Courtesy of BMG

Reaching Out to Betty Who

An essential artist for your happiest of playlists and most exuberant mixtapes, Betty Who’s latest record, BIG!, is gearing up to come to life in New York City and Philadelphia, so get ready to have your heart warmed and confidence boosted.

In reality, Betty Who needs no introduction, but in the slim chance she does, here’s a quick synopsis: A multi-faceted performer, Betty Who is an Australian-American songstress with a twinkle in her eye, the soundtrack to Netflix’s Queer Eye under her belt, and a vibrancy that few can go toe-to-toe with. However, you can find her amongst the latest and greatest: Kesha, MUNA, Lana Del Rey, Aly & AJ, and BROODS.

Sure, nothing comes easy, but everything seems effortless as she cements herself in the pop world with her storytelling abilities, talent, and hands-on determination – hence her decade-long career, soul-stirring lyrics, and millions of streams. The Aquarian got to talking with Betty Who about such things and the valiant, permeable joy that comes with it all ahead of her local tour dates.

Hammerstein Ballroom is coming up on your tour. What does coming and playing shows in New York bring out in you? 

Yeah! Oh, man. Nothing would make me happier if we sold out in New York. I should probably come up with some kind of crazy plan, like I’ll do a crazy thing if we sell out Hammerstein. Maybe I’ll get a New York tattoo if everyone comes out and if we sell out Hammerstein. Maybe that! I love coming back to New York. I used to live in New York City, so I feel like I have so many friends here, and in any city that I have a lot of friends in, I always want to show off, of course [Laughs]. So not only is it New York, but a ton of my friends will also be coming to the show. I think that combined makes for a really intense night that I have often stressed over. 

I also think of one of the goals and intentions of my tour that I [made] for me. I’ve been working on this a lot because I’ve had a lot of really amazing opportunities in the last year that I really don’t wanna mess up. The first time I did James Corden [The Late Late Show], I stressed myself out so hard. (This was on my third album, Betty.) I hated the experience. I hated my performance. I cried for two hours after I finished. The stakes of it were so high – it couldn’t possibly be higher. I have realized now how much I took away from that experience and from myself. I don’t really wanna do that anymore. I’m very dedicated to showing up, even if it was SNL or the Super Bowl or whatever the biggest thing that could ever happen to you. You have to show up and do the thing that you know how to do already and not let all of that stress stuff sort of suck you out of it. The mental game of that is what I’m [working on]. A big, big goal of mine on this tour is to show up to every show no matter if it’s 10 people or 10,000 people. That has been my thing. I keep saying to the boys before we go on stage in our group huddle, “If it’s 10 or 10,000 people, we do the same show. We show up and we give the same amount of energy. We know what we do, we know what we bring. We are gonna shine bright no matter who’s watching. This is for us, so let’s be ourselves. Let’s do it!” I’m prepping myself with that for the day that New York comes around; to hopefully not go on stage with a thousand butterflies in my stomach.

To be able to live in that moment during all shows, like you said, for any performance of any caliber, is imperative to the joy that everybody gets from that night. Not just you and the band, but the audience in the room. That energy is infectious. 

You couldn’t be more right about that, Debra.

There are so many songs the audience wants to hear live, too, especially off of Big!. For you, what songs are you most excited to bring to life in North America and at shows like Hammerstein’s? There were already so many songs to bring to the stage before this new album dropped last year!

Yes, this is my serious problem right now, because I also really respect the selflessness of an appropriately long show. It’s so easy for us as performers to be like, “We have so much music, we wanna give it all to you!” I know by the time we’ve hit 80 minutes, though, my back is hurting, my knees are hurting, and I don’t wanna be standing anymore. You’ve already stood through the opener’s performance. I know how it feels to be an audience member because I am also such a music fan, so I am constantly trying to balance it […] having all of this music that I love and want to play.

I think my number one song that I’m really excited about is “I Can Be Your Man.” That is probably my favorite number that we have. The character of that song is so strong and we’ve made a lot of really fun choices. [Laughs] It’s like… very campy. The boys and I get to really play this sort of strong-guy-bodybuilder-dancer character, which is so hysterical. I laugh every night watching the boys do this thing and we’ve made it really gay and it feels like a very powerful brand statement for me as a performer. I’m excited for people to see that number and then “Blow Out My Candle” is like my favorite song on this whole album that continues to grow and evolve and become my new, new favorite song. I can’t wait to listen to everybody sing that every night.

That song, as soon as it came out, was exciting. There were three years between what we had last really received from you and then this. It really just encapsulates that sort of feeling and that energy of a grand return. No matter how many times I listen to it, it doesn’t lose that, so I could see that being a really big staple in a live show.

It’s so funny, like, you make this music and then you don’t know what is gonna speak to people because so often I’ve been, “Oh my God, everyone’s gonna be obsessed with this one,” and they’re not. I thought that everybody would be obsessed with “The Hard Way” and nobody talks to me about that song, which is so funny. It was later in the album, but you just never know what people are gonna like. “Blow Out My Candle” was a personal choice. I told my label partners, “You guys can put out anything else in any order after ‘Blow Out My Candle,’ but I know that it’s the first one. Everything else, I don’t care. You guys do whatever.”

