Long before she rechristened herself as dance-pop singer Betty Who, Sydney-bred Jessica Newham was a studious, symphony-bound musician who took up cello at age 4.
“Because I grew up around classical music, pop music was like the devil’s music, and I always thought there was no value in it,” she says.
But once she composed her first EP, “The Movement” — with its frothy breakthrough hit “Somebody Loves You” — she changed her tune. Or, as she puts it, “To create something that touches people and makes you want to dance? It’s nearly impossible to write a good pop song and have it still be a moving piece of art.”
The bridge connecting her two lives wasn’t easy to cross, says the New York-relocated singer, who plays The City this week premiering new anthems like “Heartbreak Dream” from her upcoming, as-yet-untitled second EP; a full album is slated for fall.
For years, she truly believed bowing strings was her destiny. “In kindergarten, the teacher said we had to pick out a violin or a cello to play, so me and my two best friends all decided to play cello,” she says. “But when I went to a performing arts high school for cello in America, I was like, ‘Oh, wait — everybody else here wants to do this for the rest of their lives. And I very actively do not.’”
Who, 22, had begun imagining herself an indie singer-songwriter like Missy Higgins or Ingrid Michaelson. She was losing interest in classical, and her instructor noticed, and sympathized.
“So he taught me how to play ‘How Insensitive,’ the jazz standard, on my cello, and sing along too,” she recalls of a crucial turning point in her career. “Instead of old concertos, he gave me more rhythmic, modern cello pieces, and it taught me that cello wasn’t the enemy. So now I still love playing cello, and that’s what my teacher was trying to preserve.”
Once she enrolled in Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Who mothballed her signature instrument and studied voice.
It’s where she met musician-producer Peter Thomas, who heard something special in her singing. They immediately struck up a creative partnership she calls almost telepathic.
“He made me realize that pop music is not something to be afraid of, that it’s the most amazing thing to embrace,” she says.
Now Who has her own cartoon logo, plus matching Toni Basil-ish letterman jackets for her band onstage.
And the cello might be appearing on future recordings. “I still have it with me in New York,” she says. “Every time my mom comes to visit, she asks, ‘Can I take it home now?’ And I’m like, ‘No! Absolutely not!’”
IF YOU GO
Where: Popscene, Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell St., S.F.
When: 9:30 p.m. Thursday
Tickets: $13 to $15
Contact: (415) 861-2011, www.snagtickets.com