Plenty of pop stars have opted to go the folk songs route over the last calendar year, but there’s still nothing like a fledgling songwriter producing this kind of music on their own. Genevieve Stokes became a music obsessive at a young age, and she’s become a successful songwriter at a young age, too. Growing up in Portland, Maine, Stokes remembers devouring songs from Cat Power and Regina Spektor, channeling their moody storytelling and dramatic vocals in her earliest efforts. A self-taught pianist who first encountered the instrument around eight-years-old, Genevieve’s songs often reflect the separation she feels from the world around her, the stacked harmonies an attempt to trace her way back to connection.
Signing with Atlantic Records and releasing her debut EP, Swimming Lessons, earlier this year, the 19-year-old singer-songwriter’s sound is surprisingly well-developed. Maybe that’s because so much of her musical palette seems to be drawn from the world around her. Across seven tracks, Stokes weaves the landscape of her native seaside town into her writing, reflecting blue water and stormy skies in her vocal tones and piano melodies. Today, Stokes is stripping things back even further, sharing a bare bones version of “Parking Lot” that gets at the vulnerable, open-hearted center of the track.
“The mood of this new version is more somber and thoughtful,” she said of the new version. “With all production stripped away, it’s more centered around the story I’m telling. It doesn’t feel as upbeat or chill as the original, but I like how different they are!” Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Queen’s Gambit star Anya Taylor-Joy, and obsessed enough with seaside culture to make her Instagram handle @chowdergiirl, Genevieve herself seems like a perfect mix of elegant melancholy and joyful, lowbrow humor. We corresponded over email for a brief interview about her debut EP, signing with Atlantic Records, and her journey through the pandemic. Read a condensed, edited version of that interview below, along with the stripped back version of “Parking Lot.”
You’re already so fully-formed in your artistic presence at such a young age. Walk me through some of your earliest experiences with music and how you settled into your sound.
Thank you! As a kid I was really inspired by Regina Spektor and modeled most of my early songs after her style — I even tried to mimic her Russian accent. Then I fell in love with Adele’s voice and spent hours singing karaoke versions of her songs on photo booth. I had a hard time focusing on anything I wasn’t interested in, but with music I was very regimented and would practice every day. I think this intensity helped me develop a strong musical style.
Tell me about some of your influences and specific elements you’ve taken from them or strive to emulate.
Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the soul behind the music, and how my favorite artists tap into something almost otherworldly. Frank Ocean inspires me to think more deeply about the things I write about; Adrianne Lenker has taught me the power of simplicity in writing; Charli XCX and Caroline Polacheck inspire me to be more experimental with production and melodies. I could go on forever—there are so many artists that inspire me daily.
How did you go from teaching yourself piano at a young age to signing with Atlantic Records? What were the intervening years like as you were growing as a musician and artist?
There were definitely a lot of steps in between. I took piano lessons for all of middle school, performed my songs at any local open mic or musical event I could, and joined a band once I got to high school (through Maine Academy of Modern Music). I also started uploading very rough demos of my songs to Soundcloud when I started high school, which I viewed more as a musical diary, but I was excited to get a few thousand streams on some of them. My current manager reached out to me after he saw my audition tape for a college’s music program, and I decided to take a year off to focus on my music career. Now, two years later, I’m here!
It seems like your hometown, Portland, Maine, has had a big impact on the debut EP, how would you describe where you’re from?
When people think of Maine, they tend to picture lighthouses, lobster shacks, and summer homes. This is true for some parts, but I grew up just outside of Portland. Most of my classmates came from wealthy families, but I grew up on the outskirts of town in a beat-up old house with my parents and three siblings. Although school made me feel ashamed of everything that made me stick out, I’ve come to appreciate my untraditional upbringing. I think what made my childhood so special was my relationship with my family and nature. Most of my time was spent in my backyard in the magical world I created with my siblings.
What inspired the title of the EP, Swimming Lessons, and how does that theme tie throughout the seven songs?
I wanted my EP title to encapsulate childhood and my connection to nature and the physical world. I’m still learning how to swim — metaphorically.
It seems like you have a really strong visual aesthetic, how would you describe what you’re drawn to in photography and style?
I love anything fantastical and dreamlike. I think I just want to recreate the fictional world I had imagined as a child. I’m still developing creatively, but I’m very grateful to be working with my best friend and creative director, Abbie Pitre, who has helped me bring these ideas into reality. And there’s a lot more on the way.
Since you started releasing early singles for this record in 2019 and the EP came out in 2021, obviously the pandemic was a force in the middle there. What was 2020 like for you? What were you going through during that time?
For most of the past, I lived in my childhood house. I spent most of my time going for long drives along the coast and writing music. I also did some serious self-reflection. I have a tendency to be extremely anxious and self-critical, but I’ve been making an effort to let go of unnecessary thoughts. There’s a lot more to it than that, but I’m thankful for the progress I’ve made.
As a lyrics-driven artist, who are some your favorite writers or poets? Tell me about some of your literary inspirations.
I have so many! Moses Sumney writes inspiring poetry and music, Adrianne Lenker never ceases to amaze me with her word play and thoughtful lyrics, and Thom Yorke’s lyrics make me cry more often than not. Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock is one of my favorite songwriters ever. Also my sister, Madeline Curtis, writes incredible speculative fiction that has always greatly inspired me.
What are you plans for the rest of 2021? More new music, touring etc?
I’m opening for Noah Kahan in November and Briston Maroney in February! Also working on an album. I am very very excited. Also nervous, but mainly excited.
Stream Genevieve’s full EP below.