By Steve Weinstein
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'I have this fantasy," says Betty Who. The New York-based singer is a tall, fast-talking burst of energy with platinum blonde hair and a near-constant smile. She's describing her dream stadium tour, which would come complete with Marc Jacobs designing both the stage and costumes and "Beyoncé's lights." "I want to be an indie pop artist but with every trapping every major pop artist has," she says.
Who may not be long for the indie world. In November 2012, a month after her 21st birthday, she watched her first single, "Somebody Loves You," blow up on the internet. Not long after, she signed with RCA.
Before she was Betty Who, she was Jessica Newham, a cellist born and raised in Sydney, Australia, dancing in front of a mirror to *NSYNC. Being young at the cusp of the millennium, at a time when pop acts like Britney Spears, Spice Girls, and Usher owned the airwaves, affected much of Who's early tastes. In concert today as Betty Who, she's covered classics from the golden era of bubblegum pop like Spice Girls' "Say You'll Be There" and "Say My Name" by Destiny's Child.
At 14, Newham found herself in Michigan attending a three-week program at the Interlochen Summer Arts Camp and still playing the cello with a focus on classical music. At 15, she returned to Interlochen and was recruited for the year-round program, which meant uprooting herself and her parents from Australia to the U.S. "If they hadn't come, I wouldn't be where I am today," she says. "I think that was a huge part of how I got here." Her parents bought a home close to Interlochen so their daughter and her friends could have a place to hang out on the weekends.
While pop had a huge bearing on the personality and energy of Who's music, a taste for singer-songwriters like John Mayer, Missy Higgins, Sara Bareilles, and Carole King pushed her to write. "I think that turned me into a songwriter — listening to that stuff. I remember not really knowing how or why I wrote my first song; it just sort of happened, and my music teacher was like, 'You wrote a song!'" She credits that moment as the beginning of her push away from cello. Life after Interlochen meant attending Berklee College of Music in Boston and an introduction to the producer who would help her become Betty Who.
"I just loved her because she was super, super funny and a totally magnetic personality," says Peter Thomas. Both 18 and new to Berklee, Thomas and Newham met each other at the preliminary auditions for the prestigious school. Hailing from Rhode Island, Thomas had been playing piano and writing songs from a young age. As a preteen, he started experimenting with the recording software Logic Express, using his friends as guinea pigs.
By the time he entered Berklee, Thomas preferred a blend of pop with indie dance music, artists like MGMT and Passion Pit. That combination can be heard at the root of Betty Who's sound today, but when the pair began writing together, Thomas was shocked at how subdued the singer's music was. He explains: "My immediate reaction was 'Why are you writing only quiet, acoustic songs? You're the loudest and funniest person I know!'" The two started writing together and adding more dynamic, synth-based elements to the sound. By spring of their first academic year at Berklee, they began shaping a pop star
Being Betty Who has, just a short time later, now become a full-time job. Thomas's focus post-Berklee has been the music he makes with Betty rather than his own. Between two EPs — The Movement and the recently released Slow Dancing — which has already edged its way onto the Top 10 of the pop charts, and an upcoming full-length album slated for the end of the year, Thomas and Who have found themselves writing and tweaking almost as constantly as they were for the years leading up to "Somebody Loves You."
That single seemed to finally capture the idea of a Betty Who song. Manager Ethan Schiff, a fellow Berklee student who started the same year as Who and Thomas and now represents them both, emailed 400 blogs, sites, and writers with the first single. Schiff and Thomas believe Who can find a larger audience while still retaining substance. "It's a really, really powerful combination, having a female singer writing candid, efficient songs that are still catchy," explains Thomas. For Schiff, he found himself drawn to her "bright, fun pop music [where] if you listen much closer, it's way more than that." He continues, "if you listen to [her music], you get a sense that this is a real person."
There's no denying her appeal. Onstage, she dances like you would in your bedroom to your favorite pop acts, jumping up and down to her own songs as if she's on the floor with the audience. She's loud and jokey and immediately familiar with everyone she comes in contact with. "I very much don't take myself too seriously, so it's all kind of come full circle as an honest representation of who I am," says Who. "I have a lot of fun onstage, but at my own expense."
The Movement is drenched in sunny synth with serious Cyndi Lauper vibes, yet grounded in the subdued singer-songwriter Who once was. Lyrically, the songs are well-constructed, smart, and catchy. The universal romanticism of "Somebody Loves You" paired with its Jazzercise-friendly, neon beat is what brought the song to No. 1 on the dance charts and made it a natural pick to soundtrack the heartwarming viral clip of a flash mob wedding proposal set in Home Depot that exposed it to many new listeners. (Who even sang at that couple's wedding.)
On Slow Dancing, Who pushes toward r&b. Working with a variety of producers and musicians, including Ghost Beach on "Lovin' Start," her sound has expanded and reinvented itself to something more sensual and mature, a shift she credits to a lengthy list of people and music moments in her life — her older brother's love of Eminem and Usher, a recent infatuation with Kanye West's The College Dropout, her band's r&b background, her manager's history as a funk drummer, and her boyfriend's obsession with Dr. Dre's The Chronic 2001.
But shifting and reshaping is at the center of who Who is. The criteria are simple: "I want to make music to spin to, music for people to dance in the shower," she says. "This is one of the only professions where, as you come up, no one has done what you've done," she says. "You are creating something new and being recognized for it. It's not like getting a promotion at a job because someone else had that promotion before you. You are utterly the master of your own destiny."