Liz Stokes (The Beths) and Vera Ellen (Girl Friday) on Promoting Records During the Pandemic

The two New Zealand musicians and friends catch up.

Liz Stokes is the guitarist and lead vocalist of The Beths; Vera Ellen is the guitarist of Girl Friday. To celebrate their new albums — Jump Rope Gazers and Androgynous Mary, respectively — the two friends hopped on the phone to catch up. 
—Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor

Vera Ellen: I feel like a good place to start is the first time we met, which I know you can remember so vividly.

Liz Stokes: I actually went into deep Facebook and found the date. It was September 12, 2015.

Vera: Wow. I was going to say that off the top of my head, but I’m glad that you’ve got the confirmation there.

Liz: Did you really know the date off the top of your head?

Vera: No, 2015 feels like a lifetime ago at this point. I want to hear your recollections of the evening and then I’ll say mine. 

Liz: That was the first time the Beths played out of Auckland, our hometown. We just decided to go to Wellington and couldn’t get a gig, and then someone just gave us a gig at the very last minute, which was a real relief. Maple Syrup was on the bill. And it was like, oh, cool Maple Syrup. So we drove down to Wellington and played and I think maybe like five people came. A few friends. Another band played, and they were nice. And then Maple Syrup played. 

Vera: In my head it was a Thursday, maybe it was just the vibe. You know how in Bodega they had that huge pole just in the middle of the room? It was really awkward playing shows there because people would just linger behind the giant pole, and you couldn’t really see. It was a really uncomfortable place. But I do remember when we played that show — I have two weird memories. One is of you guys just sitting at the table at the back, by the door. And us just being really far away and, like, deliberating whether we should talk to you.  

Liz: I looked it up and at that point we had put one song on the Internet and that was it. At what point in your development as a musician was that gig? Was that one of your first bands, or were you in bands growing up? In 2015, Maple Syrup, what stage was your musician journey at?

Vera: At that point I’d been in Jailbait, which was the band I had coming out of high school, and then Maple Syrup was the first sort of more serious endeavor, I suppose. I think at that point we’d put out an EP. We won some competition to record an EP free or something, so we put that out. And we had some weird demos as well, but we hadn’t recorded our album yet. At that point I’d been around for a while, but nothing was really happening. I was just writing. I’ve been writing since I was like 15 or 10 or something. But in terms of playing in bands, it was my second band.

Liz: So is Girl Friday your third? Or are there other projects?

Vera: There was Sweater in between. I feel like I’ve been in other bands as well. Oh, Economy Music — we’d dress up really crazy and have ridiculous lyrics about corn.

Liz: The band or the food?
Vera: The food. I love bands, I like being in bands. Have you done much solo exploration, playing live in that context?

Liz: I always like playing with other people. The first high school band I had, Teacups, was just a social thing and collaborative thing. The actual playing and getting together was a big thing. When I was studying music, no one ever played by themselves.  You practice by yourself so that you can express yourself in a group and play together. Also it’s nice to play with friends, and to have an activity that makes sense to do with a group.

Vera: Yeah, completely. I write stuff alone and I’ll record stuff alone, but when it comes to performing, I just kind of feel like as a musician you can be really hard on yourself and it can get really dark, your whole process. Bringing other people into it just makes it lighter, and it’s more interesting musically. I’m much more bored with myself, but if someone else is contributing…

Liz: I can understand why people would do it. You have to be self-sufficient. I can understand the desire to be independent and not feel like you’re taking advantage of other people. Sometimes it gets to feel like it’s other people gifting you their time, and you can reach a point where that’s uncomfortable.

Vera: One hundred percent. Even right now when I’m just practicing with my solo band and not being able to pay them, I feel terrible. There is a cultural mentality of like, “Oh, you just do this because you love it,” and we get exploited all the time by playing into that. And so when you kind of realize you’re playing into that…

Liz: Yeah. How does that work then with Girl Friday, the collaboration and the obligation that you have to the group?

Vera: Initially it was a bit more confusing because we’d brought on Sierra [Scott, guitarist] and Libby [Hseih, bassist], and I think they felt for a while that they were playing in our band. And then once it got to like writing new material, we were sort of like, “Hey, like we’re all this is a band.” And I think it just took a while for them to get comfortable in this new mindset and just to, you know, invite them and write stuff. What about you? You’ve had different members as well.

