Betty Who's new album includes a tribute to 1999-era Britney Spears
She's been working with MNEK and Justin Tranter
Betty Who is putting the finishing touches on her follow-up to 2014’s Take Me When You Go, and she’s ready to share it with the world—unless the elements get in the way. The Australian pop singer was going to debut a new song that she describes to EW as “an ode to … 1999 Britney Spears” at Governors Ball in New York City earlier this month when her set (along with the rest of the festival’s final day) was canceled due to severe weather. “I was so sad, we rehearsed for so long and really hard,” Betty Who (born Jessica Newham) says. “We all just cried and held each other.”
Thankfully, fans have something else to tide them over: a new, sterling cover of Donna Lewis’ 1996 hit “I Love You Always Forever” that won’t appear on Who’s upcoming record but will whet appetites for it nonetheless. (She’s aiming for a fall release date.) “I’m just desperate to start doing new stuff, but I’m also a perfectionist,” she says. “So while I finish up the record, I decided this would be a good interim.” Below, Who fills EW in on her progress, her bucket list of cover songs, and her pick for Song of the Summer.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me about the Donna Lewis cover you released earlier this month. Why that song now?
BETTY WHO: I rediscovered it a couple of years ago. I think it’s that kind of song where if I said, “‘I Love You Always Forever’ by Donna Lewis,” you’d be like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” and then you’d hear it and be like, “Oh, I know this song.” Over the last couple of years it’s just stuck with me. About six months ago I was talking to somebody at my label and was like, “I’ve always wanted to cover that song.” And they were like, “Oh my god, I’ve been dying to have somebody cover that, you have to do it.” Hearing somebody else affirm it was kind of like, “Okay, maybe we should actually get this done.”
Do you keep a bucket list of songs you want to cover?
Actually I have a list in my notes on my iPhone that’s like, “Songs to Cover.” I have a running list of songs that I find that I’m like, “I could sing this at some point.”
Can you share what’s on it?
You know what song I’ve always wanted to sing? “U + Ur Hand” by P!nk. I’ve always wanted to do a kind of stripped-down version of that. And then I’ve always also wanted to do also a stripped-down version of [Kelly Clarkson’s] “Since U Been Gone.”
You know who does a cool stripped down version of that song? Robyn. It’s somewhere on YouTube.
Really? She’s my queen. If she’s done it, then maybe I can’t do it. I’ll have to check it out though.
So are you almost done with the album? Have you nailed down a tracklisting?
A lot of tentative track listings. I want the record to be around 12 or 13 songs. I’ve got about 16 that I play around with. Every other day I’m like, “No, this should be on it! No, this should be on it!” It’s more a matter of what’s going to make the deluxe and what’s going to be on the first edition. They’ll all eventually be made public.
You’ve been working a lot with Peter Thomas, who produced the bulk of your last album, but you’ve also expanded your circle of collaborators. What’s that been like?
I’m pretty sure the majority of the record is Peter’s and my work, but I definitely have brought in a lot more collaborators than I ever have. It was like speed dating for songwriting, and I just kind of bounced around and tried to feel out what works for me and what doesn’t. So much of the time, songwriting is so subjective and weird. You can have a good day or a bad day with somebody. I’ll have a bad day with someone and go back and write a year and a half later with them, and it will be the best session of my life.
It’s about the stars aligning for that day, and the universe shining down on you to make a song that’s right for the record at that point in time. I’ve definitely had a couple of really really serendipitous moments like that. One of my favorite ones was with Justin Tranter. He and I and Peter, I think it took us two and a half hours to write one of my favorite songs on the record. I was like, “This is A) the fastest I’ve ever worked and B) the most fun I’ve ever had in a session.” It was 3:30 and Justin was like, “Okay, the song’s done, wine anybody?”
I’m a big fan of his work.
