The last 12 months have been fairly epic for the Australian-born, Angeleno electro-pop artist Betty Who. She followed up the release of the Betty Pt.1 EP in June with an unexpectedly brilliant tour opening for Las Vegas pop-rockers Panic! At the Disco. Then came a self-titled new album in February, which happens to be her third, and now she’s on tour. Busy days.
Generally, when artists go the self-titled route for a record that isn’t their debut, it points to a reinvention, and that’s accurate here. The musician born Jessica Anne Newham has evolved into a genuinely excellent singer-songwriter in recent years, capable of blurring genres while retaining her already enviable fanbase. The sound that she’s landed on is a very contemporary take on R&B flavored synthpop — polished and extremely radio-friendly, but also deeply personal.
Her recent single “I Remember” — which is about an old flame — is a great example, and its Shape of Water-esque video needs to be seen. Meanwhile, there’s enough of an edge to attract those who maybe considered Who’s early work too derivative and lightweight. She’s constantly growing, even between the recent EP and album.
“A lot happened in between,” Who says. “When I left [RCA], I wanted to put something out pretty fast. I was really excited, I felt really motivated. By the time I hunkered down and started spending time making the album and trying to figure out what I wanted, there was a lot of growth and reflection, and a lot of decisions made that I think wouldn’t have been made had I made the album when I made the EP. I think I was given time, I got to work at my own pace, and every creative decision I got to OK. I felt so in control, and that was my first time ever making an album feeling like that.”
The freedom afforded her as an indie artist is, she says, to the benefit of her music. She still considers herself an electro-pop singer-songwriter, but she feels less inclined to offer a sound familiar to fans of — for example — Katy Perry and Robyn. Today, she simply wants to sound like Betty Who.
“I’m a huge [Ariana Grande] fan and thank u, next is one of my favorite records,” Who says. “But when I’m making a record, I have a hard time listening to music because it messes with my vibe a little bit. So the whole time I was making the album last year, I just listened to a lot of jazz and old music, a lot of NSYNC, music that is still inspiring and that I love to listen to but that doesn’t make me think, ‘Maybe I should be doing this.’ ”
That desire to be as stubborn as possible and do what she wants — let’s call it the “David Bowie Fuck You” — is leading to some thrilling music on her new releases, and that aforementioned tour with Panic! At the Disco.
“I think when a lot of people heard I was opening for them, it was unexpected, and I think a lot of people were confused. But I knew I wanted to open for them,” Who says. “I emailed my agent and was like, ‘They’re going on tour. How do I get on it?’ I got to meet a lot of their fans, and I had one of the best touring experiences I’ve ever had.”
That’s great, because it could have all gone so wrong. Despite a shift in a poppier direction, P!ATD still has a fanbase that drifts in indie-rock circles. Who could easily have found herself facing a barrage of unpleasantness.
“Some nights you don’t feel like having to win everybody over, but you get on stage and everybody’s already decided that they’re not gonna like you so you have to get up there and blow their expectation out of the water,” she says. “I think I’m really good at that. I think my show is entertaining regardless of if you know the music or not. That’s usually the problem with an opener. You’re like, ‘Who is this person? I don’t want to see you, I want to see my band.’ You still have to perform through that negativity and be like, ‘No, I’m worth your time, I promise — just give me 25 minutes.’ ”
We get to enjoy Betty Who’s headline set when she performs in San Francisco this week. Unsurprisingly, she’s earned herself a fanbase here.
“The Fillmore’s such an iconic venue,” she says. “I grew up listening to the artists who used to play the Fillmore on a Friday night. My godparents used to go, smoke a joint outside, go in, and watch Joni Mitchell. That’s what the Fillmore is in my head. I’ve played it before, but we didn’t get to sell it out. I’m hoping we crush it this time, sell it out, and I get my poster in there. That’s a huge moment for me — musically and for my family.”
The fact that she has loyal support from the LGBTQ community helps too, something that she’s grateful for as, she says, it only helps the shows get crazier and just better. Unsurprisingly, she’s a regular at Pride events around the country, including the main stage at S.F. Pride in 2017. On this tour, one dollar from every ticket sold will go to help The Trevor Project, the nonprofit focussed on suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth. After creating the Oscar-winning short film Trevor in 1994, James Lecesne, Peggy Rajski, and Randy Stone realized that their story of a 13-year-old gay boy who attempts to take his own life could resonate with young people going through similar things, so The Trevor Project was born in 1998.
“If I have influence and power, I can make choices that align with my beliefs,” she says. “The Trevor Project is one of those companies. The HRC, Planned Parenthood — these are people who I really want to support. I think a lot of my fans have the same beliefs and morals that I do. I give back as much as I can, but this to me is everybody giving back a little bit which I really love.”
As for this Fillmore set, Who says that we can expect to be transported to “Betty Land.” That means a world of infectious melodies, introspection, and positivity. And let’s be honest, that’s a place everyone needs to visit.
Betty Who with Rozzi, Wednesday, May 8, 8 p.m., at the Fillmore, 1805 Geary Blvd. $29.50, thefillmore.com