Lovers Lane
In The Flesh

Cover Story: Betty Who

| February 28, 2023

Betty Who

As Australian-born pop composer Betty Who recalls it, the only things missing from her recent spine-tingling trip into the supernatural were Scooby-Doo, Shaggy, and their trusty old VeeDubs Mystery Machine with which to beat a hasty retreat. Because Zoinks! The three specters she encountered were all too real and not engineered by some local huckster who would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling kids. So how did Who — born Jessica Anne Newham — along with her showbiz chum Kesha — wind up in such a sinister situation, hunting ectoplasmic entities at the historic Antoinette Hall opera house in Pulaski, Tennessee?

Long story, sighs Who, 31, calling from the Los Angeles home she shares with her husband, photographer Zak Cassar, and their feisty German shepherd, Hix, who makes himself heard several times during the conversation. And this natural raconteur has got a lot of equally entertaining long stories. She has a buoyant new ‘80s-retro album to discuss, BIG!, her fourth and most introspective to date. But so much has happened since her previous 2019 effort Betty — including her debut role in a feature film, Unpregnant, and her first gig as a reality TV host (The One That Got Away) — she’s practically bursting at the seams with yarns to share, such as her unlikely close friendship with Kesha, which started when they first met in 2017 over a mutual friend they had in common, continued through a peak-Covid-era tour bill they shared, and then solidified when Who was invited to perform on her official Kesha Cruise. Still, Who was taken aback when her pal insisted she guest-star on her new TV series, Conjuring Kesha, wherein she searches for verifiable paranormal activity. Next thing she knew, she was playing Watson to Kesha’s Holmes in the basement of that ancient opera house, where three distinct spirits held sway — a deceased concertgoer named Josie, a young girl ghost named Lilly, and a menacing male presence known only as Mr. Nasty.

“And I have to be honest with you,” Who shivers. “I saw some things that I wasn’t totally comfortable with, things that still, to this day, make me a little nauseous when I think about them.” First, reacting to the Hall’s resonant acoustics, she and Kesha tentatively sang “Amazing Grace” together inside before descending down to the cellar’s reputed otherworldly portal. “We had a psychic with us, and I actually felt a lot more comfortable having her along,” she says. “But Lilly, the little girl — I definitely felt like Lilly was with us. There’s a lot of stuff that happened that didn’t make the documentary. Like, we had this whole experience where we were standing in the Hall and talking about Lilly, trying to figure her out. And all of the other lights in the opera house were totally on and not flickering, but one light opposite where Kesha and I were standing, every time we were like, ‘Lilly, are you near?’ the light would go crazy!” Kesha felt the touch of invisible hands when no one else was nearby. A Native American spirit guide — who cleansed the site with burning sage and gave both ladies herbal sachets for personal protection — taught them an ancestral song to open and close the portal. Which was fine until everyone in the crew heard a disembodied, distinctly male voice singing along in eerie harmony. As Scooby-Doo himself might have put it, “Ruh-Roh!”

“So, leaving Pulaski for good after the last day of shooting?” Who asks rhetorically. “I was like, ‘If I never come back here again, it’ll be too soon!’ Because of what I’d seen and experienced there? I actually felt like I carried it with me. And we did a lot of that, Kesha and I, speaking out loud to the spirits, saying, ‘You cannot travel with me!’ People who ghost hunt tell you that you’re supposed to tell the ghosts that they’re not allowed to latch to you or connect with you, that they have to remain in their space. So I would come home, and I would see a shadow out of the corner of my eye, and I’d be like, ‘(gasp!) Did I bring Mr. Nasty home with me?’ It was a crazy experience, but I’m glad I did it.”

You might say that Who is all about embracing the unusual or extraordinary these days, as many new avenues of expression open up to her, and she carefully considers a new path forward. And BIG!, exclamation mark notwithstanding, was intended as a metaphor that works on several levels. The title track alone can be heard as a female empowerment anthem or a simple sonic celebration of “Tiny Dancer”-classic pop songwriting, a sound she was always drawn to, even when studying cello as a teen. But it also can be viewed quite literally, with the musician finally standing up to address the one thing she’s tried to shrink from for most of her career: “I’m 6’2”,” she says with a self-deprecating chuckle. “I am a big girl!

