Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 29, 2013

Betty Who inspires community of fans

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Betty Who?

Soon you won’t have to ask.

In just the past two months the rising pop singer-songwriter and Interlochen transplant performed live on VH1, posed for photos for Elle and Cosmopolitan magazines, made Time Magazine’s list of 14 Musical Acts to Watch in 2014 and signed a five-year deal with mega-label RCA Records.

And she did it all without one of her songs hitting the radio.

“That’s the crazy part,” said the singer, whose real name is Jessica Newham, as she curled up on a couch at her family home in Interlochen. “It’s in no way been easy, but it’s been easy compared to how many people get ‘nos’ every day.”

The Australian-born musician began playing cello at 4 and wrote her first song at 14, before her first of two summers at Interlochen Arts Camp. She moved with her family to the area in 2007 to continue her cello studies at Interlochen Arts Academy.

But teacher and mentor Crispin Campbell said soon it became apparent that her heart lay elsewhere.

“There wasn’t a singer-songwriter program then but it became clear to me that she was headed in that direction,” said Campbell, who accepted Newham, an intermediate-level cellist, because she was interesting, fun and had “something to offer.”

“When it was clear that she wasn’t practicing cello a lot, I said, ‘Well, what do you do?’ She said, ‘I write songs, play guitar,’” Campbell recalled. “I said, ‘Play me something you do,’ so she sat down at the piano and played a very cool song.”

After that, Campbell created an alternative cello track, teaching Newham how to improvise and play cello lines for songs she’d written and to explore different musical genres.

Meanwhile Newham performed at Interlochen Coffee Houses, appeared in a student life video for prospective students and their parents, and became active in student government. She was voted student body president in her senior year and once started a school community meeting with a dance to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

At Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Newham switched her major from singer-songwriter to professional music. Meanwhile she hooked up with a Berklee-trained producer who saw her “star quality.” Together they spent three years trying find the right sound and the right song with which to introduce her to the world.

“I didn’t want to sit on a stool in a spotlight for the rest of my life,” said Newham, 22, who at 6-feet-1-inch tall and with short platinum-blond hair more closely resembles a pop star than an acoustic musician. “There wasn’t enough energy in that. (Producer) Peter was intent on finding a style of music that reflects all of me.”

That style turned out to be pop with an ‘80s dance vibe, and the song was “Somebody Loves You” from her 2012 social media-released debut EP “The Movement.”

The song recently went viral in a spectacular way when Utah resident Spencer Stout posted a YouTube video featuring it in a flash mob marriage proposal to his partner in a Salt Lake City Home Depot.

“By the time I went to bed, there were a million views,” said Newham, who found herself and her stage name — the title of a feminist song she’d written at Interlochen — an overnight sensation. “I expected 3,000.”

So far the video has gotten more than 10 million views and Newham, who met the couple at her VH1 performance in October, expects to attend their wedding.

And suddenly the record labels she’d been in talks with all summer came “swarming” — some of them offering her carte blanche. Newham, who moved to New York in July, said signing with giant RCA, whose roster boasts Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and Kelly Clarkson, can advance her career in ways remaining independent can’t.

“I’m a female pop artist and that’s the hardest genre to break because there are so many of us who are doing it, who are beautiful, who are able to dance,” she said. “We’re still doing what we were doing before, but we’re doing it with a huge, strong, well-oiled machine behind us.”

She credits her backstory for some of her popularity but also believes the time is right for her kind of music.

“I think the thing that’s refreshing for a lot of people is that it’s not dark,” she said. “I think people are ready for light, they’re ready for simple, they’re ready for joy. We haven’t seen that in so long. I think that is resonating with people more than any of us thought.”

Newham’s mother isn’t at all surprised by her daughter’s burgeoning success, which includes mentions — and an EP premiere — on Billboard and on the blog Popjustice.

“This is something she’s dreamed about since she was 12,” said Cynthia Johnson.

Newham is the “perfect example” of the kind of student that inspired the creation of Interlochen’s singer-songwriter program last year, said Interlochen national marketing and communications manager Chris Hintz.

“Given the amount of interest and success of students like Jessica, it just made sense,” Hintz said. “We have about 30 singer-songwriter students now. Once word got out about this major it really kind of exploded in terms of interest and enrollment.”

Now Newham is working on her first RCA album, expected to be released in the spring. She said “Somebody Loves You” likely will be the first song on it.

“We’re hoping to push it on radio,” she said.