Liz: Yeah, we’ve had a few different drummers. For the first few years, the obligation was more time than money. We were all doing it because we enjoy playing. And the investment is just the time you have. And then as things started to kind of accelerate and we were like, “Oh, we’d like to go on tour.” That’s when Jonathan and I kind of took on the project. It’s not my project, but it is because I’m the songwriter so I feel like I’m the bandleader, I guess. It’s nearly a democracy but not quite. It’s still a little bit of a dictatorship. It’s good to have someone make final calls sometimes. What it meant was quitting our jobs and completely changing our lifestyles, and it was a big ask. There was no obligation to the rest of the band to sacrifice everything. 

Vera: It’s amazing, and it was obviously worth it. And now, on reflection, touring does seem so precious. What was your favorite thing about touring America?

Liz: America is so big and you can play so much. Living in New Zealand, a national tour is like four shows. The first big tour that we did together in 2019 was five or six weeks, playing nearly every night. It’s so much, and you can just really get good, become a good band. You have the practice time and the time together where you really have to bond and really make it work. That’s something I wanted to ask about you guys. The first gig we played together was June 22, 2018, at a Makeout Music gig in LA. It was on our very first US tour, so it was a bit of a mish-mash, booked by me just asking people for gigs. I was stoked that you guys wanted to play with us. I think at that point you had SIerra and Virginia in the band but it was still feeling new.

Vera: Yeah, it was because we had a different incarnation where we had another vocalist. Sierra and Virginia were in the band, but once that vocalist left the band, we sort of scrapped all the songs and started again and really decided to be democractic. That gig probably came fairly soon after that new incarnation had come through. I do remember at that show you guys were playing… Was it really hot? 

Liz: It was like a hot warehouse space.

Vera: I remember you guys playing cricket in the alleyway. It made me really miss New Zealand.

Liz: We get really homesick when we’re away, and it manifests in cricket sometimes. 

Vera: Having other people around you that are from New Zealand can be grounding as well. I was thinking about the New Zealand music scene, and I was wondering if you had any reflections on positive or maybe some more negative aspects of it, being a musician in New Zealand.

Liz: Yeah totally. I’m a huge fan. I know that not everybody is. I grew up in Auckland and started playing in a band in high school and gigging at venues that are still around. I studied music here. I really like it here and I really like the music scene. I feel like a part of it in a way that’s really special. Maybe it’s the size of the city combined with the isolation as a country that we have, and the fact that we’re kind of connected to Wellington and Christchurch. Auckland is kind of big but small. You know everybody, but it’s not big enough to have completely isolated music scenes, like the jazz scene isn’t completely separate from the indie music scene which is completely different from the hip-hop scene. There’s a lot of overlap. I like that everybody’s playing in everybody’s bands. I’m a huge fan. There are things I wish were better, like I wish the venues and things, we could have a few more. And that they could be supported by the council and stuff so they don’t keep closing. I think there’s a lot of support. I look at how we’re doing in New Zealand during the pandemic, and we have quite a lot of help. I don’t know how much you’ve been able to access that, with the wage subsidy and the little grants you can apply for. I really feel validated as a musician, like, “Ah, it’s okay to be a musician. I’m not failing society by not providing an important service.” I feel really lucky.

Vera: I definitely agree. A classic moment is when I was filming a video and across the street you guys were having an album release across the street. My mate Samuel was filming it. It’s kind of comical. That’s not a crazy thing to happen.

Liz: Auckland is a small town! And not everybody likes a small town. FOr some people that’s the worst, most grating thing that could happen, you know everybody and they all know you. That doesn’t suit everybody, but it suits me. 

Vera: It’s really nice. I agree that there’s a tightness about it. Coming back and seeing bands that are still around, and other projects, it’s cool. I didn’t feel like I’d lost anything by leaving, which was nice as well.

Liz: When we saw you at that gig in LA, a year later we did that tour in 2019 with you, and I remember the first show when we saw you in Grand Rapids, thinking, “Holy shit, this is a good band.” We’d seen you in 2018, and we knew you were a good band, but it was early with the new members. This was like you’d really transformed into this incredible band and we were completely blown away. What happened in that year? Had you learned a lot, and what had you learned from previous projects or iterations of the band? Had something changed?

Vera: We just played so much. It was ridiculous. We were playing like three shows a week, we were accepting anything. It got to a point, probably just before the tour, where we were like, “We need to start saying no to stuff.” Some would be like ridiculous, like Thursday in the middle of downtown, some dude’s birthday party with like five people there.  And then we all just kind of grew in confidence as performers, and maybe made a more conscious decision to be a really performative band. I think part of that was just through sheer enjoyment after getting over the initial nerves of being a new band. We really appreciate that and we felt the same about you guys. It was so much fun touring with you guys because I wanted to see every show. You have a real sense of professionalism about you, and a standard of show that you can expect every time. That’s always quite inspiring because it makes you realize that every show is really important.

