Jess Newham has a New York apartment, meetings with record execs, and an upcoming trip to Paris — you might think the 22-year-old, six-foot-two, platinum-blonde singer had already made it. But this is her first summer pounding the pavement as a pop-star hopeful, one that goes by the name Betty Who. So that West Village apartment comes with a roommate, the trip to Paris was a graduation gift, and endless meetings are all in hopes of getting signed by a major label. She hasn’t yet made it, making her current life akin to the days when Lady Gaga was still hustling as Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta and performing in shitty bars all over NYC.
Last month, she took the stage (in a Varsity sweater hand-sewn by her mom, no less) at Piano’s on the Lower East Side, where I witnessed a room full of record execs from Columbia, Warner Brothers, and Sony clamor to make their bids. Her sunny music and approachable, stylish look is somewhere between Katy Perry (effervescence included) and Robyn (electro-cool), with spunk and confidence that had fans chanting lyrics and intensely singing along to “High Society,” her ode to day-drinking Chardonnay. Recently, the Cut caught up with Newham to discuss why she doesn’t want to be Rihanna, what she thinks of her gay fans, and her obsession with all things Marc Jacobs.
So the name Betty Who, where did it come from?
Well “Betty” is fifties slang for housewife. When I was 17, I thought I was really clever, writing a song called “Betty Who.” I was like, “Ooh, edgy.” And then when I was 19 and writing new music for this project, my producer was like, “You’re probably going to need a stage name,” because I don’t have the most glamorous given name in the world. I didn’t want to pick a name that I fucking hated, spend the rest of my life being like, “I hate this.” So I suggested Betty Who, and it was kind of just an “a-ha” moment.
You started out playing the classical cello, when did you decide to explore other types of music?
I always excelled as a musician, but I don’t know if I excelled as a cellist. Everyone was practicing like five hours a day and was so dedicated, and I just wanted to, like, experience my friends and be 15. And I got my heart really broken. That’s what I did instead, you know? I went out and fell in love. I think that was my learning experience at that high school.
A lot of crushes have spurred great pop songs. Was it one boy in particular?
I had been at an all-girls school until then. And then I was at this co-ed arts school, surrounded by all these artistic, brooding, edgy boys. And I was in love with all of them! Like, Oh my god, I want one in every color. I fell so in love with this boy named Sean. He had long hair and looked like a 16-year-old Calvin Klein model.
Not such a bad place to be!
I’ve always had a lot of really good male friends. A lot of them are gay, but I’ve definitely always had two or three, at any one time, like really close straight male friends. I think men and women can be friends, but there’s always gonna be some kind of phase where someone has sex with somebody and you have to get over it, and then once you get over it you can be friends and that’s fine.
So we shouldn’t expect any Taylor Swift–esque breakup songs?
I’m not a man hater. I love men. I’m still totally like boy crazy in a good way, and not a destructive way. I love attention. And I love that back-and forth in a relationship until you can just say what you feel. This is where my songs come from, that point in my relationship with a man where I feel like I can tell them honestly, I feel this way about you.
Well, “Somebody Loves You” is a really hopeful breakup song, which is refreshing.
Even when I totally had my heart broken when I was a kid, it was like, I was still hopeful that I would find the person that I would fall in love with. Which I never did, because who does that in high school. You know? I’m still single. Jesus. Eight billion people. All of these people in the world and I’m, like, so alone. Watching The Vampire Diaries. But! Still hopeful.
“Somebody Loves You” got some buzz. Why did you decide to stay unsigned?
I write all my music, I’m not a vessel. You know, some great artists are vessels for other people’s songs and other people’s ideas and that works really well. Rihanna is an example. She doesn’t give a shit about what she sings. She looks really hot, she has an attitude, she has personality. But other people write her songs. You know, I’m still so young, and I’ve put out four songs, and have played, like, four shows. So I need to understand myself and make sure other people are onboard before I sign up with a team of 100 people.
Okay, you don’t want to be in the Rihanna camp, but you get compared to Robyn. Is she an idol?
I think I’m nowhere near as quirky as her, or as cool. You know, I’m way too silly. Like, “Hi … oh, God … where is the food?” She’s way too cool. She is a Fembot! I also think my sound is maybe a little more organic then hers.
What is your relationship to fashion?
I’m obsessed with it. I would fucking die to be a spokesperson for a brand. Marc Jacobs is my everything. I think he is a fascinating character of a person. I love his clothes and I love his brand, and I think what he did with Louis Vuitton is incredible. I want him to design my tour. Oh my god, I just want Marc to love me.
Well, it seems you already have a lot of gay men in your corner.
It was interesting that a bunch of great gay guys I’d never met before showed up to my first New York show and were like, “We’re literally obsessed with you.” And I was like, “How do you know who I am?” That’s been my whole life, fabulous gay men. You know, I mean my mum is like the ultimate fag hag, and she passed that down to me.