Jess Newham, aka Betty Who, just turned 22 in October, but she’s already got the work schedule of Marissa Mayer. When I called Newham up last week to chat, she took the call from inside a cab on the way to a photo shoot with the finesse of a seasoned multi-tasker. It’s a good thing she’s got that down, because 2014 is looking like it’s going to be even busier.
Following the release of her debut EP, The Movement, and an impressive showing at CMJ 2013, Newham is gearing up to release her debut LP via RCA in 2014. Despite a rushed conversation (and probably some taxi chaos), Newham chatted breezily (in a spritely accent influenced by time in Australia, Boston, Michigan and New York) about her upcoming album, signing to a major label and her time as a melodramatic teenager.
So could you talk a little bit about how you started developing your sound and that whole process?
Yes! Peter Thomas was the producer for my first EP that I put out, and he and I worked really hard to find the sound and to find a balance between the emotional content of the music, as well as the energy that I have on stage and in life. So we kind of wanted to blend those two in a way that made sense, and that’s basically what we focused on. When we wrote Somebody Loves You, that was kind of the first time that we were like, “Oh, we’ve done it. This is it!” But we had been working together for two and a half years prior to that.
What we can expect from your LP coming out next year?
It’s kind of an extension of the first EP, and I think you’ll be hearing the growth that has happened since the first EP came out, which is a lot because it will be almost a year by the time the album comes out.
So what was the first show that you played?
The first show I played was at the Red Room, which is a Berklee venue, actually. Well, it’s sponsored by Berklee but they have outsiders come and play, and I got booked there to play my first show ever. I played there, and then a couple of days later I played Piano’s in New York, so that was amazing and so cool, and just fun, you know? It was very nerve-wracking as well because it’s not easy music to pull off live.
Right. And do you have specific things you need to do live that you don’t do while you’re recording?
Yeah, I think playing live is so different than recording, because with recording you don’t have to worry about what other people are feeling at that moment, you know? You kind of have to worry about what people are going to be feeling every time they listen to it off the record. So I think that when I’m recording a song, I’m so in it emotionally and focused inwardly. So hopefully that translates into kind of an honest representation of what the song means to me, and then that will mean something deeper to other people when they listen to it. But when I’m performing live it’s just like go, go, go energy, kind of trying to just keep everything exciting.
Do you have any superstitions or routines you have before you play a live show?
There’s a little huddle thing that I like to do with my band, where everyone meets up before the show—beause the band goes on stage before I do, they kind of set everything up and then I come on. So I like to have a moment where we’re all together before the show, so we can huddle and have this moment of togetherness. Beause if we were all going on together I think it would be different. But I think because we all go on at separate times, and the music starts and they start playing before I actually go on, it suddenly becomes about me when I go on stage, as opposed to all of us together being together and playing the show together, which I feel more comfortable with.
So what kind of things do you say in the huddle? Inspirational quotes? Hashtags?
It’s actually really funny because the huddle is always my idea. I’m like, “Hey everybody let’s huddle!” And then we get together and I’m like, “Umm, I love you guys.” I’m always really nervous and I never know what to say, so I have to get better at that. I’m always like, “I never know what to say in these things, so I’ll just say that I love you and let’s do it.” And then someone will make a joke and someone will say something really silly, and then I’ll be like, “Yeah, let’s say that on three.” So maybe my bass player would say to my drummer, “You should just take all your clothes off,” and I’ll be like, “Take all your clothes off on three. One, two, three!” And I make the whole band yell, “Take all your clothes off!” Then it’s kind of like, how did that happen?!
So your EP, The Movement, was originally released online as a free download. Looking back, how do you think the decision to do that affected where you went from there?
I think it was interesting, because part of it was like, “I’m giving everything away for free, I just want people to hear it. I’m not about making money right now, I just want people to know my name,” which I think worked in my favor. And it worked in my favor with a small group, like with my initial fan base I thought it worked really well. And then I thought, trying to get a bunch of bigger blogs to write about it or other people to notice me was harder, because if they see something and they’re like, “Well it can’t be any good if it’s free,” you know? So I think there was definitely a time where it came out and people really loved it, but blogs wouldn’t write about it because it was free. And everyone was like, “Oh I’ve heard the name, but I won’t listen to it ’cause it’s probably not very good ’cause it’s free.” I had a friend, Sam Lansky, who wrote about me on Idolator.com. He and I became close, and he finally wrote about me after a couple of months of him being like, “Oh, I won’t listen to that because it’s free and it probably isn’t good.”
Did people really say that to you?
Yeah. He told me that later. He was like “I didn’t listen to it because I thought if it’s free, it can’t be that good.” So I was like, “Man, come on!”
