Everything about Betty Who is outsized. Standing 6-foot-1 with a tuft of platinum blonde hair, the 22-year old Australian freshman’s bold look is matched by her glittery synth-pop anthems. The singer, born Jessica Newham and now based in New York, broke out when her single “Somebody Loves You” soundtracked a viral YouTube clip of a dance-heavy marriage proposal, leading to an RCA deal and, in April, the top of Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Songs chart. She followed that early promise with her excellent debut LP, Take Me When You Go, released Oct. 7. Katy Perry is a fan, recruiting Who to open the upcoming Australian leg of her Prism tour, and there are lots of reasons you should be too.
You met your producer Peter [Thomas] at Berklee College of Music. What did you guys find in common that drew you to each other?
We worked together before we were friends. Peter’s a very interesting person in that I’ll sit down with somebody for the first time and we’ll leave being best friends. Peter will be nice to you and polite, like a good Rhode Island well-raised boy, and you won’t feel like his friend for months. That was so frustrating for me because I was like, “Fuck! Just love me, are you kidding me?” Because we’d hang out every day and it took him a long time to be like, “She’s my friend,” and let me into this elite esteemed group of people that he calls his “handful.”
So many kids leave Berklee and they’re like, “I hate all these people. This is horrible.” And everyone wants to do the same thing! And so everyone’s really secretly competitive and ready to slit your throat at any point, but also wants you as a connection to help you out when you need it, which is how this industry is. Everybody is that way on some level. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to be a bitch sometimes which sucks because I find that I don’t really have that in me, and I’ve tried to avoid that path at all costs, but that’s how most people function, I think. It stresses me out, it really stresses me out.
I got more education out of mine and Peter’s relationship than I did out of Berklee. Because I would finish class and go over to his house and sit in his bedroom and listen to music for hours and talk about wanting to write songs like that. It’s funny because I was so obsessed with pop music but then we would write these singer-songwriter songs. At some point, Peter pointed out to me that there was a disconnect and that there should be a way for me to do both, which I think is what I’ve worked on creating as my sound — songs that mean something to me, songs that aren’t some crafted, well-thought-out and put-together song that has a great melody, that’s super-catchy but then doesn’t really mean anything.
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Had you always been into pop music? Did you go to Berklee with the intention of learning how to write a pop song? How did it work together?
I have been a pop music-obsessed person my whole life. My first tape was …Baby One More Time. The first thing I bought was Britney [Spears], so that’s how you know. I could listen to an old Britney record on repeat all day. I listened to a lot of Spice Girls, I listened to a lot of ‘N Sync. Was not a Backstreet [Boys] girl, although my roommate and I have disagreed on this many times because I’m an ‘N Sync girl.
The one theme I kept finding in the lyrics on Take Me When You Go is that you’re talking to outsiders a lot, a lot of self-love stuff and expressing that through relationships and how you deal with them. Do you feel like you make music for yourself, or for this outsider audience?
I think the outsider audience, that third person kind of “I’m talking to you, faceless person” is me. I’m talking to myself a lot in these songs because I think I use these songs for me as working through stuff, and it’s funny because I’ll write a song and not know what it’s about, and then I’ll go back a week later and be like, “Fuck, this is really dark, and it’s exactly about this one thing that happened to me.” My song that I’ve written, half the time, ends up being this lesson for me that I needed to learn that I didn’t realize I needed to learn.
I learned a lot about myself by making this record, particularly in my relationships and given how I don’t love myself enough. I’m 22, so I think this is the time in my friends’ and my life where I just give and give and give and wait to get something back and I never do, because people will take what you give them and not give anything back until you demand it. Not everybody. Some people will do that, and I had a handful of experiences in a row with a couple of different people over the years and every experience, I came out the same being like, “I feel bad, I am hurt, and I’m not blaming you, so this has to be about me.” And figuring out that was really brutal. I mean especially “California Rain” is about that, which is why I wanted it to be at the end as a lullaby, because we thought about producing the song and I was like, “No way, this is how it should be, this is how it is, this is how I feel.” So I think at least for me, I got to the end of writing the album and I was like, “I get it now. I learned my lesson, universe.”
Are you worried that the people you wrote the songs about are going to hear them?
