EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH BETTY WHO

betty-who-22013 has shaped up to be a huge year for Betty Who.

Following the April release of the 22-year-old Australian singer/songwriter’s debut EP, The Movement (iTunes), Who is hard at work on her upcoming first full-length album (slated to hit stores next year via RCA Records). Her song “Somebody Loves You” also serves as the soundtrack to a recent viral video of a flash mob marriage proposal, which has already garnered over 10,790,000 views on YouTube. And just last week, she churned out her first official remix (for Demi Lovato’s “Neon Lights”).

Taking a break from the studio, Who caught up with me about her musical origins, debut album, current tour, love of Britney Spears, the proposal seen around the globe, and more.

betty-who-1ALEX: For starters, where did the stage name Betty Who come from?

BETTY: I wrote a song when I was seventeen or eighteen in high school about this boy who didn’t really want to be with me because of moral stuff. You know, he was super conservative. He didn’t kind of like my lifestyle, I guess, which is really silly cause at eighteen my lifestyle was just like … I had gay friends. So I named this song “Betty Who” kind of randomly. Then I had this song that I was working with my producer a year later and we were talking about stage names and he was like, “Well, you’re going to have to have a name that you’re going to be comfortable being called for the rest of your life cause that’s how it’s going to happen.” And then I was like, “what about Betty Who?” and it just felt so right.

Where were you when you first saw the “Spencer’s Home Depot Marriage Proposal” video and how has it impacted your career?

I was at the hairdresser actually. I was sitting getting my hair done and my manager emailed me the video and I started to like cry at the hairdresser’s. It’s definitely, like totally changed my life. I told the boys that too. When they came out for the VH1 performance to New York, I got to meet them and I remember sitting down with them and just being like, “you’ve actually changed my life, like really.” So it’s been amazing. I love that if my music was going to stand for anything, you know, it would be this.

Absolutely. I’d say then that it’s safe to assume that you will be singing at their wedding?

I think that it’s definitely in the cards.

Your music as a whole has been very embraced by the gay community in particular. Do you think that there is some sort of specific reason for that?

I had a friend describe it to me this way once. I think that gay men like to emote and they like to dance and I do both of those things in my songs. That’s basically what I heard a friend say that and I think that’s a really good description of why my music is the way that it is.

You recently signed a record deal with RCA, which is home to some of the biggest names in pop. How does it feel to be joining the ranks of people like Justin Timberlake, Kelly Clarkson, and Pink? Is there a lot of pressure?

Yeah. There is. I was talking to RCA for a couple months before I signed with them. So when I walk down the halls of RCA now, I still kind of don’t really feel like its real yet and I don’t know if it will until like I have an album up on the wall or I have a picture up on the wall, you know what I mean? I think because I haven’t really released anything through RCA yet. It still doesn’t really feel real. So, I’m waiting. Like on the floor that the RCA offices are, you walk out of the elevator and there’s just like pictures of Justin Timberlake, Usher, Kelly Clarkson, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera – I’m waiting to have my photo up there and I’ll lose it, I’m sure.

That’s going to be so exciting!

I know, right?

So actually speaking of Britney Spears, you’re very open about your love for her. Do you have plans to check out her Vegas show and what are your thoughts on her new song, “Perfume”?

Yes, Britney! My queen! I would actually love to go to her Vegas residency but you know, I live in New York so it’s a little bit more difficult to go to than if I were to live in LA. But I definitely will make plans to sneak away for two days when I’m in LA sometime and drive to Vegas with friends and go see it. I also like any Britney song that comes out. Like I will buy and I will love. You know what I mean? I don’t know if Britney could make a bad record, so “Perfume” is great.

I totally agree! Part of what I love about your music is the glittery, feel-good, 80’s throwback vibe that I get from it. Who are some of your biggest musical influences and what is it about this era that made you want to put your own contemporary spin on it?

Sure. I loved Michael Jackson when I was growing up. And you know, I loved Madonna, I loved Cyndi Lauper, I loved Pat Benatar. I remember listening to “Love is A Battlefield” when I was like fourteen maybe and like yelling it in my room. I love that music from the 80’s and 90’s is really fun. I think that pop music got really dark in the last couple years, and I mean that’s fine too and that’s great, but I also miss the sparkle of “Like A Virgin.” So for me, it’s really fun to make music that touches on that, but also gives it a way to exist in the world now that doesn’t just sound like I’m making a sound alike record.

