By Nicole Herrera
Betty Who is a name that’s blossomed in the pop music realm, and the woman behind that name is none other than Berklee alum Jess Newham. Within the last few months, she’s gone from an underground favorite (remember when we chose her as our Artist of the Month around this time last year?) to nearly a household name, thanks to a viral video of a flash mob proposal in which her song “Somebody Loves You” was used.
Since October 4th was Betty Who’s first time back in Boston after the proposal video and her signing to RCA Records, we knew it was time to do another feature on our very-soon-to-be pop star. Below, check out our review of her show at The Middle East Upstairs followed by an interview with Betty herself.
Nick Checo, whose sound is much like Jack Johnson with a reggae twist, opened for Betty Who at The Middle East Upstairs that night. After Nick’s masterful performance, the crowd grew even larger for Betty Who’s headlining set. Even though Betty has only released one four-song EP so far, she treated the audience to several new catchy and relatable originals, as well as a cover of Miguel’s “Use Me.” The cover was soulful and sensual, and the audience was just enraptured by it. Jemila Dunham’s bass playing was on point just the same.
In between songs, Betty Who graced the audience with her twerking skills and hilarious banter about everything from having an emotional dinner with the newly engaged couple from the proposal video, to how she accidentally described herself to a reporter once “as if Princess Diana and Beyoncé had a baby.” She mentioned that her birthday was coming up, and the audience joined her in singing an impromptu chorus of Taylor Swift’s “22” to celebrate.
When the chorus to fan favorite “High Society” came around, everyone threw their arms up and sang, “We’ll drink Chardonnay through the day ‘cause we say so.” It was definitely a moment to remember. By the end of the night, everyone knew what was coming – it was the song. As soon as familiar synth intro to “Somebody Loves You” was played, the crowd went berserk. Betty and the band were having a blast, and everyone in the audience sang along at the top of their lungs.
Berklee Groove: Congratulations on getting signed! How has everything been since Dustin and Spencer’s video?
Betty Who: It’s been really good. That kind of changed things for me a little bit, just in the way that more people now have heard the song (“Somebody Loves You”). It just totally threw my exposure way higher than I thought it would, which is amazing.
BG: How is your relationship with the band?
BW: It’s amazing! They’re all Berklee kids, as well…. It’s such a joy to work with people you love and trust, [and are also] incredible musicians. It’s really nice.
BG: So, how did you come up with the name “Betty Who”?
BW: I had written this song [called] “Betty Who” when I was 17. Then a couple years later when we were talking about what I could go by, I kind of threw out “Betty Who” as an option and everyone was like, “Yeah, that feels right!” It just kind of had a ring to it, you know?
BG: Do you have any favorite artists, especially as performers that you look toward for inspiration?
BW: I think I’m super inspired by everything that Michael Jackson changed about performing. And I think Beyoncé’s kind of taken his role, so I think I’m super inspired by that. Maybe not influenced, but inspired by. I’m definitely influenced a lot by Michael’s music and other singer/songwriters from that era, such as Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Patty Griffin.
BG: How do you approach your songwriting?
BW: It’s different every time – mostly I don’t force it. That’s the number one thing I do. It’s just like knowing if I go in and I’m like, “Okay, I have to write a song,” it’s not going to be good. But if I’m in a place where I’m like, “Oh, I think I could write a song now,” it’s always generally pretty good.
BG: So what do you like to see in the audience when you’re performing?
BW: People singing along and people dancing. I think when people are moving, actually, because it’s really easy to stand at a show and not really react. So I think it has to be really powerful for people to be there getting down, you know?
“I had to work really hard to find a sound that reflected who I think I am.”
BG: How do you handle mistakes in performances?
BW: In performances, I think it’s both the easiest and the hardest place to make mistakes. It’s easy because the show has to go on, so if something gets messed up or the sound goes out, you’re like, “Okay, keep it going!” But it’s also the hardest because you don’t have time to freak out and get mad at somebody or at yourself. It’s more of just in the moment, and it’s about [making it] the best show I can even if everything’s going wrong. We’ve had a couple of those, for sure, where the track was cut out and just a bunch of other stuff happened. It was so bad. You perform twice as better than you would any other night because you’re trying to hold people’s attention even though everything’s going wrong.
BG: Do you consider that the most stressful thing about being a performer?
BW: Probably. The load in/loud out and soundcheck is always stressful, and then for the next 45 minutes that we’re on stage, it’s seamless… and just everything before and after seems to be really stressful. I’m just not a good organizer. It takes a lot of organizational skills. I have a lot of people around me who are better at that.
BG: What kind of advice do wish you could have told yourself a few years back?
BW: Probably to not to take myself so seriously, ‘cause I think I was really waiting to have everything make sense and everything be perfect immediately. There was a lot of time where it wasn’t and I didn’t really know why, so I think if I was just able to tell myself to take it easy and trust that I’d get where I needed to be eventually, I probably would’ve had a good conversation with myself about that.
BG: Do you have any backstage or pre-performance rituals?
BW: We always circle up before a show – we try to. Sometimes we’ll be getting ready or something and then the music’s started… and we have to run out. Every show we’ve played we’ve opened with “You’re In Love,” and the beginning of the song is just the band playing and I come in halfway through the intro. So in that time before I go out, I’m always to the side of the stage with my eyes closed, just breathing and thinking, “Okay, let’s do this,” and the beat drops and I run out. That’s definitely something I do every show.
BG: What’s your fondest memory of music when you were growing up?
BW: I remember when I was a kid, I would play Sandy and Danny from Grease with my best friend on the playground and we would always fight each other to play Danny. It was like the weirdest thing. Neither of us wanted to play Sandy and we would sing “Summer Nights” on the playground to each other. It was like the strangest, weirdest, funniest thing.
BG: Do you have any advice for your peers back at Berklee?
BW: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t be afraid to really figure out who you are. That’s what made a difference for me. I had to work really hard to find a sound that reflected who I think I am, as opposed to making music that sounds good because you can. It’s about making music that’s right.