The Sydney-born star, who rose to fame as a talented singer-songwriter, has proven time and time again that she’s not just another cookie-cutter act in the world of pop. And since expanding and adding television host, actor, and philanthropist to her résumé, you can see how she has continued to spark interest all these years later and why we’re still talking about her.
Born Jessica Anne Newham, Who began her time in the spotlight as the blonde Australian singer with countless bops. Kickstarting her music career in 2012 with the viral hit “Somebody Loves You,” if there is one thing that has remained throughout the past decade, it’s her ability to produce pop music that has always felt unapologetic. We’re talking “Ignore Me,” “Look Back,” “Just Thought You Should Know,” “Some Kinda Wonderful,” and “Mama Say,” to name a few. What has changed in the past few years, however, is how she goes about putting out her material.
After releasing her first two studio albums – Take Me When You Go and The Valley – under a major label, Who has been spreading her wings as an artist with more control. Her third studio album, simply titled Betty, in 2019, became her first independent release and helped propel her into the musician she is today. Her most recent effort, 2022’s BIG!, released through BMG with a distribution deal, takes fans on a vulnerable journey, showing a more confident and authentic side to Who like never before.
“this album, if i may, will serve as my reintroduction,” she shared on Instagram. “i’ve grown a lot. i’ve tired all the different wigs on. i think…i’ve finally found a zone that i’m really comfortable in? i think you can hear it on this album. … i just want to make music that makes people feel less alone. people with big feelings who maybe feel a little different than everybody else.”
While in the middle of a world tour, EUPHORIA. caught up with Who to discuss being on the road again, the new record, her new-found confidence as an artist in charge, and the advice she would give to younger artists.
Hello! Where in the world are you today?
I’m in Los Angeles, so it’s bright and early. It’s 9 am here. I’ve got a big shoot day today, so once I’m off with you, I’m gonna throw myself through the shower and get my shit together. How are you doing?
I’m good, I’m good. I know that you’ve started your tour and you’ve just been in Australia, right? How was that?
Yeah, it was really good. I’m just really grateful for the opportunity to travel and do the thing I love again. I’m really trying to stay super actively grateful for the thing that I love to do so much that was not available to me in the way that I love to do it for so long because of covid. There were definitely some low points and I have some family stuff that makes it like difficult for me sometimes to be in Australia, but for the most part I look back and I’m really grateful I got to go and I’m really excited. I feel like it was a good test run to sort of get all my jellies out and be like, okay, I’m like really going on tour, this is really happening. I’m playing for fans, that’s such a strange concept, especially after not doing it for a while. It’s my first headline tour since 2019, so I feel really like I just wanna get my head in the game. I want to be really excited and give the people what they want.
Is there anywhere in the world you havent performed that you really wanna visit?
So many. Well, Amsterdam and Ireland on this upcoming tour. I haven’t played a show in a place I’ve never been before in a long time. So, I’ve never been to both of those places and I get to go play shows, which is such a cool, exciting thing. I am desperate to go to Asia. I want to go to Seoul and I want to go to Tokyo. They make the best pop music on the planet if you ask me. I’m such a BLACKPINK stan, so I’m like, I gotta get to Korea.
Have you ever played in South America?
I have. I just played my first show in Mexico City and it was like one of my favorite shows I’ve ever played in my life. I’ve never played in Brazil, but I just did a song with Pabllo Vittar, so I feel like that’s on the horizon. I’m also a big F1 fan, so I would love for my love of Formula One and music to come together somehow. I could go watch the race in Brazil and play a show or something, you know what I mean? That’s the ultimate collab dream.
Your current tour is in promotion of your latest album, BIG! It’s been released under BMG but has been said to be an independent release. Tell us more about that.