Oh my God, he’s such a star, I’m obsessed with him. Everybody always told the both of us that we would be in love. The day we walked in the studio, he and I ended up with matching outfits, fully uncoordinated. We were wearing literally the exact same thing. Then he and I hug, and he’s like, “I feel like we’ve been friends for years.” I’m like, “Babe, me too!” I think because of that familiarity we worked so quickly on something that I think was really, really special.
How do you break the ice when you get into the room with people you’ve never met worked with before?
I’m not one of those people who’s like, “Here’s how I work, everybody get on board!” Although I guess that would be pretty succinct and quite efficient. For me, I don’t like writing if it’s not fun. I don’t like being in a session and feeling stressed out. To break the ice, a lot of the time I like to hang for a little bit to get to know the person. Sometimes I’ll go, “What have you been listening to? Here’s have I been listening to.” At this point in the record, a lot of the sessions I’ve been in are like, “Let me update you where I’m at sonically, what I want to sound like, what I’m missing on the record.” That’s what I’m writing now—songs that I don’t have. Because when you write 50 songs for a record, it’s like, “Okay, I don’t want to keep writing just to keep writing.” That really helps to give you a direction.
So where are you at sonically? Bring me up to date on your sound.
I’ve experimented a lot. I don’t mean like indie and atonal—I haven’t experimented that much. But I’ve definitely tried to find the holes in the last record. I’ve learned so much from touring: “Okay, I’m on stage and this song makes me feel really awesome, but I don’t like the feeling of that song.” I had to identify why I feel the way I do and put that information directly into the writing process for this album. I wanted it to be a record that I was excited to play live. That’s my favorite thing about what I do: performing and being with people and dancing especially.
Are you thinking of road testing material as you make the final decisions?
Yeah, I was going to play a new record at Governors Ball. I don’t really love playing songs that aren’t out. I’ve been to shows where an artist is like, “You guys want to hear a new song?” I mean, yeah, but I also want to hear the songs I know. I want to sing along with you. Because that’s what shows are about, right? Community and feeling a part of something for an hour and a half. So I’m definitely going to be cautious of that, but I will mix in new material here and there just to see how it feels.
A mutual friend of ours heard some of your new music and described it to me as having some “‘90s Max Martin-style Backstreet Boys dance breakdowns.” Is that a good description of what you have in store?
Most certainly. There’s a particular song on the record that I’m completely in love with, and it was the one I was going to play at Gov Ball. I am so excited for everybody to hear it because it’s my ode to Britney Spears, but like 1999 Britney Spears.
What about new lyrical ground—are you writing about topics that you haven’t write about before?
I’m more interested in emotional range and trying to accomplish multiple stories at once, as opposed to this one overarching [theme], “I’m a romantic and I’m always broken-hearted!” That’s kind of how the first record felt to me. Now it feels more like I’m telling 12 or 13 different stories. I wanted to show more of myself. If I’m angry, be angry. If I’m sad, be sad. If I want to feel sexy, I want to do that specifically. I tried to hit the emotions all the way to the fullest extent, as opposed to dipping my toe in the water.
I think those are the kind of pop records people put on repeat, start to finish—the ones that have a journey to them.
Totally. The songs are about many different relationships in my life—they could be applied to one or fifteen—so I want there to be a different soundtrack to each emotion that everybody feels. “I love this song because I went out on Friday night and I heard it at the club and it made me feel hot.” Like, cool, that’s what that song’s for, but there’s also a song that’s like, “I’m in love with my best friend and don’t know how to say it.” That story needs to be told as well.
Before I let you go, I need to know—what’s your pick for Song of the Summer?
MNEK’s “At Night (I Think About You).” He’s a friend of mine, so it feels like I’m biased, but I’m not! I’m totally in love with him. He and I wrote a song for the record too that I love. He’s so talented, and I think he is such an important musician and storyteller. I love “Never Forget You” [with Zara Larsson], but I’m really, really excited for “At Night (I Think About You).” That’s definitely one of my main jams this summer.