“Betty Who?” This is a question the Australian born pop-singer is all too familiar with. She once had merch shirts that read, “Who the Fuck is Betty Who?” if that gives you any indication. But years later, with two albums under her belt, over 2 millions fans on Spotify, not to mention a spot at this year’s Chicago Pride Fest, “Betty who?” has turned into, “Betty Who!”
303 Magazine spoke with Betty Who (real name Jessica Newham) about her music being directed at the LGBTQ community, finding happiness in a lonely industry and what she thinks the key ingredients are to a perfect pop song.
303 Magazine: How is tour going so far?
Betty Who: Tour is honestly amazing. It’s been really exciting to be on stage again and do my own show with my own fans. I think so often as a performer you take your own show for granted; what it feels like to be in front of your own audience. I just got off the Panic! at the Disco tour in February and it was really nice to have that perspective. They have such a wide range of people that come to their shows and “High Hopes” was at number one on the radio while we were on the tour, so every night they were sold out.
303: That was probably really great exposure for you as well.
BW: Totally. A lot of people who come to my shows say they saw me at the Panic! tour and wanted to come. It has moved the needle for me. I’m always curious to know how people find out [about me] and for a long time, it was the same demographic and group of people bringing their friends. It was growing, but it didn’t feel like it was diversifying. Panic! really gave me a lot of that. It gave me the perspective to when I finally did get on stage in front of my own people, I’m looking around, and everybody’s singing every word to every song back to me and I was so emotional. This is what I’ve been waiting for.
303: Do you think you still need the “Who the fuck is Betty Who?” shirts?
BW: [Laughs] Oh yeah. I think more now than ever I feel like I need them. I think more people are saying, “I feel like I’ve heard that name before.” But also, there are so many more women who are coming to the shows. For years, it’s just been me and the homosexual men. It’s really exciting and I feel like it changes the show a lot. I finally feel like on this tour we’ve got it down now, we’re doing it, I’m professional at this, this is my job and I really can manage it and maintain this lifestyle as opposed to a lot of other tours. I’ve gotten off and thought, how am I supposed to do this forever? And there still is a part of me that still feels that way, but it feels more sustainable.
303: Do you think that your switch from a heavy gay following to more straight people coming to the shows has anything to do with this latest album?
BW: Maybe. I definitely am loyal to a very specific demographic and that is the LGBTQ community. I think that’s a huge part of my identity and my fans identities and the cultural community of show. I definitely say that if there’s anybody that I’m thinking about when I’m making music, it’s that fan base. But I also think as I write songs that are mostly for me, this really helped me or this made me feel a certain way, I want to share that. I have been more drawn to making music that empowers everybody but especially girls. I want to make them feel the way that I do when I watch BeyChella and she’s like, “do you slay? ” And I’m like, “Yes, Beyonce, I do! That’s me!” I want people to listen to my music and think, I can do anything right now. I think that is the power of music.
303: Well you hit the mark with it. With this newest album, it’s your first one under an independent record label after splitting from RCA Records. The first song on the new album under your new label is, “Old Me.” Is that maybe pointed at this relationship?
BW: [Laughs] 100%. Of course it is. I don’t want to be too shady because I don’t think that is necessary all the time and I want to stress how psyched I am to just be doing what I want to do in the place that I want to be. I will say though, I had to share that story. There are several songs on the record that are inspired by that relationship because it’s like any bad relationships.
303: It legit sounds like a breakup song.
BW: It’s literally like a bad boyfriend. A lot of my stories that I am telling are kind of secretly about that specific experience because I want to be able to write what I know. “Old Me” was definitely about something really specific happened. I think I just got out of my deal and I was elated and I was so inspired and ready to make music on my own terms…I just went into studio thinking, I have to write a song that is four parts shades and six parts empowerment. I was so relieved. I think in any relationship, whether it’s a personal relationship or work, I think we as human beings are so designed to sustain, to carry on, to think everything’s going to be okay. I just had to keep going. I couldn’t believe how sad I really had been because you shove it all down so that you can survive. Once it was over I truly over, I couldn’t believe the weight had been lifted off. I really did feel like a whole new person and so much of that went into this album which I think is why I’m so excited about it.
303: There’s a big focus on mental wellness and nowadays and it seems like artists are more open about their struggle with anxiety and mental health. How is this something you’ve experienced and what are your ways to cope with that?
BW: I hear a lot of people linking mental health and wellness to physical hygiene and cleanliness. On tour, it’s very easy to get dirty very quickly. A lot of venues don’t have showers. For me, I feel 10 times sadder and grosser when I’m two days of not having a shower and I’m trying to feel clean but I’m not. So that’s a difficult thing for me. I think something else is eating well. Especially when it’s really hard to find kind clean, healthy stuff on tour. But mental health and stress are real. You come off of this full high intensity, 24/7 experience that none of your friends and family can actually relate to.
303: That sounds incredibly lonely. You’re surrounded by people, but you don’t have a lot of people to actually share it with.