And it’s so funny how much energy I have spent my entire life trying to be cuter and make my personality a little less strong or masculine because I’m already such a huge monster; I really have to try and bring it down. The joke Zak always makes is, ‘You think that you’re a chihuahua, but you’re a Great Dane.’ So I’m just trying to be a tiny, little sexy baby, as Taylor Swift says, but I hire dancers who have to be six feet tall or taller, and they wear lifts in their shoes so they can be as tall as me, and otherwise, it just looks crazy, because I’m tall **and proportionate, proportionate to my size.” But using Marilyn Monroe as a stylistic role model, she’s leaning into her Amazonian profile, she says. “But I don’t want to make the creative choices I was making out of fear or out of shame anymore,” she declares. “I don’t want to create my art around the elephant in the room, which is the fact that I’m really big, and nobody talks about it. If you saw my picture, you wouldn’t think that I was tall,” she adds. “But you meet? I am quite dominating! So this whole album is a thesis statement for me.”

Betty Who also happens to possess geisha-sharp skills in the art of conversation, and an entire hour breezes by, in a chatty stream broken only by the occasional warning woofs of Hix, on serious afternoon guard duty. Here is a good deal of that conversation….

IE: Before or since **Conjuring Kesha, have you ever felt in touch with anything supernatural? Or sensed that you might have ESP?

BETTY WHO: It’s more like I’ll have weird manifest things. So I’ll be like, “I think this is gonna happen,” but I’ll have no reason to think that or say that. Like, I was at a bar for my friend’s birthday, and I was talking casually to the bartender, and he gave me my first beer, and I paid for it, great. I went out to my friend’s birthday gathering, and when I came back to the bar the next time, the bartender was kind of busy, but for no reason; in my head, while I was standing there, I thought, “I think he’s gonna give me this beer free.” And there was absolutely zero reason I would think that, but he came back over and said, “Another beer?” And I said Yeah, and he was like, “On the house!” And I was like, “Huh. That was weird. Was it the chicken or the egg? Did I manifest that just because I thought about it? Or was it gonna happen anyway, and did I just have an instinctual, animal awareness of something that was about to happen?”

IE: Now, if only that would work at the Jaguar dealership.

BW: Yeah! “I think he’s going to give me this Tesla! For free!” Ha! I’ll try to get my manifest skills up to par! Because a $3.50 beer doesn’t put a dent in my bank account like something larger would. So maybe I’ll work on that!

IE: But now you’re a big-time movie star, so anything is possible. How was it working on Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s HBO Max film Unpregnant?

BW: I loved working with Rachel, and I’m happy to talk about Unpregnant because I loved acting, and I want to do so much more of it. So I’ve been auditioning like crazy for the past five years, and I think that’s just what you have to start doing — you just start taping and getting better. And it’s crazy — when I watch my tapes back, even from Unpregnant, I wish I could have those four days on set again because I was so nervous and excited, and it made me just desperate to do it more and get myself a role that would allow me to be on set for longer than four days. So maybe the next one will be ten days! Two weeks, even! Building up to more. And I love working on one thing — I’m such a road dog, and when I’m on tour, it’s my favorite thing. I’m like, “Cool — I love being part of a team that is tossed together to get something creative done!” That’s my kink, and when I was on set? Even more than being on tour, in some ways, being on set just totally fulfills that thing for me. That’s why I was obsessed with filming The One That Got Away, the Amazon dating show that I hosted, because I was on set for a month, and I loved every second! It was at a ranch out in Malibu in the mountains, so we sort of holed up there. My one day off was Sunday, so I’d go home to Los Angeles for the night to see my dog and husband, and roommate, and then I would go back to the set and stay for the next six days.

IE: Talk to me like I’m five. Time portals are featured in this reality show, too, which allow contestants to go back in time to revisit lost loves in a ‘What if?’ scenario? How did the show work, and what were some fun reconnection surprises?

