June 5, 2014 | by Joey DiGuglielmo
Main stage mayhem
Main Stage, gay news, Washington Blade

Betty Who (Photo by Molly Cranna; courtesy RCA)

Capital Pride Festival
Capitol Main Stage
Pennsylvania Ave. between 3rd and 7th streets
Sunday
Noon-7 p.m.

Betty Who’s song “Somebody Loves You” went viral when it accompanied the YouTube video that featured a gay marriage proposal set to a flash mob in a Home Depot in Utah. The 22-year-old Aussie native has two EPs out and is working on her first full-length album.

Karmin is 28-year-old musical and personal partners Amy Heidemann and Nick Noonan known for their No. 1 Billboard Dance Chart hits “Brokenhearted” and “Hello.” Their debut album “Pulses” was released in March.

And Bonnnie McKee, 30, has written a monster string of hits for artists like Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Ke$ha, Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson and more, eight of which have gone to No. 1. Last summer, her breezy song “American Girl” inspired a 7-Eleven-set video and she continues to work on a debut album.

They’re three of the acts headlining on the Capitol Stage at the Capital Pride Festival Sunday. We caught up with them by phone from Los Angeles — where all happened to be at the time — this week. Their comments have been slightly edited for length.

BETTY WHO

Betty Who, main stage, gay news, Washington Blade

Betty Who (Photo by Shane McCauley)

WASHINGTON BLADE: Spencer and Dustin, the guys in the Home Depot video, said they wanted you to sing at their wedding? Has that happened yet?

BETTY WHO: Yes, I sang at their wedding in Utah in February and it was like the most perfect, beautiful day of my life. I can’t imagine my own wedding being any more perfect.

BLADE: How did you feel when they asked you?

BETTY: They are the most sweet, amazing men in the world. It was just one of those days where I thought, “I could not be doing anything better with my time. My boyfriend played guitar for me so it was kind of very sweet the two of us. I sang an acoustic version of “Somebody Loves You” as their moms walked them down the aisle so it was kind of this beautiful small moment in time.

BLADE: How did it come about that you developed such a strong gay fan base?

BETTY: I’ve always been supportive, but you know, I didn’t set out initially to have that as part of my platform, though I always knew I would support gay rights. It just so happened when I put out my first EP, that the first few bloggers who picked up on it were these gay pop music blogs in New York, so it kind of worked out perfectly that my biggest demographic is LGBT. I’ve just spoken up for what I feel is right.

BLADE: Did you know gay people growing up?

BETTY: Our next door neighbor was my mom’s best gay friend and his partner, so I have definitely been surrounded by a very kind of wholesome and well-rounded community my whole life and it’s always been this wonderful thing, gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, whoever it was, it didn’t really matter. I was never taught to think of anybody differently. Then I got a little older and I had friends who came from very conservative backgrounds and I was confused as to why they thought that being gay made you different. I just didn’t get it. It was funny, it wasn’t about becoming open minded but putting myself in the shoes of people who were less open minded and going, “Oh, like not as everybody was as lucky as me to have this great experience and this really kind of you know urban community I guess. I grew up in the middle of Sydney, so I had always been around everybody.

BLADE: Have you done many Pride festivals?

BETTY: This will be one of the first ones. I’m doing this little tour through June called the “Hopeless Romantic Tour” and I think something like 80 percent of the shows are Pride festivals. It will definitely be very fun and wonderful and drunk, I imagine. I play Los Angeles, then Salt Lake City, then D.C. on Sunday. So that will be my first one on Friday.

BLADE: Do you know how long your set will be?

BETTY: I’m not sure. I think maybe 30 or 45 minutes.

BLADE: You mentioned singing at the wedding with your boyfriend. Is that Peter Thomas, your collaborator or someone else?

BETTY: No, people ask me that all the time. He’s a good friend, but this is somebody else.

BLADE: Often you don’t really hear accents much from British and Australian singers. In your songs, your accent is there. Is that a conscious choice?

BETTY: It was definitely a choice because I think even Adele sometimes, she sings and you don’t hear her accent. So much about being a star today or a popular artist in the industry is about dong what makes you different and what makes you special and to me I always thought being Australian was something that definitely made me different. And I never wanted to suppress that part of who I am and where I came from.

