Betty Who, The Valley
While working on her new album, pop star Betty Who found inspiration in everything from 1980s television commercials to the writings of Charles Bukowski. Here, she makes EW a musical mood board and breaks down the people, places, and pop culture that shaped her creative process.
The Internet, Ego Death
"I floundered for the first six months of doing the album. You have to try everything to know what you do and don’t want: I made super urban records, I made records that were too pop, I pushed my boundaries and figured out what kind of artist I wanted to be. The Internet was a reference for me in sessions, especially at the beginning. I did a writing camp in France and there’s a song we did that is not on the album that basically has the same beat as 'Get Away.' You could hear how I inspired I was by them. Syd is the coolest person in the entire world. And her voice? She’s not serving Mariah vocals, but she’s serving energy and vibe. Their music makes you switch off and groove, which you need sometimes when you’re making a dance-pop record."
"I listened to Britney’s second and third albums a lot while making my record. I was like, 'If I could write a song for ‘90s Britney, but she was an artist today, what would I write?' The song I ended up doing was 'Mama Say.' I think the bridge is the kitschiest thing ever. [My producer] Peter [Thomas] was like, 'I'm not doing this,' but I made him do it. For my entire career I have wanted a bridge breakdown where you have [a variation of] the chorus, then the chorus, and then they both come in together. That’s the M.O. of *NSYNC and Britney Spears songs. It took us two hours. We were listening to '…Baby One More Time' in the studio to see how they did it. The second we figured it out, we were like, 'Are we the smartest people in the world?' We were so proud of ourselves."
"People have watched the 'Mama Say' video and already recreated the dance. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. I saw that and was like, 'This is the reason I do what I do.' I grew up watching pop acts who did this every day — obviously I'm obsessed with Britney Spears. I love that any artist can be on the radio now, I love the diversity of pop music, but I still miss the trappings of early-2000s pop music — MTV performances that were iconic and choreographed and rehearsed. It’s so rare that you get that now. When I was writing this record, that was a big part of what I was thinking about. I have dancers on tour now. We’re doing it big because I want to put on a show that feels like your old favorite pop star from when you were a kid."
"Charles Bukowski is one of my favorite writers, and he always serves as inspiration when I'm stuck in a creative rut. Sometimes when it’s 3 p.m. and you’ve got the afternoon lull and are trying to write lyrics, finding the exact words you want to say can be tedious. I’ll flip through one of his books, find a page, read half of it, then jump to another page. It's just about waking up my brain. When you see a phrase that’s beautifully put together, you’re like, 'I love how that evokes a specific emotion, that’s what I’m trying to do.' Or: 'I love the use of this word, maybe I’ll take that word.' I don’t like to read other people’s lyrics, so I have to read poetry or click through IMDB and look for phrases or titles. I saw that there was a John Hughes movie called Some Kind of Wonderful, and I was like, 'That’s a great title, let’s go with it, that’s what we should write about today.'"
Levi's Launderette Ad
"This 1985 Levi's commercial was one of the main inspirations for the 'Some Kinda Wonderful' video. We had a handful of treatments, but none of them were really speaking to me. I knew I wanted to work with this director Daniel Carberry, so I was like, 'Daniel, just come to my house and talk, it’ll be more efficient.' I had come up with this idea about love in a grocery store, and my creative director Gavin [Taylor] was like, 'Have either of you seen this iconic ad from the ‘80s?' It was really scandalous at the time, but now it’s the least scandalous thing that could be on television. He played it for us, and we were like, 'This is what we want to do.' We looked at so many washing machine photoshoots for inspiration. I have so many emails and PDFs of, like, edgy girls hanging out of washing machines."
"This is a photo of my balcony this winter, before the album was finished. I spent a lot of time sitting out here looking out over the [San Fernando] Valley, having teary conversations with my mum and dad or talking for hours with my roommates about art and the choices we've made. I would finish a lot of lyrics out there. I’m in Woodland Hills, and being so far away, people don’t want to come to you. That’s the thing in L.A.: If you can’t Uber there, it’s like, 'I’m not coming.' That’s really isolating, and that affected my well-being and mental health during the record. I fell into this k-hole of Album Land and went a little bit insane in the valley. It felt like, if you will, the valley of my life. This house is so representative of everything that I’ve gone through: I moved here, I hated it, and now I’m obsessed and never want to leave."
"I watched Entourage from start to finish right in the middle of making the album. I like to start a recording session at 11 a.m. and finish at 5 or 6. Then you get dinner and are home at 8 or 9. That leaves about four hours until I need to be in bed, so I can get through like 10 episodes a night. I had just moved to L.A. from New York and was missing it like crazy, but I remember getting through the first season and thinking, 'Maybe L.A. isn't that bad.' Entourage is such a love story to the good and bad of Hollywood. It gives you the same bug. Entourage influenced my life, as opposed to my writing, but that changed the way I made the album. 'Some Kinda Wonderful' might have been during my Entourage phase—it’s the most buckwild song on the album, so it makes sense that I was feeling myself and my L.A. lifestyle."
"I got really into running while making this record. I needed a distraction and a way to get out of my head, and Serena Williams' athleticism and attitude continues to inspire me every day. There’s a Nike ad where she’s like, 'There’s obviously days I don’t feel like training, but there’s no day that goes by that I feel like losing.' I remember being like, 'This is my bitch.' Running is also how I finished the record. I would run and listen to a song like 8 times in a row and be like, 'Oh, this is what it’s missing!' You have to get your physical body to do something else to free up your mind. One of my best friends works at Flywheel, and a year ago I emailed her a version of 'Mama Say' and was like, 'Can you play this in class today so I can spin to it and see how it feels?' It felt too slow, so we sped it up 5 bpm."
LGBTQ Pride Celebrations
"I played so many pride festivals in between album cycles, and they were one of the things I looked forward to the most. I didn’t write 'Beautiful' as a pride song, even though at the time I was reacting to the Pulse shooting. I wanted to write something uplifting, but it’s hard — you don’t want to sound preachy or smug. 'Beautiful' felt right to me because not only am I talking to a group of people that happen to be my biggest fans, I’m also talking to myself. The whole first verse is about how I’m the hardest on myself, I have the biggest issues with my body. [The song] is reminding myself that everything’s going to be okay and that it’s what kind of person you are that matters. I can’t wait to play this at pride, because that’s where I think it’ll resonate the most. Pride events are the most fun because everyone goes to celebrate themselves, and that’s what this song is about."