And then he was like, “I caved and I listened to it and I was like ‘OMG, I think this is amazing!’” And then he wrote such nice things about it online. So I think on one hand I wouldn’t do it any differently if I could do it over, I think I would still do the same thing. I just think that when people look for music, if they hear a name, they go straight to iTunes. People don’t really Google you, I don’t think. I think when they hear a song they go, “I’m gonna look up that on iTunes,” and if it’s not on iTunes that’s kind of like the end of the search and they lose interest. ‘Cause I know I’ve done that before, you know, you hear a song on a TV show, you Shazam it, and you find the name of the person who sings it, and you put it into iTunes. Then if it’s not on there you’re like, “Oh, that’s weird,” and then you kind of forget about it and that’s the end of that.
That’s an interesting theory.
Yeah, so I think having the song on iTunes made a huge difference, when the video of the proposal went viral and people were looking for my song, having it on iTunes made all the difference, I think. That’s why initially we were like, “Oh my gosh, we have to get this on iTunes because this is what people are going to look for.” They’re not going to Google it or download it from Soundcloud, that’s too complicated for a lot of people.
So this fall you signed with RCA. Did the decision to sign with a major label stem from having the EP up for free and not having it on iTunes?
I think it was kind of a gamble on the label’s part because I didn’t have any sales to show. So I think they believed in me enough to be like, “It doesn’t matter that she hasn’t sold anything, we want to sign her anyway.” I think I was going to sign with a label no matter what, that was the end goal. I wanted to stay independent until I needed the help, and I think that came a lot sooner than anybody expected, which is a good problem to have. And RCA just kind of felt like the perfect fit.
Did you have a lot of offers?
I did. ‘Cause the weekend the video went viral, that crazy weekend, my manager was getting calls from a lot of people.
Well that’s cool. Your lyrical content is really personal, and there’s also kind of a romance theme going on. Where does your inspiration come from? Rom-coms?
Oh man! You know, all the songs are like that. I think I’ve always led a very dramatic lifestyle.
A dramatic lifestyle?
Yeah, my friends from high school used to joke about me living in some crazy loopy world where everyone was so passionate and everything was really hard, but also really great. And I think that’s true in some ways, so I think that’s pretty much where the songs come from. Having these experiences and these relationships where I’m like, “Oh my God, this is the craziest thing, I can’t believe this is actually happening in real life!”
Can you give me an example of a dramatic moment from your past?
I mean none of the songs on the EP came from this, but…in high school, this boy that I thought I loved, he and I were best friends, and then we kind of fell in love because we were hanging out all the time. All of the sudden he kissed me one night, and then we were kind of seeing each other. But it wasn’t official, and I kept on being like, “I really want him to be my boyfriend,” ’cause I was fifteen and that’s when you do when you’re fifteen. And then this big dramatic night happened when he was like, “I don’t love you and I don’t wanna be with you.” And it was so intense, like, who says that? Literally, who says shit like, “I don’t love you and I don’t wanna be with you”?
Rough for a fifteen-year-old.
I know! Oh my god! So of course I went back to my friends and I cried in their arms. I sat in the shower and cried for a little while, and it was all very dramatic but so funny in retrospect. So that’s kind of the way my life has been lived, it’s moments like that when you’re like, “Who says shit like that?”
Yeah, you can write a new song called, “Crying In The Shower.”
Oh yeah, I think every song of mine is secretly called “Crying In The Shower.”
So you have a bunch of shows coming up in 2014.
I do. I have two tours already planned*mdash;one in January and one in the spring.
Do you have a tour van?
Not yet, but we’re very much looking into getting one within the next month. I’m sure it’s going to be dirty and gross ’cause that’s the way tour vans are, and we’ll get to know each other very well.
I am lucky though, because, not diss to men, but my band is two girls and one guy, so I’m very lucky ’cause showers will be taken and you know, it’s probably a little less clean when you have six guys in the van. I think grossness goes up exponentially with every man that enters the van.
Very Possibly. So can you tell me about Selfie Sundays?
Oh, Selfie Sundays! That’s like my favorite thing in the whole world. Selfie Sundays are hysterical to me because I started them almost as a joke with my friends. But as I started to get more recognition for doing the music stuff, other people started to pick up on it, and it’s just very funny to me. So it ended up as this really silly thing that kind of took shape in a very real way. I’m just making fun of myself for most of it.
Kind of like Lil B’s Girl Time.
Yeah! I’m literally obsessed with Lil B. My old roommate and I used to sit around and read Lil B’s tweets and die. He’s so funny.
So I heard that you were a Spice Girls fan, and I kind of get a Spice Girls vibe on your EP—and I mean that in a good way.
That’s amazing! People always compare me to Mel C, which I think is really strange.
Wait, which one is Mel C?
But I’m still fine with it, ’cause she was totally my favorite when I was a kid. But now I see the error of my ways, and I realized Scary Spice and Ginger Spice were killing it and totally didn’t get enough credit for how badass they were. So that’s where I’m at with the Spice Girls now. But Baby and Sporty were totally my favorites when I was a kid, so if I’m gonna get compared to anybody I love to be compared to Sporty Spice.
Sweet. Then it’s working out I guess.