Words Pippa Brooks
Portraits Etienne Gilfillan
“…I get a kick out of the journey, the challenge and all that makes me tick.”
Betsy strides into the room in silver platform heels, photo-ready with immaculate hair and make-up, and immediately launches into a major anecdote about her recent experiences during Paris Fashion Week. ”There was Karl Lagerfeld, Mario Testino, Nicki Minaj, Pharrell… the most eccentric, glamorous people EVER! So we had dinner and I sang for them afterwards,” she says in her gorgeous Welsh lilt.
I’m lurking in the basement at Cahoots – the quirkily retro, Blitz-themed cocktail bar hidden away just off Carnaby Street – where singer Betsy is being shot for Soho Journal, showing off her hair, lips and legs but, most importantly, strength in every frame. Having already having signed UK and US record deals, once heard, she’s hard to forget. Betsy’s voice is a real surprise – especially if the first time you hear it is when watching one of her videos. “She doesn’t sound how she looks,” her manager says. And it’s true. One obvious stab at describing her vocal sound would be “very Cher”. And it really is – especially 90s-era, anthemic, big-production Cher. And like Cher, Betsy definitely isn’t afraid of glamour: “Coming from such a rural place in Wales, I’ve always liked glamour, because for me that’s the opposite of being born on a farm in the middle of nowhere.” But it’s a very particular glamour that she exudes, evocative of the 1970s, of Jerry Hall, Studio 54, dining at Mr Chow with Andy Warhol by night and being shot by Helmut Newton by day – glossy, Amazonian and assertive.
I wonder when Betsy first found her singing voice, since it’s hard to imagine a child sounding the way she does. “I remember when I was eight and in a school play, a friend said to me that I sounded like Snow White because my voice was ‘all wobbly’, and I think that’s the first time I realised that I had this kind of vibrato-y thing. It’s always been quite strong as well.”
One of Betsy’s earliest memories was sitting around a campfire on the farm where she grew up, while her Dad and Uncle, who were in a band, sang. “Also, Wales is quite a songy place, you know, with church and at school, and there’s a big history of these kinds of massive voices like Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey.” Betsy loves Bassey, who reminds her of her own great grandmother, who was still living large in diamante and velour well into her 90s. “She was that type of woman from the valleys, who’s so glamorous but hard, you know? It’s like, ‘Here I am – have it!!” It’s definitely in the genes.
Rural Wales is a world away from Soho, and Betsy’s teenage dreams came true when she landed a place at St Martin’s to study fashion. “I remember being a sixth former and my teacher asking me what I wanted to do in the next year or so, and I was like, ‘I want to sing and make clothes and go to parties with men in high heels and wigs!’ – and that’s exactly what I did, and more! Soho was my introduction to London, and being around the corner from St Martins, Old Compton Street was the centre of our lives. All my mates were gay blokes and we lived in G.A.Y. We used to get hammered in there – I remember one time being passed out under the stage while naked Porn Idol was going on! For a girl from a farm in Wales it was a culture shock, but I kind of jumped in and it was everything that I had wanted and more.”
Soho also proved to be the perfect place to be studying fashion. “Obviously, the other thing about it was Berwick Street, where we used to go and get all our fabrics. We used to go down to the Cloth House a lot and they would always give us little samples that we could use.”
There was some hard work amid all the partying, then; and it paid off when Betsy landed a job in Paris at high-end fashion house Balenciaga. The singing part of the dream was temporarily shelved as she was thrown in to the fashion business full-time, working weekends and long days. But the desire to give music her all began to consume her and, despite being at the centre of fashion’s elite bubble, she decided to jack it all in, move back to Wales, ensconce herself in her brother’s caravan and only come out when she’d written an album’s worth of songs. “I’d left my job in Paris and gone back to Wales and I thought I had to do it on my own. I sat down and made this demo, created the songs myself on Garage Band.”
By the time she met her manager, Betsy already had a pretty complete idea of what she was after, with a whole bunch of songs already written, and a vision – literally mood boards – for each one. It meant that rather than being moulded to someone else’s idea of what she should be, the two of them could work collaboratively to create the “timeless” sound she had always wanted, for example by recording them with real strings. Betsy’s love of the whole process is infectious, her ambitions are global and she absolutely loves what she does: “With music, my main aim and ambition is to write that one song that will last forever,” she says. Perhaps that will be her upcoming single, ‘Little White Lies’, but she’s already thinking way beyond that. “I think that drives me really. I’ve always been incredibly ambitious and I get a kick out of the journey, the challenge and all that makes me tick.”