Would you say that in today’s pop landscape that’s what makes your music stand out and distinctively Betty Who?

I guess. You know, a lot of people are making music that also is like 80’s throwback. If you listen to “Treasure” by Bruno Mars, it sounds like a 80’s record. So you know, I don’t know if I could be honest and say that like “oh yeah, well, like I’m the only one doing it.” But I definitely think that there’s an honesty in my lyrics and in my writing that very much makes it me. I think that’s what makes it different because I write all the music and so much of me goes into it.

Of course. So, originally you had plans to follow up the release of The Movement with a second EP, but I understand that you’ve since scrapped that idea and are instead working on putting out a full length album. Can you confirm those rumors?

Right, yes all of that is true.

Will the album then be an extension of the sound that you introduced on The Movement or do you think fans will be surprised by what they hear?

I think it’s very much an extension of the EP. All the songs from the first EP will be on it.

Have you chosen a first single yet?

I haven’t. Lots depends on that so I don’t have a lot to say about that yet.

Will fans who are coming to see you on your current tour get a taste of some of the new songs that the upcoming record will offer?

Yes, absolutely.

What’s your favorite one to perform live?

There’s a song called “Heartbreak Dream” that is not out anywhere yet and it’s just like a really high-energy song and people have been responding to it really well. So I’m very excited to release that. Out of the older songs, “High Society” is my favorite to perform – just because the energy in it and the way that people like it. Now, when people sing a long, it’s really amazing – especially the “we’ll drink Chardonnay through the day ‘cause we say so” part.

Awesome! Do you have a title or a release date in mind yet for the album?

No, neither of those things.

Can you tell me a little bit about who you’ve been working on this record with? Is it the same team behind The Movement? Or are you also collaborating with some new faces?

Sure. It’s mostly just me and my producer from the first EP, Peter Thomas. He and I did almost the entirety of the record, and then there’s one song on it that I wrote with this band called Ghost Beach. I don’t know if you know Ghost Beach, they’re amazing. I played a couple of shows with them, that’s how I met them, and we’ve become friends, and we recorded this awesome song, so that song will be on the album.

Well I can’t wait to hear it! Did you dress up for Halloween this year?

I did.

What or who did you dress up as?

Well I was in LA, and I was in the studio all Halloween day and I got out at like maybe 5:30 or 6, so by the time that I was leaving, I was like, “I don’t have a costume, I’m running late to this party that my friends want me to go to. Like I’m just not going to have a costume.” And I texted my friend that and she was like, “Just come as one of the girls from The Craft with us.” And I was in a black velvet skirt and a white shirt already, so I was like, “oh, perfect.” So I just stopped by CVS, I picked up knee high socks, a costume necklace and some dark lipstick and I found a black velvet hoodie at CVS, which is like the grossest thing in the whole world. And I wore that. And I was like “It was perfect.” I was already in costume.

I love that. So what’s been your favorite pop song of 2013 so far?

Oooh, that’s a good question! I think “Rock N Roll” by Avril Lavigne.

Really?

It was the most underrated pop song of the year! It’s so amazing and so well written and has so much energy. I just yell that song in my shower and it didn’t even get a chance to be as great as it is, I think. So, that’s my answer.

 Originally published on PopBytes

STAN & DELIVER: MADONNA’S “4 MINUTES”

In celebration of the 5th anniversary of the release of Madonna‘s eleventh studio album, Hard Candy, I contributed a little blurb about “4 Minutes” to Idolator‘s “Stan & Deliver” column. Check it out below and don’t forget to visit Idolator to read the whole feature!

madge jt 4 minutes mar08

4 Minutes (feat. Justin Timberlake): There was a time when superheroes were just the stuff of literature and fantasy. That is until there was Madonna. With her bulging steel biceps, constantly evolving wardrobe of spandex and Boy Scout uniforms, British aliases and a gallery of rogues ranging from Elton John to Mother Monster herself, the Queen of Pop has defeated such contemporary evils as hydrangeas and box office success.