BLADE: I know you’ve been in the U.S. since you were a teen so you may not know, but do you think it would have been harder to break a pop career in Australia than in the U.S.?

BETTY: I think being a really famous person in Australia is actually much harder than to come over to America and make a go of it. I remember all of these really famous and beautiful singer/songwriters that I loved growing up and then I came over to America, only a handful of my friends knew about them. I thought, “What do you mean she’s like the most famous person in Australia, what do you mean you don’t know who she is?” So I think because it might be different now because the internet has made such a difference. Spotify wasn’t really a thing and Pandora was just sort of starting to be popular, so I think that it’s probably a little bit different. It looks easier and made more sense for me to start my career from the ground up in New York and have my biggest demographic of fans be there.

BLADE: Did you and Peter realize you had musical chemistry immediately?

BETTY: I think he and I have always been musical soul mates. When we met we were like, “Oh My gosh, we like all the same music, this is perfect.” Surely we knew as friends and creative partners we knew we would be great together. I remember being at a party at his house and he was in charge of the playlist and I was like, “Every song on this is a smash. …Who is this person, we are destined to be musical friends,” and it ended up being Peter. So I think that was really easy and was very immediate but it took us almost three years to write music that we knew was perfect or to get it to a point where we didn’t think, “Oh, we should keep rewriting it.” When we wrote “The Movement” EP, that was the first body of work that we put together and said, “Oh my gosh, this is it, this is how we meant to do it,” all of that. I think in that process we had been working together three years.

BLADE: When you get to that point and find pop songs that work, do you feel you’ve cracked a code in a sense?

BETTY: I think it is kind of like we cracked a musical code. We had been writing an working together so long that at some point you just work together so well and you understand each other so well and so deeply that you are like, “We have to put this here, that worked on this song so it will work here.” …When we’re writing a song now, if there’s something that’s not working, we can say exactly why it’s not working. And what we need to change, or if it’s going really well we know why and we know how to keep it going.

BLADE: Do you still play cello?

BETTY: I do, but not in public. Just kind of on my own in my bedroom.

BLADE: Did you initially plan a classical career?

BETTY: I was at a classical high school Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan and when I left I had only applied to colleges for voice and songwriting. So I knew when I was leaving I wanted to go into pop, but it definitely took me a second to kind of get out of that mind frame. Because I remember  my first two semesters at Berklee (College of Music in Boston), I performed more playing cello for other people than I did singing my own stuff. So it took me kind of about a year at Berklee to figure out I definitely didn’t want to keep playing cello for other people and I definitely want to be singing on my own and doing that.

BLADE: Are you planning a full-length album?

BETTY: Yes, I am currently working on it actually. We hope to have it out sometime in the fall.

BLADE: Was “Somebody Loves You” particularly hard to write?

BETTY: The verses and chorus were done, like, in a night. But we didn’t have a bridge. I didn’t worry about it. We were in the middle of a semester and we didn’t have anything out, nobody knew who I was, so I took a break from it for a couple months. We had written it in, like, February, then when we went to record it in summer, I remembered, “Oh, I need to sit down and write this bridge” and I wrote it in like 10 minutes. …I think because we gave it so much space, the song as a whole kind of just worked because there was no pressure. But it wasn’t ’til we recorded it that we were like, “Oh fuck, this is amazing and we love it and feel really passionately about it.”

BLADE: You’re straight, right?

BETTY: Yes

BLADE: Do you have a gay best friend?

BETTY: Several, from all walks of life. My gay friend from college, from high school, from childhood. I kind of have a bunch of gay friends that have kind of all come to know and love each other which is perfect.

BLADE: Is Peter straight?

BETTY: Yes, to the dismay of many of gay best friends.

BLADE: Is your family mostly here in the U.S.?

BETTY: It’s kind of split. My mom is American and my dad is Australian so my dad’s whole side is there but he and my mom and her side are all in America.

KARMIN

main stage, gay news, Washington Blade

Amy Heidemann and Nick Noonan of Karmin. (Photo courtesy of Epic Publicity)

BLADE: How long have you been rapping, Amy?

AMY HEIDEMANN: I want to say I’ve been free styling on the streets of Nebraska since I was a little girl, but that’s not the case at all. I was raised in a super Christian household so I wasn’t allowed to listen to most rap music that I love today, but I was able to sneak you know a couple burned CDs I got from school from my classmates. So I did learn to rap sort of on accident. I was practicing to be a singer and the rapping came later.

