Rarely has an artist been so perfectly named. “Betty Who” is an appropriate moniker for the Australian synth-pop artist, not because she’s an anonymous figure in the modern, brutal pop world but because she seems to have been spending the first few years of her career discovering herself, working out what she wants her signature sound to be and, of course, growing up.
Hence, her new EP is called Betty, Pt. 1, despite the fact that it’s preceded by two albums and two EPs for RCA Records. She’s an indie artist now, going it alone, and this record marks the beginning of a new chapter.
“I knew I wanted to make a record, my first independent album ever,” she says. “I knew I wanted to do that but didn’t have enough material to do it yet. I didn’t feel I was ready for an album yet, so I figured putting an EP out was a way to sort of check the waters and see what worked and didn’t work. I felt like I had a renewed sense of excitement and inspiration.”
It’s all very natural. Betty Who, born Jessica Anne Newham, is 26 now, and she’s been active in the industry for eight years. So she was just 18 when she got going. That might not be abnormal, but the fact remains that it’s an incredibly young age to be in the public eye. Regardless of your chosen career path, everybody changes immeasurably between those ages.
“The place that I’m at in my life right now, personally as well as professionally, I’ve gone through a lot of changes,” Who says. “When you’re 20-something, you think, ‘This is my grown-up life now.’ I think most people have experienced that or are going to. This EP, in a lot of ways, is very representative of that. I had to move past a lot of stuff and put a lot of experiences in the past that I’ve had to overcome in my own personal way. So that when I went in for this record, I felt like I didn’t have any of those little voices in my head holding me back or telling me that I couldn’t do it or I wasn’t good enough. Although those voices can also motivate you. Somebody tells you you can’t do something, it makes you want to do it even more.”
It’s not only her personal life and professional mindset that has evolved. Organically, her sound has grown with her and become more eclectic, open to new ideas, as she’s continued along her path.
“I think I have a large musical interest,” Who says. “I listen to a lot of different music, I’m inspired by a lot of different genres of music, and I think that can seep into my music more now than ever. I think it’s less one- or two-dimensional. I’m trying to make this record four- or five-dimensional. I also think that the stories I’m telling are a bit more grown-up. My experiences are more complicated, and I think something that I work with a lot in my songwriting and struggle through a lot is telling a really complicated story. People can feel more than one way at once. I think I’m trying to capture a lot of that emotional depth and intelligence in some of my songs.”
Evidence of emotional depth and intelligent lyrics is all over Betty, Pt. 1. At the same time, Who has always stated that her aim is to make people dance. That’s why she’s here, that’s the point of her music. Nothing’s changed in that regard.
“I called my first EP The Movement because I wanted people to feel moved,” she says, “whether that’s making them dance, or the song is emotional and they feel something. I listen to songs all the time that I think are good, I just don’t know what the point is. That’s the weeding-out process that I’m in right now, making my album. I’ve been spending a lot of time with that idea, and trying to make sure I’m still making an album that’s going to make people feel moved. Songs that people are going to want to dance to. I tell people to come to the show and have a good time. I want people to let go, I want people to enjoy themselves and find themselves. Not be judged and feel like they have to behave a certain way. Come and have a really good time.”
The EP does exactly that, and it stands as solid proof that Betty Who is exactly the sort of pop singer we need right now. The music is catchy, with hooks galore, but it doesn’t sound at all dumb and disposable. It’s contemporary while simultaneously reminiscent of ’80s pop. Familiar and challenging. And Who is a badass, strong female role model.
“There are old white men everywhere who don’t love it when young women stand up,” she says. “Of any color or shape or size. Stand up and say, ‘This is who I am, fuck you if you don’t like it.’ People talk a lot on the internet. There are a lot of people who see something, from both sides, and go, ‘That must be true.’ I like the people who don’t do that, who go, ‘How do I incorporate this into my daily life? How do I spend my life trying to lead by example and be the kind of person I wish everybody else was?’”
Who, who has an American mother, moved to the United States (Michigan, then Massachusetts, then New York, before SoCal) in 2007 to continue her training as a cellist. She relocated to L.A. because she was spending all her time working here anyway, and rent in NYC is way too high to not be there. She doesn’t make it back to Australia as much as she would like, but her parents are here now anyway, and she has a bigger following in the States than back home.
This week, she performs on the Santa Monica Pier, something she says she has wanted to do for a while, encouraged by the scene in Entourage where a character dressed as Aquaman jumps off the side.
“That will be my mood all day,” she says, with a laugh. “It’s our first full dance show in a while. I do a lot of shows with just me and dancers. Or just me acoustic. When we do get to play our full show and do the whole shebang, it makes us all really excited. I think if anything, we’ll be pumped. We can name it turbo-mode, when you’re having an amazing show.”
Well, then, turbo-mode it is.
Betty Who plays at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 12, on the Santa Monica Pier.