Betty Who, the Australian singer/songwriter once known as Jessica Newham, started her musical journey as a kid, studying classical cello, before adding piano and guitar to her repertoire. The switchover from classical to pop took her to Boston’s Berklee College of Music where she studied voice and recorded her first single, “Somebody Loves You,” which was released in late 2012. Riding that tune’s wave, Betty Who issued two EPs, 2013’s The Movement and 2014’s Slow Dancing, causing enough of a surge to land herself a major label record deal. Her full-length debut, Take Me When You Go, dropped late last year and, on the strength of pop gems like “Somebody Loves You,” “Heartbreak Dream,” and “All of You,” continued to push the young starlet along.
Let’s take it from the top. How does someone evolve so quickly from being a classical cellist to a dance-pop diva?
I was always super-interested in pop music and in singing and writing my own music. I started doing it when I was around 14 and I played cello until I was 18, so there was definitely a crossover period for me. But I really started to realize that I only wanted to do singing when I was about 16 or 17, and I was still in school for cello, so my teacher went out of his way to help me develop skills to help me in that realm. He was pretty cool about it and I think that helped my transition. That’s why it wasn’t so shocking to me. Then, I went to college for voice.
Got it. So you went to Berklee, but you ditched with only six weeks left, right? As much as I love the salad bar boy* story you told, surely it wasn’t that heartbreak that forced you to leave?
[Laughs] Right. It was mostly because I’d put out my first EP while I was still in college and I’d gotten quite a bit more buzz than anybody really had expected off of that. So, when I was making my second EP, I was still in school and trying to take label meetings — trying to commute back and forth during the summer semester between Berklee and New York. I probably had one or two of those meetings a week for a couple of weeks. I was missing too much class and I was having trouble justifying that within my curriculum, and I think my teachers were having a problem with it. So it was kind of “now or never.”
I remember getting really sick, at one point. My mom was the person who was like, “You can’t drop out. You have so little time left.” And I remember getting really sick, and I had a show, and I was practically on my death bed — I was so dramatic. Probably an hour before the show, she was sitting with me, stroking my hair, and said, “You should leave school.” That was a massive moment for me because I had been fighting with her about it for a long time. So, for her to see its toll on me, physically… that was like, “This is it.”

And it seems like, at that point, you were having the professional success which was the point of going to school anyway…
Exactly. I think that’s what a lot of Berklee kids do. We’re all there for the same thing. We all want to be successful, professionally, as musicians. So a lot of kids start to get professional success while they’re still in school and, when that happens, it’s like now school’s just holding you back because you’re already doing what you wanted to learn how to do. I think that’s definitely something that, particularly, a lot of the Berklee teachers are very familiar with and encourage.
Since you did start out making EPS, and you have a “no filler” motto when it comes to songs, what did you have to shift in order to crank out enough material for a whole album?
I was lucky enough because, when I put the solo album out, five of the songs on the record had already been out on my EPs. I picked and chose my favorites, I guess. It’s hard to say that. It’s kind of like my own Sophie’s choice… like which song is my favorite song. But I had to pick the songs that I felt most needed to be showcased on my first full-length record. So, when I did that, I only had so much more length that I needed for the rest of the songs. And I had a lot of time. I was writing for a while. I wrote for the record in 2012, but I put the album out in 2014. So that’s two years worth of songs.
But I think, also, the album is 13 songs long… I think I probably only wrote 15 or 16 songs for the record and chose between those. There are very different kinds of writers and I’m not one of those people who can write songs for six months, a different song every day. I envy those people. I just wear out quicker than that. So, when I write 20 songs, it’s safe to say I’m in love with 16 or 17 of those. That’s how the album came to be. It was just a matter of time and a matter of creative energy.
I live in Nashville and it doesn’t sound like you’d do that well on Music Row. [Laughs] Some of these guys are churning stuff out on a daily basis.
[Laughs] I know! I actually have a friend who lives in Nashville and we talked recently about that. He’s like, “It’s fucking killing me, dude! Because so many people are going, ‘Let’s write a new song today!’” It’s definitely high stakes, for sure.

