Betty Who Is Making Room For Women In Music
Jessica Newham radiates cool from the moment she steps into a room, standing a foot taller than me ("a foot taller than everybody," she reminds me) with the kind of haircut I've always wished I could pull off (bleached-blonde with shaved sides, styled to reach that just-out-of-bed level of effortlessness). She's wearing a loose fitting black jumpsuit cut low enough to reveal the crescent moon tattoo on her sternum. All I can think is how much that probably hurt, but pain is likely trivial to someone as seemingly aloof as this Australian singer, known by her stage name of Betty Who.
Her nature is initially intimidating, but don't mistake her chill attitude for iciness. The minute she opens her mouth, the cool facade melts away, and left standing in the room is someone instantly personable. She compliments my glasses, shares jokes, and laughs at mine. Apparently, I'm not alone. Newham's friendly personality often surprises people.
"I’m shocked all the time when people are like, 'Wow you’re really nice,' and I'm like, 'Yeah, aren't people? What do you mean? Everybody should be nice to you,'" the singer says. "There’s an assumption made particularly about women in pop music that you're not human or you're supposed to put on an air that you're not human. And then people meet you and they’re like, 'You’re a person, who knew?' But, we're all people. We’re all just trying to do the best we can."
The singer's got a point about how women are often pressured to be perfect. It's easy to see how that could translate into to the music industry, especially when it's so hard for women to succeed in the industry. Various studies show that the ratio of women in the music industry is dismally low. According to the U.K.-based organization Performing Rights Society for Music, their 2013 "membership of over 95,000 songwriters, composers, and music publishers is only 13 percent female." And, the Women’s Audio Mission reports that less than 5 percent of women make up the production side of music. In 2013, Huffington Post U.K. cited a Creative & Cultural Skills study that reported women held only 32.2 percent of all music industry jobs compared to the 67.8 percent that men held.
Newham is particularly sensitive to the gender gap in music coming from Australia, which has a pretty low number of women entering the field, according to the Australia Council for the Arts. "Women represent just 20 percent of songwriters and composers" registered in the country and "just 32 percent of musicians and 27 percent of composers currently practicing professionally," the council's website states. The scarcity of women in her field really hits home for the singer, which is why she wants to support her fellow women.
"I think that there is this misconception that there’s not enough space for everybody, but there totally is because every single human being is so different," Newham says. "To me there is absolutely enough space. Always has, always will be." From an artist's perspective, she also believes that the misconception about competition among female singers doesn't quite reflect reality.
"I think sometimes, people at the top are looking down at the kids who are trying to climb up going, 'What if they take my spot?' ... I think there are some women who are like that," she acknowledges. "But, I think more women are good than bad, and more people are good than bad."
After all, in Newham's experience, some of the biggest singers in the world have always made room for her and been there to answer questions as she was starting her career. Two years after her first single, "Somebody Loves You," dropped in 2012, she got to tour with Katy Perry during the Australian leg of her 2014 Prismatic World Tour. After that, she traveled with Australian megastar Kylie Minogue during her Kiss Me Once Tour in 2015.
"I still hear people going like, 'You suck and you shouldn’t be doing this; anybody can be a pop star.' And it’s like, nobody can be a pop star. These women are spectacular."
Perry's concerts were Newham's first in Australia, which she says is very "f*ck the haters," because it doesn't get much better than Perry. "Katy's work ethic is incredible. Her show is so long, and I just learned so much. ... I just tried to take in as much information as I possibly could," Newham says of the pop star's 2014 shows. And, while Perry's show served as a great learning opportunity in touring mechanics, Minogue's touched a more emotional nerve. The singer recalls a night two years ago when Minogue stopped by her dressing room just to talk with her for an hour.
"I was like, 'I have to be honest with you, when I was like 13 I came to see you perform at this arena that we’re playing in today,'" Newham remembers. The night she's speaking of was the 2006 Showgirl: The Homecoming Tour when Minogue played the Sydney Entertainment Centre joined by special guest Bono. Newham says that Minogue totally remembered the concert. "She was like, 'OMG, that was such an emotional night.'" And, opening for Minogue at the same place nearly 10 years later was just as emotional for Newham. "I remember crying at the show, I was so overwhelmed. And she was so lovely and warm and everything you’ve ever wanted your idol [to be]," the singer says.
Newham's admiration for her fellow female singers radiates from her, and she's "grateful" she's gotten to play alongside some of pop music's best. "Just to even be considered in the club is crazy," she says.
"When you do something for a living that involves people ... judging your character, I think that affects the kind of person you become."
Still, the singer hasn't been in the club for a terribly long time. She released her first single, "Somebody Loves You," in 2012 and her debut album, Take Me When You Go, in 2014. It's now been two-and-half years, and The Valley takes her vibe in a whole new direction.
"So much of this record is a lot of self-discovery that went on just personally in my life. ... It shaped the sound of the record and also my self-assuredness and my confidence," she says. Starting her career when she was so young (she wrote her first single at 19), Newham has grown up in a very public space, which hasn't always been easy. "When you do something for a living that involves people who are not close to you judging your character, I think that affects the kind of person you become," she says.
So, Newham is taking all that and channeling it into her music. "Now the album is everybody else’s issue. They can love it, hate it, but I did my part which was make a record that I love." After all, she knows you can't please everyone. Even the best of the best can't do that.
"Women like [Perry and Minogue] have to deal with people judging them and telling them that they don't deserve to be where they are," Newham laments. "I still hear people going like, 'You suck and you shouldn’t be doing this, anybody can be a pop star.' And it’s like, nobody can be a pop star. These women are spectacular." It's these women who coached the singer on her own tour abilities, and she plans to honor everything she's learned when she kicks off her Valley tour on April 12.
"I'm going to have fans blowing my nonexistent hair in the wind ... and I have a f*cking costume change in my show. That’s how you know I’m pumped," she says. "Like, I wanna be a pop star ... I will get a costume change in this show, thank you very much."
But the tour isn't just about appearances. Newham's music speaks for itself as the album shifts between pop hits and softer ballads, dance numbers and vulnerable, lyrical offerings, and all comes together to form a cohesive sound. One track stands out to Newham — her favorite tune off the album, "Mama Say," which is also one of the first she songs she wrote for the record. "I just loved it so much, and I'm so sad I didn't get to share it for such a long period of time. ... There was a part of me that was like, 'It's never gonna come out,' but now it's done."
All of Newham's hard work has fueled her desire to change the way that female artists are discussed, too. After all, many women who have made it into the industry are often doing more than just singing. They're writing (Newham wrote nearly every song on The Valley), they're producing, and they're making big decisions about their work. Yet, it's not often that female musicians are asked about those aspects of their work.
"Something that people don't ask me a lot is, 'Are you proud of the music you made? Are you happy with the record? As an artist, are you fulfilled?' That’s something I love to talk about, because I made choices and decisions about this album that is like my baby," she says.
But, is Newham fulfilled? "I am," she says, her face lighting up. "I am exhausted and, like, so over it, but only because I am fulfilled and I am happy with it and how it sounds and how it is. If I was upset about how it sounded or there was stuff that wasn’t perfect yet, I wouldn't be over it. I would be like, 'I have to fix this; I have to change this.' So, if I'm bored by it, that means I'm really happy with it."
Now, she can sit back, enjoy the fan reaction, and get ready for those epic costume changes during her tour, like the true pop star she is. And the best part? You know she'll be reaching down to lift up the next female singer behind her.