Music

Betty Who on Going Indie and Rediscovering the Joy of Music

When Betty Who listens to her second album The Valley these days, she "hears sadness in the music." Trapped in a contract with RCA while she was making it, the Australian 26-year-old felt challenged at every turn and pressured to pursue a limited, radio-friendly range of sounds. There were moments where she was scanning the Internet for day jobs, not sure if she could do another album cycle.

But when she listens to her newly announced record Betty, which marks her first independent release, it's the exact opposite.

"I wanted to name it Betty because it sort of feels like a restart button for me," she says. "The entire album is so indicative of how much joy and passion and light I really try to pour into the music."

We got our first taste of her transformation on "Between You & Me," a breathy acoustic pop number that deliciously captures romantic tension that sits just below the surface. It's more intimate and stripped down than anything Betty's released in years, although she warns people not to get too comfortable with any one sound. Flexing her newfound independence, while leaning into the skills her first two albums taught her, Betty is venturing into new landscapes of pop, with the sticky, shimmery charm she's always had.

"It's the first time where I'm back to the old me, a little bit... I've done all this soul searching, and gone through all this change, and I've landed in this place where I feel really confident and I feel really engaged. That's the quintessential essence of who I have always wanted to be."

Betty Who chatted with PAPER about rediscovering the joy of music with Betty, her new single, and her upcoming tour with Panic! At The Disco.

Tell me about "Between You & Me." What does it mean to you and how did it come about?

"Between You & Me" was actually sort of a product of a failed writing session. We'd been writing the song and I was like, "I don't know if I'm feeling this, I don't know if I'm super psyched about it, I really should take a break and maybe come back and start something different, I'm just not feeling really good about this." So I went outside with one of the other writers in the session, JHart, and the two of us were kind of talking and trying to figure out what we wanted to do. We went out to the balcony, just us and just with a guitar and started writing. It completely changed the vibe from what we had been working on earlier that day, which I really hadn't been into. The song was very electronic before, and a little bit lifeless, because the story we were telling felt just like, one of those songs that you're just like, "Okay, you have to go somewhere." I wanted to do something that felt different, that feels really meaningful.

What about the story of the song?

We revisited it about six months after we wrote it and I was like, "This is really good, we should finish it." It's a story that I think so many people can relate to, it's like that, "I want to say something, but I don't really know how" feeling, and I probably never will." I think especially given the way that we are with our cell phones and our social media accounts these days, it feels almost like, you know, maybe that unrequited love or that confusing sort of feeling of, "I have feelings for you, but I don't know how to talk to you about it."

I don't think a lot of people know how to talk to other people about anything anymore. So the song always sounded to me like more of an inner dialogue and inner monologue of what you wish you could say to that person if you could say anything you wanted. I think it'll be something understood particularly about young people, that feeling of like "don't know how to tell you how I feel so I'm just gonna pretend like we're just friends, even though you and I both know that we're not."

Is that acoustic, stripped-down sound something we'll see more of on Betty?

Honestly, it felt more like this spontaneous thing and just the space that that song deserved. It's definitely not an indication of what the rest of the record sounds like, because I think they're all a little bit different. There isn't anything else on the record that is quite like this song. Which I'm sure is going to fake people out when they hear the second single because it's such a big pop, dance song. But also, that's, you know... I grew up writing songs as a singer/songwriter on my guitar and that was how I started getting into this business in the first place, so it doesn't feel like it's too much of a departure for me personally or as an artist, because it feels like it's still such a huge part of you know, how I write songs to this day. Most of my favorite songs that come out of produced songs on the record actually start as you know, this un-produced piano or guitar song, that just is about a story.

Do you typically write on the guitar?

Sometimes on piano, but usually it's on a guitar. I always think that when you're cooking, you have the best conversations with people when you're in the kitchen with people because your hands are busy, you're like doing something else, you're focused on something else, so your brain has this space that's opened up to just like, be. You don't have to overthink anything. To me, that's sort of how it feels when I'm playing guitar and writing. My hands are occupied, you know I can't be too in my head when I'm also thinking about the harmony of the song and how I want the guitar to sound in that moment. Then, it sort of frees up this space that's like, "Okay, well what do I really want?"