With nearly every Madonna album, the legendary performer has reinvented and expanded upon her signature sound. And following the release of her 2005 electro-pop masterpiece, Confessions on a Dance Floor, Madge decided that in order to keep things fresh, it was time to inject her music with a little hip-hop flavor.

The pressure, then, for Hard Candy’s lead single was on. A collaboration with hit-making duo Justin Timberlake and Timbaland, “4 Minutes” introduced listeners to the new urban-influenced Madonna. The song’s marching-band-meets-Michael-Jackson vibe immediately attracted mainstream radio, and “4 Minutes” went on to peak at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and earn Madonna her 37th top ten hit, breaking Elvis’ record as the artist with the largest amount of top ten singles).

Inspired by Madonna’s activism for social change and equality, “4 Minutes” served as a rallying cry for people to give back to the world we live in — and to remind them that they can have fun while doing so.

As for that four-minute time-constraint to save the world? “I don’t think it’s important to take it too literally,” Madonna explained to MTV in a 2009 interview. “I think the song more than anything is about having a sense of urgency; about how we are, you know, living on borrowed time essentially, and people are becoming much more aware of the environment and how we’re destroying the planet. We can’t just keep distracting ourselves. We have to educate ourselves and wake up and do something about it, you know?”

The blend of hip-hop, bhangra beats, uptempo dance music, and playful lyrics in “4 Minutes” perfectly represents the overall structure and aesthetic of Hard Candy, making it a smart and obvious choice for the album’s kick-off single. And while the Grammy-nominated song may not be one of Madonna’s strongest, it’s certainly a necessary one in her diverse and expansive repertoire.

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH ICONA POP

Cocaine binges don’t end well for Hannah Horvath.

But in the third episode of the current and second season of HBO’s cultural phenomenon, Girls, Lena Dunham’s lead character goes on one for the sake of the experience. On a new adventure with her ex-boyfriend-turned-gay-roommate, Dunham’s protagonist finds herself in a Brooklyn nightclub snorting lines off of a public toilet and trading her shirt with a stranger’s. Yet before the episode’s inevitable conflict starts to neutralize her high, Hannah has a rare moment where she lets the loud and pulsing music around her take complete control of her typically guarded self. Concluding the blissful part of her maiden coke voyage, she loses herself in the club’s flashing lights while dancing in slow-motion and loudly shouting along to the words of the defiant electropop anthem thumping out of the speakers: Icona Pop’s “I Love It.”

It’s no surprise that shortly after the song’s placement on the hit sitcom, “I Love It” debuted on Billboard’s Hot 100 (last week at #69). Featuring British singer/songwriter Charli XCX, Icona Pop’s American breakout hit has been steadily building momentum since its release last fall. In addition to being featured on Girls, the track also serves as the opening credits song on MTV’s Jersey Shore spinoff show, Snooki and JWoww, and on the soundtrack for the video game, Need For Speed: Most Wanted.

Yet Icona Pop’s plans for global pop domination have only just begun. Comprised of Swedish duo Aino Jawo and Caroline Hjelt, Icona Pop has crafted an exciting signature sound that combines indie pop with elements of electro house music and hints of punk.

Currently on the road with Passion Pit and Matt & Kim, Icona Pop is slated to release their full-length U.S. debut this spring. I caught up with the charismatic ladies to talk about their tour, upcoming record, aspirations, Girls, and much more.

ALEX: Let me just preface this interview by saying that I really enjoy your album.

CAROLINE: Wow, thank you so much. We like you.

ALEX: How did you two meet?

AINO: Well, we met exactly four years ago. It was like February 2009 and I had just been dumped. After two weeks of lying in bed, one of our mutual friends was like, “you’re coming with me” and took me to a party. And Caroline was the one having the party.

CAROLINE: Oh yes, I was always having the best parties in town.

ALEX: I believe it!

CAROLINE: You know, dancing all my heartache and pain away. No, but … I throw a lot of parties. And Aino came to one of them and we felt that we had something special.  We were both kind of feeling at the bottom. So I think we were not afraid because we didn’t have anything to lose. Something in our bodies just said, “Please don’t let this go … just throw yourself out there!” The day after, Aino came to my place and we wrote our first song.

