From the Welsh Valleys to the Hollywood Hills; diva-in-waiting Betsy’s trajectory seems unstoppable. Marrying killer tunes with a deceptively trashy aesthetic, Hurricane Betsy is set to demolish screens and speakers worldwide, soon. The Almodóvar-esque heroine descended upon Wylde HQ briefly to talk big hair, Bond tunes and singing at her own funeral.
Photography by Etienne Gilfillan
Interview by David Newton
Warning: if you have an aversion to big hair, camp glamour and huge diva voices, stop reading now! Because, after what seems like an eternity, Britain can proudly state it has a 21st-century heiress to the likes of Shirley Bassey, Dolly Parton and Liza Minnelli; strong-yet-vulnerable women canny enough to know that just below the glossily artificial veneer of their stage personae can be found real intelligence, depth… and heartache.
Betsy ticks every box in this respect; hell, she even has the single-name-thing going, à la Madonna, Beyoncé and Cher. And talking of Cher, there’s been many an aural double-take when her songs come on the radio (which they do, a lot). Betsy seems to channel a later-era, contralto Cher (think If I Could Turn Back Time, rather than Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves) whilst teaming this with of-the-moment lyrics and production techniques.
Hailing from deepest rural Pembrokeshire in Wales, Betsy’s first audience was the flock of geese on her parents’ farm. Then, in a move perfect for the inevitable future biopic, she left the cosy yet stifling environs of the Valleys for London’s bright lights and a stint at legendary fashion college Central Saint Martins. This in turn led to a prestigious job at Parisian fashion house Balenciaga. But what did our heroine do next? Why, she chucked it all in to follow her dream of writing and singing her own music, of course! So back to Wales and her brother’s caravan she flew, ensconcing herself away for months while she honed her sound, her look and the engaging personality that is now Betsy.
We first heard and saw her in the video for her track Lost and Found, and it was pretty obvious this was a unique talent that bears virtually no similarity to anything else happening right now. Her look, which she describes as “Trashy Opulence” has its roots in gaudy Nineties-era Versace, filtered endearingly through memories of her granny and great-aunt back home, with their velour tracksuits, long nails and jangly jewellery, set against pink shagpile and flock wallaper. And when Betsy entered Wylde HQ, she didn’t let her forebears down; she breezed in, fully made-up, wearing an eye-popping long pink coat, sky-blue catsuit and sky-high heels. A star!
Wylde: Are you going to maintain your unique style?
Betsy: Yes, but I’m going to develop it. My hair needs to get bigger, for sure! More volume… like a live Barbie doll!
I guess our shoot was pretty subdued for you; did you have a favourite look?
Yes, the white Chanel shirt [opposite], because it’s a bit masculine but at the same time feminine, and it was so clean and crisp.
Do you have a favourite movie?
I love Wild at Heart because I love [Laura Dern’s character] Lula in it. She looks fabulous and she’s got all this big blonde hair, tight leather dresses and he [Nicolas Cage] is wearing a snakeskin jacket.
Do you mind people saying you sound like Cher?
It’s definitely good. I think she’s fabulous and I love her music.But I never thought I sounded like her until people started saying it. And they also say I sound a bit like Annie Lennox, and Heather Small from M People. But I never really twigged any of that until quite recently, because as a teenager I was into Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone… these old jazz and soul voices. My dad always played a wide variety of stuff; there’d be Sade, David Bowie, Vivaldi, Fleetwod Mac, Jimi Hendrix, jazz records, soul records – the whole shebang. So I’ve got a real mix that goes into the pot when I’m making my songs. I really do like Annie Lennox because of the juxtaposition of image and the strong pop tunes, which is very important to me.
Talking of strong tunes, we caught one of your recent gigs and every single song sounded like a radio hit!
You know, it’s so weird ’cos people were singing along to songs that haven’t even been released yet. I was thinking, “Fuck me, they must be catchy!”
You have an all-girl band behind you: is there any particular reason for that?
I didn’t really think about it; it just started happening. It looks so fabulous, though, and I love this strong female aesthetic. All of them are strong women, and they’re incredibly talented, so they’re not there because they look good. Primarily they were chosen because they are the shit; each of them is top of their own game.
What usually inspires you to write a song?
It has to be something that’s happened, and normally I don’t know that I’m going to write it until I’m in the room and then it just comes out. It’s like a little fire burning inside me that comes out of my mouth; suddenly a lyric comes out. Like with my track Wanted More, I was like: “Oh now I know who I’m writing this lyric about… the shitbag!”