Your song “Somebody Loves You”… for you, it’s a break-up song, yet that lovely Spencer Stout fellow turned it on its head in his now-famous Home Depot proposal. How does it feel for songs to go out in the world and take on their own lives and meanings? Do you try to hold on to them a little bit or do you just have to let them go?
Oh, you have to let them go. I actually just had this conversation. A friend of mine is writing a book and it’s coming out in six months or so. And he was talking about how he’s freaking out about it and he’s like, “It’s supposed to be finished and I can’t seem to let it go.” I had this conversation with him and said, “The second you put out your work of art, your piece of your soul, the second that is out on stands or in stores, it’s no longer about you. It’s about the people who want to read it or listen to it and react to it. And it’s about their stories now. It was about you when you made it.” That’s how I feel about my record. The stories that are on my album, they were my stories. But the second the album came out, they became everybody else’s stories.
Right. And I’d think you’d want to strike a balance between writing your own personal confessions and making them universal, in a way, maybe adding in some fantasy so that people can overlay themselves.
Oh, for sure. I think there’s a real art form in writing a song that is specific enough to you that it is truthful and not vague — an absolutely tangible, true story. But balancing that with making it open enough that anyone can hear it and say, “That song is about me. It has to be.”
I remember the first time I heard “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell. I remember being like, “Holy shit! This woman understands my soul. How does she do it?” [Laughs] I think those are the songs that I dream to and strive to write. I dream that same reaction would happen to someone listening to my song saying, “Oh my God! How did you know?”
It also has to have enough truth in it for you to be able to perform it night after night, year after year.
Absolutely. Some of my favorite songs that I’ve written grow and change with me as I grow. I think it’s really tough when you have a song that is so specific to a certain time in your life that, when you perform it six months later, it’s not true anymore. That’s tough. I think the best songs are the ones you can listen to 10 years from now and go, “This is still true.” And it’s about something totally different, but it really is still true.
Now, you’ve been very un-stingy with your admiration of Robyn and Katy Perry, basically anointing them the voices of their generation, in terms of pop music. What are the qualities you hear in the pop music for your generation that is different from, say, the ’80s or another era?
I think pop is such an interesting and enigmatic place to live because it’s just “popular music.” That’s what it is. Katy Perry will always be pop, but also “Rude” by Magic! was number one and is pop music, but it’s a reggae song. So, popular music, I don’t think, is a genre. I think it’s a…
It’s a lifestyle! [Laughs]
[Laughs] Yeah. It’s a lifestyle. It’s how people live their lives and it’s what happens to be popular in the moment. So it’s really interesting. And, I think, more than anything, it shows you how eclectic and almost random my generation is. It’ll go from a throwback song… like “Uptown Funk!” by Mark Ronson has been number one for how many weeks now — like 18 weeks or something crazy like that? I think there have been only two number one songs this entire year. I think it was “Blank Space” and “Uptown Funk!” Those are the only two number one songs of 2015, so far.
To go from a Taylor Swift song to a Mark Ronson song featuring Bruno Mars in a throwback… that’s how my generation is. We want different. We want strange. We want eclectic. We want unusual. I think that leaves a lot of room for anybody to get in. I think, at this point, it’s not about a record label putting a pretty girl’s face on an album and going, “This is the new pop sensation.” It’s about how we dictate what we want now… which is equal parts very cool and totally scary. [Laughs]
[Laughs] You’ve also been playing shows and doing tours with a lot of strong female artists. What makes those gigs so appealing to you versus touring with a band of dudes?
You know, I feel very lucky to have the last three tours I’ve done go from Katy Perry to Kylie Minogue to Kiesza. I keep making jokes that I’m making my way through the Ks of the dictionary right now. But I’ve been very, very lucky to be with such strong, awesome ladies. And I love men. Some of my favorite people that I met on Katy Perry’s tour were her crew guys who were just dudes, through and through.
