about what I have had and tried to be grateful for where I am now.
MF: If we talk about the album cover, itself it is quite raw and close-cut. Was that done to help push the message of “This is Betty Who, this is the body of work that represents me best”?
BW: You know, I actually had this huge file of about 10,000 pictures I was going through trying to pick top contenders for an album cover. I remember seeing the thumbnail, it was nothing more than 2cm x 2cm, and I said “I think that’s the album cover.” I clicked it and made it big on my laptop and I stared at it for 15 minutes. I love how strong it is. It’s raw like you said but it’s also like, “If you talk to me the wrong way I’ll fuck you up” which I also really like. I like the intimacy of the photo that is matched in intensity. I think it’s an intensely masculine picture but I also look kind of feminine and pretty at the same time. There’s a lot of juxtaposition in the photo itself, and that carries the weight of the record to me. The album cover is really intense but it’s an album that flooded with really positive pop songs.
Being human is living at two different ends of the scales. To me, the album cover captured all of the things I’ve learned about myself while making this record. I’m so conflicted all the time, and I tried to put all those things together into one body of work that really represents exactly who I want to be right now.
‘Betty’ is out now. Do yourself a favour and listen here.
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