Aspiring musicians plot and dream about going viral on YouTube, but Betty Who didn’t have to lift a finger to generate 11 million hits of exposure. A gay couple from Utah just asked her manager if they could use her dance-pop anthem “Somebody Loves You” as the soundtrack to a flash-mob marriage proposal at a Home Depot.
“We didn’t think it would be anything big,” says Who, 22, who sang the song live at the couple’s February wedding. “About 48 hours into the video being online, I remember seeing 2 million views, and my parents were calling me… counting.”
Not that Betty Who—born Jessica Newham in Sydney, Australia—has been shy about plotting pop stardom. She put her mind to it as a freshman at Berklee, where she met fellow student Peter Thomas, now the producer and co-writer behind her two EPs, 2013’s The Movement and major-label debut Slow Dancing, out April 8.
“My Berklee experience very much looked like me trying to get to where I am now,” the 2013 graduate says. She and Thomas collaborated to coin her stage name, taken from the title of a tune she penned during high school. “There was a lot of ‘What’s the right step? What’s the next step? What do I want to sound like, who do I want to look like, who do I want to be, and what’s my message?’ ”
A big part of that was shaping the music. Who bubbles over with an affinity for pop music, from the Britney Spears and ’N Sync she embraced as a teenager to current sonic peers such as Katy Perry and Robyn. But when she first arrived in Boston after studying cello at a Michigan performing arts high school, Who was singing her originals in coffeehouses, accompanying herself on piano and guitar.
“I was writing singer/songwriter music akin to Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan,” she says. “And Peter was like, ‘You’re too happy and energetic, and you dance all the time—and that should be in your music! Your show shouldn’t be you sitting on a stool singing about how your heart’s been broken. There should be dancing. There should be light.’ ”
Who and Thomas essentially envisioned the same thing in the aftermath of Whitney Houston’s 2012 death, watching her videos. “We listened to a bunch of her music, and I was like, ‘Man, I wish we could do something that had this much joy and light to it,’ ” Who says. That’s when she wrote “Somebody Loves You,” inspired by a breakup she had just gone through. “I’d been in this relationship with a person where I cared more the entire time,” she says. “That’s what that song is about: ‘I am here, so pay attention or you’re going to lose me.’ ”
Of course, lines like “If I am good to you, won’t you be good to me” also clicked for Spencer Stout’s lumber aisle proposal to boyfriend Dustin Reeser, especially when glazed in the infectious beats and keyboard/vocal layers of Betty Who.
Great mainstream pop tunes require an artful balance of energy, brightness and structure that can transform glossy production into memorable, heartfelt hooks. And Who expertly mines that formula with Thomas, whether in upbeat tracks like “Somebody Loves You,” “High Society” and the new EP’s effusive “Heartbreak Dream” or dreamier ballads like “Right Here” and the new “Alone Again.”
“I’ve always been driven by a feeling, something that moves me, and wanting to create something that moves other people,” Who says. “If you can make a song where one person is ‘Oh my God, I feel so happy when I listen to [that song], or it made me cry, or it moved me to some extreme emotion,’ you’ve done your job.”
Now the New York-based singer is on tour to promote Slow Dancing, hitting Brighton Music Hall with her Berklee-trained band of bassist Jemila Dunham, keyboardist Lauren Fuller and drummer Derek Schurbon. “It’s not like I’m on the road with a bunch of people I don’t know,” Who says. “These are the people who keep me going every day.”
Betty Who plays Brighton Music Hall on April 17.