By Maggie Shui
The Beths make music that is jubilant, neurotic, carefree and anxious. I revisited their debut album Future Me Hates Me during a state-sanctioned walk around my neighbourhood one evening and I couldn’t help but do a half-swimming type move with my arms along to the music.
But on top of the bright instrumentation and swooping and lilting melodies, they come at you with words so sensitive to the minutiae of human afflictions, such as: “I’m sorry for the way that I can’t hold conversations / They’re such a fragile thing to try to support the weight of.”
That lyric comes from ‘Dying to Believe’, the lead single from The Beths’ upcoming album Jump Rope Gazers, out July 10th. The accompanying music video opens with the words “How to be The Beths in four easy steps!” What follows is indeed a four-step instructional video that guitarist and producer Jonathan Pearce says riffs a little on old drumming tutorials which featured “real ripped American guys with huge hair” and “very, very large drum kits.”
Directed by Callum Devlin (of Hans Pucket), the video is full of little details that reward rewatching. There’s the lone Tool poster in the background of Lesson Two: Invitation to Rock!, the checklist breakdown of the aforementioned lyric on a whiteboard (METAPHOR, EMOTION, APOLOGISE), and bassist Benjamin Sinclair’s rotation of fits, with names like Humble & Handsome, Cory Cries-a-lot and Mr Moustache. This video is a gift.
Becoming a universally beloved and New Zealand Music Award-winning band is, in reality, not as simple as following four easy steps, however. How did The Beths become The Beths?
“I’ve always been quite uncomfortable as a front person,” says singer and guitarist Elizabeth Stokes. “I think part of that is - I'm saying this in air quotes - “finding my voice”. It sounds really cheesy but it was finding a voice that I was comfortable being in publicly. A big thing was the accent, like just finally singing in a New Zealand accent.”
Another thing was refining that unaffected, dulcet way of singing, which The Beths owe a lot of their charm to. “Singing in this almost deadpan kind of way made it feel easier for me to be emotionally a bit more sincere and vulnerable,” says Elizabeth. “Because it's that same thing of almost being able to like, say it and pretend that you're not saying it.”
Striking that tonal balance is a recurring consideration. Elizabeth Stokes says The Beths’ flavour of happy-sad music has become a kind of “hallmark” for them.
“Even if I'm sad, I feel kind of uncomfortable sometimes writing something that sounds that sad. I worry about being seen as too sincere or like wallowing or something - which is a standard that I don't apply to other people, weirdly. I really like listening to sad music but I feel strange about doing it myself. So I like writing stuff that feels happy.”
Joel Coen described film directing as “tone management”. Crafting an indie pop song that resonates with this generation might fit the same description. Lots of earnestness can sometimes fill us up to the brim. When the music pulls back a little, it gives us space to fill in the gaps with our own emotion.
Reflecting on their success, bandmate Jonathan says, “I think a lot of it is in the way that Liz is able to express a deeply felt and closely guarded, potentially, emotion, but to do it in a way that is really approachable and unpretentious - and the result of that is really likeable and relatable.”
And if there’s an artist that you really like and relate to, Elizabeth and Jonathan have shared their advice for how you can support them while Covid-19 has disrupted the music industry’s revenue streams (The Beths have postponed a North America tour planned for April-May).
One way is buying artists’ music digitally on Bandcamp - “even if you know that you’re gonna listen to them on Spotify, because people get basically nothing from Spotify,” says Elizabeth.
Also, Bandcamp gives the option to pay whatever you want. “So maybe you chuck them in an extra 10 bucks or something like that, or whatever a person could afford,” says Jonathan. “That goes directly to the band.”
Jonathan says another way is to support, “existing organisations like MusicHelps that provide extra financial help to the musicians who need it most, like people who need to have emergency medical care or people who need mental health services. They've extended their funds to include people from throughout the music industry, so including people that work at venues, people that do sound, all the technicians.
“It’s something that we’ve been thinking about a lot as you can imagine!”
‘Dying to Believe’ is now streaming on Spotify and Apple Music.
Jump Rope Gazers is out July 10th via Carpark Records.
Visit The Beths’ Bandcamp here.