Would you ever track down the subject of one of your songs and send it to them?
Oh no, they don’t deserve that; they can swan on! I don’t stay in touch; I get rid! I find writing the song is like therapy and it just draws a line under it. Like, when I wrote the song Fair, when I was recording it, I was crying. And it made me realise, “Well fuck me, I shouldn’t be in this relationship, should I?” So I finished with the guy! I’m not very good at talking about things, anyway. I can’t write anything about my new boyfriend ’cos he’s making me so jolly! It’s so hard to write about happy things… [starts singing] “Love you! You’re so pretty and you smell nice! It’s all going really well and I like it that you cook me dinner sometimes!” Nobody wants that shit!
Did you know while you were at Saint Martins that you would diverge and do music?
That’s always what I wanted to do. Halfway through I got an internship to go and work at Balenciaga (I was there for about a year), but I always had that something in my veins that made me feel I wasn’t doing what I should have been. It was really eating away at me.
Did you sing while you were in Paris?
I sang a Bond theme song in the Paris Aquarium, opposite the Eiffel Tower. Some fashion people had invited me down there and someone asked me to do Nobody Does It Better by Carly Simon. My ultimate dream is to write and sing a Bond song!
I cannot think of anything more perfect. You could easily be the next Shirley Bassey; the next Big Welsh Voice!
Oh darling… yesss! And [breaking into Bonnie Tyler] “I need you more than ever!” and Duffy, and Marina and the Diamonds.
Are you always the Welsh girl?
Always the Welsh girl! I just wish I could speak Welsh. I feel like I’m letting my nation down!
Have you ever thought about doing a cover version?
I’m dying to find the right one to do it with but it’s harder than you’d have thought. Maybe something by Liza Minnelli…
Don’t take this the wrong way, but all these names; Shirley, Cher, Liza… you positively exude camp!
Well, marvellous! G-A-Y Bar was next to Saint Martins and that’s where I used to go all the time. They wouldn’t let me into a few gay bars, though, because I was a woman! So I said, “I’ve got a willy, come and check!” And they’d go, “Oh, er, all right then, come in!” I’d go with a load of boyfriends, straight, gay or whatever.
Have you played a gig on a farm?
Of course I’ve played a gig on a farm! On my parents’ farm, with a band from school, when we were teenagers. We had to play all the oldies: Come Together, Voodoo Chile, and I do a marvellous Elvis! [Betsy launches into “Maybe I didn’t treat you, quite as good as I should have!”]
Did anyone come?
Yes! They all came for the party. My mother throws a very good party!
You go to parties in Hollywood now. Are they much different to your mum’s?
I went to a party at Lykke Li’s house in the Hollywood Hills. Lady Gaga was there, and Lana Del Rey.
My God, it sounds like a Diva Convention! Who else would you love to meet?
Dolly Parton. I just think there’s a wealth of knowledge in there. If you ever want to meet a woman who knows her shit… I’d like to do a Christmas album with Dolly!
That would break the Camp-o-Meter! Have you ever had a funny experience with a star?
Well, I’m so up myself that I constantly think these people are trying to hit on me! I’m always like: “He fancied me!”
What weird dreams have you had recently?
This is a really weird one: I am a baby at the bottom of a well, playing with bricks. I look up and my father is an army man shouting at the top, and my mother is a cartoon Bo Peep all in blue with blonde hair! And God only knows why, because my mother’s the shouty one. And I’m a cartoon baby with a little hat and these blocks.
What’s the feeling you have in the dream?
I’m feeling a bit upset. It’s just noise… but then they are noisy fuckers, my parents! Christ alive!
If you could sing at your own funeral, what would you sing?
The Romeo + Juliet version of Young Hearts Run Free [by Kym Mazelle]. I wouldn’t want it to be a sad occasion. I’d like it to be fun and everybody to be pissed.
There’s something truly addictive about Betsy’s world, and you can label us hooked! Aside from the insanely catchy music and her genius mixture of down-home country girl with urbane, high-fashion cool, I detect a shrewd operator lurking just below the gaudy surface. We all know Ms Parton’s famous quote about looking cheap, but it’s a line from Almodóvar’s All About My Mother that rings in my ears: “You are more authentic the more you resemble what you’ve dreamed you are.”