A Girl Named Soo

BettySoo's drawer full of yogurt cups

A Girl Named Soo
Photo by John Anderson

The rear door of the tiny dining room in La Cocina de Consuelo on Burnet Road swings open, and in pops BettySoo. She has an elfin look to her – small in stature, with a red motorcycle helmet that fits like a mushroom cap on her head. Once the headgear comes off, she's transformed into BettySoo, singer-songwriter.

At 30, BettySoo – one word, two names – has a new CD out, Heat Sin Water Skin, and she's busy promoting it. She's a relatively recent entry into the class of Texas-raised singer-songwriters, settling in Austin and moving to the top of her sophomore class with this beautifully crafted work produced by Gurf Morlix. Consider Heat Sin Water Skin a major exam for which she will receive high marks.

As always, the inescapable topic of conversation circles around to how a young Korean woman born of immigrant parents makes all-American music, especially an Asian in the Caucasian persuasion of folk and pop. The answer's almost as obvious as the question. She's BettySoo, and she's here to stay.

'Let Me Love You'

It's 2005, and Let Me Love You is BettySoo's debut, a tender freshman offering with ballads of broken hearts and betrayal. Releasing it comes a few years after graduating college and not long after marriage. Growing up as the third of four daughters of Korean émigrés, her work ethic is theirs. They made the journey from Korea to America not long before she was born, finally settling in Spring, Texas, outside Houston.

"Austin's a blue dot on a red sea, and my parents are very devoted Republicans, something I understand," offers the singer. "Since I was a toddler, they've run a Medicaid clinic. They're both physicians; she's a pediatrician; he's internal medicine. They have worked in this poor neighborhood my whole life across the street from a hospital. They're exceptional people.

"They get paid pennies on the dollar and put us four girls through college, in addition to other kids. They just straight up paid for other kids to go to college. They live a modest, humble life, and they've taught me to give what you have. Music is my career, and there's not a lot of money, but if I can make other people give and give them something of value back, that's what life is about."

Like Alejandro Escovedo, BettySoo came to music late despite being surrounded by it growing up. Everyone in her family knew how to play an instrument, and all members sang in church and at home. BettySoo took piano lessons, violin lessons, oboe lessons, and flute lessons and says she failed miserably at them all. One of her sisters excelled at piano, and that underscored the feeling that perhaps BettySoo had another destiny. In 1996, she moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas as an English major. Along the way, she picked up the guitar.

'Little Tiny Secrets'

Little Tiny Secrets came out in 2007, accompanied by an EP, Never the Pretty Girl, and in one great swoop, BettySoo had arrived. The CD burst with her renewed purpose, a sophomore effort that paid off in myriad ways through personal and artistic growth. The EP was something different. Intended as a bonus disc, it benefits the International Justice Mission, a human-rights agency securing justice for victims of violent oppression. The recording happened because BettySoo found herself with an extra day in the studio.

"They're one-take songs. We took them as a band; we didn't correct them.

"I really wanted to make a portion of my business for charity and thought that was a practical way to do it, like: 'Here's a little extra money in the budget. If I just donate it, that's great, but if I budget for a product I can sell and give that money to a charity, then so many more people benefit.' The charity gets money, and people get music."

BettySoo's words ring with sincerity. It's the payback for the lessons her parents taught her.

"Friends would come over to my house when I was young, and they couldn't understand why we had a gigantic drawer full of yogurt cups. My mom was like: 'Why buy Tupperware? We have more containers than we know what to do with!' I thought that was crazy, and it was embarrassing to me.

"Now, in my kitchen, there's a giant drawer full of yogurt cups."

'Heat Sin Water Skin'

Heat Sin Water Skin highlight "Never the Pretty Girl" is a song of uncommon depth and emotion. It's that rare, anthemic composition likely to stay at the top of her catalog for life. Its lyrics of the raw pain of youth that never truly goes away are tender and provocative, and it seems uniquely, if unsurprisingly, a hit with women.

"For whatever reason, people didn't catch on to liking 'Never the Pretty Girl' until after it was on the EP, although Gurf [Morlix] got it immediately.

"In a way, I'm grateful 'Never the Pretty Girl' wasn't on the last album, but there was a long time I regretted not batting harder for it, not knowing it was one of my best songs and needed to be on the album. I think inside I knew it, but I didn't fight for it. And I've been so afraid of fighting for something and being wrong that there are a lot of battles I've given up.

"What was really refreshing and scary was that Gurf didn't want to rechart or reshape anything. He didn't suggest I add an extra solo here or do that there. He wanted me to drive the car. I was so scared the first couple times I had to sit down and start playing music with him. I thought, 'I know he's got an opinion, and he's not telling me what it is.'"

For his part, Gurf Morlix is a little perplexed that he and BettySoo are perceived as an unlikely collaboration. Morlix is legendary for delivering a deeper, rootsier sound to the likes of Ray Wylie Hubbard, Mary Gauthier, and Robert Earl Keen, to name a few.

"I don't know why anyone would think it odd that I would choose to work with BettySoo," Morlix mused via e-mail. "I've seen that written in a few places. I listened to her music, and she had great songs and a great voice that puts them across well. My goal is never to 'drive the car,' but to help the artist achieve their goal – to make the best possible album."

And that's what they've achieved.

"He wanted me to take ownership," BettySoo stresses about the sessions for Heat. "To be able to hold it up and say, 'This is mine.'"

Four Little Tiny Secrets about BettySoo

Soo is her middle name.

She hated piano lessons.

She was born in the Bronx.

Her parents insist on paying cover to her shows.

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BettySoo, Gurf Morlix, Heat Sin Water Skin, Never the Pretty Girl

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