It’s refreshing to meet a pop star that is also a pop music fan. Every bit of Betty Who loves music. She loves writing it, performing it and absorbing it. She’s bright, intelligent, energetic and wonderfully disarming. There’s honesty in the way she communicates that is far beyond her 25 years. However, even after a short conversation with her, you realize quickly that music affects her at a cellular level. While she is a classically trained musician with a signature voice that works as seamlessly with layers of electronic synths as it does with a simple acoustic guitar, she takes none of it for granted.
With an eye-catching signature blonde pixie cut, delightful nineties superstar fixation, and singing and songwriting prowess befitting of her stadium ambition, Betty Who commands the dance floor.
“I’ve spent the past two years on the road, and I walked away with this intense feeling of wanting to make dance music,” she exclaims. “All of that touring and living developed my sense of self. It’s a really fast learning curve out there. You have to learn how to get better immediately. Because of that, I’m in a place where I feel more aware of who I am and able to be vulnerable in a sincere and blunt way. My band and I have the best time ever. It’s about creating songs that feel huge in front of a crowd of 20 or 20,000. I know that I want to get people moving.”
That’s what the Australia-born and Los Angeles-based songstress has been doing since the release of her explosive 2013 independent EP, The Movement. Who’s 2014 full-length debut, Take Me When You Go [RCA Records], cemented her as a 21st century buzzworthy pop force “replete with skyscraper-size tunes that could rattle the screws in the nosebleeds”—as proclaimed by Vogue. While the lead single “Somebody Loves You” went on to amass over 26 million Spotify streams and counting, she earned glowing acclaim from Harpers Bazaar, Time, Glamour, Elle, New York Magazine, and Spin who dubbed Take Me When You Go the “Best Pop Album of 2014.”
Between high-profile tours with Katy Perry, Kylie Minogue and Kiesza, she performed on The View, The Today Show, and Late Night With Seth Meyers and guested on Troye Sivan’s RIAA gold-selling Blue Neighbourhood in 2015. Her 2016 cover of Donna Lewis’s 1996 smash “I Love You Always Forever” quickly racked up more than 11 million Spotify streams in a few months’ time, went platinum in Australia, and laid the foundation for what would become her sophomore offering.
“There are a bunch of different reasons I went in the direction I did,” she goes on. “I feel like I’ve grown up a lot along the way.”
Recording the bulk of the material in Los Angeles with a few sessions in New York, she quietly cultivated a style that’s equally smart, sexy, and spunky. The single “Human Touch” illuminates Who’s progression. Produced by and co-written with longtime collaborator Peter Thomas, the track begins with a hummable synth as finger-snaps propel the beat. Her inimitable voice takes the spotlight building from a breathy croon into a seductively connectable refrain, “Just need a human touch.”
“It was about this experience I had,” she admits. “When you’re in a relationship with somebody and that relationship ends, you’ll always live in this weird middle ground where you used to be the closest person in the world to this ex—but now you’re not anymore. It’s real to me, and I’m talking about when I got together with an ex-boyfriend for a week after everything between us had ended for a while. It felt universal enough for me to write about. ‘Human Touch’ is the introduction to that new version of myself I’ve found in the last couple of years.”
As a both writer and multi-instrumentalist, she continues to paint pictures with a hypnotic and heartfelt honesty. Drawing on everything from her childhood classical training at Michigan’s Interlochen Center of the Arts to a lifelong Joni Mitchell and Carole King obsession, Who brings a poignant and personal perspective to pop music.
“On this album, I implemented something of a rule,” she says. “All of the songs, except for maybe one or two, can be played at a piano or with a guitar. I can actually sing you the story of the song with everything stripped away. It was so important to me.”
Ultimately, Who is ready to make listeners move worldwide. “I love it when people tell me they’ve listened to my music on a shitty day, and it genuinely made them feel better,” she leaves off. “‘Human Touch’ makes you feel sexy and want to dance. No matter what it is, I want to be there for my fans and anybody who listens to what I’m doing. When a record moves somebody, that defines success for me.”
Betty Who headlines Jungle at the Armory for Pride this year. We caught up with her while in NYC recently to get the low down on her SF Pride plans.
Wait. You were born in 1991? Yes, I am a 90s girl all the way. <Laughs>
Seriously, that’s like the cutest thing I’ve ever heard <Laughs>. I was graduating high school in 1991. <Laughs> I always say that in pop years being 25 is like being 50, so… if you think about it, in pop years, I’m like an old lady already! <Laughs>.
Hardly! You’re young and gorgeous; don’t get in a hurry to leave that behind. But it’s really interesting, because you have this natural sort of 80s smooth-sexy-synthy vibe that I’m really feeling right now. Were you inspired at all by the 80s? That generation does inspire me. So many great electronic songs came from that era – but if done well, there is a warmth to synthesizers that creates a soundscape that lends itself easily to emotion. Does that make sense? At the end of the day, however, I am a classically trained musician and I never want to lose that musical part of myself. I never want to feel like anything is clinical or robotic. Some guys can sit in front of a computer and create the most perfect track ever…
But isn’t that a cold and lonely way to make music? Sometimes. Perhaps. But sometimes it can be quite beautiful and intimate and personal. For me, I like to have as many real instruments as I can get. I prefer the energy of real people on real instruments — I like the spirit of collaboration.
