Liz Stokes talks breaking through, touring and harmonising with New Zealand's hookiest indie band
To paraphrase a line from the title track of their 2018 debut Future Me Hates Me: there’s something about The Beths. Three albums of sparkling indie-pop to date have seen the New Zealand four-piece delight fans with honey-sweet harmonies, razor-sharp melodies, charging guitars and whip-smart lyrics.
At the centre of it all is Liz Stokes. Her emotive voice is capable of veering from plaintive to ebullient in a flash – and all shades in between – and her knack with a couplet is arguably unparalleled in contemporary guitar music. Last year’s fine third release, Expert In A Dying Field is a firm case in point.
We sat down with Liz on the eve of their return to the UK to discuss hopes for the future, the song that still makes her emotional, and Alvvays fandom.
You’re about to start an extensive tour, but you’ve had a month or so off the road. Has it been a nice to have a bit of downtime?
A bit of a break has been nice. But there’s also been lots of prep for the rest of the year, which is going to be pretty hectic.
Is it difficult to slip back into a routine when you come off from a tour?
Oh, totally. I really like touring because every day your goals are very clear. You’re busy from the minute you wake until the minute your head hits the pillow. When we come home it’s really nice to get a lot of sleep for a week, but then my mental health always takes a dive. You go from knowing what you’re doing every day, to being very self-directed again. Switching back into that mode takes a little while. And there’s usually a little bit of post-tour blues too, which I have to get better at working through.
Does it ever go beyond that?
I think I have [a tendency to get] anxiety and depression. It just rears its head because it has time to come out. We released our third album last year, and it’s gone really well. It’s great. I wish I could just enjoy that, but there are the goblins [in my head] that are like, ‘you need to write a fourth record now, and it needs to be better!’.
It feels like I just don’t even know where to start. How do you write a fourth record? Maybe it’s choice paralysis. It feels like we’re at a crossroads where there are a lot of possibilities, and we don’t know what the next few years are gonna look like.
Has your relationship with writing changed over the years when you compare it to the relatively carefree days of being unsigned?
Yeah, it’s a bit more pressure, I think. It’s weird to write a song and [possibly] think, ‘if I write a good song, we can all keep doing this, and everyone can pay rent next year!’ It’s a weird pressure. And I don’t think it’s a helpful pressure. My relationship with music is quite strange. I’m really working on that.
What was your relationship with the written word like growing up? Did you read and write a lot?
I wasn’t a particularly poetic child or anything. I read a lot, but not in a really expansive way. I would just read the same things over and over again! For me, writing in and of itself has never been a big pleasure. Writing in combination with music is where the pleasure centre of my brain lights up. I love words, and I enjoy poetry, but it’s the intersection of words and melody that I think really makes my brain click.
What’s your process? Where do you start when you sit down to write?
I hear songs quite clearly in my head – like most musicians, probably. Sometimes I feel like there’s a song constantly playing in my head, and there are times when I hate it! But it’s always different when it comes to writing songs. Sometimes the riff comes first, and other times I’ll have a phrase first. Occasionally, it all kind of comes at once. I wish I knew exactly what I did every time, because every time I write a song, I feel like I’m never gonna be able to write another one again. And I can’t remember how I did it.
Is it true that you work out the vocal harmonies in your demos?
Often, but not all of them. It is something that I enjoy doing though. The demos I make by myself will feature either one or two guitar parts, the lead vocal line, the lyrics, and quite often there’ll be a backing vocal – particularly if it’s integral for the song.
Has your interest in harmonies been there from the very beginning?
Yeah. In high school I had a band with my friends where we mainly just sung, and we had lots of backing vocal arrangements there. Also, I was really into Ben Folds Five and the way that their backing vocals were really prominent. And it’s not just that they were prominent, it’s that you could actually hear the other voices. While I know you can just layer your voice – and I like doing that as well – I really liked that Ben Folds Five was a band with personality. I like bands like that, and I wanted to be in one.
The Beths played the Tiny Desk Concert recently where you reframed a lot of your songs into an acoustic format. That was quite an interesting exercise I imagine?
We really enjoyed that. We practised a lot for Tiny Desk. We played lots of our songs to see which would be the most satisfying to play and it was a really fun avenue to explore. And, yeah, I definitely see a bit more playing around with those kinds of sounds in our future. I’ve got a nice Martin acoustic guitar. It’s the nicest guitar I’ve ever had, so I’ll probably play that a little more!
Is there an artist’s career you look to as having an arc that you’d like to emulate?
A lot of our friends are in bands, and we come from a music community. What you notice is that nobody’s musical journey is the same. Everyone is so different. But we really enjoyed touring with Death Cab For Cutie. Just seeing the way that they are still so creative, still engaged, and 10 albums in still making great music. They had a huge pop culture moment – and maybe that’s come down a little bit – but they didn’t change who they were because of it. And they still have a great fanbase. I’d love to have a huge moment, but I don’t see that necessarily happening. I think what we want is some kind of sustainable career where we can make a few more albums at least and keep touring.
It does feel as though you are on an upward trajectory though. People seem to be finding out about you and really connecting with your music.
Yeah. I feel like we’ve always had this kind of stable growth, which has been really nice. We’ve never been an explosive hype band – although we had a bit of hype with our first album. And that was great. I like the fans that we’ve kind of picked up along the way. They seem like nice people. We just feel really lucky if we can keep on this same trajectory. But, yeah, nothing is a given.
Say there was a fire, and you were only permitted to save one song from each album, which would it be?
I think I would save ‘Expert in a Dying Field’ [from the album Expert in a Dying Field]. I would save ‘Out Of Sight’ from Jump Rope Gazers, and ‘Happy Unhappy’ from Future Me Hates Me.
A lot of songs are special to me, but there something about ‘Out of Sight’, in particular. That makes me feel quite emotional when I play it sometimes.
Why does that song have that effect on you?
‘Out Of Sight’ is just one of those songs. I think it’s special to say a straight-up “I love you”. And that song is “I love you despite our relationship being strained”, so every now and then I just get that feeling again. But maybe that’s kind of gross?! Maybe you shouldn’t get high on your own supply! I mean, who cries at their own songs?!
I think you’re allowed to! A lot of musicians say that didn’t know what a song really meant until they toured it, do you ever get that?
I’ve definitely experienced that. And I feel like that with albums too, where there’s a very unifying theme. It’s not until the album is done and mixed and you listen to it as a whole. You’re like, “Ah!”. You kind of analyse your own life like it’s a book you’re studying in English class!
Alvvays are coming to London at the same time as you and you’ve spoken before about how much of a fan you all are. Have you ever crossed over with them?
We played a show with them in Chicago. It was Courtney Barnett’s festival thing, and it was us, Alvvays, and Courtney Barnett. I’m a really big fan. Their first album [2014’s eponymous album, Alvvays] was one of those that happened to be the album that you need when you’re having a rough time. I was going through a breakup, and I listened to it so much that I feel like I can play the whole album in my head from start to finish. Ugh, I wish I’d known they were here when we are!
Photo credit: Frances Carter