I released this under BMG with a distribution deal. I don’t really know, I think of being independent as being not signed to a huge major where you’ve like signed away your rights and your life. If it’s that, then yes, I feel I’m still independent, but I do have an amazing deal with the label BMG that allows me to keep own stuff. It feels like the kind of 2023 version of how artists should be working. You know, you want a company to come in and support you and you to be able to work with them without feeling like you have no ultimate control in the end. I’m saying this last night to a friend, I can’t believe it feels like 10 years. All I’ve wanted is like to have a conversation with someone being like, I’m really happy with my label partner and I think I’m there. It feels really weird, but kind of nice.
I read the letter you wrote for The Independant in 2018 where you said your goal was to never to sign a huge record deal. It seems you’ve come full circle now.
I’m a Libra, so balance is my whole thing. Independence comes with the inverse, which is lack of support. I can support myself all I want and do exactly what I want all day and try and put myself in a position to succeed. But at the end of the day, I think the thing that’s made this album cycle so successful for me and and to feel so good is that all the people around me are supporting me. I have a new management team and to have the people who you talk to every day be so much more engaged makes a huge difference. I think at the time in my life when I went full independent, I didn’t want to hear a creative note, I didn’t want anyone to tell me anything about the record. I had to go just be myself and live my life. That experience was so rewarding because I really needed it. I needed to find myself again outside of this huge machine that I felt like I’d gotten eaten alive by. Then I came out the other side of that record and I was like, cool, I did that, but there has to be a middle ground. I want people in some big building who have all the stats in front of them who care more about that stuff than I do to go, you know what, that should be a single. I want people to trust and to lean on and to have opinions and show up and be a part of the business. That time in my life when I was fully independent, I look back on that and I see that I was looking around for someone to go, “I have an idea I can contribute.” So, that’s what I feel like I found this time around, the balance.
When creating the record, was there a certain message you had in mind that you wanted to get across?
A big realization for me during covid was that I had been making art for the artist that I wished I was as opposed to the artist that I actually am. When I listen back to that music now, that’s all I can hear. I think this is my first record that I was really like, ‘Okay, but who am I really? When I listen to this music, I really tried to dig in the place that I am now instead of looking around at all the things that I’m not and wishing that I was. Growing up watching Britney Spears and Beyonce and all of these 600 pound women who are literally like God’s gift to earth, the most beautiful people on the planet left me feeling like there’s no space for me as a female pop act amongst the world of women. I think if there’s something I want people to take away, I think it’s that my big lesson has been none of that was meant for me. I have to carve my own way. No one is gonna see the vision the way that I see it. That’s what “Blow Out My Candle,” the single of this album, is about. It’s about knowing that you have something to offer and not letting other people not seeing your vision hold you back. That’s kind of the metaphor for my entire career. It felt really good to write music that felt was hopefully inspiring to other people, but first and foremost really inspiring to me. I wanted to make music that that got me back up out of bed every day and where I was like, “Cool, I’m doing this because I want to carry that message along.” As they say in the Lizzie McGuire movie, “Why are you trying so hard to fit in when you were born to stand out?”
With each song telling a story, is there one you feel most connected to?
Mm, yeah. It changes all the time. I think emotionally the song I feel the most attached to and the song that seems to be speaking to people is really what makes me love a song even more because it’s like, I can love it, but then when people say a song means so much to them, that’s when I’m like, “aren’t I so good?” I make music because I want to soundtrack people’s lives and to make music that all of a sudden hits you in a place where you’re like, “Can I do anything? Am I invincible?” When people talk to me about the album title track, “BIG,” I’ve noticed it’s particularly women who have gravitated towards that one. My demographic has shifted over the 10 years I’ve been doing this. In the first five years, it was like 90% men, 10% women. To especially see more women gravitate to the music and feel hopefully seen by the music is something that I actually didn’t realize I was really craving now that women are coming to me being like, ‘That’s also how I feel.’ I also grew up watching Britney Spears and now we know so much about all the people we looked up to who was actually like miserable and being held hostage their whole lives. It’s like peeling back layers and now we’re all coming together and being like, “Can we just be ourselves? Is it time?” I think it might be.
I wrote down “Someone Else” and “The Hard Way” as standouts. You can almost imagine them featured on a movie soundtrack or hear them played in the middle of a scene.