BLADE: You two met at Berklee (College of Music in Boston)?

NICK NOONAN: Yes.

BLADE: Were you planning a pop career then?

NOONAN: We were kind of all over the place. I was originally a jazz trombone player, believe it or not.

HEIDEMANN: I always had dreams of being an R&B superstar. My favorite singer growing up was Brandy. We started out more indie and kind of hipster when we were doing the covers and the pop thing just sort of happened. I don’t know if it was really intentional, but it’s been awesome.

BLADE: But do people go to school to study pop music?

HEIDEMANN: Actually it’s weird because at Berklee they kind of do. There aren’t many schools like it, maybe one in California. But yeah, like, they have hip-hop classes. I think the place Jessie J and Adele went to in London I think is really comparable.

BLADE: Did you immediately realize your musical camaraderie?

NOONAN: No, it took a minute. We were both doing music independently from each other and then after we graduated we decided to start the group.

HEIDEMANN: We literally had to learn new instruments.

NOONAN: Yeah, Amy started to rap and I started playing piano and she was playing guitar. It kind of started from the bottom up.

BLADE: Did you start dating first or making music together?

NOONAN: Dating.

HEIDEMANN: Yeah, dating three or four years before.

BLADE: What’s your current relationship status?

NOONAN: We’re still engaged and trying to figure out the marriage thing.

BLADE: Are you concerned that if things continue going well for you musically, there could be a Fleetwood Mac-type impassion on the personal front or are you far enough into it now to not worry about that?

NOONAN: That’s always kind of on our minds but honestly we’d been dating and knew each other so well before we got any attention that it was kind of like all the skeletons were out of the closet before. So there really isn’t much to hide anymore.

BLADE: “Brokenhearted” and “Hello” were both No. 1 dance hits. Did you realize you were onto something writing them as opposed to other songs?

NOONAN: We did know pretty early on. Even with the covers, the strongest thing for us is playing live, so we knew that if we had some kind of energy, some feeling to get behind and get on stage and play this, there are certain songs that have an energy there and really translate well live and that’s our biggest thing. We wanted to make sure that those songs had those elements. When it feels really good, feels right, usually those write themselves and they are a lot faster to write.

BLADE: Did you realize early on you had a strong LGBT following?

HEIDEMANN: Yeah, it was pretty early. I used to put the covers up and we used to read every single comment, which can be really bad because people can be super mean. But the gay audience early on, there was a lot of guys who were commenting on Nick’s attractiveness. We were kind of like, “Oh, this is awesome.”

NOONAN: We have a very theatrical performance style, there were kind of a lot of elements. We didn’t really go out trying to say, “OK, we’re going to go get the gays,” but it made sense and we started doing a lot of Pride festivals and you know how we feel about everything, it’s more of a civil rights issue for us. So it kind of just made sense.

HEIDEMANN: And those are the best shows. So we were kind of like, “Why are we wasting our time playing anywhere else?”

BLADE: People are more relaxed at Pride events?

NOONAN: It’s just a completely different freedom and we’re able to feel that on stage, so they’re great shows.

BLADE: How so?

NOONAN: More celebratory, probably. The energy is more …

HEIDEMANN: Free

NOONAN: Free, I guess. We just did our first headlining tour and there actually was a lot of energy, we were kind of blown away, but still the Pride festivals, even if they didn’t know who we are, or people say, “I never heard of you before today,” they’re still — they want to love us, you know what I mean? That’s a very cool energy.

BLADE: How long will your set be at Capital Pride?

NOONAN: I don’t know. If it was up to us, it would be about 75 minutes, but I think we’re told maybe 30 or 40. So I don’t know.

BLADE: Your act obviously has gay sensibility. Was that something natural from your personalities, fashion sense and all that or did you play it up more when you started realizing you had gay fans?

HEIDEMANN: Definitely the first thing you said. Like I said, we had no idea that would be who we attracted, but that’s how we’ve been in our blood, in our veins, I’m very theatrical in my style. Fashion is incredibly important to me. We have this monochromatic thing. Even when you walk in our closet, it’s like a rainbow. Everything is organized by color so we didn’t really see it coming, but it’s the perfect fit, so it’s all worked out great.

BLADE: Why do you think LGBT rights are important?

