"Evolution is a word that suggests you're getting better and better... and I don't know if that's true. It always feels like starting from scratch again." Elizabeth Stokes, vocalist and guitarist of New Zealand quartet The Beths, is cautiously pondering the development of her songwriting.
"Sometimes it's more an element of getting lucky. It feels like you can get lucky at different times, or just get lucky more often the more you do something. With my earliest songs, 90% of them were shit, and one of them was good: now I feel like the ratio is getting better!"
This earnest, self-effacing aspect of Liz's personality often punctuates her songwriting, making The Beths' joyous indie-pop all the more endearing. While Liz may play down her own progression as a songwriter, it's clear for all to see that The Beths have captured the hearts of people all over the world in a way that few New Zealand artists have. Heck, they can even count Phoebe Bridgers amongst their biggest fans.
For the ever-modest Liz, it still feels incredibly surreal. "It feels like it could all go away at any moment, and it could be fake - I'm constantly pinching myself." The fact that she's currently speaking from North Carolina, a stop on the band's US Summer tour, suggests that she hasn't jinxed things just yet, though it's been a rollercoaster ride to get to the release of their latest album, 'Expert In A Dying Field'.
After a hectic touring schedule in late 2019 that saw The Beths on the verge of burnout, they went straight into recording their second album 'Jump Rope Gazers', right before Covid hit. "It's silly because, in the context of a global pandemic, your music album feels very insignificant," Liz muses, as she explains how all touring of the record outside of their native New Zealand had to be put on hold. "We handed that album in on 6th March 2020 and were about to start rehearsing the songs and head straight out on tour, but looking back, I think if we'd have done that, we'd have burnt out. We might have made it, but we were already pushed to our limits."
Shaking off "the hypothetical year of promo for 'Jump Rope Gazers' that never happened and is never going to happen," The Beths returned to the recording studio in summer 2021 to track 'Expert In A Dying Field', but things weren't going to plan.
"We were about halfway through when Jonathan [Pearce, guitarist and producer] and I started feeling that it wasn't as good as we thought it would be. We were contemplating taking a couple of weeks to try and rewrite some stuff and see if we could make it better. It was quite existential; it's depressing to look at what you have and think, 'this isn't good; this is actually quite bad'."
It's hard to imagine that anything The Beths create could be considered bad after two sparkling releases studded with killer melodies and irresistible pop hooks, but Liz's struggles with self-doubt are well documented in her songwriting.
"It felt like it needed more energy, but it was all foundational stuff, which was why it was so distressing," she sighs. "If it's just top layer stuff like producing or arranging, you can work and keep tweaking until you get it, but it really felt like I had to start again at that point. I had to write better songs."
A day after this realisation, New Zealand was placed in a strict four-month lockdown, and while the band couldn't see each other in person, it afforded Liz the time to write and re-demo. However, delayed deadlines led to a chaotic sprint to the finish line to get the record finalised on time.
"Jonathan started mixing the record in his studio in Auckland earlier this year, but then we had to leave to tour the USA, so he had to mix it while we were on the road, which ended with a mad dash to a studio in LA at the end of the tour. We feel like we made the album a lot better, and though it was stressful for Jonathan, we're all really comfortable with the record now in a way that feels really good."
While 'Jump Rope Gazers' took the scuzzy guitars and relentless tempo of debut record 'Future Me Hates Me' and transformed them into something more nuanced, 'Expert in A Dying Field' hones their craft even further. It's still unmistakeably The Beths, but the uncut gems have been turned into gorgeous jewels.
Right at the front of the record, title-track 'Expert In A Dying Field', is the ideal song to showcase the band's skill in crafting the perfect jangly indie-pop song that's breezy on the surface but full of depth and emotion when you take a closer look. It also demonstrates Liz's incredible songwriting and her vulnerability as she examines the end of a relationship and wonders what to do with the space now left behind. As she softly delivers lines such as "I can close the door on us, but the room still exists," the fragility is almost overwhelming.
"I never set out to write albums with a specific theme, but I can stand back afterwards and see what things have come out in the process. One of the main themes of this record is change and how you cope with it, and I suppose the idea behind the track 'Expert In A Dying Field' is something I've had on my mind for a while.
"I've had some acrimonious ends to relationships, whether friendships or romantic, but I've also had relationships that end amicably. You don't hate each other - maybe you still love each other - but it's just different, or it just doesn't feel right. Even though it's not as dramatic as an explosive emotional break-up, it still resonates, and it's still something that can be sad or bittersweet, or maybe it makes you happy to remember it. You pick up a lot over the course of knowing someone and what you do with that information afterwards..." Liz pauses. "I don't know, I'm still not sure what you do with it, but you have it all."
Though this all sounds rather melancholic and sure, The Beths know how to pull on their listeners' heartstrings; it would be remiss not to point out just how incredibly fun the band are. If you need evidence, look no further than the hilarious video for 'Knees Deep,' perhaps the hookiest earworm on the album, that sees the band engage in a spot of bungee jumping.
"It's fine until you look over the edge, then you're like, 'Nope, absolutely not'," laughs Liz. "It was my idea, but when you come up with ideas, they don't quite seem real. It's all hypothetical until you're actually on the platform looking over the edge, then you realise it's not an idea anymore; it's become real!"
Despite the struggles with writing for 'Expert In a Dying Field', Liz insists that for her, songwriting is still a fun process. "In terms of direction, I still feel like I'm mostly writing from the gut then arranging with my brain, which feels really fun. The combination of writing instinctually and emotionally but combining that with the craft of building the song and the arrangement and working together with the rest of the band to create something that does what you want it to do and makes you feel the way you want it to feel - I still love that process."
Taken from the October issue of Upset. The Beths' album 'Expert In a Dying Field' is out 16th September.
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