As Long as It's Authentic: An Interview with Betty & Oswald

Scott Wallace
31st Mar 2015

Head here to check out Betty & Oswald's brand new video for the single "Schmuck." Catch Betty & Oswald opening for Phantastic Ferniture on Wednesday July 6th at Newtown Social Club. 

If you don't know who Betty & Oswald are, then you should. The duo are an up-and-coming Sydney band that are about to head off on a tour in support of their latest single, the wistful, bittersweet and very beautiful "King of Bohemia." I caught up with them to have a chat about the origins of their unique sound and what's next for them.

When Betty & Oswald (or Claudia and Pete as they're known to their friends, family and the Australian Electoral Commission) entered the coffee shop where we'd arranged to meet up, they were warmly greeted by the staff. It turned out to be one of their favourite hangouts. Though Pete grew up in Cronulla where he still occasionally works at his parents' café and Claudia grew up in Wombarra just north of Wollongong, they have burrowed their way into Sydney's inner west and now tell its stories with their romantic, drunken, late-night brand of music.

It was at a gig in Thirroul (also north of Wollongong) where the duo met; Claudia jokingly says that Pete was "chatting up" her mum. Now based in Marrickville, after vacating "a bit of a crazy shanty house" in Newtown, the duo's unique approach to pop is a combination of the breezy sounds of their beachside upbringings and the grittier sounds of the city.

It was while Pete was playing a gig "in this really random town" opening for blues musician Ash Grunwald that he invited Claudia to play using a kids' accordion that he happened to have on hand. That accordion defined the band's sound from the beginning, giving a certain archaic inflection to tunes influenced largely by the likes of Tom Waits, Louis Prima and Django Reinhardt. Even the band's name, taken partly from an albino pigeon that Pete had named Oswald, carries the smoky scent of the duo's bohemian leanings.

Pete says of the "retro" nature of the band and their music "We love Tom Waits and Louis Prima and a lot of old stuff... It's just authentic music. There's something about it that's beautiful." Old or new music, the band says it doesn't matter. They're not self-consciously aiming toward a throwback aesthetic. Claudia chimed in simply, " As long as it's authentic." "No bullshit." Pete said in agreement, explaining that when he first heard those older jazz and blues artists - how he discovered them he can't remember; possibly from a friend of his dad's - he thought "Wow. That's music. That's real."

There's definitely something homespun and truthful - certainly something authentic - about "King of Bohemia." The song was inspired in part by a homeless man often seen around Newtown, who is "wrapped up in his world, but then it's so real to him and he's kind of living there on the edge and that's his beautiful world." The song delves into the man's delusions, in particular one about having slept with Marilyn Monroe, for whom he still waits. At the same time his delusions are balanced out with the harsh truth; he is not really a king, but Pete asks "Which way is right? There doesn't have to be a right answer."

Sydney itself has been a strong source of inspiration for the duo. "The more you live around an area, the more you're encouraged and attracted by it." Pete explained, "Sydney's great because you have to dig a little bit and you find these gems." These gems seem to pop up in the dark, rough surface of the duo's songs, which are suffused with a kind of wistful sense of searching. There is a restless wanderlust in the songs, and indeed the duo have traveled a lot, but Claudia says "The more we travel, it's always nice to come home."

The duo recently returned from a trip to Canada, where they lived the dream playing warehouse parties and meeting some of their idols. "All these bands we love are from there. All this cool shit's coming out of there." Pete said and explained that, at least partially because of the low cost of rent in Montreal, "Everyone seems to be delving into these artistic adventures... It's not a luxury; it's a necessity."

While overseas, the duo honed their songwriting and played a few small shows, and now return to Australia with vigorous energy and ambition. Their upcoming tour will take them up and down Australia's east coast, starting at Darlinghurst's Brighton Up Bar on April 10. They explained that their unique style of music has been well-received by audiences, even those that might have been expecting something louder and more upbeat. Claudia said, "When we started playing, everyone was listening. Some people just embraced it straight away. It was so funny to see their reactions."

When asked what's next for them, their replies suggested they don't have any grand designs. They're just feeling things out as they come. After their Australian tour, Betty & Oswald will return to Canada "with a bit more of a plan," as they attempt to build a base over there and push on into new and exciting territory. "I think we're gonna do an EP at the end of the year... Keep momentum up, keep pushing, " Pete said with enthusiasm, and Claudia added in her soft and understated manner, "Keep doing lots of things."