NOONAN: Being gay is not new. it’s been around since the beginning of recorded history. It’s just a natural thing for us. Just kind of how we were raised and stuff to not see race or difference in religion to see people. … We really try to not have any of that stuff in our brains at all. … It’s crazy and very very cool how far it’s come in the last 10 years.

HEIDEMANN: Even four years ago. In my high school, there was only one guy who was semi-out. And it was like this huge taboo thing. I’m from the midwest. So it was super religious and pretty scary. I had a family member who came out recently and it was a struggle. So it is personal to us, but also exciting to be part of such an important part of history. And I know we’re going to be looking back and telling our kids about it and they’ll be like, “Really? Why would you ever discriminate against anyone?”

BLADE: You were born just a few days apart. Is there any astrological significance to that or is it just a random factoid?

NOONAN: It’s funny because we just went to an astrologer like last week. But we won’t go into that. We are both Tauruses, so there’s a lot of creativity but also a lot of stubbornness. Usually we get along very well, but when we butt heads, it’s like a colossal shitstorm.

BLADE: You said your parents were conservative, Amy. How are they now with what you’re doing?

HEIDEMANN: My parents are strict but they’re much better now. I know at the beginning it was a little stressful being from a little small town of 7,000 people, everybody is constantly asking about us, my parents are very protective and sometimes really worried about the stuff we encounter, but it’s getting easier. For a long time, it was hard for them to read like critical reviews of our music but it’s starting to become more of the norm I guess.

BLADE: Now that you’ve had a few hits, what’s your opinion of what it takes to break through on the U.S. pop landscape?

NOONAN: It’s mainly persistence. You look at the people now who are superstars, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, they bounced around from label to label for years before they had any success so persistence is definitely one of the biggest things. It is not the most talented people, it is not the best singers. It can help you for sure, but it does not guarantee you a damn thing. So that’s one of the things about the industry, you know, for us. We’re just now starting to semi hit our stride.

BLADE: I know your album is still pretty new. What’s next for you? More singles from that? What will you be doing the rest of the summer?

NOONAN: We’ll hopefully have more information for you soon but we’re always kind of writing and working on new music and obviously touring a lot.

HEIDEMANN: The album just came out and then we went on tour really quickly so it’s all really still fresh for us. There had been a lot of delays with the record  label.

BLADE: Is your appearance at Capital Pride a one-off or are you playing a couple Prides this year?

HEIDEMANN: We’ll be with you guys, then a couple dates in the midwest, then we’ll come back. It’s like a week-long mini-tour.

BLADE: Was there a tradeoff in signing with a major label?

NOONAN: It’s difficult, definitely.

BLADE: How so?

NOONAN: Just getting everybody on the same page.

HEIDEMANN: There’s a lot of turnover. You’ll work with a lot of different people, then they might move on to another company.

NOONAN: Differences of opinion. We’re not big fans of art created by committee.

BONNIE McKEE

BLADE: You just toured with Karmin this year, right?

McKEE: Yes, I’m excited to be reunited with them again. We did five weeks together and it was amazing. So much fun. They’re a really fun act and they have a great audience.

BLADE: Did you get to hang out much on the road?

McKEE: I knew them before. We had written songs together and we’re label mates, so it was fun.

BLADE: Was the “American Girl” video really shot in a 7-Eleven?

McKEE: It was actually an AMPM, but it was a quickie mart. We wanted to give some love to 7-Eleven, but they weren’t with me on that.

BLADE: You didn’t have to get permission to use Slurpee in the song?

McKEE: I never got a call about that.

BLADE: Obviously I know you could be playing a character in a video or even if it’s you, that’s not your entire persona, but the video presents you as this carefree girl sunbathing, changing clothes in a car wash and so on. Yet being a pop singer takes enormous work and discipline. Does your real life feel removed from that girl?

McKEE: I’ve been trying to take more time for myself recently. When you’re on tour, yeah, it’s a blast of course, but it’s also a lot of hard work. I’m trying to let myself be a little more carefree like the girl in the video.

BLADE: There was talk of you having an album out this spring. The first single was out last summer. What’s the status of that?

McKEE: Well, I want to do some more visual stuff. I’ve made a couple videos, I just put a single on iTunes and I’m also trying to sell “Sleepwalker” which I never officially put out. …So I don’t know when it’s going to happen. It’s all about timing, so when we get it set up properly, it will be out. I’m really a visual artist, so I think videos are really my sweet spot.