I’m sure they will. I think a handful of them already have. There’s one song on the record that’s a very sweet, sad love song called “Missing You.” That’s actually about my boyfriend, and he mixed the song, which is really cute and sweet because he’s a great mixer. So he’s already heard the songs that are about him and it feels a little weird about how many other songs there are on the record that aren’t about him, because I wrote so much of it before I met him. But I’m sure these people will hear the songs and I’m sure they will know they’re about them, because they’re very specific. But I’m not trying to call anybody out. What I learned particularly from them is I’m not blaming anybody in these songs. I didn’t go out of my way to be like, “You fucked me over! I’m devastated!” It’s me being like, “Oh, this is exactly what happened and here’s how I felt about it and here’s what I learned from it.” Namaste, you know?
You have all these records that look back on what you’ve been through and articulate them, but what do you want people to experience when they listen to the record? Do you want them to learn the same thing, or do you want them to feel that they’re not alone?
I want people to take the experiences I’ve had and relay them to their own lives. I try to write songs that are ambiguous enough that you could listen to them and be like, “Oh my god, that’s me,” or “This song is about this person in my life.” It’s hard because you have to be honest and so at some point you can’t be like, “Oh, let’s write this even though it didn’t happen. People will love that.” It’s more about creating not only a musical vibe and an energetic vibe, but giving people a safe space to feel things and having a record that people can listen to and be like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe you know my life.” That’s my ideal goal.
Even “Just Like Me,” you feel the same thing.
Fuck, I love that song. “Just Like Me” especially was a song where I wrote it about myself but I was also with Peter, and he and I were talking about his ex-girlfriend and my ex-boyfriend too. When you’re in a room with somebody that you’ve been with before, sexually, like been with before, you don’t really know how to be around them and not do that. It’s a very difficult thing to do and I haven’t lost that for sure. I’m young, but most of the time if I’m around someone that I’ve slept with, I’m like, “Get me out of here. I cannot stay here because I’m going to freak out.” And so that song is basically about that feeling of, “‘I miss you every day and I wish I could tell you that.’ But if I do, you’ll be like, ‘I miss you too’ in this dark raspy tone of voice. So I’ll feel like, ‘OK, this got very weird and I was just trying to catch up with you and tell you that I really miss you but I don’t want to be with you.'”
You’re opening for Katy Perry in November. Are you nervous?
Surprisingly, no. I will be, I’m sure. But right now? No. I think it’s one of those things where nobody’s there for me, everyone’s there for Katy and I don’t have false expectations of everyone knowing every word to my songs. So I’m just going to go out there, do my best, be totally overwhelmed and have this awesome experience and be really grateful for it. And not overthink it too much because I imagine it would be very hard not to be like, “Oh my god, this is so much pressure!” Because not really, because nobody really cares about you here. Everyone wants to hear “Teenage Dream,” not “Somebody Loves You.” It’s fine. So it makes it feel a little less important. Obviously, it’s so important and it’s going to be so cool.
You mentioned album two.
I literally haven’t even thought about it. I have no space in my brain to think about showering, let alone my second album. It’s been a brutal couple of weeks trying to gear up and get this done. My album drops the same day I go on tour for two-and-a-half months. So planning for a tour is hard enough, and planning for an album release is hard enough, but to do both of those things at the same time and not coming back to New York for two months after I leave? I haven’t eaten real food in a week. I’ve been surviving on Thin bars and soy lattes. Lots of soy lattes.
So then you’re just going to be touring to support the record, right?
Literally touring until I fucking die. I’m going to tour for two months now. I finish the tour in London, I’m off as of right now for December and January once I’m back from London, and then February picks up again and I’m back on the road from what I understand. The never-ending tour. Tour is hard, and anybody who tells you that tour isn’t hard is lying to you. And so people make me feel bad all the time and they’re like, “Tour must be so hard, playing in front of fans, so hard!” and I’m like, “No! It really is.” I’m obviously not complaining. I’ve played shows for literally five people who have shown up to a 100-person venue and I’m like “Welcome! This feels weird!” So those are the shows where you’re like, “This is really hard but it doesn’t matter because those five people walked away being like, ‘Oh I saw Betty Who and I loved it'” — hopefully. Or they’re like, “She’s fucking horrible.” But if I get to physically touch or move somebody in a room, I did my job and that’s gratifying.
An edited version of this story appeared in the Oct. 18 issue of Billboard