If things had gone just slightly differently, there would be no Betty Who, only Jess Newham, cellist. The New York-based Aussie singer had been classically trained on the instrument starting at age 4, and she was just shy of her 16th birthday when she moved from temperate Sydney to frosty Michigan to continue her studies at the prestigious Interlochen Center for the Arts. And then, just like many a classical musician before her, Newham was seduced by pop music, courtesy of a Berklee summer program.
“That was the first time I had been anywhere for voice, and I was like, ‘This is incredible. This is something that I love. This is something I’m passionate about. And this is something I feel like I’m good at, voice and songwriting,’ ” says Who. “So when I went back to high school for my senior year, I went to my cello teacher and I was like, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m not going to apply to cello colleges.’ ”
It wasn’t the first time the Robyn-idolizing singer ditched out on her formal education to follow her musical bliss, and it wouldn’t be the last. Who (performing Thursday at Brighton Music Hall) has made a habit of being distracted. “I got in trouble all the time with my teachers for going to the music building during regular classes,” says Who of the all-girls’ school she attended while still in Australia. And it continued when she attended Berklee proper and, true to form, left a couple of credits short of a degree when her career began taking off.
“I just, at that point, was having so many record label meetings every weekend and spending so much time in New York as it was, working on my projects, that financially I got to the point where school was actually holding me back,” she says. “I could no longer be doing both. And I was sacrificing opportunities to stay in school.”
Not every opportunity has been Who’s own doing. Last year, Salt Lake City resident Spencer Reeser-Stout (then simply Stout) staged a flash mob in a big-box hardware store to propose to his boyfriend Dustin, all soundtracked by Who’s percolating “Somebody Loves You.” The resulting YouTube video has logged more than 11 million views (and was arguably instrumental in the song reaching No. 1 on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chart months later). “Her music and her song is kind of what inspired [the proposal], and it fit perfectly,” says Reeser-Stout, who downplays his and his now-husband’s own involvement in Who’s raised profile.
“She’s done a lot of hard work to get herself out there,” he says. “I honestly think she is responsible for her own success. I think it’s been awesome to be kind of involved in helping in some small way, maybe some big way, I don’t know. [It was great] just to hear her song on a platform that was totally unintentional.”
But if the song entered the popular consciousness in a way that she had no control over, it didn’t seem to give Who pause. “I would be nervous if the video had been doing something that I didn’t really believe in or didn’t think was totally freaking beautiful,” she says. “That would be a little scary and make me feel uncomfortable. But it was such a good video and such a beautiful message, and the two boys in it are so wonderful and love each other so much, so I had no issue with it. I was more shocked and blown away by it than anything else.”
As for the song’s success, Who has been preparing for that for quite some time. It’s part of the reason she chose a stage name in the first place.
“I wanted my family to be separate from this,” Who says. “I don’t think it’s fair for my dad to walk into a grocery store and put his credit card down to pay for his groceries and have somebody be like, ‘Oh my God, are you related to her?’. . . It’s another step between me and my public life.”
That reveals another side of Who’s ambition: She speaks as though massive popularity is a given, waxing pre-nostalgic about playing Madison Square Garden before she’s ever gotten there and telling Variance Magazine of her adoration and emulation of Robyn and Katy Perry for making the pop music of their generation. But while she admits that she’s largely dreaming out loud, she insists that such large-scale thinking is a necessity.
“I think that you have to have expectations that are totally unrealistic and have these visions of grandeur and delusions to even get you started,” says Who. “I think if I was like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to play a 200-person bar that I really like going to in New York,’ that’s where you tap out. That’s where you stop.”
For Who, the trick is to find the balance between striving for the dream and enjoying the ride. “You kind of say it out loud. You go, ‘One day, I’m going to play Madison Square Garden,’ and then you get back to playing the 150-person venue that you’re in right now,” she says. “I don’t know that they’re mutually exclusive. I’m not sure that you have to separate them at all. It’s just like, ‘OK, remember when I thought that? I’m working toward that right now.’ ”Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @spacecitymarc.