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Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

A singer's life

Lifestyle/Technology | Austin, Texas, singer-songwriter BettySoo is taking her music on the road, and it's getting some attention

Issue: "All-American adoption story," Nov. 21, 2009

BettySoo, 31, is barely 5 feet tall, with a big, dimpled smile. She is one of many aspiring singer/songwriters in Austin, Texas, but this year, with the release of her third CD, "Heat Sin Water Skin," BettySoo separated from the pack. Texas Music magazine praised "her gorgeous, powerful soprano, irresistible melodies and emotionally revealing lyrics." The Austin American-Statesman compared her to Patty Griffin and Alison Krauss. She's won songwriting competitions in Oregon and Texas.

Most significantly, BettySoo-she uses no last name-is a Christian who writes songs reflecting her biblical understanding of human nature: "I think one of the basic beliefs-that people are broken-is where most of my songs start. . . . They all acknowledge that things aren't okay. . . . If you're looking for hope it's not going to be inside of you; it's not going to be in someone else."

BettySoo is second generation Korean-American, the third of four daughters. Her parents, who grew up and went to school in Korea, are both doctors in Spring, Texas, north of Houston, where they run a clinic serving Medicaid patients. She grew up in a Christian home and gained a strong Bible background while attending a Korean church. After high school she went to the University of Texas at Austin, where she majored in English, expecting eventually to teach.

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But she also sang in church. At UT she got her first guitar, a miniature one, and began to play. After graduating she worked in a church and started graduate school. She got married. BettySoo didn't set out to be a songwriter. But friends and a mentor encouraged her to pursue music, and her husband thought she should also.

With those external confirmations, she decided five years ago "to try to do music as a career." Her first two CDs came out in 2005 and 2007. Despite her positive reviews, BettySoo says, "I still don't feel the security that what I'm writing is good or relevant or that it merits either attention or recording. . . . Almost every artist harbors this fear that we're frauds and we're going to be discovered."

She doesn't let those insecurities keep her from writing: "I'm not one of those people who sit in a stairwell or under a tree. I really like to show up at my desk and say, I'm going to write today." Occasionally a song comes to her as she's riding her bike or driving her car, "but generally I'm a disciplined, go-to-work kind of writer." Whether sitting at the piano or at her desk with her guitar, she keeps her laptop close by: "I play something, type something, and go back and forth like that. . . . I always write at my computer. Very rarely do I write with pen and paper . . . manipulating the words and sentences and paragraphs is so much easier with a word processor than with pen and paper."

Reviewers tend to assume that BettySoo's songs are autobiographical, that songs like "Never the Pretty Girl," which she first released on an EP to benefit the International Justice Mission, describe her experience: "I was never the pretty girl, I was never the homecoming queen." She notes, though, that some songs grow out of "the experiences of friends and people around me. . . . When I write a song it is just getting an idea in my head out. Whether it's going to be a song that I play for other people doesn't enter into the equation until I finish it."

Until this past year BettySoo always had side jobs, but now she is making a living with her music-and that puts her on the road a lot because CD sales happen at concerts: "Playing shows generates the income. That's why touring is so important." Sometimes her husband, an electrical engineer in Austin, takes vacation time and joins her, but usually she tours alone or with her band. She plays folk festivals, house concerts, clubs, and listening rooms. This fall she played three weeks in Europe.

The schedule can be grueling: driving for long hours and then having to take care of business after arriving at each stop. And yet, BettySoo likes "being on the road. I like seeing new places. I like scenery. When I'm touring, driving alone in a car is really good for me. I relish that time and try to protect it." Touring has other hazards: She writes in one song about a guy trying to pick up a young woman in a bar, despite the fact that she's wearing a ring:

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