I was checking out the video for ‘Some Kind of Wonderful’ and “Mama Say” and I was like ‘Look at Miss Betty Who, getting down with her steps and choreography.’ Do you enjoy that part of being an entertainer? Do you like learning the moves? OMG?! Are you kidding?! It’s literally my favorite part of being on stage. I went into the studio and basically demanded that the songs be geared for dancing from start to finish on this record. I was like ‘ I want my show to be choreographed… I want it to be a spectacle all the way through!’ To be honest, I really didn’t want any ballads on there at all. I didn’t want to bring it down. <Laughs> But that’s just not realistic. I think I just wanted the album to feel like a party — and I want my show to feel that way too.
Honestly, this album is a breath of fresh air. It’s very summer-time music and it’s so fun and it’s uplifting, especially in the Trump-era when so many of us NEED to feel uplifted. I love hearing that! I wanted to make something fun. I wanted this to be an escape for all of us, you know.
Well, I downloaded the ‘The Valley’ and the title track, which opens the album, caught me by surprise. I thought it would be fun to listen to the album during a workout at the gym. Of course, the opening track is this short interlude and one of the lyrics is ‘I’ll never say that I’m sorry, but, oh God, I am, I’m sorry.’ I don’t know what happened, but something about that phrase and the way you delivered it was so powerful – and unexpected – I felt tears well up in my eyes instantly. <Laughs> Oh my God! Really?
I was like ‘What kind of fucked up gym music is this?!’ Now I’m crying my eyes out on the treadmill? No, thank you, Betty Who. No, thank you. <Laughs> That’s hilarious! You were like ‘fuck this chick and her stupid music.’ <Laughs> Though I am jealous of that moment really. I love those moments when I get flooded with emotion from a song. It’s so unexpected and it can also be a weird comfort, you know?
Oh, absolutely. In fact, I think I read that the song ‘Beautiful’ was partly inspired by the Pulse tragedy in Orlando, right? I wouldn’t say ‘inspired’ because it was so horrific. I would say that the tragedy moved me in a way that I didn’t fully understand — I was so heartbroken and torn about what to even say to people about this attack. How do you make sense of something so senseless? I am always hesitant to say I that I wrote a song ‘for’ something. I mean, I’ve written songs about heartbreak that have somehow been interpreted as love songs. The meanings of my songs shift all the time– and I’m ok with that. But ‘Beautiful’ is just as much an anthem to myself and my own insecurities, inadequacies and self-doubt; it’s definitely a letter to myself as much as it is a letter to the gay community.
You’ve opened for a few of our favorite gay pop icons, Kylie Minogue and Katy Perry. Did you tour with them? They’re everyone’s favorite pop icons! <Laughs> Yes! I did tours with both of them in Australia. Oddly, they were within two months of each other actually. It was sort of funny because we performed at all the same arenas and the crews working there were like ‘Wait, you again?!’ <Laughs>
What did you learn on the road with these divas? Honestly, I must have been so fucking annoying to them. <Laughs> I mean, I literally had so many questions. They were both so kind, really – and generous with their time. I’m just such a pop music fan. I mean, when I was growing up, the only DVD that I would watch religiously on a loop is Britney Spears: Live in Las Vegas.
Yes! I have that DVD! <Laughs> I was obsessed! I would come home from school and watch it on a loop. To this day, I just love to see a show and a performance executed at that level. I mean, how often do we leave our homes – much less pay money – to go out and be entertained like that. Nobody really even goes to the movies anymore, they wait for it on-demand. I just think there is nothing more exciting than that communal experience of a live show with other pop fans and singing along with twenty thousand people to the same song.
Well, today I just feel like everyone has their phones out – so maybe they miss the communal experience a bit? Do you notice that stuff from the stage when you’re performing? That might be true for some people. You know, the label has told me that my core demographic is women ages 20 to 29. <Laughs> I don’t know how they know that, but it’s one of those things they tell me. So, honestly I only get a few teenagers at my shows. I have noticed that people don’t post a lot of great photos from my shows because they say ‘I didn’t take any pictures because I was having so much fun!’ — I love that! If you’re having so much fun that you forget to take pictures, then I must be doing something right!
What do you have planned for San Francisco Pride? I’m guessing you’ve been here before? Are you kidding, I love coming to San Francisco. It’s seriously one of my favorite cities. I have so much fun performing there. I think I am a NorCal girl at heart — <Laughs> but don’t tell my SoCal friends! Our plan is to just bring the best show we can — and really get down with everyone at San Francisco Pride.
Your demographic may be women ages 20 to 29 on the other days of the year, but for at least one night, you’re going to have a sea of shirtless gay men ages 21 to 71 all losing their shit and freaking the fuck out at your show. <Laughing> That, my friend, is literally everything I have ever wanted in my entire life. I’m so not joking.
On Saturday, June 24th, 2017, Audrey Joseph and Brian Kent Productions unite to present the biggest Pride party in San Francisco’s history at the infamous Armory in San Francisco’s historic Mission District. Welcome to the JUNGLE, a 360 degree dance party experience like you’ve never seen before. We won’t give it away, you’ll have to see it to believe it.
PERFORMANCE BY BILLBOARD RECORDING ARTIST BETTY WHO
VIP entrance, VIP coat check, access to main floor VIP Viewing Decks and The Armory’s Infamous Upper Floor + Private Dance Floor with sets by DJ Wayne G and DJ Paul Goodyear + Gogo Dancers. Special performances + Free signature cocktail all night.
Exclusive cocktail waiters in all VIP areas. Bottle service available.