There’s a serene, seasoned confidence coursing through the seven plush, ethereal songs on “Swimming Lessons,” the debut EP from Portland, Maine newcomer Genevieve Stokes. It’s a fully formed musical vision rare in showbiz, from the cascading single “Parking Lot” to a muted, trilled “Surface Tension” and an echo-y “Running Away.” The vocal-layering keyboardist, 19, who lives at home with her parents, is a veteran composer and concert performer with over a decade of experience. Even in casual conversation, the kid is old-soul eerie. She is fascinated with astrology, the tarot and past-life regressions, and still spooked that a psychic once predicted stardom for her when she was a high school junior. At the precise moment she was trying to decide whether to continue on to college, the seer, upon their first meeting, told her that a huge career opportunity would soon be coming her way. She wound up getting discovered by an enthusiastic manager, then Atlantic Records.
“Parking Lot” sounds like it was recorded in a funeral parlor, then mixed for relaxing day-spa listening.
Yeah. I’ve been making music since I was 8, so I definitely developed a very strong sense of identity within my music. And “Parking Lot,” to me, is a pretty sad song to start with. But I definitely am drawn to more dark sounds in my music, and then mixing that with more upbeat sounds.
You’ve been performing since that age, as well — where?
My friend actually had an open-mic night, and I would perform at it every month. And because I started writing music around that time, too, I was really eager to share it with people, so it was really kind of a perfect situation. It was technically a coffeehouse called Longfellow Square, and they had a keyboard setup. And since I wrote songs on the piano, it was pretty easy.
How terrifying was it to take the stage as a child?
It was definitely really scary at first, and I had horrible stage fright. And I remember I would always trip over this rug on the stage every single time. But after a while, the faces became more familiar because it was always the same group of people that would go. So that allowed me to get a lot more comfortable performing and being around older people.
What kind of early feedback were you getting?
I was known as the music person in my grade. When I was younger, I had this great music teacher, and I would actually hang out with her after class and play her my songs. She let me perform them in front of my fifth grade classmates. Then, going more into high school, I performed at all the benefit concerts that my school would host, and people started to know me through that.
Why do you think you were so driven at such an early age?
Honestly, I’ve actually thought about that before. And it kind of surprises me that I tapped into it so early, and that it came so naturally. As soon as my sister got a piano for her birthday, I really took over, and it came really naturally to me as soon as I started playing. And I just fell in love with songwriting. When I write, it just feels like this other thing that’s flowing through me. And I know that sounds pretentious, but that’s what I’ve experienced. It’s like this subconscious thing.
From Bono on down, all the best songwriters say that if you have your antennae up on a clear night, the song will beam down to you, almost pre-written.
That’s exactly what it feels like. You have to kind of surrender to it, and not judge yourself. Because as soon as I get too cerebral about it and start thinking, “Oh, this lyric goes well with that,” I know the song isn’t as good, because it’s way too deep in my head. … the really good ones always come from a very subconscious place.
Your senior class project was recorded music. Is that how your manager/producer discovered you?
It was actually through my audition tape for NYU, for the Clive Davis music program. I didn’t get in, but he found it on YouTube, and he went over to my Soundcloud and listened to a bunch of my music. He’s mainly a producer who’s worked with Lady Gaga and Britney Spears, and I saw that when he sent me a message over Soundcloud, but I didn’t believe it, so I didn’t respond. But then he sent me a follow-up email a couple of months later, and I was like, “Oh, wow! This guy’s like a real person!