In 2009, Bethany Cosentino, a former member of drone act Pocahaunted who, began Best Coast as a project "in the vein of straight-forward pop-music from the '50s and '60s". Though recorded in ultra-lo-fidelity, her first singles pricked the ears of tastemakers. Coupled with a much-followed Twitter feed, by the time Best Coast's debut LP, Crazy for You, arrived in 2010, Cosentino was in charge of one of the year's biggest buzzbands, and earned a place on plentiful Best Albums of 2010 lists. In 2012, she returned with The Only Place, an album whose title-track was a veritable anthem for Cosentino's home-state, California. Produced by Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Beck, Kanye West), it found the one-time bedroom act growing into legit indie power.
Interview: 18 April 2012
With the album soon to come out to the world, how do you feel about it?
"I'm very excited. It's coming out in a month, here, so I have this feeling of 'let's get this out already!' It's been finished for so long, and I'm very proud of it, I can't wait for it to actually come out, and have that final deep breath of exhalation: 'it's done!'"
What did you want to do with The Only Place? Do differently?
"I knew that I didn't really want to do anything insanely different, and I didn't want to walk away from the sound and composition of the songs. I didn't want to make things intricate or experimental, because I do love writing simple songs with really simple, direct, relatable lyrics. But, production-wise, I wanted to make something bigger, cleaner-sounding. Since we did record in this big, huge, legendary studio at Capitol Records, we really wanted to use everything that we had there, and all the time we had there, to our advantage, to enhance the style of the music and make it a bit fuller-sounding."
How different did it actually feel making the records?
"The biggest difference was just record it in a huge, professional, big studio where we had to go through security every day, and get buzzed into the lot. Our first record was much more casual, we'd just stroll in at whatever time. That felt really different. But in terms of the songwriting process itself, there was really no difference. It was just to studio environment that was a bit different, not the actual songwriting or the lyrics."
What are the lyrics about, this time?
"The record is a lot more about existential problems. The first one was just really about relationships, and love, figuring that all out. This one is a bit more about figuring out life, and feeling a lot of doubts because of success; these feelings that were stirred up when Best Coast became successful, and how hectic my life suddenly became. As well as just being in your mid-20s, which is this time when you're so unsure of your life, of not really knowing what's going to happen from one day to the next, and having all these questions that you don't really have answers to."
Where do your self-doubts come from? Why did success bring those up, rather than beat them down?
"I had a really hard time dealing with criticism. It was very difficult to me to see some of the things that people would write. I went from working in a retail shop and selling clothes on eBay to try and pay my rent and buy groceries, and all of a sudden I was a successful professional musician touring the world. To not have ever really experienced people criticizing me before, and then to have it happen so suddenly, so publicly, to be criticized by so many people, it hit me a lot harder than I expected it to. Couple that with a lifestyle where you're constantly traveling —and you have all this downtime in hotel-rooms, on buses, backstage— that just gives you a lot of time to think. So, I started to overthink things, and didn't necessarily have that much faith in myself, that what I was doing was good, was worthwhile. After making this new album, a lot of those feelings have faded, because of the fact that I got them off my chest in making the record."
Obviously one of those songs is "Better Girl," where you want to be kept from the thing that people are saying about you. What criticism was it, in particular, that you find particularly difficult to deal with, or that really stung you?
"It was really frustrating to deal with people criticizing my lyrics, and how simple and repetitive they are. It made me get down on myself as a songwriter, like: 'am I even good at this? Should I keep doing this?' Of course, at the other end of the spectrum there were so many people who loved it and kept telling me to do what I do, and that my lyrics meant so much to them. I just had to learn how to stop paying attention to the negative comments, the criticisms. I feel like that's the best advice I could give to anybody starting out: don't read your press. Don't let other people tell you who you are and what you're doing. It's really exciting when you're first starting out, and you've never done interviews before, and somehow people have heard of you, and are excited about what you're doing. But when you sit there and read all the reviews —and the comments, moreso— you start to realize not everyone's going to say nice things, nor even particularly constructive things."
Isn't the point of your music that the lyrics are simple? I would assume that you could write more complex, literary lyrics if you wanted to, but you've chosen not to.