ALEX: Oh wow.

CAROLINE: Crazy, yeah! But I guess if you feel that it’s right, then you should just go with the flow.

AINO: Yeah, you shouldn’t fight it.

CAROLINE: And after that day, we’ve been hanging out like 24/7 and now it’s been four years! It just gets more fun.

AINO: We should celebrate four years.

ALEX: You totally should! How would you want to celebrate your anniversary?

CAROLINE: We should really do something special.

AINO: We should go on a nice dinner, just the two of us, and drink nice wine.

CAROLINE: Like have a little date.

ALEX: That sounds like a perfect anniversary. So where does the name Icona Pop come from?

AINO: Well, we were searching for a name for a long time because we wanted to have a name that could kind of tell what type of music we loved. And then Caroline’s mom went to this Italian dinner and they were talking about our project. And they were like, “Yes, so are they going to be the next pop icon?” And Caroline’s mom was like, “oh, that sounded cool!” So, she actually texted Caroline and then …

CAROLINE: Yes, because Icona Pop means “pop icon” in Italian.

AINO: So, it was all Caroline’s mom.

CAROLINE: Thank you, mom.

AINO: She’s very proud.

CAROLINE: Yes, she’s so proud that she’s taking all the credit for it!

ALEX: Can you each describe what unique qualities the other member brings to the band?

AINO: To be honest, that would have been easier to do four years ago. We’ve been on the road and living together, writing together, doing a lot of, like everything together for four years. So, you kind of grow together and I have a hard time separating that because now everything is so natural. You just do stuff and I just do stuff. It’s just great fun. I really think Icona Pop is a very good mix between our two personalities.

CAROLINE: I think it’s weird that we hang out as much as we do and we never get tired of each other. I think we have to be a little bit weird to be able to do that.

AINO: We have huge respect for each other. We don’t fight. We’re not mean to each other. We just really respect and read each other very well. And I think that’s the key. No one forced us to live together or write together; we just decided we wanted to do it! So, it’s all been very natural.

ALEX: How many of the dangerous things that you sing about in “I Love It” have you actually done? Like have you really crashed your car into a bridge?

AINO: Almost!

CAROLINE: In our heads, we’ve done everything a couple of times.

AINO: Yeah, and now we’ve been singing about it every day for like a year. So I think that the next time someone tries to break our hearts, then that means …

CAROLINE: Fucking … Woo, don’t go there.

AINO: And I think also we’re going to have a lot of people on our side when that happens.

CAROLINE: Maybe it won’t even be us crashing his car. Maybe it’s going to be someone else. Like, “I’m being supportive, you know?”

AINO: Those are hardcore fans.

CAROLINE: Yeah, we should just tell a lot of fans, “Run after him! Hunt him down!”

ALEX: You can put a call to action on Twitter and see what happens.

CAROLINE: Yeah, like a picture of him. Like a “most wanted” picture.

ALEX: Having “I Love It” featured on the soundtrack to the HBO series Girls and as the opening credit song on MTV’s Snooki and JWoww has made the song a massive success for you. Do you personally relate more to the ladies on Girls or the ladies on Snooki and JWoww?

AINO: We’re definitely more Girls girls. But still, I mean, the song says, “I don’t care! I love it!” And I think Snooki and JWOWW don’t care about what anybody thinks about what they’re doing. And so, I think the song fits them as well.

ALEX: I agree. Your critically embraced debut EP, Iconic, was released last fall. Since then, you’ve released a full-length album overseas. Do you have plans to release this record in the US? And if so, how will it be different than the international release?

CAROLINE: We have been doing Icona Pop in Sweden for a long time now. We felt that it was time to release an album there, but we’re constantly writing new stuff. So, we’re gonna have a couple of songs from the Swedish album on the American album. We’re actually finishing that right now – that American one. There’ll be some new tracks because we always want to have our newest tracks on to express what we are going through right now. But something like “Manners” is gonna be on it because that’s a very important song for us.

AINO: And our American full-length will be out very soon.

CAROLINE: Mm-hmm.

AINO: We’re just wrapping it up, and to be honest, it feels crazy. It’s huge! I’m scared and I’m super excited. We’re really ready for it though. It’s our baby. So, it’s going to be interesting to see how it goes.

