Betty Who On The Key To Writing Great Pop And Her Large LGBTQ Following

The Australian singer is chasing pop superstardom

Photo by Ben Cope

Betty Who does not consider herself famous. To prove it, the Australian pop singer let us know that in the middle of answering some questions about her rising career, she was sitting at home, “trying to figure out how to cook a sweet potato in the microwave.” But if Who’s career continues on its current trajectory, then soon someone will be microwaving her sweet potatoes for her.

Betty Who, born Jessica Anne Newham, made waves in 2014 with her debut album Take Me When You Go, which laid out her towering pop star ambitions and got her touring gigs in support of Katy Perry and Kylie Minogue. Since then, Who left the confines of Brooklyn, New York, for Los Angeles, where she began to work on material for her still-untitled sophomore album, scheduled for release in early 2017. Last week, Who reemerged without her trademark platinum blond pixie cut and released “Human Touch,” the first single off of the upcoming album and, with its on-trend tropical-pop inflection, a sure sign that she’s intensifying her hunt for Top 40 ubiquity. We spoke to Who about why full albums still matter in the age of singles, the importance of reinventing her look, and the beauty of having a large gay fanbase.

How has finding fame on the internet reverberated throughout your career? Does it have implications to this day?
It's interesting, in general, to have people consider you "famous" at all because I definitely don't feel famous ever. In my career, however, I think it's just made me more accessible and able to connect with people. I get to actually talk to fans on Twitter, I see the photos people post on Instagram. I think the fact that my career was sort of born and raised on the internet only strengthens those relationships.  
 
How superficial is the music industry? Are you ever dumbfounded by it, or is it something you expected and are used to? 
I am constantly surprised by the music industry, in both good and bad ways. More than anything I've learned you can't expect anything from anybody. The one thing uniting everybody in my industry is that none of us know what song or artist is going to "work" next. We can all say we do, whether it's a head executive at the biggest record label in the world, or a massive pop songwriter, or an up-and-coming artist fending for themselves. But none of us know anything except what we think is cool. We all just try and put our heart and work ethic and spirit behind things or people we believe in, and hope everybody else will start to believe in it too. So now I just operate under the motto of "high participation, low expectation," because it's the only way to keep your head on straight in this business. Keep working really fucking hard, but don't assume anything will ever happen the way you want it to. The universe will take care of the rest.  
 
What does it feel like to have something as personal to you as your music be reviewed and judged by total strangers? Is it hard?
I've been really lucky because I've only had a handful of people be really negative about my work. People have opinions and say shitty things, sure. But I don't really get attacked very often, and I'm so grateful and appreciative for that.  Mostly I just have people tell me how much a certain song means to them in their life. I get to hear stories of proposals, or of long drives in the summer, of falling in love, and it makes what I do meaningful. So I'm just happy to have the best fans ever, and even more happy these people want to share their stories with me. It's the only reason I do what I do.
 
What do you think it is about your music that has garnered you such a big following in the LGBT community? 
My friend Seth has a theory that gay men love to dance and cry, and my music lets you do it at the same time. But I couldn't even tell you. Honest to god, the first show I ever played in New York right after my first EP came out (I think I was 21?) was at Pianos on the Lower East Side, and the entire room was almost exclusively filled with gay men. Ever since then, I've sort of just been a part of this world. Besides the fact that I truly believe the LGBT community to be the most loving, thoughtful, accepting, fun, outrageous group of people I've ever had the pleasure to be involved with, I think it was always going to be this way. I was always going to preach a message of self-love and being entirely true to yourself, and I think that message coincides pretty well with the message of the LGBT community. And I intend to continue to do everything I can to support and be a voice for those in the community that need somebody to tell them it's all going to be okay.  
 
Describe your perfect setting for writing music?
A bottle of wine (or two, or three, WHO KNOWS DON'T JUDGE ME OKAY), with one or two people I love, and who I admire and love working with. Candles, too. In a beautiful big studio with a big bean bag.  
 
What is the secret to writing a great pop hook? Is it something you have to learn or is it something that's innate within you? 
I don't think there is a secret. We live in a world where "Work" by Rihanna, "Rude" by Magic, and "California Gurls" were all the biggest songs in the country. They're all incredible, hooky, massive, undeniable pop smashes. And they could not be more different. So sure, there are tricks and math to it all (I always prefer I perfect rhyme in a chorus, and bookending your title is a great way to hammer it home) but honestly if you just do what feels good to you, that's what makes it original and authentic. And that seems to be what people love the most.
 
As a pop musician, is it important to switch up your look with each new album release? How do you decide on a new look? 
Definitely. I have trouble really "deciding" anything, though. I just sort of do what feels right at the time, and let other people tell me if I look bad. Whatever I'm wearing or doing with my hair is reflective of what's going on in my life. So this album cycle I've gone back to my natural hair color not because I didn't love being platinum, but because I went through a period of desperately trying to find some sort of identity through what ended up being a really hard year.  Me growing my hair out is just one expression of that journey.
 
What are your biggest songwriting inspirations at the moment?
Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter are smashing it right now. They're writing everything that's awesome and I'm so happy for them and how successful their year has been. That and Pretty Sister has a song that I'm obsessed with called "Come to L.A." It was sort of my moving theme song. Both Justin and Pretty Sister and I wrote a few songs for my record, so it's always an honor to watch them work.
 
What do you make of the music industry in 2016, particularly the rise of streaming and the death of album?
Well, first I'll say that I have totally not fallen out of love with "the album." I will continue to make albums where every single song is important to me because the albums in my life that do show a range of emotion and storytelling have changed the course of my entire experience as a human. Album tracks are important. Album tracks are the songs you discover later and remind you of the night you spent at his house when you were supposed to be at Jill's but you kissed him and you couldn't leave and you got in so much trouble but fuck it was worth it. That's why albums should still be made.
 
I just think there is a sect of artists who don't like making albums or don't care and that's totally fine. Singles all day, hell yeah. But I have yet to convert. As for the internet? Well, if the internet is a dog that just took off to chase a squirrel along a dirt road, the music industry is the unexpecting owner being dragged along behind it, refusing to let go in fear it will lose the dog, but getting its face completely torn up on the gravel for all its effort. My career was born from the internet. There is so much to be learned from how people are putting music out on the internet. But the industry itself has yet to figure out how to work with it and I'm hoping we'll all figure it out soon. There's so much room to grow. I'd like to think we as an industry can make it a positive experience.