Liz: That’s nice to hear, because we take it quite seriously.

Vera: Of all the songs you’ve written and released or not released, which have you felt has been the pinnacle of your songwriting? It’s a hard question.

Liz: It is a hard question. I don’t know. When I first started writing for the Beths, I wrote a lot. I’d write as many songs as I could, knowing that most of it would be shit until I reached a certain point where the songs start to become good. One of them I got lucky with early, “Whatever,” when most of what I was writing was still quite bad. When I wrote “Lying in the Sun,” which is on the first EP, that was the first time that I was like, “I like this.” Between those songs, I kinda found what I was looking for, and what I wanted the music from then on to sound like, and more importantly feel like. It was kind of vulnerable and kind of emotional and a bit sincere. There are songs that I’m really proud of. “Happy Happy” I’m really proud of. “Hates Me” and on the new album “Jump Rope Gazers” is one that I really like. But I don’t know. Songs are funny. Sometimes the one that you spend zero time on becomes everyone’s favorite. Clearly I don’t know what I’m doing! The one I labored over, nobody likes!

Vera: That’s always a weird feeling. There are songs that I’ll write or contribute to and it feels really good or special, and then…

Liz: I want to ask about Girl Friday’s writing. Do you bring in whole songs, each of you? You sing on different songs. Is that normally an indication that it’s your song, or is it different every time?

Vera: It’s become a little bit of that, but it’s not the rule of thumb. Generally the way it works is that somebody will bring in a verse, or a set of lyrics, or a chorus, or a lick on the guitar. Other times somebody will bring the bones of a song, and everyone comes at it from different angles and makes it full. It’ll never be fully from one person, but there are some instance where there are the bones of it, and in that case that person generally does the vocals. Which we did a few times on the album, which honestly was mostly because of time. We had to write a lot really quick, so each person would kinda take a song, and we’d all put our bits to it.

Liz: So “Public Bodies,” was that written in the fast period before the album?

Vera: Yeah! [Laughs.] 

Liz: It’s a great song. It feels so good.

Vera: Thank you. Aww. I appreciate that. It’s exciting that we both have these records that came out. It’s weird times, though. How have you been going about promoting music right now?

Liz: It feels pretty bad! [Laughs.] It’s nice to talk to someone who’s released an album around the same time, because it’s weird. It’s weird for multiple reasons. Not being able to tour, you’re feeling that. It feels like everything is compromised. There’s been times when it just doesn’t feel right to be promoting, with stuff like Black Lives Matter happening — you want to let that be front and center. That was kind of weird. It didn’t feel good to be self-promoting at all over the last few months. But it’s good in other ways, because it felt good to be learning. I wanted to ask about Girl Friday — you’re outspoken on activism and justice. Is that something you consciously decided on?

Vera: We all kind of feel similarly about what’s really important, so I think it was a natural thing for all of us. It was never, “Is it okay if I post this or say this?” I still think we all find it kind of hard and weird for the same reasons, to promote music right now. Even saying that feels gross. For us and for you, music is so sincere and precious, it’s not this product. It feels like a beautiful thing to share, not just a space-taker or something. It sometimes can feel that way. So it’s about finding the balance of how much to say. Music is important and it needs to happen regardless of what’s going on in the world. Hopefully it can be healing and good and positive. That’s what you want it to be. 

(Photo Credit: left, Mason Fairey; right, Al Kalyk) 

The seeds of Girl Friday were first planted when guitarist Vera Ellen walked into a friend’s house at UCLA and saw Libby Hsieh playing bass on the couch. Drawn by her unique playing style, Ellen introduced herself, and the two musicians immediately bonded. After a year of playing together, they decided to grow their collaboration into a full band. Drummer Virginia Pettis and guitarist Sierra Scott caught wind of the project from friends of friends, and quickly jumped on board. The fledgling group’s chemistry was undeniable; writing and playing together felt generative and thrilling.

Burning deep in Girl Friday’s music is an unquenchable will to survive. The band doesn’t blunt the impact of the themes they work through in their ferocious, knotty rock songs, but they don’t let the more harrowing aspects of being alive and young in the 21st century daunt them, either. Taking full advantage of the dystopian shades of post-punk and noise rock palettes on their arresting debut LP, Androgynous Mary, Girl Friday nevertheless suffuse their music with abundant optimism. The world is a hellscape, but the four of them are in it together.

(Photo Credit: Al Kalyk)