ALEX: Absolutely. Who are you working with on the new songs?

CAROLINE: We will always be working with Elof – our main producer.

AINO: Yeah, and our best friend.

CAROLINE: But it’s also going to be a lot of collaboration. There are a lot of people involved.

AINO: Yeah, it’s going to be a wide mix. And maybe some … I mean, some stuff we don’t want to jinx yet because you don’t know what’s going to end up on the album. But it will definitely be a great mix.

ALEX: That sounds awesome. I’m really excited for it.

AINO: Yay! We’re getting pretty excited too.

ALEX: You’re currently on tour with Matt & Kim and Passion Pit. And recently, you guys all played the legendary venue, Madison Square Garden, on the same day that snowstorm Nemo hit New York. Can you tell me a little bit about that experience? Were you worried that nobody would come to the show?

CAROLINE: Yeah. We mainly felt sorry for a lot of people, because we got a lot of tweets saying, “oh, we won’t be able to come.” And we felt so bad!

AINO: Still, I was surprised that there were so many people there when we played. We really had such a good vibe with the people in the front and the people who were dancing, you know, in the back. So, we couldn’t be happier. And for us to play there … it’s such an iconic venue.

CAROLINE: Yeah.

AINO: That was really something. For us, that felt huge. But we were worried for the audience because we didn’t know if they were gonna make it home or if they were going to be stuck in some weird place. But I think everything went kind of smoothly anyway.

ALEX: That’s good to hear! You also recently finished opening for Marina and the Diamonds. What were some of the highlights of that tour?

AINO: That was our girl power tour.

CAROLINE: Every night was amazing. All the fans were wearing that little black heart that Marina has on her cheek, and she was painting that on us every night. It was crazy! And there were a lot of heartbreaking stories going on. She’s an amazing artist.

AINO: We met so many great fans on that tour. It was really a very good first tour here in the States. We felt so welcome. And I mean, we love Marina. We played with her in London a long time ago and it really felt like a girl power tour.

ALEX: That sounds like it was really fun! Switching gears a little bit, it seems like a lot of interesting pop music these days is coming out of Sweden (i.e. Robyn, Loreen). Being Swedish yourselves, what do you think it is about your homeland that inspires these various performers, producers, and writers? 

CAROLINE: We always joke that there’s something in the water … but I guess there must be something in the water! It’s also … we have summers three months out of the year and then the rest is just dark. So I don’t know if that maybe affects people’s minds or something like that.

AINO: Maybe it’s that it’s a very small country and people are very sensitive when it comes to different kind of arts and stuff. I think if you’re good at something and if you’re working really hard, people will start noticing. And if that happens in a small place, you will end up having a chance to work with other great people.

ALEX: What other pop albums are you most excited about coming out this year?

CAROLINE: Is the Rihanna album out yet? ‘Cause in Sweden it’s not out.

AINO: Yeah, I’m excited to hear it.

CAROLINE: I’m also excited about Daft Punk. But that’s not pop. I don’t know who’s going to release something new. Beyonce, hopefully?

AINO: Yeah, and I can’t wait for Justin Timberlake’s album. He really is someone iconic.

CAROLINE: I think there are gonna be a lot of good albums this year. 2013 is going to be an amazing pop year.

ALEX: Yeah, I think so too. I mean, everyone from Britney to Justin to Lady Gaga – it’s gonna be big.

AINO: Oh! It’s gonna be fun to hear Gaga’s new stuff!

CAROLINE: That’s gonna be awesome.

AINO: Have you heard anything?

ALEX: No, I haven’t heard anything yet but I think it’ll be interesting. Ok, for these next few questions, just answer with whatever word(s) first comes to mind. Don’t think too hard about it. Ready? Your favorite song of 2012. Go.

AINO: It’s an old song but Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place.”

ALEX: I love Talking Heads! Favorite remix of your own songs?

CAROLINE: Style of Eye’s remix of “I Love It.”

AINO: Yeah, Style of Eye.

ALEX: That’s a good one!

AINO: And also Captain Cuts’ remix of “Manners”. You should listen to it. It’s really, really good.

ALEX: Will do! Cake or carrots?

