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Betty Who Broke Free & Found Empowerment In Rejection

Betty Who
Photography: Zak Kassar

The indie pop darling talks her new single "Ignore Me" and why albums are over. 

In this nightmare world we're currently residing it, it can so often seem like there is nothing good left, nothing to look forward to. But praise be: our favorite indie pop star--a phrase that sounds like an oxymoron but, in this case, is perfectly accurate--Betty Who, has released a new single, "Ignore Me," produced by her longtime collaborators Peter Thomas and Kyle Moorman. And, as the kids say, it's a bop! Such a bop!

Betty Who, born Jessica Newham, inspires a deep passion in fans, who feel like more of a community than basically any group on scary stan Twitter. Her music manages to be both incredibly catchy and deeply felt, a combination that's rarer than you'd think. And perhaps another quality that endears Betty to fans is her openness, which comes across as genuine and utterly lacking in artifice. For example, on Thursday, she revealed via a long Facebook post that "Ignore Me" would be her first independent single in years--Who officially broke with RCA, with whom she signed at the age of 21, after her single "Somebody Loves You" was featured in a viral marriage proposal video. "Ignore Me" is her first independent release since sharing her debut EP on Soundcloud at 19.

"'Ignore Me' is about so much in my life. I've been rejected, both by men and in my professional life, more times than I can count," she laughs. "'Ignore Me' is about that feeling when you're at the end of that rope when someone has been leading you on for so long. And when I wrote it, a lot of that was about my experience with my record label."

In a freewheeling and honest conversation, Who explained what caused her to leave RCA and why. Below, read her own words on why it was time to go, along with insightful thoughts on the music industry, authenticity, and how grateful she is to her fans (seriously, she said the word "grateful" about 25 times in a 15-minute-long phone call--Who is nothing if not polite, gracious, and good-humored). And be sure to check out the song, because it's really fucking good.

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I think everybody's always told that signing to a record label is what you should do, so I did it because that's how the system still works. I've heard horror stories, so I'm grateful that I came out the other side relatively unscathed. And to my fans' credit, I have the fan base where I can be an independent artist and survive. I know a lot of people who come out of major record labels who don't have that, so I'm so grateful. And I'm also grateful for my agents, who are very smart, and when I wasn't getting the support that I needed, they just said, "we're going to make you tour for forever." At the time, it was really sad and hard. I was on the road for at least a year straight when my first record came out, it took so long to make my second album, and it was just a never-ending sort of battle. It was never easy, it was never joyful. It was always just too hard.

I've had many conversations with people who have had similar experiences to me, which has taught me that nobody is saved from that. In any business venture where you owe somebody money, that's never going to work out the way you hope it does. I am still so grateful for it, and grateful that I've been willing to work my ass off and make music that I love. I've never put out a song that I don't love. I still stood by what I always wanted, whether it was to my detriment or not.

I use "Mama Say" as an example all the time. It's the first song that I put out for my album The Valley. But I wrote "Mama Say" two years before that album came out. When I wrote that song it felt so fresh and cool, but when two years go by it's just doesn't sound fresh and cool anymore, at least to me, regardless of how fans take it. It was this process of having this thing that I loved but not being able to show it to anybody. I couldn't play shows because I couldn't put new music out and I couldn't keep touring the same music. All of these things that I was held back by are no longer a factor. And it's so exciting to say "I don't know what I'm going to put out next, I get to decide that next week." I don't know what the next step is because we're deciding as we go and we're making decisions off of immediate reaction because that's the way the music industry works now.

I don't think albums, especially for an artist like me, are smart anymore. The number of songs that I put on my last record, that I loved and that I put my heart and soul into, these beautiful pieces of myself that I've given up--and then they go on a record that people listen to half of. It would be great to just put them out as songs, but of course at major record labels singles are a big deal, you can't just out every song. There's such a structure to it that I don't think has adapted as much as it should have. I'm just so excited to do things that feel right all the time. All any artist should hope for is it trust their gut and to follow their vision. I'm lucky enough to have a group of crazy, talented, smart, driven people, who have all believed in my vision--which is essentially my childhood dream come to life. I want to be Britney Spears, make it happen! [Laughs]

My music is who I am. There's no branding, really. It's really just me, and the people I meet at shows are people I would usually be friends with in real life. So I get what's going to work, and to not be trusted, to not be heard, is very frustrating. To be addressed as a product and a brand was very challenging for me. It was a good learning lesson, and my skin got thicker. But I got everything I needed out of RCA.

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Lots of things happened, good and bad. I will say that I always felt like it was a fight to the death over the littlest stuff. For example, when I said that "Mama Say" should be a single--and I loved that song, and I was really pushing for it--someone said to me in a meeting, "you're not Taylor Swift, and you think that you are." I remember being so taken aback. It clicked very quickly to learn that for them, it's not about the song, it's about perception and the box that everybody puts you in. Don't overthink it, do what feels right, and hope for the best.

The label is concerned with packaging you to connect with people. But I've been working my ass off for six or seven years, doing just that. My music is a soundtrack to people's lives. People propose at my shows. My song is often the first dance at people's weddings. That feeling to me--that's all I know to be real. That is a tangible measure of success to me. And nothing else matters. I just want to keep making a difference. But a major label doesn't make decisions off a feeling, that's just how it works. But those feelings are more important to me than anything anybody decides at a major label.

Photography: Zak Kassar

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