So this album will be all over the spectrum.

Yeah! I think there are a lot of songs on the record that are pretty pop, but that's my favorite part about pop, that pop doesn't mean it has to have synths in it, that would be synth-pop. You know? I really do feel like it is a quintessential pop record, where some songs are going to be more urban-leaning, some songs are going to be so dance-pop, some songs are going to be really electro-pop, some songs are going to be acoustic pop.

All of those parts of myself exist when I'm writing and I have wanted to make a record for a long time that I think shows off all of those aspects of my songwriting skills, but also my personality. It's the music I listen to, it's songs that I have loved growing up. I didn't just listen to Britney Spears and NSYNC, I was also glued to Sara Bareilles and Joni Mitchell. I think that part of me really comes out in this song, "Between You & Me."

You've experienced a lot of changes in your life since this last album, like your label shift and your engagement. Would you call it a personal record?

I think there's a little bit of both those things in it. There are always some stories I tell on every record that are not my own. I don't have to have been in a car, sitting across from the person I love to write the lyrics, "You've got one hand on the wheel, slide the other over, make it real." It's about painting pictures for me and trying to get my point across, and trying to tell the story in the most cinematic and tangible way. I haven't made a record this personal in a long time. On every album I make, obviously each song is my baby, but I really do feel like I have had the opportunity on this record.

How has being independent impacted this record?

I'm so grateful to just be able to make the music I want to make and not be challenged by anybody. That was really excited, I think that's something that's been a huge difference. There's nobody sitting and waiting to hear a mix so they can reply, "Yeah, I'm not sure about this song." If I'm super excited about the song and I go, "Cool, this is going on the record." Everybody goes, "Cool, how do I make that happen?" I think that that just opens up so much space for me to just feel really proud of everything I'm doing and not second guess it, which so much of the time when I was being second guessed, and by so much I think that probably every single time I ended up being right anyway, but it took me two and a half years to get through all of the hoops that I was supposed to jump through to then be like, "No, I was right. People love this song and we should put this kind of music out." I don't have to do that anymore, which is so relieving and freeing.

"I've given up a lot to stay in this business, but it's also given me so much and it has been my dream for forever."

So you've really been able to follow your instincts.

Exactly. I think the entire album is so indicative of how much joy and passion and light I really try to pour into the music. It's the first thing that goes when you're feeling trapped in your record deal, or in any kind of bad relationship. I was really unhappy when I was making The Valley. And so, every time I listen to it, it's not like I don't love that record, it's just that I hear it and I hear that sadness in the music. So I think for me, being a person who loves to create joy and light and put out stuff that makes people really happy and make people when they come to shows they're like, "That was the most fun I've had in forever." That's so what I want to spend my time doing. Now that I feel like I have that space in my life, I think it's really affected the music.

Was that one of the reasons that the split happened? That you felt like the joy was missing?

The joy and love wasn't there. It's not a diss. Any relationship, especially a business relationship, is a really difficult thing to maneuver. I think it's very easy to find yourself in an unhappy relationship no matter what kind of relationship it is, and I definitely found myself very unhappy in my relationship with RCA. Coming out on the other side, I have nothing but gratitude and you know, I'm so grateful for the time that I spent there because it taught me so much about what I did and didn't want.

This album is your third album. Why is this one called Betty?

It feels like it's the first time, I'm back to the old me, a little bit. You know? It feels like I have done all this soul searching, and I have gone through all this change. And now I've landed in this place where I feel really confident and I feel really engaged. That, to me, feels like the quintessential essence of who I have always wanted to be. I want to feel confident about everything I do. I want to feel like I'm completely present to all the music I'm putting out and I'm not just doing it because someone told me to or putting out songs that I don't want to put out. I wanted to name it Betty because it feels like, it sort of feels like a restart button for me.

It's really cool to hear you talk about this kind of growth. You were this crazy rookie, and now you've been around the block a couple times.