Love this, love this! The way I write is very cinematic. I’m a big musical theater gal at heart, so there’s a lot of like songwriting on this record where I lent into that part of myself. I think I’ve been dialing that down for so long because I’ve lived in this business being like, “Musical theater isn’t cool,” thinking nobody will like this part of me. And again, I’m just trying to be the thing that I am, the most loud, instead of trying to be what everybody else is. I think that’s probably like the big metaphor on this record.
You collaborated with Pabllo Vittar on the remix of “She Can Dance.” How was that experience?
I’m obsessed with Pabllo. I saw Pabllo at Coachella and she’s just such a fucking superstar. She’s like the Beyonce of Brazil, do you know what I mean? She’s so famous in Brazil, so I’m not the first person to discover her and be like, “Isn’t Pabllo Vittar amazing?” She’s way ahead of me as far as that goes. I felt very late to the party and I saw her at Coachella and I was like, oh, this is the crazy shit I’ve ever seen. I love people who share my love of performing live. I think that’s what Pabllo is known for, her crazy, crazy live show. She goes fucking hard does the splits and looks like a better pop star than all of us combined, I think that’s what really drew me to her. I really wanted to work with her on the remix of “She Can Dance” because we’re both dancers and that’s a huge way that we express ourselves. Also, Renaissance had just come out and I needed something to feel super gay and something fun for the summer. All of these songs were like me sitting at my piano like being an emotional gal and I wanted to be a little bit more like out at the club.
In 2020, you made your acting debut in the movie Unpregnant. Is that something you want to do more of?
I’m desperate to do more. I loved it. I loved making movies. I loved being on set. I was on set for like four days from Unpregnant, you know, I’m in that movie for like one and a half minutes and I just was like so in awe of the process. I’ve been auditioning a lot in the last five years and just kind of honing my skill and trying to see if I’m any good. I think I’ve gained experience points here and I have something to offer. I think I’m at a crossroads right now where it’s like, cool, do I like put this on the back burner for a while, or do I like to keep doubling down and really try and get into it? I’m taking the latter path. I’m trying to do more meetings and trying to tell everybody, so thanks for asking.
And lastly, what advice do you have for younger, aspiring artists debating whether to sign to a major label or go down the independent route?
That’s a really good question! Something that I learned along the way off of my major label experience that wasn’t as positive as I wish it had been, was that I would talk to other young artists who want that far behind me, like a year behind me, being like, “Oh my God, don’t sign to a major.” I was a very anti-major in that period. And I would have friends who would go like, “Yeah, but I have to go do it.” That’s what the dream was for so long, especially for people of my generation as a major label is supposed to help you get discovered. We grew up in an American Idol generation. We grew up in a time when you could be a pretty girl busking on the street and Simon Cowell would walk past and be like, “You know what? I’m gonna make you a star.” That’s what you think it’s supposed to be like, and for some people that still happens and still works. I not crazy enough to sit here and say the major label system is completely fucked and no one can survive in it. That’s just not true. Some people will thrive inside of that system. So, I think the difference for me, it’s a question of ownership. I write everything and I think it’s important for artists to own their own stuff. I don’t see a way forward and financially, it doesn’t make any sense. As a business to sign away everything that you make, that’s my big problem. If you can sign a great deal with people who believe in you, who also believe that you should keep your masters, that’s the dream. That’s why I’m so happy at BMG. That’s my advice. That’s like my favorite route so far. But, I do know that everybody’s journey is their journey and my experience at a major label has now put me on the path to be where I am now.
I do think you have to shop around and experience it all and see what works for you. And power fucking to you if you can go into a huge major label office and have them support you and give you everything you need. I didn’t know how to do that when I was signed there. And I take responsibility for my pot in that too. They did some crazy stuff, but I also walked in at just 21. If they’re gonna hand you the keys to the castle and you go, “I don’t know what to do with these,” they’re gonna take it away from you and never give it back because you didn’t know what to do with it.You just have to go fall on your fucking face and see where it takes you.