Betta Lemme: BUSINESS IN ENGLISH, SPORT IN ITALIANO, LOVE IN FRANÇAIS
In January of 2018, Betta Lemme appeared on the Italian talk show Che tempo che fa. She was there to perform her recent smash hit, “Bambola.” Guitar in hand, she ran around the stage in a glittery black jumpsuit, waving to the audience, jumping around, smiling. She looked like a seasoned vet, crushing it in front of an audience of millions. You’d never guess it was her first show. Ever.
Currently, “Bambola” is sitting at 52 million views on YouTube. The video dropped in November of 2017, followed by a titular three-song EP. The EP, along with Lemme herself, is a love-child of ’60s orchestral rock and early 2000’s Europop. It’s as if Aqua produced a Dusty Springfield song—or maybe the other way around. Sweeping strings swell into dub drops, fat synths rumble alongside bells and guitars, and drum machines pulse along with tinkling pianos. It’s sung in English, French, and Italian. Like her multicultural, genre-blending music, Betta Lemme is not easy to categorize.
“I look for two things in a song: soul, and production value,” she tells me. “I never wake up like, ‘Today I’m gonna make a super ballad,’ or whatever, I usually just go to the piano or guitar and write some chords. If I don’t picture a movie in my head within the first ten minutes, then the song is thrown out. If that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t light a fire, and I let it go.”
Lemme’s music is certainly cinematic. The big drop on “Give It,” the first single released after the Bambola EP, feels reminiscent of a heist movie—the descending beat and early-2000s bass-synth feels perfect for strutting away from a casino, bag of cash in hand, while a SWAT team pulls up and runs in. Her next single, “Kick The Door,” feels formulated for a fight in the rain, or a car chase through the streets of Paris.
Lyrically, however, Lemme’s music goes beyond Hollywood evocation. “I love songs that make me dance, but still make me cry,” she says. “Bambola” has to do with healthy heartbreak and refusing to be anyone’s doll. In the description for the video for “Kick The Door,” Lemme writes a near manifesto: “The goal of this song is to keep up the tenacity even when you’re scared or uncertain, to fight and kick through anything that gets in your way so you can be the best version of yourself.” Her music is deeply thoughtful, and while highly danceable, is never meant to be basic club fluff.
There’s a lot to keep track of. Lemme’s music is trilingual, which gives her international appeal, but which also makes it difficult to follow her lyrical intent. Her sound is a combination of disparate elements (she calls “Give It” a love-child between Nine Inch Nails and Britney Spears), and that can make it hard to peg. In a world of neatly packaged pop-stars, Lemme can seem capricious. She likes it that way.
“I’m not like Queen,” she says. “Queen sounds like Queen. I’m not really there yet, and I’m not sure I want to be there. I could make music that sounds like Aqua all day, and I could make music that doesn’t sound anything like Aqua all day. I don’t want to be put in a bubble yet. I know bubbles are important. People will ask, ‘Well, what is this?’ But it’s just the music that’s coming out.”
A few years ago, Lemme moved to New York City from Quebec after she was denied acceptance into music school. Crushed, she gave up music for nearly a year, but she picked herself up, dusted her knees off, and moved to New York City to chase the dream, completely alone with no real network. “Making music is kind of like dating,” she tells me. “I hated it.” She met with producer after producer in vain, searching for someone who understood what she meant when she said she wanted to combine Gwen Stefani with Quentin Tarantino. Then, a happy accident: while stopping by a studio to pick up her keys, Lemme ended up co-writing and singing on a Sofi Tukker single, “Awoo.” Although it was a hit, it would still be a full year before she released Bambola.
Eventually, she met producer Rick Markowitz. They had similar tastes—they both loved Missy Elliot and dramatic European pop. “We didn’t always agree,” she says, “but we did agree on luscious, beautiful sounds.” Markowitz brought on Scott Harris, the acclaimed producer of Shawn Mendes and The Chainsmokers, among others. Together they met in the studio, and... sort of just sat there. “The first session was super awkward,” Lemme says. “I ended up reading part of my diary. I was lonely in New York. I was quite sad. We ended up writing ‘Sea Of Silence’ that day.” “Sea Of Silence” became the last song on the three-song Bambola EP.
The marriage of Betta Lemme, Rick Markowitz, and Scott Harris worked. “Bambola” exploded almost immediately, but especially in Italy. Back in 1968, Italian pop singer Patty Pravo had a hit song titled “La Bambola”. Realizing she couldn’t release a song with the same title without at least nodding to Pravo, Lemme sprinkled a few lines from “La Bambola” into the track. This familiarity, along with a fairly commercial drop, made Lemme’s “Bambola” a radio hit in Europe. The video went viral on YouTube.
“I’ve never played a real show of my own,” she tells me, back on U.S. soil. “I’ve only ever played Bambola.” She wants to though, and has plans to launch a tour. “I’m finally starting to write with some people where I’m noticing a common thread—a cohesive sound.” Still, that cohesiveness only lasts for a handful of songs at a time. “But when I take a step back,” she says, “and I look at all the songs I made in the last year, I see a rainbow. They’re different groups, but they all make sense when they’re together. That’s been a cool thing to discover. I’m still learning about myself.” She has plans to release new singles throughout the summer of 2019. Just recently, she enlisted pop titans Jesse Saint John and Danny L. Harle to write and produce, respectively, a new anthem, “Play.”
Betta Lemme knows what she likes. She likes dramatic, cinematic, yearning, pulsing, international music that blends time and space. She wants to marry Burt Bacharach with Lady Gaga, throw in some Freddie Mercury, maybe invite Abba and Aqua over, and see if Missy Elliott responds. It’s a tall order, and to accomplish it it, she’ll need to understand her own aesthetic and push past the marketers who will inevitably attempt to box up her brand and push it off into the mainstream.
It’s going to take confidence. But anyone who saw her first show—when she emerged from nowhere to stand in front of an audience of millions and brought down the house—knows she’s got what it takes.