Betty Who Details Her New Virtual Tour and Role in HBO’s ‘Unpregnant’
The sounds of the early aughts have reached retro status in recent years, and few artists stand out at the forefront of their reemergence more than Jessica Newham, better known as Betty Who. Her songs are brimming with teenage pop posturings, and all the works. Newham’s music also takes inspiration from the ‘80s to the present moment and beyond, serving up a blend of camp pop fare that has naturally secured a fervent fanbase.
By age 16, Newman had written the song that gave rise to her adopted moniker. She released her first EP independently before signing to RCA for her 2014 debut studio album, “Take Me When You Go,” and scored a major hit on her followup album, “The Valley,” with her cover of Donna Lewis’ “I Will Love You Always Forever.” Newham parted ways with RCA and returned to the independent route with 2019’s “Betty,” which found her bubbly extravagance running rampant.
This year, she took on a role in HBO Max’s “Unpregnant,” alongside Haley Lu Richardson and Barbie Ferreira. In a story about two girls from the bible belt embarking on an abortion road trip following a teenage pregnancy, Newham plays a character consistent with the adventurous boldness of her music.
Now, she has found an inventive way to defy the setbacks of Covid-19, having just launched a Virtual Tour, featuring eight distinct, originally themed nights, and packages that include a set of interactive features that seem like no one else could have come up with them. Newham spoke with Entertainment Voice about the tour, HBO’s “Unpregnant,” and new music.
Covid-19 has brought musicians around the world to somewhat of a standstill, but you have managed a rather brilliant way to keep things going with your just launched “Virtual Tour.” How did you come up with this idea?
Well, it was sort of a group effort from my team, and everybody was trying to figure out a way to do something that felt authentic, and not forcing something on people that nobody actually wanted. I think we wanted to be really conscious of that, and I also think it’s definitely challenging for me because the thing I love about performing I hear a lot of people talking about sports right now, football players, basketball players in these arenas with no people watching. Part of what makes my job fun, and the thing I want to do with my life, is that performance aspect, and so, it’s been really devastating to lose that for the last six months. I’m hoping I can form some semblance and show some kind of example of what we can do, and stay together, and still have a nice time, and come together as a community, and still give my all — just in a very different way. I’m definitely excited to get back out on a real stage in front of real people. This is definitely not a stand-in for that, but it’s something to do in the meantime. Hopefully, it will bring us together for a couple nights, and everybody can have a good time.
A drawback to a virtual tour would be the removed nature of it all. Yet, your ticket packages come with features that surpass the experience of a regular live show, such as a “virtual meet and greet,” an “exclusive Q&A,” and a “screenshot selfie.” Do you think the pandemic conditions might have ironically enabled new heights of connection between artists and fans?
Yeah, I think so. I’m happy to be very connected with my fans anyway. When we’re all in meet and greet together, for the most part, I’m always really surprised and feel really lucky about what a special kind of experience it tends to be. I definitely think it’s an interesting way to expand a show experience and get that little kick. I’ve done one other of these events, where it was a virtual show online. I had this feeling, after the show finished, like it doesn’t matter that I’m sitting in my living room, playing through my computer screen, hanging out with my fans, and singing my songs. I got offline after an hour, and I had that rush like I just got off stage, and if anything, that’s what we’re all searching for right now.
Back in 2013, you soundtracked the viral YouTube video of “Home Depot Marriage Proposal.” How did your engagement in 2017 compare, and how does it feel to be newly married?
Oh, yeah! I think it all feels pretty crazy, mostly just because of the backdrop of the world (laughs). But it’s funny, I feel like I’ve been ten different people since 2014, which is when my husband and I met. And he’s seen all of those people, and loved all of those people — probably loved some more than others (laughs) — but we’ve been through so much together, and it’s been such a long journey for the both of us that I think it’s really actually grounding and special for me to have him as someone who has seen the best and the worst of my entire career. He’s been around for almost all of it, so we’ve grown a ton together, and he’s about to be one year sober, so we’re celebrating that coming up. We’re in a really, really great, exciting time in our lives.
Your eight tour stops are each creatively themed, speaking to your usual festive whims, with such events as “Return to Y2K” and “Party Like It’s 2019.” Tell us little about the specific themes behind some of the individual tour dates.
Yeah, so they’re all different themes, three of them being very obvious themes, which are the three themes of three different albums. So the whole point of this — which makes it a lot more work for me, but a lot of fun if you are a fan, hopefully, is that I won’t be repeating a single song in the sets. So my first night is the “Take Me When You Go” night. I’ll be playing that whole first album of mine, and I won’t play any songs again. “Return to Y2K” is going to be a really fun night, filled with covers from one of my favorite generations, which is from early 2000’s through 2010, and delving into my love of boy bands past, future, and present. And then, a really special one to my heart is “You’ve Never Heard This One,” and that is a night of unreleased music where I just play a bunch of my songs that are exciting and fresh and nobody’s heard yet, some actually old, that I never released like five years ago. And I’ll just be playing some of my most special music that hasn’t been in the world yet.