But, it’s so empowering and exciting to me to go and watch a show and know, “No, the most important person on the stage right now is this flawless, beautiful, awesome woman.” And that’s really exciting to me. I think women are absolutely the strongest faces in pop right now. And I don’t think that can be disputed. I think if we said, “Who is the most famous pop musician in the world right now?” My first thought is, “Taylor Swift.” My second thought is, “Katy Perry.” And my third is, “Beyoncé.” [Laughs] Maybe that’s me, but I think most people, when they think about pop music right now, women are dominating. Rhianna… even Kiesza… we are, hopefully, making a statement. Even the biggest rap song of last year was Iggy Azalea. That’s exciting to me.
Yeah, yeah. Those tours… is it possible to describe what it is you give and what it is you get when you’re performing live?
It’s kind of near impossible to do that. [Laughs] For me, at least, being on stage is like a second home. It’s the most exciting thing about what I do. You can have the worst day in the fucking world: “This is horrible. I hate everything. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be me.” I think everybody has those days. And you get through it and, at the end of the night, I still get to go on stage and perform in front of people who are, hopefully, singing my words right back to me. There’s no feeling that’s better than that. The words that I sing every night went from being scribble in my journal to being on a record that I put out on a major label. And I still have trouble remembering that that’s what I’m doing because you’re so in it that you don’t really get a lot of perspective on it. Then I think about it and I’m like, “This is crazy!”
I went to see Vampire Weekend play in the same venue where we’re about to play in Chicago. And I remember being 17 and standing there and idolizing the people on the stage. And I’m about to go play in that same venue. I saw a bunch of shows at Boston House of Blues when I was in college at Berklee. And Kiesza and I are playing Boston House of Blues on our tour. So, moments like that… being on stage is so gratifying and also so far away from anything that I can even picture doing… being on stage is like being in an entirely different world than being in the audience. You’re so far away from it when you’re in the audience. You have no idea how easy it is. At least for me, when I was growing up, I was like, “Oh my God! That’s crazy! They’re up there like a huge star…” And then you’re on stage and it’s, “Oh my God, this is the easiest thing in the world and I’m here for you. We’re in this together.” Every show is special and every fan is special. Truthfully, this tour has been one of the best and most gratifying for me because so many people who’ve come to see the show have known, not only the words to “Somebody Loves You,” but the words to every song on the album that I play. And that’s crazy.
It must be a fantastic experience.
It really is. I’m lucky.
But on those days when you want to slink away and disappear, can you imagine a time when you’d go back to being Jessica, the singer/songwriter, just doing your thing at some little open mic or acoustic club? Now that you’ve tasted the other…
[Laughs] I know. It really is like a drug. I think a little tiny part of me hates to think that I do need applause to live. When I went home to New York in January, it was one of the first times that I got to just hang out and be there and see friends because I’m touring all the time, so I never really get to just be there. When I was, I got together with one of my best friends who is also a singer/songwriter — she and I went to Berklee together. She’s teaching spin classes in New York, so she’s this fitness instructor extraordinaire. And I’m doing whatever I’m doing on tour all the time.
Both of us were having coffee saying, “The thing we never get to do anymore is just play our singer/songwriter songs in a really small room of people we love. That’s all we did in college. We should do that again.” So one of my closest friends was very kind to put us up in his house and both of us invited maybe 10 or 15 friends. We packed everybody in his living room, and Anna and I sat on stools in front of our friends. We were both so nervous, strangely enough, because they were all people we loved and are not nervous in front of. And we played only our singer/songwriter songs that not many people have heard. It was so lovely… this moment of “This is why I got into doing what I’m doing.”
So I can definitely see continuing to bring myself down to earth in that way, continuing to have and need moments like that to ground everything. But I don’t know if I could ever not do what I’m doing. [Laughs] I think I could do both, but I don’t think I could ever not do this.
[Laughs] “The Betty Who House Concert Tour 2016: Coming Soon to a Living Room Near You!”
[Laughs] Right. Exactly. Exactly.
*The salad bar boy story as recounted in Elle: “Literally, there was this boy who worked at my local salad bar in Boston. He asked me out and I was immediately like, ‘Oh my God, he’s my new husband! We’re having a Spring wedding!’ He’s 26. And he works in a salad bar. But we went on two dates and I haven’t heard from him since. Because that’s what happens when you plan your Spring wedding around a salad bar boy.”
This article originally appeared on Cuepoint.