BW: That’s the theme of our conversation today! Portals! The show was such a fun concept because it exists outside of space and time. So much of our lives in relationships with people is like, “Oh, I was really young then, and we were friends,” or “I didn’t handle that thing well,” and “We couldn’t figure it out, but I wonder if I saw that person now, if I had that chance all over again at this point in my life, how that would actually go?” And I think that’s a really common theme in human relationships, and so the idea for the show is you come into a place that exists outside of space and time, and you get to bring people from your past into your present to go, “Is this real? Could this girl that I had a crush on in high school, who I thought I wasn’t good enough for and never talked to, would she be interested in me now?” So it’s like, “Well, let’s find out!” And it was really crazy to see how that did — and did not — happen, so a lot of the dates were like, “Uhh, yeah, this not gonna work out for me, actually!” And I think the fun part for me was watching the contestants learn both why they had things in their present for a reason, and also why they’d left things in their past for a reason, and then coming to terms with that being grateful for that, all of a sudden, Like, “Oh, I don’t have any questions about this anymore — this was meant to be left in the sixth grade!” And I don’t wanna spoil it for people who haven’t seen it, so you can see for yourself if the contestants find love. But — spoiler alert — I did see some really beautiful connections and experiences happen that I was really moved by. I loved every minute of the show— I loved making it, and I loved watching it back. It was such a pleasure and a joy for me, and I wish we could do more of it.

IE: It’s cool to still be friends with all your exes, which I think I am. And I can’t imagine going back and following any old romantic threads. How about you?

BW: Yeah. I don’t know if I look back with regret. I think I am a romantic and a storyteller for a living, so that means that I write a lot of different versions of things in my head and sort of examine them and imagine what would have happened had they been different and how that would have played out. And I think I’m always sort of retelling different versions of it, just to see if I can find something new, creatively, out of it. And so it was interesting to see these people go through that, and I’d hear them say a little line when I’d be watching in the control room and think, “I should write that down! That’d be good in a song! These people are really going through it, and I’m seeing so much inspiration, all in real-time!”

IE: Your album BIG!” Goes through a portal back to the past, too. It’s got an angular Duran Duran feel, and even your new artwork and merch line is very ‘80s-retro and Nagel-Print angular. All that’s missing is “Axel’s Theme” from **Beverly Hills Cop.

BW: Duran Duran is a perfect reference. And I worked hard to honor the ‘80s, both stylistically and musically, and Kenny Loggins was pretty much all I listened to making this record. I just think he’s one of the greatest songwriters of a generation — he was the voice of the ‘80s for me. The Top Gun soundtrack! The Caddyshack soundtrack! The Footloose soundtrack! Oh. My God! I have a Footloose tattoo! And I really relate to that sort of cinematic, big, masculine — and because it was the ‘80s, a little coked out — high-energy music. And it feels like the music of my soul, you know? So I made my album, and I listened back, and I was like, “Whoa! I made the choice, this is very ‘80s, but am I also confident and also masculine enough to pull this off?” So it actually taught me a ton about identity and my own sense of self, and the person that I really want to present and have people experience me. And to close the loop, with so much of that expression, the more and more I lean into it, and the more I try and find myself, the more I find Zak being like, “This is so cool for you — you look like you, and it feels  so good.” The encouragement that he gives me as I venture out into the boundaries of my gender and expression has been so limitless, and I’m always really blown away by that. And Yes, there were a lot of Nagel prints in my mood board for this album cycle.

IE: In some shots, you’re not wearing makeup, and others are almost Helmut Newton sleek. And you can be both simultaneously.

BW: Exactly 100 %. That’s why I love acting. For me, music is how I get closer to the truth of who I really am, and what that looks like, and how that is expressed in art, and what I want to do with that — which is to ultimately make people feel more seen, less alone, or just safe in some kind of way. But then, in acting, you go, “Oh, my God! I get to be somebody else? How fun!!” I’m desperate to try something else on because I think I’m very versatile — maybe it’s the Libra in me — but I can do both, and I yearn for that experience to become other characters and express art. And to do art within that shell is so fun, and I’m desperate for more.

