Betty Who: Born at Berklee

By 
Mike Keefe-Feldman
October 9, 2013
Betty Who '13
Ethan Schiff '13 and Betty Who at Berklee Commencement 2013
Betty Who performs live.
Producer Peter Thomas
Betty Who in concert

If you haven’t heard 2013 Berklee graduate Betty Who’s delightful brand of pop music just yet, chances are you know someone who has, thanks to a viral video of a choreographed marriage proposal inside of a Home Depot set to Who’s song “Somebody Loves You.” The video spread at breakneck pace, gaining more than 1 million YouTube views in 48 hours.

It has now drawn more than 10 million views.

Listen to "Somebody Loves You" by Betty Who here:

Betty Who and Peter Thomas wrote "Somebody Loves You" the week that Whitney Houston passed away, as Houston inspired them to explore what they like best about good pop music.

“I love the accessibility of pop music,” Who says from her new home base of New York City, her speech imbued with the same enthusiasm that one finds in her singing voice—a voice that recently earned Who a record deal with RCA/Columbia. “You don’t have to know anything about me. You don’t have to know anything about music. You don’t even have to know anything about yourself. But it makes you feel a certain way, and it’s that easy.”

That accessibility is on full display on Betty Who’s debut EP, The Movement, which has positioned Who to take the pop world by storm—a possibility driven by a trio of talented individuals who first crossed paths at Berklee.

Before She Was Betty

Betty Who, whose given name is Jessica Newham, grew up studying cello in Sydney, Australia before attending the Interlochen Center for the Arts, a fine arts boarding school in Michigan. As her interest started to shift away from cello and toward singing and songwriting, she began eyeing Berklee’s Five-Week program, and after attending, Who was accepted to attend Berklee full-time. The Berklee experience proved pivotal. Who says Berklee voice professor Armsted Christian's Flo'Ology course was instrumental in enabling her to be completely open and vulnerable in writing her lyrics.

“Armsted was like my Berklee dad,” Who says of her private voice instructor. “He took me under his wing and really made me realize why I was at Berklee, and why I do what I do, and why I love it so much.”

Who also cites the value of lessons learned from Berklee songwriting assistant professor Scarlet Keys and liberal arts professor Pat Pattison.

“I think that I was really bad at using imagery in songs before I started taking Pat Pattison’s classes,” Who says. “Had I not taken those classes, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to get to a place where I could write so coherently and specifically about a place and a time.”

But the most important connections Who made at Berklee happened outside of the classroom with her peers—one of whom became her producer.

The Making of Betty Who

Having produced songs or remixes for artists such as Selena Gomez, Britney Spears, Hoodie Allen, and Phoenix, Peter Thomas has demonstrated a great ear for pop music, so it’s no surprise that he was drawn to Betty Who.

Thomas left Berklee after two semesters to pursue a career as a music producer in Los Angeles but says, “I wouldn’t be who I am or where I am without having gone to Berklee for that year.”

While Thomas was in awe of Who’s voice and thought that “this girl can write her ass off,” he thought there was a mismatch between Who’s outgoing personality and her songwriting, which was more subdued. Thomas remembers thinking, “If only we could find a way to draw the part out of you that’s super, super outgoing and magnetic and warm and turn that into a sound.”

They did, and Betty Who was born.

Over the course of two years of creative bursts and careful revisions, Who and Thomas created The Movement, co-authoring three of the EP’s four tracks (another Berklee alumna, April Bender ‘12, co-wrote the EP’s other song). Neither could have predicted that one song on the EP, “Somebody Loves You,” would take off, courtesy a viral video, one year after it was initially released.

Watch the video here:

“There are going to be so many more fun, danceable Betty Who songs like ‘Somebody Loves You,’” Thomas says. “There are also going to be songs where you have to just stop and take a moment because a line gives you chills or a song is unbelievably nuanced. I’m psyched for people to see that part of her because I think that’s something that she’s only poked at so far.”

While Thomas knew how to help Betty Who find her sound, he didn’t know how to help her in her career more broadly. Fortunately, whether on campus or off, Thomas was very much dialed in to the Berklee community, so he knew to call up an enterprising music business/management student at Berklee named Ethan Schiff.

Schiff, who graduated with Who in the spring, came to Berklee prepared to dual major in percussion and music business/management, but he soon found he was more passionate about banging out deals than banging on drums. Thanks in part to Thomas’s introduction, Schiff is now Betty Who’s manager. He is also the co-founder (along with his Berklee roommate, Nick Susi ’12) of New Torch Entertainment, which represents several Berklee artists, including Sirma and Tei Schi.

These days, Schiff is busy plotting the ongoing emergence of Betty Who, but not long ago, he was doing marketing and consulting work for students around campus and soaking in whatever knowledge he could in courses such as Berklee associate professor of music business/management George Howard’s copyright law class. That knowledge has proven invaluable when hammering out a contract with RCA (he notes that the deal would have happened regardless of the viral video, though the video did provide him with some leverage in negotiations) or meeting with Spotify to discuss Betty Who’s future streaming plans.

“I always felt that all of this experience would eventually lead to something, and I think this is that something that it was all leading towards,” Schiff says. “One of the biggest things I got out of Berklee was the networking side of it. For a business person who wants to manage artists, being surrounded by 4,000 artists is a very nice environment.”

Who’s Next?

One of those 4,000 artists surrounding Schiff was Betty Who, and Schiff saw something special in her. As he puts it, “At Berklee, Betty was the person that everyone knew and loved. She lit up the room when she walked in. She has that sense of identity and personality that even some of the top artists lack.”

That identity includes writing her own lyrics and music and allowing her classical cello training to inform her song craft.

“So much of pop music for the past 10 years has been in the club,” says Who. “I’m trying to get out of the club and back onto the streets, interacting with real human beings. My message has always been about love.”

Bolstered by her new record deal and millions of YouTube views, that message seems to be resonating far and wide.