Your lesbian character Kira in “Unpregnant” is this incredibly cool, non-conforming race car driver. How did you relate to her? And, how did you prepare for the role?
Yeah, my butch queen. Mostly, apart from trying to make sure that I had my scenes learned backwards and forwards, I prepared for the role by watching people get out of race cars (laughs). Because you have to climb out of the windows of these cars. It’s not like a normal car that you just hop into, and I was definitely really worried that I was going to look like a total newb pulling out and getting out of the car. So they cut around me getting out of the car, and they just did slo-mo of me taking my helmet off — which is way more Charlie’s Angels, and on brand for me anyway, so it kind of worked out.
I think I’m inspired by her confidence and ease in herself. She’s this really surprising person. You expect there to be some hot dude getting out of a car, and instead, she’s this totally tall, hot lezzie who’s getting out of the car, ready to shake up this young, queer girl’s world and blow her mind. It’s always fun to get to play that sort of romantic interest, and enjoy the attention of your suitor. It’s one of my favorite parts to play.
Kira ends up playing an important role in Barbie Ferreira’s character’s romantic life. What was it like working with her and shooting that scene in the ball pit?
In the ball pit, honestly, it was a really fun night and experience. Everybody made me feel comfortable, and everybody was trying to keep us warm. It was about 18, 19 degrees Fahrenheit, and I’m in a tank top, and we’re in this ball pit. The balls are made of plastic, but when plastic gets cold, it can feel quite cold. So we’re shoved in this ball pit, up to our necks, but the balls are freezing cold. We had hot water balloons under the balls, sitting on our laps, trying to keep us warm. Mostly, it was just a really exciting night, and by the time we were filming that scene, I think it was 4:30 in the morning, so we were all a little loopy and having a good time.
What does it mean to you to be a part of a film that contains such a strong message about a woman’s right to choose?
It’s really important to me. Not only do I think that the movie itself is really great and the acting is amazing — I think Haley and Barbie were so great and so cute, and they have so much chemistry together — but then also, it’s telling this 2020 version of a story that we all know a little about, but some people don’t know a lot about. I feel really proud and lucky to be a part of a film that’s telling a story that I think really needs to be told, and there’s a real market for telling the story from an actual 17-year-old girl’s eyes, and giving people more information about what it’s really like to live in Missouri and become pregnant underage and need an abortion. She shouldn’t have to drive a million miles, six states across, to get somewhere where she can feel safe and protected by her healthcare system. I feel really excited and happy to be a part of the film, specifically because of that.
2020 will surely go down as a peculiar stage in history. As an artist who especially takes inspiration from a particular era, do you consider yourself particularly impressionable to cultural tides of time? If so, how do you think the current times will leave their mark?
Oh man, I think we’ll be seeing the fallout of this pandemic for the next thirty years. I think it’s going to change everything, and we’ll never go back to normal, the way we once knew normal. And that’s very scary and also, I guess, can be very exciting, if you look at it that way. I tend to be a hopeless romantic and optimist, and I think I’ve found myself digging deep to find those places to look at this year from, because otherwise I feel really helpless and quite in over my head. It’s been really important for me to find that place within myself, where I go, “This is exciting. This is an opportunity for growth in a way that I just hadn’t expected to grow,” and so, I’m really trying to use the time, and I think that’s made me really inspired and it’s given me a lot of time to sit alone with my thoughts, which I haven’t done since I was a teenager, basically. Betty Who started when I was 20-21 years old, and I’ve been working and hustling on this thing ever since, and so it’s really an interesting experience to have to take a full step, a full seat (laughs), really sit down, and be like, “Woah, okay, where am I at? Am I cool with her?” I think that’s what’s really inspiring right now.
Hopefully, the next music you’ll hear from me is inspired by, yes, ‘80s and also the 2000s, and my favorite time with music and culture and the things that influenced me, but it will also be hopefully the most honest and sort of searingly, confrontationally personable music you will have heard from me in a while, because I’ve had a lot of time to think about how I really feel.
What shape has your music taken since last year’s “Betty,” and what do you have on the horizon in terms of both new music and any other creative endeavors?
I’m working on a lot of different things, which I feel like I probably won’t tell you too much about, just not to jinx it (laughs). I’ve been home alone, making a lot of music. I’m used to and have, for the last couple of years, spent a lot of time cowriting, and I’m not doing as much, because obviously, everyone is living in their houses, and when I do co-write, I do it over the internet, and it’s kind of a weird thing, so I’ve been doing more writing on my own. I think it’s a really fresh and interesting place for me to be creating from, and it’s something that I had turned my back on a little bit, and I assumed that I didn’t really have what it takes to make music on my own. You just make up these insecurities about yourself as you fall out of practice, and I had definitely fallen out of practice of creating something on my own, from start to finish, and I feel much more connected to that part of me right now, so I think that will really influence a lot of my music that you’re going to hear — a lot of songs written on my guitar, in my living room.