IE: The album’s flagship single, “Blow Out My Candle,” is totally vintage “Flashdance,” though, right? In sound and video-clip concept?

BW: Absolutely! So “Flashdance”! And so Kevin Bacon in Footloose – that kind of energy, like “I just wanna dance!” He’s just a kid, and he just wants to dance, you know? That’s kind of the vibe of a lot of this music. Or Rocky, running up the stairs. I just want to make encouraging music. Every time I write a song that’s sad or angry, I’m like, “Cool. I obviously had to get this out. “ But I am gonna release stuff and share stuff with people that only adds to the positive vibration spectrum of the Universe, you know what I mean? I just wanna lift people up; I wanna write songs that encourage me when I’m singing them onstage. I’m having a shitty day, my body hurts, and I don’t really wanna be doing this right now. But I’m singing a song about “Don’t stop running down that road” and “I’ll keep dancing ’til I die,” and I’m like, “Oh yeah! This is my dream, and I’m living it! And I wanna **be here!” And it’s just crazy that music can do that, so I really believe in the power of music.

IE: Going back to what you said about exploring past possible romantic outcomes in your show, like the movie **Sliding Doors, this record sounds like an actual breakup album. But you didn’t break up?

BW: I love Sliding Doors! That’s funny. I think most of this record is looking back at not only relationships, like emotional, romantic, and otherwise, relationships from even pre-Zak, in my youth, and sort of looking back with this age-old wisdom of a 31-year-old, and trying to pull it apart and really talk about the reality of the situation, as opposed to the story that I told myself then. So maybe I acted badly or hurt somebody, and a song like “The Hard Way” is about looking back at my life and going, “Oh, man — I hurt people because I didn’t know my own strength, I didn’t know my own power of how you could make other people feel, and you should think about the way you’re making other people feel and maybe not be so selfish.” So so much of this record is about the relationship between myself and my career, and the industry, and trying to chase the dream, as opposed to spending my life building a business or work that just feels very…I mean, this is my work. This is what I do to have a life that’s happy.

All of my self-worth, all of my confidence, all of my self-love is conditional on me being as successful as I possibly can be in my field of art and work. And that’s like not healthy, and will also probably never bring me the success that I want because you can’t hold onto something that tight and expect it to want to stick around. So I’ve been trying to reframe all of that, and this album is sort of my therapy of working through that. Like, “Cool — if I’m gonna do music, I don’t wanna be miserable doing it. I have to be happy. This is my dream. I’m living it; it must be how I need it to be. So I have to grow up and make this work for me, in a healthy way now, and find my way back to loving it again.” Going back to The One That Got Away TV show, when I filmed it, I had so much fun doing it, and I was like, “Oh. I can have fun doing work! This is what that feels like! And I haven’t had fun making music in a long time, so maybe I need to let go. I really need to stop letting it be so painful because it was for so long.” And I think that’s true for so many artists.

IE: “Someone Else” sounds like a Pandora’s box kind of scenario, as in, be careful what you wish for.

BW: Yeah. Yeah. Zak and I had a brief separation in our eight-year-long relationship, having to do with his sobriety and some stuff, and we were young and growing up and growing away from each other, and we need to figure out if life was gonna happen…maybe **not together. And we’d never really thought about that — maybe we should. But it only lasted a couple of months — it was very brief, and it was mostly just us re-evaluating our relationship and him getting sober. And the experience of being apart from him and thinking, “This is my new life — I have to embrace this and be positive about it.” So that song was a very true and intimate look into that time in our lives, and when I showed him the song, and we talked about all the music, he said, “ I want you to tell the truth, you know? Tell everybody that I had to stop being an asshole and go get sober and that this is a song about that. And it changed our lives for the better.” So if talking about it means that somebody else might be encouraged to find a way back to themselves or to each other, then great, we’ve done something.

Appearing March 21 at Rivera Theatre, Chicago.

-Tom Lanham

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