Jessica Anne Newham, more popularly known by her stage name Betty Who, has had a pretty huge year. After breaking from her label RCA, she’s put out a few new singles and gone on a super successful tour. Her show at the 9:30 Club this past March sold out so quickly they added a second night. Even though she’s flying solo label wise, looks like her fans (“The Who Crew”) are willing to jump on her flight. But this weekend, Betty Who, will be trying something entirely new. As part of American Pop Orchestra’s celebration of the Royal Wedding and the spirit of love at Arena Stage, Betty Who will be headlining (with a visit from some Broadway guests) the May 19 event. The real surprise is that she’ll be singing well-known and well-loved Cole Porter songs, such as “Anything Goes” and “You’re the Top.” For fans of her pop dance jams this may be a leap, but it’s one she hopes audiences will take on. Cole Porter was the master of pop in his era and Betty Who is beginning her own era of experimenting with different styles for her own upcoming pop album. (Betty) Who knows whether Porter’s standards will have any influence on her next independent release…
Brightest Young Things: 2018 has been a pretty unique year for you so far. You broke from your label RCA and independently put out your first single “Ignore Me.” How has this year felt different for you?
Betty Who: It’s been amazing. It definitely feels like a new chapter. There’s been a lot of firsts all over again for me. It’s been very re-energizing and an intense experience. I’m really happy and excited about it and just can’t wait to keep doing it.
BYT: In terms of re-experiencing “firsts,” what’s felt different touring and recording this time around?
BW: It’s the first time I’ve put out a song independently since I was 20 or 19-years-old. So I feel like I know so much more about myself and the music I’m putting out. To have the perspective I have now rather than when I was just getting into it, I feel like it’s a whole different experience. It doesn’t even feel the same.
The thing that has stayed constant is that really fresh, exciting feeling of “I’m doing this, this is my choice.” I’ve got so much riding on this. I’m hoping for the best. That is definitely still the same from when I first was an independent artist. I guess I’m sort of equal parts terrified and really, really excited.
BYT: How does it feel calling the shots when you record in the studio now?
BW: It’s less about the creation of the music [that’s changed] because I’ve always been writing and working with the people I really want to work with–that never changed–it was more like the actual process of finishing the music and putting it out. My creative process has always been the same, which was the really frustrating part for me about being signed; There were a thousand other things I had to check off the list that I didn’t think were necessary but other people needed me to do. Now it’s just making the music and making really instinctual decisions about it and just putting it out and seeing what happens.
I think that when there are too many cooks in the kitchen you lose so much of the light and the life that’s lived in the song when you [first] write it and you go into the studio. You think, “This is amazing. This is magic. I want to put this out!” You lose that when you [have to] sit on it for a year and a half and you debate who’s going to make the video and how are we gonna make it happen and what are we going to do? It takes all the fun out of it. So now, I’m trying to keep my timeline a little more concise and so that the music stays more fresh.
BYT: You’ve now released a couple singles with “Ignore Me” and now “Look Back.” “Ignore Me” feels really intimate in it’s tone and “Look Back” has that familiar dance vibe you’ve been known for. What can fans expect from your upcoming music?
BW: The thing that I’m really trying to achieve is sort of stretching my wings a little bit, sonically. Fans can expect stuff that’s definitely a little different. I really just want to make different kinds of pop music. Pop just means popular. It doesn’t mean that it has to be a particular sound or a feeling, it can really be anything. I’m so inspired by so much music that’s being made right now. Each song [I put out] will have a really different personality to it. Each song really fits a different version of my personality. I’m hoping that that will expand the understanding that people have of me and my music.
BYT: You have a huge LGBTQ following and I’m wondering how that support has been with you going independent?
BW: Oh my god, I think I’ve had more support the last five months than I’ve had my entire career. I think people love an underdog a little bit and I feel very much like an underdog right now. When I announced my split from my record label and that I was going to do it on my own, I asked for the space to figure it all out and to maybe make a couple missteps and hoped that my fans would take the journey with me. I got nothing but the [biggest] outpouring of love and support. I think, at least statistically, “Ignore Me” was one of my biggest releases to date. So that really affirms my decision and what I’m doing is really the right path. I have to just keep pushing at it.
BYT: Totally frivolous, but necessary question: What are your secrets to getting your hair to look so rad?
BW: I get my hair dyed about every five to six weeks. The biggest tip I can give you is if you just bleach the shit out of your hair it’ll kind of do whatever you want. Definitely works for me. Having dead hair really gives it a great texture and shine (laughs). Oh, and also my favorite product is R+Co Dry Shampoo. It will save your life.
BYT: Now on to your upcoming performance at Arena Stage. How will it be performing accompanied by an orchestra?
BW: I’ve never done it before! This weekend will be the first time I’m doing it. I’m looking forward to the new experience.
BYT: How much time do you get to work with the orchestra pre-show?
BW: I get one rehearsal before the show so it’ll be very on the fly and I’ll have to just jump in and make myself at home and do it live.
BYT: You’ll be performing all Cole Porter tunes. What’s your connection to his music?
BW: Cole Porter is one of my favorite songwriters of all time. There’s an Ella Fitzgerald volume where she sings all Cole Porter music and she’s one of my favorite singers of all time. That era of music feels very moving to me. It’s just so of a certain period and puts me back into growing up and listening to a lot of jazz music and falling in love with Porter’s music. This is the first time though I’ll be singing his music live professionally and I’m really looking forward to it.
BYT: Can audiences expect any choreography?
BW: It is all about the vocals. No choreography for the first time in a long time, which will be really nice.