BettySoo, that’s who.
Oh, relax — it worked out OK in the end. Or rather, it’s working out for her, given the Austin-based singer-songwriter is eight years into said music career and shows no signs of stopping — not with half a dozen albums to her name, fistfuls of glowing reviews, and an ever-growing international grassroots fan base. With hindsight, the craziest thing about her decision was she didn’t do it sooner. But sometimes the pressure of procrastination breeds the best art, as BettySoo discovered by happy accident with the first song she ever wrote.
It was early 2004. BettySoo was newly married and pursuing a graduate degree in counseling. She worked for law firms and in vocational ministry, but deep inside she felt another calling: to sing. It was a passion and talent she’d harbored since childhood, but the idea of singing professionally never crossed her mind until her mid-20s. One the idea took root, she couldn’t shake it.
“I’d decided I wanted to be a singer. Somebody said, ‘You need to write songs,’ and I was like, ‘That’s not going to happen,’” BettySoo recalls. “I figured, songs were not pouring out of me; that’s not who I am. So I signed up for a songwriting class to meet hungry young songwriters.” The class met Saturday mornings. The first two weeks focused on fundamentals of the craft. For the third session, students were to bring in original songs, an assignment that slipped BettySoo’s mind until the middle of breakfast hours before her class. Panic! “I just started writing … something.”
The “something” she knocked out in a desperate rush was “Family Man,” a heartbreaking, poignant portrait of a hard-working father soldiering through life in the aftermath of losing his wife. It went over well, and the encouragement led to BettySoo’s epiphany that the hungry young songwriter whose songs she needed to sing was none other than herself. In less than a year, she wrote, recorded and self-released her debut album, 2005’s Let Me Love You. (“Family Man,” the song that started it all, closes the record.) She celebrated the album’s release with a packed performance at Austin’s storied Cactus Cafe. “I cashed in the friend card, and it helped!” she admits with a self-deprecating chuckle.
Nevertheless, it was a fortuitous beginning to an immensely satisfying musical adventure — one that has found her playing to listening room and festival audiences from coast to coast as well as in Canada and Europe. Like many self-critical artists, BettySoo is quick to dismiss the merits of her charmingly modest debut, but subsequent releases — 2007’s Little Tiny Secrets and Never the Pretty Girl EP, 2009’s Gurf Morlix-produced Heat Sin Water Skin, and 2011’s Lie to Me, an all-covers collaboration with Canadian Doug Cox under the duo handle Across the Borderline — have all been embraced by critics, peers, and folk, AAA and Americana DJs. (A second duo album, More Lies, was released in Europe by Continental Records in 2012.)
Happily, BettySoo’s gotten better at embracing her records, too — though never long enough to get too comfortable. No matter how confident and accomplished she may sound as both a singer and songwriter, she considers herself very much a work in progress. “Each new album is a leap for me,” she says. “I think part of that comes from starting so late. I mean, I hadn’t been writing songs since I was 13 or whatever, so I had a lot more growth to cover in short amounts of time. People kind of expect you to be at a certain level at age 30 or 33 they might not expect you to be at when you’re 23, so I’ve been trying to catch up and ‘play my age.’ I don’t think I do, yet … but I’m trying to get there.”
Truth be told, her “late start” is debatable. “I’d been singing and playing music my whole life; everybody in my family is musical,” admits BettySoo, one of four daughters raised by first-generation Korean-American parents in Spring, Texas. “
My grandmother, who lived with us, is a really strong singer, my mom was a soloist in church, and my sisters and I took piano lessons since we were 4 or 5. I took violin and oboe and flute lessons and was in a singing group as a kid. We sang a lot together and played different instruments — it was part of how we had fun with each other.”
The future Kerrville New Folk winner (2008, for “Never the Pretty Girl”) developed a connoisseur’s taste for quality songcraft at an early age. By high school, she was devouring mix-tapes her sister was sending from college in Atlanta, introducing to her Lone Star poet Nanci Griffith and a slew of indie songwriters like Shawn Mullins (pre-“Lullaby.”) Thanks to local radio, hometown hero (from neighboring Klein, Texas, anyway) Lyle Lovett became a playlist staple for her, along with a smart collection of his fellow Texas troubadours.