BW: It’s really isolating and it’s one of those things where you can’t understand unless you know and also go through. And it’s not anybody’s fault, I’m not sitting here feeling misunderstood, it’s just a really specific lifestyle. Most people don’t get it. When I get off tour and I get home and I’m around my friends, but they’re all hanging out without me, I think, why? And then it’s, oh yeah, because they’ve been inviting you to stuff for eight weeks and you keep saying no because you’re gone. And then eventually people just stop inviting you. To reintegrate into life at home is really strange for me.
303: So what do you do when you get home and you’re kind of stuck in this mental rut. What helps you get out of that headspace?
BW: I work out. That helps me. And making my own food. Those are both really important when I get home to help transition me into being home. And then I really just sit around and I do nothing. That’s all I want to do, I want to do nothing.
303: One of my friends went, “Betty who?” so I sent her some of your songs. If someone were to come up to you and ask, “Betty who?” Which song of yours would you send them?
BW: Oh…probably “Somebody Loves You” because I feel like it’s the most old school. I think if there’s one song that is the quintessential, Betty Who, it’s “Somebody Loves You”, which is really nice since it’s my first song ever, I don’t hold all of this resentment towards. I still love performing it. Although I never listen to it, to be fair. I never perform it if I don’t have to. But when I’m singing it, the joy of it brings people kind of makes it easy to love the song.
303: That’s a great one. One of the songs I sent my friend was “Mama Say”.
BW: Oh fuck yeah, I love that song.
303: And also “Look Back.”
BW: The straight girls love “Look Back”! It’s really interesting. I would actually say the straights in general. A lot of straight men like “Look Back” because it’s the ass song. It’s funny, I’ve been trying to pick out what demographic is drawn to what music and it’s “Look Back” for the straights.
303: Yeah because it’s all about the ass. What do you think makes a great pop song and what are the key ingredients?
BW: Re-listenability. When you finish the song and think, I want to hear it again. The new Katy Perry single, “Never Really Over”, I’m obsessed with it. It’s so great. The second I finished it I had to listen to it again because you want to take it all in again. And then also being able to sing it back after two or three times of hearing yet because that’s what pop is. It’s popular, it’s easy, it’s memorable without being too stupid. “Never Really Over” is super emotional, it’s really memorable but it’s not “Baby Shark” memorable where you feel like an idiot singing it back. My favorite pop songs are the ones that have actual emotional depth but also make me want to dance. I think the songs that I always find that my fans love the most and the ones I’m proud of are the ones that have the most emotional context to them. Short and sweet is also a huge part. Pop songs are the most exciting way to tell a story because you literally have three and a half minutes to make somebody feel like they know you. I think when you get it right, that’s what makes it so special.
303: Your sound has also matured and has grown within the pop genre. It definitely has more of a refined sound to it than the earlier ones I think.
BW: I think any skill is about choices…I make choices and learn enough about myself, my music, my songs, my ability and what I actually want to leave as my legacy. When I think about all those things, I get to actually make choices now because I know more about my voice. I know what I can and can’t sing. I know if I sing it a certain way, it’s going to feel emotionally different than if I sing in a different way. I think I’m finding the balance.
303: Do you remember the most valuable advice you’ve received?
BW: Something I think a lot about it was when I was 20, I was connected with an entertainment lawyer and I had just signed my [record] deal. I think a huge misconception about the music industry is when you sign a record deal, it’s just going to happen overnight because you now have that deal. But then you realize that it’s just chapter one. I didn’t know that and my family didn’t know that and we were like, why isn’t it happening? I should be this huge star. So my parents called this lawyer and he basically said, “you have no idea how many people in this business who are just as talented and pretty and great at what they do, but can’t survive in this business because they can’t stay in it.” It was that perspective as well as know that all you have to do is to stick around. I’ve given up everything to do this [music] and what am I supposed to do? Not do it just because some old white men in a building decided that I wasn’t worth their time or energy? So just stick around, if you can afford to stick around and then you’re ready when it happens, that’s all you need. Preparedness is so much more important than a “right place, right time.” It’s just stick around.
303: So then how did you trust the process and how did you decide to just have grit and stick through it?
BW: I think about it a lot. It’s not as if it’s over for me. I’m still totally on this uphill climb that may be never-ending and I think I had to come to terms with that. I had a very somber conversation with myself where I asked, do you want to do this because you want to be successful or do you want to do it because you want to do it? They’re two different answers. If you’re in this business to be successful, I don’t know if you’re ever going to be happy. So much of my struggle was about my identity, my personal investment in what I did. I would rather be less successful, be me and be proud of the small success that I’ve had because I did it my way…And that was hugely important to me because I was not really happy with the person who I was. And I thought, why am I doing this? When is this going to be fun?
303: It has to be fun. It’s your job but it has to be fun.
BW: Yes! It has to be fun because it is way more work than anybody ever told me. If I have to put so much work and time and effort and energy into this thing, then I have to be happy. When I’m playing in Kissimmee, Florida at some Tool Expo to a hundred people who have literally never heard of me in their life and they couldn’t give a fuck if I’m around, I have to take this gig so that I can pay to fly to New York and play this amazing gig that I want to play. So much of my life is that stuff is the Kissimmee, Florida. I’m really grateful to be in a place where the stuff that I do get to do, it is fun.
All photography by Kori Hazel.