BLADE: Has there been label pressure to have a decent hit before putting the album out?

McKEE: It’s really up to them. I’m just showing up and playing for the people who want to hear me play. They’ll figure it out when they’re ready.

BLADE: How did you meet Katy Perry?

McKEE: At a thrift store in Los Angeles. We were both trying to sell our clothes and being rejected, so we kind of bonded over that and we’ve been friends ever since.

BLADE: When was that?

McKEE: Oh, maybe 10 years ago.

BLADE: When you write together, do actually sit down together or just send ideas back and forth?

McKEE: We it down in the room together, do a lot of spooning. We get in a bean bag chair together and kind of hash it out. We fight a lot over every line but that’s what makes it great. She’s a perfectionist and so am I.

BLADE: You’re friends too? You hang out?

McKEE: Yeah, when there’s time and if we happen to be in the same city, definitely. She always has extravagant birthday parties.

BLADE: Has your classical training growing up come in handy in the stuff you do now, like with knowing chord progressions and stuff like that, or is it apples and oranges musically?

McKEE? Really grateful to have the training I have but it doesn’t help much. I think the only way it really comes into play in my pop songwriting is, you know, keeping my voice healthy and knowing how to sing properly and not injure myself. That was the most valuable thing I learned. And also work ethic. It was just drilled into us in a world class choir. We were yelled at a lot. Really prepared me for real life.

BLADE: Some of the other acts who’ll be at Capital Pride who are eking out pop careers also had classical training. Do you think that’s just a coincidence or does the general rigidity of classical music make some people want to bust out and go crazy with fun pop stuff?

McKEE: I don’t know. Maybe the ones that are have had training, but so many just have the natural instinct and never had a lesson in their life.

BLADE: Did you always love pop music?

McKEE: Yes, always. I used to get in trouble because I’d have a solo and I’d sing it in a completely pop voice and they said, “You can’t sing like that in choir.” Well, why not? I didn’t know I was a pop singer until people started telling me that.

BLADE: Who were your favorite singers when you were 13, 14 or 15?

McKEE: I loved Whitney Houston, Fiona Apple. Mariah Carey of course. I really liked the divas. And Carole King. She was kind of the first person where I realized songwriting was something you could make a living doing and how important it is for the message to be coming from the artist.

BLADE: You identify as bi, right?

McKEE: Yes

BLADE: At the moment, though, you’re dating a man?

McKEE: Well up until a few years ago. I’m not seeing anyone now.

BLADE: Do people ever accuse you of saying you’re bi just to have street cred or something or do they take it seriously?

McKEE: I think it’s ridiculous. Do I have to prove to everyone that I’m bisexual? They want me to make out with girls publicly to prove it? That’s something I identified as when I was 12 years ago and I don’t feel I need to prove that to anybody. If I meet a girl I love, great. If I meet a boy I love, that’s great too.

BLADE: What do you have planned for D.C.?

McKEE: We get in kind of late the day before, unfortunately. I wanted to go to see all the monuments but I don’t know if we’ll have time for that. But I’m really psyched for Pride.

BLADE: You have a strong gay following?

McKEE: Yes, more than anybody else to be honest. I love it. I play a lot of gay clubs on tour. We did a lot of drag shows which are fun. Everyone there can just be themselves and that’s what I’m all about.

BLADE: Your hair is always these wild, great colors, but they tend to fade so fast. Do you have to constantly have it redone?

McKEE: Yeah, well luckily my friend is a hairdresser, I do it about every two and a half weeks but yeah, if you’re going to have crazy color, you have to — it’s a commitment for sure.

BLADE: Do you have times where you let it go more, like if you’ll be in the studio for awhile and not making as many public appearances?

McKEE: Oh, never! Never, no. I always keep it fabulous.

BLADE: Your publicist said you’re en route to the studio today. What are you working on?

McKEE: I’m writing a song for a movie but I can’t really talk about it yet. But it’s a song for a musical, which is fun. I’m looking forward to it.

BLADE: Why are gay rights important to you?

McKEE: It’s important for everybody to have a place where they can go and be themselves and celebrate themselves. I’m really grateful and excited to be part of that and to be in D.C. for that.

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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