“I was like, ‘What is this music?’ I loved it,” BettySoo enthuses. “So by the time I got to college in Austin, I was already completely oblivious to pop music. Whenever I had a class project where people would do funny skits using a pop song, I had to learn the songs just for the skits, because I had no idea what any of Britney’s hits were or N’Sync’s or any of that. I didn’t even know who they were, because at that point the only radio stations I would listen to were KUT and KGSR. And I was buying everything on the radio that I liked — everything from bossa nova to old R&B to ‘real rock,’ and of course a lot of Americana.” Naturally, she sang along to it all — and bought herself a guitar so she could play along, too.
The songs she absorbed were as much her college education as her official classes, so it’s little wonder she proved so adept at writing her own, when she finally put her mind to it. As a performer, BettySoo’s wry humor and natural stage presence (“I feel more comfortable in front of a crowd of people at a show than I do in almost any other situation,” she offers, “like, not one cell in my body feels nervous,”), coupled with her crystal clear, room-filling soprano (which sounds shockingly powerful and big coming from a woman who barely clears five-feet) invariably make the strongest first impression. But it’s the melodic beauty and emotional depth of her songs that linger: from her debut album’s “Family Man” and “For Bethany” to later catalog jewels like “Whisper My Name,” “Never the Pretty Girl,” “Just Another Lover” and “Still Small Voice.” Sometimes she sweetens her lyrics with humor (“Secrets,” “Goodbye”) and tenderness (“The Story of Us”), but never at the expense of unflinching honesty.
“I think I tend to write a lot about brokenness,” says BettySoo. “Something’s always broken. Because that’s what I believe about the world and about life. Everything’s not just OK. There are noble feelings and noble desires we sometimes have, but even those aren’t perfect, you know? Like even when we want good things for other people, sometimes it’s really because we want to be the kind of person who wants good things for other people. So a lot of my songs, whether they’re about love or death – or funny, or serious, there’s always a very human element about our imperfection, about things that are disappointing.”
If that all sounds like a bitter pill to swallow, though, BettySoo’s music, and her whole career, in fact, serves as a reminder that beautiful things can be born out of human imperfection and adversity. By her own admission, BettySoo and husband Dave Terry were responsible, financially sensible people when they married eight years ago. They were in their mid-20s and owned houses (though they sold his and moved into hers), and had the kind of jobs and savings accounts that afforded them a fair amount of confidence and security when they discussed a future together and the idea of raising a family. Then BettySoo up and decided to become an independent performing songwriter and recording artist, and instead of trying to talk her off the ledge of insanity and back to her senses, Dave encouraged her to go all-in and take the leap. In fact, when his own work schedule permits, he plays drums in her band and manages her e-mail list.
“For me to want to do this, and for him to be so supportive, meant making a very impractical decision, which was so outside of our characters,” BettySoo marvels. “And it meant sinking our savings into the making of the first record, not knowing if we’d ever see a dollar of it back. So for him to be like, ‘You have to go for it, you have to do this,’ was huge. If he hadn’t been that way, there’s no way I’d be doing this.”
Honors and Awards:
Kerrville New Folk Winner
Mountain Stage NewSong Competition Winner
Big Top Chautauqua Songwriter of the Year
Wildflower! Festival Songwriting Competition Winner
Sisters Folk Festival / Dave Carter Memorial Songwriting Competition Winner
Kerrville Folk Festival
Sisters Folk Festival
Vancouver Island MusicFest
Calgary Folk Festival
Tin Pan South
Festival Wilderness Songs (Netherlands)
Texas on Tour
Folk Alliance International
FAR-West Folk Alliance
Southwest Regional Folk Alliance
Northeast Regional Folk Alliance
Ontario Council of Folk Festivals
BBC2 with Bob Harris (UK)
CBC Radio (Canada)
Woodsongs Old Time Radio Hour
Acoustic Alaska Guitar Camp
Sisters Folk Festival Americana Song Academy
Kerrville Folk Festival Songwriting School