An ocean separates the two halves of Rebecca Newton’s double life. Her musical life is in the Triangle, where Newton has led the Durham swing band Rebecca & the Hi-Tones since 1982. But Newton’s professional life takes her overseas several times a year to the London headquarters of Mind Candy, a computer company specializing in family digital entertainment.
“Non-musicians in the U.S. are appalled to find out I have a day job,” she said. “They seem to think that you can make a living playing clubs. And when I tell people over there that I’m a musician, too, they’re surprised and they don’t get it, either.”
While Newton has spent most of her 58 years in the Triangle, she grew up in Seattle in a family with show-business roots. Newton’s grandfather had worked as lighting director on movies starring the likes of Mae West and W.C. Fields, while her grandmother had been a silent-film extra.
No surprise, Newton decided at an early age that she was going into show business, too. The first thing she tried to organize was a neighborhood production of “The Wizard of Oz,” at age 8.
“We met in a cul de sac, and everybody started fighting about it,” she said. “It all came together and fell apart in about an hour, and I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this part of showbiz.’ ”
So once she became an adult, Newton went into the next best thing: computers.
What pays the bills
Newton’s computer career goes back to the 1980s, when she went to work for America Online soon after it started. In 2000, Newton got a job at Sulake, a Finland-based company that produced Habbo – one of the first successful teen-based online social networks.
That led to Newton’s current job at Mind Candy, which produces online and mobile games and apps for children. Mind Candy’s most successful product is Moshi Monsters, a gaming site that has yielded up spinoff toys, trading cards and an award-winning movie (the film has yet to be released in the U.S.).
Newton is Mind Candy’s chief community and safety officer. She oversees a remote team of about 20 employees, most of them in the U.S., monitoring online communications to make sure no one is breaking any laws – and also to keep out adult predators. Between the millions of kids using the site and various countries’ different data-protection and privacy laws, it’s not easy work.
“It’s a big issue for the global business economy,” Newton said. “People’s uses of and attitudes about the Web have changed so much. During my AOL days, most people didn’t want to be known online, but now look where we are. Everybody wants to be known and have a reputation as a ‘brand,’ which starts at a very young age. Andy Warhol was right about everybody getting 15 minutes of fame – it happens now on YouTube or Instagram.”
What feeds the soul
Newton’s performing career goes back to 1974, when she joined the bluegrass band Bull City Rerun. A series of folk-based bands followed and then Rebecca & the Hi-Tones, centered on Newton’s big voice.
Rebecca & the Hi-Tones spent the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s playing up and down the East Coast and as far away as the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. The band was so much fun that it was only a matter of time before friends started hiring them to play weddings. It paid well but had a definite downside.
“The thing about weddings is the money is great, but it kind of steals your soul because it’s like being a live jukebox,” Newton said. “We had it in our minds that we weren’t compromising because we refused to play beach music. We seemed to think that absolved us, and we therefore weren’t a ‘wedding band.’ But we were and it started feeling like too much business stuff.”
The band swore off weddings and rarely plays them anymore. In recent years, Newton also has spent time running the Drop-D Ranch music space in Pittsboro while playing in the New Vacillating Heretics (or The ’Tics, for short) with Bob Vasile of Pratie Heads and Red Clay Ramblers bassist Jack Herrick.
Newton also recorded what might stand as her most enduring song, “One Square Mile: A Durham Anthem,” to accompany the 2012 book “27 Views of Durham” (Eno Publishers):