AINO: Cake and carrots.

CAROLINE: Yeah, carrot cake!

AINO: Oooh!

ALEX:  Good answer!

AINO: Yeah, actually, that’s one of my favorites.

ALEX: Frank Ocean or Chris Brown?

CAROLINE: Definitely Frank Ocean.

AINO: Frank Ocean, big time.

ALEX: I’m so happy to hear that. So to wrap up, where do you ideally see Icona Pop being one year from now?

CAROLINE: We have huge plans for that.

AINO: We’re dreamers and we’re dreaming big.

CAROLINE: I hope we’ll be on our own headlining tour.

AINO: With a full production.

CAROLINE: Yeah and touring the whole world and just doing everything on a bigger scale.

AINO: We have so much strength in our live show so that’s a really important thing for us. We’ve got huge visions. So, I guess that’s the dream: to tour the whole world, headline, and of course that our album goes very well.

ALEX: I’m crossing my fingers for you!

Originally published on PopBytes

JESSIE WARE DAZZLES AT NEW YORK CITY’S BOWERY BALLROOM (CONCERT REVIEW)

“I knew you Americans would get it,” British singer Jessie Ware said over uproarious cheering at the Bowery Ballroom, New York’s intimate concert venue, last Thursday.

Ware, who had just made her American television debut the previous day by performing with The Roots on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, was celebrating the release of her new EP, If You’re Never Gonna Move (available on iTunes). Comprised of select tracks from her Mercury Prize-nominated 2012 overseas premiere album, Devotion, the EP serves as Ware’s official introduction to American audiences.

The last time Ware stepped foot in the Bowery Ballroom, she told the crowd, was in December to see Solange’s headlining show. Like Solange, Ware is part of an exciting musical movement that’s ushering in the resurgence of ‘90s house by blending it with elements of Motown, disco, and traces of contemporary EDM. By doing so, artists such as these two have crafted an innovative musical style that manages to sound as fresh as it is retro.

And their industry peers are starting to really notice. Earlier this month, girl group Destiny’s Child reunited for the release of “Nuclear,” their first original song in seven years. A welcome and surprising throwback to ‘90s R&B, “Nuclear” immediately prompted comparisons to the likes of Jade and Vanessa Williams. And while the lack of Calvin Harris / David Guetta production or a Nicki Minaj guest-verse will likely prevent “Nuclear” from becoming Destiny’s Child’s next “Survivor”-level smash, the song’s release signifies something far more important – and frankly, far more interesting.

By paying homage to the era they began in, Destiny’s Child released a song that not only acknowledges that their fans have grown up too (taking notes, Madonna?), but that also catapults the distinct flavors of ‘90s R&B back into a mainstream spotlight. And lead singer Beyoncé (who had already begun to experiment with resurrecting this classic sound on her phenomenal and underrated 2011 album, 4) clearly has no plans to shift the spotlight anytime soon.

“I’ve been working with Pharrell and Timbaland and Justin Timberlake and Dream. We all started in the ’90s, when R&B was the most important genre, and we all kind of want that back: the feeling that music gave us,” the new mother said in an interview in this month’s GQ about her upcoming fifth studio album.

So what does this mean for Ware? Well, for starters, her influence is beginning to be felt on a very large scale. Plus, the increasing popularity of this nu-soul approach to R&B certainly means that Devotion’s upcoming American release (tentatively slated for April) may generate for the singer what 21 generated for fellow-Brit Adele: massive crossover appeal. And considering that tickets for Ware’s Bowery Ballroom show sold out in thirty minutes even before she officially released an album in the U.S., it’s a safe bet to say that Ware’s is a voice we’ll all be hearing a lot of this year.

Ware’s love for the music that inspired her was on full display during her entire set. In addition to singing Brownstone’s classic “If You Love Me,” Ware mashed up her own hip-hop tinged song “No To Love” with Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You.” And for a brief moment during her exceptional cover of Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Wouldn’t Do For Love,” she mixed in part of Aaliyah’s “Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number.” Ware then casually pointed out mid-song that the day before would have been the deceased ‘90s R&B superstar’s birthday. Clearly, she has been doing her homework.