Yeah! When you're the crazy rookie and people are talking about you a lot, you feel like you're hot shit. You feel like "Oh my god, my dream is finally coming true." You sit in your fucking bedroom when you're ten years old and you dream about doing this one day, and then all of a sudden it feels like it's happening and you're like, "Oh my god, I'm going to be the biggest star in the world, it's all happening, I'm going to have a number one song on the radio like, this is so crazy I can't wait."

And then you wake up and that's not how it works. Now I've been here for six years and every day you have to make a conscious choice to really stay in this business because it's really hard, and it's tiring. It has pulled relationships from my life that I wish it hadn't. You know, I've given up a lot to stay in this business, but it's also given me so much and it has been my dream for forever. I feel much more wise than I was when I first got into the business, because I am. I'm not trying to prove anything to anybody except for myself now, which I think has changed a lot for me.

You're doing it for yourself and not for other people.

Isn't it funny that that's how we start, right? When you're first making music, you're doing it for yourself because you don't have fans. Then you get fans, and you sign a deal, and you feel like you have all of these people to prove right about you, which puts this enormous amount of pressure on you, and then anytime that you feel like you've disappointed anybody, it takes away all the victories and all the hard work that you've done. It's so loaded, all the time. So now, I just don't have the emotional capacity to really, you know... everybody is on my team now that wants to be there, and that's how it should be. You know I shouldn't have to be convincing people who are on my team that I'm worth their time. That's like, so dramatic and sad and it took all the fun out of everything I was doing, and now it's like, "No, I just want to be here to be here. I'm not going to spend a moment on you, trying to tell you that you should stay, because I can find somebody else, you know?" There are a billion people who want to do what I'm doing, there are a billion people who do what you do like, that's cool. I can find somebody who believes in me.

Was there ever a moment where you thought you might be done with music?

100%. I was looking for day jobs at one point, in between my record cycles. Being like "I don't know why I'm doing this, it's not fun anymore." Ad I thought that every day for six months. Still some days I wake up and go, "Oh my god, this is way too hard. I don't know if I feel like doing this anymore." I think the measure of success to me isn't a number on a chart or a number of sales or venue that sold out. The measure of success to me is like, my ability to be happy, to be fulfilled, and to be creatively challenged, and to make sure that I'm doing what's right for me. That has absolutely nothing to do with anybody else's like, understanding of my worth or value to them. I think that is the whole reason that I can stay in this industry now, is because I have that, because it makes me happy.

Tell me about your upcoming tour with Panic! At The Disco.

It's my first arena tour in America, which I'm really excited about! I opened for Katy Perry and Kylie Minogue in Australia. I'm just really excited to get in front of new fans. I think Panic!'s fans are fans not only because of Brendon and how amazing he is and whatever, but because they just love music. Panic! don't write music because of trends, you know? Panic! are artists. Their fans are fans of that, they remind me of a lot of my fans in that way, where they're just there because they love it, not because somebody told them to be there, and I think that I have so much passion and joy.

Are you a Panic! fan?

I relate so much to Brendon when I hear him talk about music, and I hear him talk about the way that their career has gone. It's been such a rollercoaster for them as well, and he's such an incredible performer. There's so much theater to it, and so much intention to it. I don't see a lot of intentional performances anymore. Some people are just like put on this planet to do this one thing and it was to perform. You know, I don't think a lot of people are like that anymore, and I think Brendon is one of those people. So mostly I'm just excited about watching them every night and getting to learn and be a little fly on the wall for a month and see them do their thing.

Nothing is cooler than watching a band come out to an arena full of their fans. I remember the first night I was on the Katy Perry tour I had performed, and I had kind of tough night. You know, it was my first night opening ever and so going from playing your own shows to opening for somebody will like, kick you in the nuts pretty hard. I had had a pretty shitty show the first night on the Katy tour, so I was like, I'm just going to go watch the Katy show and try and forget about it. I stood in front of house, and I waited for the lights to go down. The second they did, 18,000 people start screaming, and she emerges from the center of the stage, and I literally find myself tearing up. I'm like, "What is wrong with me. I'm so obsessed with all of this shit, this is a magic show. This is the coolest thing ever, and it is literally my dream to be on a stage just like her."

Photo via Ben Cope/Gavin Taylor

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