You know what, I think that was a great choice!

[Laughs]. Thank you. I felt very passionately about it and still do, so it makes me want to see it live. We have now done a couple shows – played in Australia and Europe now – and it is great to get the sort of user data that I feel like we gained off doing those couple shows. Now we’re heading into the US and I feel like I have a good idea of the songs that people responded to and the stuff that people didn’t. “Candle” is at the top of the list of ones where I’m like, “Oh, this goes off! The people care about this one and I care about this one. This feels really good.”

It should feel good. I love “The Hard Way,” though. I love the sequencing on the album of, “Someone Else,” then “The Hard Way,” and “One of Us.” That set of three songs towards the latter end of the album, just as an order, flowed with such a twinkling, enamoring narrative. The order goes so well.

Thank you so much. I love hearing that. We slaved over it, so I’m really glad that you love it. 

Of course! Believe it or not, I talked to an artist once who said that they don’t even pay attention to the tracklist. They make the songs and then give it to someone to make the tracklist – like a producer or a mixer or someone. Even as a listener, I can’t imagine not being so attached and not wanting to meticulously find out how the story is to be told… by your own hands… or ear, I guess.

[Laughs] Oh, that makes me so happy. I feel like you and I probably share whatever sort of genetic thing where everything has to have meaning and everything has to be something, like “I’m gonna think about this until it drives me crazy.” It sounds like maybe you and I share that because that is definitely the way I approached this entire record, for better and for worse. I think I drove myself – and probably everybody – a little bit insane. 

I look back at so much of my work and see the stuff that I did that was meaningless, that was just a choice that was made because somebody told me to do it and not because I felt like that was like an expression of my art. I look back at that stuff and that’s the stuff that I’m most ashamed of ‘cause it really wasn’t who I was and I don’t think I was expressing myself properly. I was trying to find how to do that in its truest form this time around. I’m not going to mess that up again, so I probably went a little bit too far the other way [Laughs] or I got a little crazy. 

Well, I love it almost closing out on a somber note because the listener is at reflection, because then we can think, “How did we get to this point? Let me go back and listen to it.” You know, if it ended on a high note, and you didn’t place the boppiest of the pop songs where they are, the record might have had a happy ending and then everyone would move on. Instead, it makes you think deeper and reflect and start it from the top. You did great.

Thank you! You’re validating me – I appreciate it. I love this [Laughs] so much!

Speaking on the artistic choices made something that I have been absolutely enthralled with, there is a simplicity in the visual aspect of your album covers and even the videos. Now obviously you have “Ignore Me,” which was like this one shot amazingness, but you also have the cover for Big! That is just so powerful in your stance. The aura of it is just so precise to exactly what you want to convey – and do convey in the music itself. How much of a hand do you have in that visual angle of your music?

I feel like you’re very observant and you’ve seen me, so thank you. It’s so nice to make a bunch of choices and then have somebody, like you, really see them, so thank you for saying all of that. I was very specific about the imagery for this record, particularly the album cover. I didn’t know a lot [going in], but the one thing I did know was that it had to be my entire body and I had to be as big as I possibly could be with my physical self because I’ve been spending my entire life trying to make myself smaller.

I watched myself dancing five years ago and I noticed I never extend my arms fully because I’m so insecure about taking up all the space that I take up because I’m so big and tall. I was like, “This has to be the opposite. It has to be worth everything that I’ve done up until now. I need to be the opposite of that.” Even with red, black, and white as the colors, it has sort of come out as the theme of that album, and that feels really strong and shows that the record is a lot more masculine than a lot of my old music. The red feels sort of like the ultimate Ferrari color, you know? [Laughs] That is a man’s red right there! So, even the palette we ended up on is trying to subconsciously tell the story.

We talked earlier about making a setlist, creating songs, and putting out original work. We now have “Running Up That Hill,” though, which is a cover you did. Why, or what, do you enjoy about singing covers? It can be a very personal choice. You just love the song and want to show your appreciation for it, maybe, or it might just fit your voice well. I think “Running Up That Hill,” the way you did it, is stellar and almost ethereal, but why give it an official release under your name?

That’s a great question! I think I have always had a love-hate relationship with covers because I fundamentally think of myself – before being a singer, before being even an entertainer – as a writer. None of the other stuff is possible unless I write the songs in the first place and tell the story. That’s where the story begins for me. With covers, it removes that element of it for me… and maybe that is the part that I enjoy: just being musical and telling the story you want to tell through sound as opposed to lyrics. Sort of creating this new world with the song that you love a lot, I think is really fun. 

“Running Up That Hill” was a pleasure to make. There might be a covers EP in my future or something now; just do a couple of songs that I really, really love and reimagine them. Me and Peter, who I did “I Love You Always Forever” as well as “Running Up That Hill,” we have such amazing chemistry and we are both such music fans – of the same era, too! We both love Phil Collins and Sting. We both listened to so much Michael Jackson growing up. Many of our references are really similar musically, so it’s really fun to make this stuff with him. With him, I think I’m letting go of my fear about not writing the music and maybe just leaning more into being able to tell a different story with somebody else’s song. That in itself is so incredible.