Pop sensation Betty Who, 25, was born Jessica Anne Newham in Sydney, Australia. Trained as a cellist from the age of 4, she came to the United States as a teenager to study at the prestigious Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. She then attended Berklee College of Music, where she launched her professional career, releasing her debut single, “Somebody Loves You,” as a free download in 2012. Her debut EP, The Movement, came out a year later, and she was signed by RCA/Sony. She has toured with Katy Perry and Kylie Minogue, and she was crowned Best Female Pop Artist at the MTV Logo NewNowNext Awards. Her new single “Human Touch” dropped on Nov. 11, and she will perform at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as part of the RISE series on Dec. 8. She lives in Los Angeles.
Jonathan Soroff: So how did you come up with the name Betty Who?
Betty Who: I wrote a random song about a boy I loved who wouldn’t love me back, which is basically what all my music is about. I was 17, and I named it “Betty Who,” because I thought it was cute. Then a year later, in college, I said to my producer, “What if I went by a stage name, like Betty Who?” And he said, “That’s so great. Don’t ever think about it again. You’re done.”
Did you always dream of being a pop star? Absolutely. I was always really interested in pursuing it, even though I didn’t really know how to pursue it. I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about pop music, especially in the classical music world, that it’s not serious, or hard, or good. I think all of those things are untrue, but it took me a while to get around my classical background.
What instruments do you play besides the cello? I taught myself guitar and piano to write, because I didn’t want to have to be with somebody who could play to write songs. I wanted to do it on my own. So when I was 14 or 15, I decided to make that happen.
Single favorite piece of cello music? The Dvorak Cello Concerto. I saw the New York Phil play it for free in Prospect Park a few summers ago. I had no idea what they were going to play, and they played it with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, probably my next favorite orchestral piece in the world. It was the most beautiful moment in my life.
Strangest thing about moving to the U.S. as a teen? This is going to sound stupid, but yellow school buses. I don’t know why, but I thought it was only something from the movies. I have no idea why, but I didn’t think they were real.
Album you played incessantly as a teenager? Continuum by John Mayer. It was a big part of my song-writing experience.
Single most important thing you learned at Berklee? That everybody knows everybody in the music industry, and that if you are an asshole to the girl across the hall in the dorm, she’s probably going to be the next head of Sony. Everywhere I go, there is always a Berklee kid in the room. It’s unbelievable the amount of people I run into at studios in LA. It blows my mind.
Favorite thing about Boston? So many things. I love the Pops. I love the Christmas season in Boston. I think New England in fall is the most beautiful place. And I know it sounds crazy, but I miss the weather. I also miss Life Alive. It’s one of my favorite restaurants.
Favorite venue to play? I’m honestly not just saying this. The Paradise is one of my favorite venues in the country.
Biggest source of inspiration? It’s in my personal life, my relationships with friends, romantic relationships. One of my favorite songs on my new album is a song about one of my best friends who has horrible taste in men— and I tell her that all the time. There’s so much influence from the people around me. Also, my mother had so many fabulous women in her life when she had me that she couldn’t pick just one godmother. I have five. So the stories and conversations from them inform my music.
What’s the story behind your single “Human Touch”? It’s about how you still have a connection to someone even after you’re not together, and there’s always a bond. The song is about that moment of looking at someone whom maybe you haven’t seen in a long time and you used to love, and you say “OK, we’re both single. Why don’t we have one more go-round for old times’ sake?”
Fantasy duet partner? Right now, Leslie Odom Jr. His voice is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard in my entire life. I saw him in Hamilton twice, and he made me cry both times. He’s a godsend.
How do you think technology has affected your career? I’m basically an artist of the internet. I wouldn’t have a career if it weren’t for technology and social media happening at the time that it did. When I put out my first song, it was a free download on SoundCloud. I think there are a lot of artists who have a career in the old-fashioned way of getting discovered: A label signs you and makes you. Now, there are so many more artists doing it my way, saying, “This is who I want to be.” I think it’s so much more of an honest and deeper way to connect, because you know it’s coming from them and not a marketing department.
Thing you miss the most about Australia, besides your family? This sounds silly, but I miss hearing Australian people talk. I’m so easily influenced by American accents. I start sounding American, and it bums me out. When I go home, I’m the most Australian person you’ve ever met.
Do you try to sing without an accent? I try to sing the way I speak. I think it makes the songs sound more natural and honest. The only time that I don’t is when it doesn’t serve the song. If the Australian accent draws attention away from the lyric, I’ll try not to. There are times when you hit a word on a beat in the wrong place, in a sentence or in a bar, and it makes it harder to understand what the lyric’s actually saying, and the lyric goes past you. There are a lot of prosody issues that I deal with, and my accent is very high on that list.
So there were two guys whose YouTube video of their proposal used your song “Somebody Loves You” with a flash dance mob. Did you go to their wedding? I did, and I sang an acoustic version. I couldn’t look at them. I was crying. Everyone was crying. Two weeks ago, I was in Sydney, and I was doing a TV interview. Beforehand, we were in the green room, and the interviewer hadn’t seen it. And my assistant pulled it up, and I said, “Don’t play it. I just had my makeup done!” She did, and I was bawling. I can’t watch it without weeping.
Describe your fans. The best human beings in the world. I have yet to meet a fan who’s not pure-hearted and just excited to be there.
So no weird fan encounters? Oh, of course. What’s the weirdest to me is that my given name is Jessica. My family calls me Jess. But most people call me Betty now, even my boyfriend. You get into the habit. So when fans come up to me and call me Jessica, it’s really bizarre.
Three adjectives to describe your voice? Evolving, and sometimes good.
Your reaction when you heard your song was being used in Pitch Perfect 2? I can never believe things like that are happening, and then I forget. I was on a plane, in the window seat in economy when I decided to watch it. I completely forgot, and when it started, I was like, “Wait. I know this song. What is this?” Then I burst into tears, and the woman next to me was like, “Are you OK?”
Weirdest place you’ve been when one of your songs came on? It just happened in Sydney. I hadn’t heard my song on the radio before, but the cover of “I Love You Always Forever” just went platinum in Sydney, and I’d just gotten off the plane. I get into a cab, and the radio is on, and that song started. I started crying. I cry a lot.
Photography: Elias Tahan; Styling: Brett Alan Nelson; Hair: Nicole Walpert; Makeup: Jane Cohen