One of the first things that struck me about Ware’s performance is that not only does she sound exactly the same live as she does on her recordings, but also that sometimes she sounds even better. Filling the intimate space of the Bowery Ballroom, Ware’s melancholy and pitch perfect vocals were accompanied by a three-piece band. The second thing that struck me was that Leonardo DiCaprio would have probably been really jealous of how well Ware rocked the exposed midriff look.

Hearing Ware sing live almost suggested that her recordings are too small to fully capture her big voice. The vocal decorations that she added to songs like the lounge-y “Still Love Me,” the deliciously sexy “Night Light,” and album title track “Devotion” showed off just how insanely talented the songstress really is.

What’s more is that Ware is as humble as she is gifted. The amount of adoration pouring out from the audience was undeniable – and for Ware, it was honestly surprising. Upon receiving a bouquet of flowers from a fan near the front of the stage, she teared up and seemed genuinely taken aback. While headlining an American tour for the first time may have sounded like a potentially nerve-wracking experience, Ware couldn’t have received a warmer welcome.

The first of two back-to-back songs that evoke water imagery, Ware’s masterful delivery of the despondent and beautiful “Swan Song” seemed effortless. And before breaking into the next song, “Taking In Water,” she revealed that the ballad (which she wrote for her brother) almost didn’t make it onto the final cut of Devotion. Luckily it did, and the musician called it one of the songs she’s most proud of.

Additional highlights from Ware’s hour-long set included the simple and sizzling synthpop single, “If You’re Never Gonna Move” (recently retitled from “110%” due to legal problems obtaining the clearance of a sample used), album standout “Sweet Talk,” and the official-anthem-of-longing, “Something Inside.”

While the crowd’s applause level was never anything short of feverish, never was it higher than when Ware played “Wildest Moments.” The third single to be released from Devotion, “Wildest Moments” was written after Ware had a fight with a friend and was inspired by the duo’s shaky relationship. And despite having performed the song on Fallon the night before, Ware serenaded her audience with such conviction that it almost sounded like it was the first time she ever sang it.

Wrapping up her set with her brilliant debut single, “Running,” Ware chose to skip an encore, explaining that she “doesn’t believe” in them and that “you all have to go to sleep and go to work tomorrow, so yeah. Last song.” It was moments like these that demonstrated Ware’s honest, charming and warm disposition, making her one of the most grounded artists I’ve seen in a long time.

If all goes according to schedule and Devotion sees its American release this spring, be sure to make it a point to catch Ware’s phenomenal live show. Trust me, it may not be long before the tickets soar out of your price range.

Originally published on PopBytes

SELENA GOMEZ HEADLINES UNICEF CONCERT IN NEW YORK CITY

For many pop stars, headlining an acoustic musical fundraiser after over a year of not performing live may seem like a daunting task.

But if Selena Gomez was even the slightest bit nervous when she took to the stage at New York City’s Best Buy Theater on Saturday night for UNICEF’s third annual charity concert, she certainly didn’t let it show.

Gomez, who is only 20, has performed at all three of the organization’s annual charity concerts since she became UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 2009. Benefitting programs that provide nutrition, clean water, medicine, education and more to children worldwide, the intimate event was completely sold out. And with ticket prices starting at $100, the one-night-only show raised a whopping $660,000.

“Nothing is more important than helping children in need around the globe,” Gomez stated in a press release about the event. “I’m thankful that I can use my voice to bring awareness and much-needed funds to UNICEF so they can continue their critical work. Together, with my fans, we can save lives.”

Following opening acts Nat & Alex Wolff, Noah Guthrie and Bridgit Mendler, Radio Disney personality Jake Whetter introduced Gomez to the stage. Barefoot and dressed in a simple white dress accented by the daises in her hair, Gomez looked stunning—and eager to entertain her audience.

Kicking off her set with “Round & Round,” the pop star played an array of her greatest hits, including “A Year Without Rain,” “Naturally,” and “Who Says.” Accompanied by no more than a couple acoustic guitars, a keyboard, and light percussion, Gomez went on to treat the excited crowd to stripped down versions of fan-favorite album tracks such as “Bang Bang Bang” and the Katy Perry-written “Rock God.”

