When my video call connects with Auckland songwriter Elizabeth Stokes, I realise she’s opted for an audio-only chat and switch my camera off too. It’s the kind of self-consciousness that makes her music with the Beths feel like a mirror, revealing all of my own neuroses.
“I don’t think I do a very good job speaking and I quite often prefer not to,” she tells me. “It’s quite, um – it’s hard to think on your feet.”
Stokes’s reticence shouldn’t come as a huge surprise: her four-piece band have kind of made self-doubt their brand.
The Beths’ first record, 2018’s Future Me Hates Me, introduced the world to a band that was all guitars and catchy melodies, with a self-effacing sentiment beneath the jangle. They went from playing national tours (which in New Zealand, Stokes says, amounts to three shows) to runs in Europe and North America, where 10 dates with no breaks became the norm. They opened for Pixies, the Breeders, Weezer and Death Cab for Cutie. Stokes was nominated for New Zealand songwriting award the Silver Scroll, twice.
But as their audience swelled, the small Auckland scene that had sheltered and supported them seemed farther and farther away.
Naturally, the disconnect made its way into Stokes’s lyrics. The Beths’ second record, Jump Rope Gazers, grapples with the pressure – both internal and external – of living up to the dream you sketched out for yourself; the shame that comes with falling for your own insecure bullshit again; and the frustration of feeling untethered to life back home.
“When I first started this band … I was looking back towards [what] I liked when I was younger,” she says, name-checking Tegan and Sara, Rilo Kiley, and Jenny Lewis’s other projects: “Sweetly sung melodies and super depressing lyrics”. That’s a neat summary for the music of the Beths too. Stokes named the band using the same approach that Lorelai from Gilmore Girls took with her daughter: she named it after herself.
Stokes met her bandmates, Jonathan Pearce, Benjamin Sinclair and Tristan Deck, while they were all studying jazz at the University of Auckland, and the Beths is both a move away from and indebted to their time there. Technically precise with an innate understanding of melody, they relax their posture and loosen up lyrically. In her songs, Stokes confesses to the kind of nagging fears that creep in right before your brain switches off at night; the fear of having said something dumb or being branded a phoney, of trying to say something profound and being struck silent instead, or of coming across a bit of a dick.
“I do feel a lot more comfortable writing and singing about complicated things [than talking about them],” she tells me.
On Acrid, a track on the band’s new record, Stokes sings, “Tragic, the messages I send my mind post-midnight / are showing ‘seen’ but no reply. So I mash the keys a million times for a million years / and maybe by chance I’ll say it right”. On Mars, the God of War, the computer she uses to fire reactive messages in the heat of the moment is framed as her volatile “war machine”.
“A lot of the album is about relationships and communication, and it just happens that communication means a different thing [now] than it did, like, 20 years ago,” Stokes says. The version of herself Stokes sketches out in her lyrics seems both grateful to have emails and texts to stay connected while she’s touring far from home, and resentful of the way those mediums can lead to miscommunication and tension. She adds a self-aware disclaimer to this thought: “I hope it’s not sounding like I’m like, ‘texting is bad for your relationships!’”
Stokes is a pro at catching herself before saying something a bit too earnest or revealing – in conversation and in her lyrics, as in the record’s opening lines: “I’ve never been the dramatic type / but if I don’t see your face tonight / I… well I guess I’ll be fine”. But while the Beths’ first record was marked by an eye-rolling coolness, their second has a precariousness to it. On the record’s opening track, I’m Not Getting Excited, she sings, “I’m not getting excited / ‘Cause my fight and my flight are divided. And so I don’t enthuse / Keep my grip on joy loose … So I greet with goodbye”.
This sense that everything they worked so hard for could be taken away at any moment, that they’re somehow undeserving of their success, is textbook imposter syndrome. “I’m sure we all know so many incredible bands locally, like artists or musicians or people who are doing incredible things, that don’t get recognised,” Stokes says. “And you’re like, ‘Well, they’re really, really good too. So I’m just lucky.’”
After a few standard glitches and dropouts between our respective war machines, Stokes ends our call by switching her camera on, just for a second, to literally “greet with goodbye” and wave hello as I’m hanging up. “Hi! This is me! Bye!”
• The Beths’ second album Jump Rope Gazers is out now