There was a point after Betty Who’s third album, Betty, that pushed the Australian pop artist (real name Jessica Anne Newham) in an entirely different direction. Reassessing her music, her presence, and her core as a musician and songwriter, Newham couldn’t shake off one song that expressed what she needed to say: “Big.”
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The title of her fourth album, “Big” unfolded in the studio and was the beginning of what Newham needed to say in song: reflections on her pop personage, struggles with self-awareness and acceptance—recognizing that her 6’1” frame never fit the pop music ideal, and that was okay—and crafting music that was more personally rooted, lyrically and sonically, than previous material bent around broader, universal themes since her 2014 debut, Take Me When You Go.
“The song is really important to me because when I wrote the song it really unlocked how many choices I had been making out of insecurity and fear about my size, my height, weight, my looks—all these things that have absolutely nothing to do with my talent, or the story that I’m trying to tell,” Newham tells American Songwriter. “I spent a decade being obsessed about all of those things, and not focusing on the thing that it’s about, which is the music and the gift I was given from birth, of being able to have access to music in the way that I do.”
Lyrically, “Big” revealed emotions Newham never realized where there or were intentionally locked down for years. Singing There she is, smiling ear-to-ear / Teacher says “You gotta stand in the back / You know you’re too tall, be quiet, stay small / And you bet she learned to live with that, Newham scans her past conditioning and newfound empowerment—Ten feet tall and I’m proud of it / You can’t make me smaller / You’ll never make me fit.
“These feelings were a lot bigger than I realized they were and they go a lot deeper than I realized they did,” shares Newham. “Now I’m peeling back all the layers and how it affects all these other parts of my life. I think I’m still in a really big evolution as far as my relationship to self, aesthetically, let alone spiritually and emotionally, and all of the things that you do as you’re growing up.”
Newham adds, “I stand out. Well, that’s supposed to be helpful to my career. That’s what you want, and it took me so long, it took me 10 years of pretending like I could fit in with everybody else to realize that the entire point is to be different.”
Co-producing BIG! with longtime collaborator and friend Martin Johnson, both configured the tracks to showcase the two sides Newham wanted to reveal—herself as a performer and songwriter and musicianship. Getting more hands-on with BIG!, Newham provided her own instrumentation, playing guitar, piano, and cello on the nearly one-minute instrumental “Amelia’s Voicemail,” which segues into the nostalgic closer, “Grown Ups Grown Apart,” woven around her gentle acoustics and sentimental ruminations—Time is crazy / I don’t know where all my life has gone / I told you secrets, did you keep them, do you miss home / When you start looking back.
“I’ve never allowed myself to literally sit down and say I want to play piano, guitar, cello and sing on this song,” says Newham. “I’m a musician. I want to feel like a musician. I want to be in the studio with musicians. I don’t want to feel like the hang girl who’s in the booth and sings to someone else’s music. I am the person who was sitting and writing the music parts. I’m producing this. I’m in this, I want to go there.”
Alongside the music and songs, Newham began visualizing how some of the tracks would transfer on stage and revisited the pulsating “One Of Us,” a slightly older track she had previously shelved.
“Performing live is the thing I love the most and want to be the most successful with out of everything, and I knew that ‘One of Us’ was a really important number for the show,” shares Newham of the only older track on BIG! “It’s totally high energy, and I can see us dancing to it. I think when I can see a song somewhere, in my mind’s eye, especially when it’s on stage, it’s hard for me to let it go, and I have to put it out just so I can take it and bring it to life on stage.”
She adds, “I think we found a really good blend of making it feel still like a live band, which is what I really wanted to do with the rest of the record. I want it to feel like musicians made it but it has enough energy and beat and dance to it.”
Throughout, BIG! also spans the ripples of relationships, life expectancies, and experiences, from the friskier pop of “Weekend”—I think I’d like you better naked / Layin’ out on the floor—and electronic pulsing of “Hey, It’s Betty” to the explosive “Blow Out My Candle” and repenting “Someone Else.”
BIG! ultimately converges Newham’s innate pop sensibilities and pushes through the curtain on her as a songwriter and musician, two worlds she’s been trying to connect for years.
“My Venn diagram is really weird because I think there are really two main circles of it for me, and one of them is growing up on Britney and Beyoncé and N’SYNC with efficient songwriting and 20 out of 10 production, choreography, and staging—pop star,” says Newham. “And that’s what made me want to do this. It’s that superstar pyro and water features. It’s Britney in a clear cowboy hat standing in the rain on stage at the MGM. That is in my head and what I always wanted for myself. My other diagram is the actual talent that I bring to the table, which is my songwriting.”
On BIG! all of the tracks were written by Newham, with the exception of the track “One of Us,” on piano and guitar first before going into production.
“I grew up on Sara Bareilles and John Mayer, sitting at the piano or guitar and writing songs, and those two circles do not touch for the most part,” she says. “I’m a songwriter. I want to write songs and then let’s go make them really energetic and serve the show that I want, which feels like pyro and water features. I think this is the closest I have been in my life to honoring both circles.”
In some ways, BIG! helped her relinquish the notion that she had to know everything before her time in order to sing about it, and though her earlier inclination was to write everything with broader strokes, so it would be relatable to more people but, BIG! veered inward.
“I think when I was a little bit younger, I thought that I was supposed to have already figured it out to be able to share it, like ‘I’ve traveled this road before friends come gather around, let me tell you the story,'” says Newham. “I’m very present to the fact that nobody knows. Nobody knows anything. We’re all fucked.” She adds, “I want all of these stories to be so specific to me in my life, that you’re actually going to think that nobody will relate to them. This is kind of my test.”
When writing, every word is accountable for Newham. “I don’t want to waste a word,” she says. “I don’t want to have a line that could be better. I previously lived in a scarcity mindset so my fear is that I have so little opportunity to get out there and if I have three and a half minutes, I’m gonna use it.”
Now set for her international tour, which will stretch into 2023, Newham is ready to bring some of BIG! “If I’m going to sing a song like ‘Big’—larger than life, a million miles high—when I get on stage, I better have my chest and my chin held as high as they possibly could be.”
Not afraid to admit that she’s still figuring out her sense of self and art, on BIG! Newham revealed her most vulnerable stages of growth and marks a newer era for Betty Who.
“I’m almost getting here,” she said. “I don’t want to just keep doing the same thing that I’ve been doing for 10 years. There are lots of things I wish that I could change, but it turns out I have the agency and power to change those things.”
Photo: Courtesy of Oriel PR