While Gomez shined singing her own material, the true highlights of the evening were the various and unpredictable covers that she performed. And for a woman who recently went through a very public split with Justin Bieber, some of her song selections acted as not-so-subtly disguised jabs at her fellow superstar ex-boyfriend – including a version of “I Knew You Were Trouble” that rivaled best friend Taylor Swift’s original.

“I’ve been through a lot the last couple months. It’s been sad and cool, but interesting. This song definitely speaks to me,” Gomez confessed before diving into Justin Timberlake’s biting 2002 breakup anthem, “Cry Me A River.”

“You told me you loved me, why did you leave me alone? You tell me you need me when you call me on the phone. Boy I refuse, you must got me confused with some other girl,” Gomez sang, tweaking the lyrics to be from a female’s point of view. “Your bridges will burn and now it’s your turn to cry, cry me a river.”

Ending her interpretation of the song with a cheeky little laugh and declaration of “OK, enough of that,” Gomez’ decision to sing “Cry Me A River” was certainly a bold one—especially considering that Bieber had previously sang an acoustic version of that same exact song in concert after the pair’s breakup last fall. Rawr.

VIDEO | Courtesy of Roberto Marin

But not all of the songs that Gomez covered acted as harrowing accounts of heartbreak. Switching gears back into bubblegum mode, the singer followed “Cry Me A River” with a track made famous by that song’s muse: Britney Spears. “This is the first single of one of my favorite artists of all time,” Gomez said before breaking into her own twist on Spears’ career-launching smash, “Baby One More Time.”

Gomez (who has covered this track on tour before) introduced the seminal pop classic by talking about its inclusion in her upcoming film, Spring Breakers. An R-rated feature about four college girls who get mixed up in some “dirty work” with a skeezy drugs and arms dealer (played by James Franco) to fund their spring break, the movie looks to be Gomez’ ticket to shedding her squeaky clean image and tackling some more adult roles.

“I hope you like it,” she told me backstage after I said I was looking forward to seeing the film. “It’s very … intense,” she warned with a devilish smile.

It’s appropriate, then, that Gomez’ musical ties to Spring Breakers are in the form of Spears’ breakout hit. Like Gomez, Spears skyrocketed to fame at a young age via the Disney Channel. But with the release of “Baby One More Time,” Spears quickly morphed into a pop sensation and international sex icon. Thus, she freed herself from the confines of the “Disney star” label—a calculated image shift that Gomez hopes to emulate with the release of Spring Breakers and her upcoming new album.

Further signaling how much she’s matured, Gomez put her artistic versatility front and center during the show by taking on folk-rockers The Lumineers’ “Ho Hey.” Joined on stage for the song by openers Nate & Alex Wolff, Gomez offered a bouncy rendition of the track that got the audience on their feet just in time for her own dance-friendly single, “Hit The Lights.”

Yet easily the standout number of the night came in the form of Gomez’s cover of indie singer/songwriter Priscilla Ahn’s “Dream.” Singing with ethereal grace and tranquility, Gomez impressively demonstrated just how much her voice has developed since the release of her last album (2011’s When The Sun Goes Down). And in a move that had audience members gasping with awe, the chanteuse even pulled out a harmonica mid-song to add her own instrumental stylings to the gorgeous ballad. In that moment, it became instantly clear that Gomez has grown into a woman who’s unafraid to challenge people’s expectations of her, and into a daring musician who is excited to evolve and redefine her artistic identity.

Closing the show with her #1 dance hit, “Love You Like A Love Song,” Gomez had nearly the entire crowd (parents included) chanting the addictive chorus line, “And I keep hitting re-peat-peat-peat-peat-peat-peat.” And even without the lavish production value of a typical pop concert, the singer’s triumphant return to the stage after spending a year away from it made it seem like she had never left in the first place.

Personally, I can’t wait to see what Selena brings in 2013. Between her edgy cinematic turn in Spring Breakers and upcoming fourth record, she has incredible opportunities ahead to add new and diverse layers to both her image and career. And if what’s coming is anywhere as pleasantly surprising as her first performance of 2013, then Selena Gomez fans can look forward to a very good year.


(Selena Gomez and I)

Originally published on PopBytes
All photos & video (except “Cry Me A River”) taken by Alex Nagorski