Betty Who (aka Jess Newham) makes pop music of the electro variety, specifically the thrilling kind often exported from Sweden by the likes of Robyn and Vanbot, as evidenced on her debut single, “Fire With Fire.” But this 21-year-old newcomer was born way on the other side of the world in Sydney, Australia, and now makes her home in Boston, Massachusetts, of all burgs. (If I recall the biography of native son Benjamin Franklin correctly, Ben did enjoy himself some electro pop, so there’s a connection.)
With so much about Betty Who still unknown to me — like the matters of what, when, and why — she graciously agreed to answer some questions. But before jumping into the back and forth that followed, first take a listen to the fantastic “Fire With Fire” and see if your curiosity isn’t similarly stoked:
POPSERVATIONS: So, Betty Who, who are you? Don’t be shy. We’re very nice — usually.
BETTY WHO: “I’m a 6’2” — 6’7” if I’m in heels — stanky-leg expert who likes to sing indie-pop music and bake vegan treats that sometimes taste good.”
You were born and raised in Sydney, but are currently living in Boston. What made you pack up your things and come to our lovely shores? That’s an awful long way to go for Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.
“I moved to the U.S. of A. when I was 16 after being recruited to a performing arts high school in Interlochen, Michigan for classical cello. But I really liked not practicing cello and writing songs about boys, so I applied to college for that instead. But mostly I had heard amazing things about Dunkin’ Donuts, so I figured I had to move here immediately.”
That’s a big move. What did your friends and family think?
“Well, my parents decided they weren’t quite done with me yet, so they moved to the States with me in 2007. My friends were all a bit taken aback since I found out I was moving two weeks before I had to be moved. I got a lot of equally wonderful and tragic goodbye letters and still receive the occasional Aussie care package with Vegemite and Caramello Koalas galore.”
What’s your favorite thing about Australia and your favorite thing about the U.S.? And to keep things fairly balance, your least favorite about each?
“My favorite thing about Australia would have to be the streets of Sydney. I’ve never had more fun people-watching than in that city. My least favorite thing would have to be how far away it is from me right now.
My favorite thing about the States is the diversity. I recently did a cross-country road trip from Boston to L.A. and every state was like a different planet. My least favorite thing is probably the beer. It’s pretty appalling.”
What was the moment when you decided, “Music, that’s it, that’s what I’m going to do”?
“I started playing cello when I was 4, so it’s definitely always been a huge part of my life. But there was always something so appealing to me about singing and performing in front of thousands of people. As a kid, I would always respond to the ‘What do you want to be when you grow up’ question with ‘A singer/pop-star/any other clichéd childhood dream of being famous.’ But I won my first songwriting competition when I was 17, and I think that’s when I really got it. Something clicked and it was like everything leading up to that moment had happened specifically for the purpose of leading me to that realization.”
“I had written a song about a boy’s idealistic vision of a ’50s woman that he wanted, and that I was never going to be that girl. Hence ‘Betty Who.’ But then when my producer and I were talking about what I would go by, it randomly and unexpectedly came out, and we both knew immediately that that was it. That was the name.”
How would you shorthand your style of music or sound?
“I write catchy pop hooks and combine it with warm, ’80s-inspired, organic-meets-electronic indie tracks.”
Who are the artists along the way who have inspired you?
“Songwriting-wise, I don’t know if gets much more raw than Joni Mitchell’s Blue album. She is somewhat responsible — if not entirely responsible — for my emotional development as a writer. Ella Fitzgerald had such an amazing ear, which isn’t something you see a lot of, especially in singers. Michael Jackson had such an incredible presence as a performer and I am in awe at his quest for perfection.
Sound-wise, people who are current who inspire me are definitely Robyn, Foster The People, Penguin Prison, Miike Snow… the list goes on.”
Tell me about your first single, “Fire With Fire.”
“In a ‘big’ sense, it’s about not letting anybody tell you that you can’t do something, and how we, as a generation, shouldn’t be labelled as apathetic anymore. In a smaller, immediate sense, it’s about a night. One night where all the things that are overwhelming aren’t overwhelming anymore and you dance like you know how, and you feel because you can, and laugh because it feels good, and you kiss someone because you want to kiss someone.”
A proper subject for pop music. What can we expect from the music video for “Fire With Fire” coming later this month?
“There will be dancing, and paint throwing, and chaos.”
Speaking of throwing, let’s play Swedish Pop Throwdown: ABBA, Roxette, or Robyn?
“Oh, man… I really love Robyn, but ABBA might have to be my favorite answer to any question.”
Now on to Sophie’s Choice: Minogue Sisters Edition. Kylie or Dannii?
“Please, Kylie’s my girl.”
Well, Dannii has been quiet on the music front for some time, while Kylie is still at it (that whole ‘K25′ business this year, you know). But back to you: Besides the “Fire With Fire” music video, what’s up next for Betty Who?
“I have an awesome ‘Fire With Fire’ remix being released after the video, done by the fabulous Malachi Mott. The next single will be coming out first thing in the new year and we have a few surprises coming out along the way.”
Free download of Betty Who – “Fire With Fire” via the player above.