"That's what was frustrating. That was the point. I was very consciously writing very simple songs with very simple lyrics. That's the point of Best Coast: it's very simple, straightforward, relatable music. Yet everyone was like: 'she can only sing about two things, cats and weed!' That really pissed me off, because I feel like I only mentioned my cat and weed, like, once or twice on the first record. At this point in time, I could care less if somebody says they don't like my lyrics, or they don't like my music, because I'm at a point now where I'm happy with what I'm doing. Whereas, before I was a little bit unsure and confused. Making this record allowed me to get out everything I needed to say, and now I've moved past it."
Do you ever feel like you're growing up in public?
"Definitely. I've changed a lot in the last several years. This band started when I was 22, and I'm 25 now. I've definitely grown up. Physically, I look different; I've started dressing differently; I've grown my hair out; I've stopped getting tattoos. I've definitely changed in more ways than one. It's interesting to go through specific changes, different growth spurts, and having people noticing them and commenting on them. And because I do write such personal songs, I drag everyone into my personal life. My personal life is really out there for people to experience, because it's there in my songs. I don't regret doing that at all, because people can connect on a more personal level with my music."
Unrelated to the music, how has it felt, as a human-being, to have your personal life playing out in public?
"It's been bizarre. I don't really know how else to explain it. When I was talking a lot about my cat, and I got sick of talking about my cat, that was totally my own fault; everyone asked about my cat because I'd spent so much time talking about my cat. There are these weird moments where someone asks you a question and you say 'wait, how do you even know that?'; and it's not until you think about it that you realise you mentioned it in a song, or an interview, or a tweet. It's interesting that people are so interested in what goes on in my personal life; perhaps it's because I have this feeling of 'woah, pinch me, is this actually happening?' that's relatable. Like, I never thought I was going to be working as a professional musician, I thought I'd be working in retail, in a clothes store, for the rest of my life."
Have you become more guarded over time?
"In certain ways. Like, I've become more guarded of myself; I don't read (reviews) as much, I'm not on the internet as much. I used to get really personal and say a lot of things online that I would later regret saying. But it's unlikely that I'll ever be truly guarded, because my lyrics are so personal, and they'll always be that way. Even if I say 'hey, I'm going to take a step back on Twitter,' my personal life will still be all there in the songs."
To me there's been a real rise of, effectively, 'celebrity gossip culture' in the indie music realm, and all the bitchiness and judgment and creepiness that comes with. Have you felt that? Have you felt like you've been made a part of that, by others?
"I have noticed that; it's impossible not to notice that shift, because it's about the way that people live their lives these days. Everyone is on the internet just so much, everything that everybody does is through the internet, and the way that people communicate on the internet is so different to the way they communicate otherwise. Online, everyone is just so obsessed with really gossipy things, and you can easily find yourself the subject of gossip without ever meaning to, or thinking that it'd ever happen to you. When I was writing songs in my bedroom I certainly wasn't imagining that people would suddenly be really interested in who I was dating, or what I looked like; they didn't seem like things that anybody would've cared about it. At the beginning I tried really hard not to care about it, like I just pretended it wasn't happening. But now I know that if I go out and get drunk and somebody takes a picture of it, and it ends up on the internet, it's kind of embarrassing. So I watch myself, both in what I do myself and in making sure I don't talk shit about other people, because I kind of know how they feel, now."
Have you felt that you've had to deal with a lot of judgments on how you look, and that crazy double-standard that exists with men and women musicians?
"Any woman that makes music is instantly critiqued on what she looks like, and how fat or thin she is. And it's obviously not only in indie music; this phenomenon totally exists in all of music, for all actors. As a woman, you become this unwitting contest in some beauty pageant. Like: 'Who's the hottest?'; 'That girl's ugly, so I don't like her music!' In the beginning, seeing dumb comments written online about my weight, or things about me physically that these anonymous people didn't like, that was definitely like the breaking point for me. I felt like: 'I can't deal with this! Why does it matter what I look like? Can't people just like or not like my music without caring what I look like?' But wishing for that is a fairytale; that's not how the world works. People critique other people all the time every day; people are just mean. You have to just grow a thick skin. Because it doesn't matter. None of that shit matters. It shouldn't matter if I'm 1000 pounds if I'm making cool music. If other people think differently, fuck them. I just have to care about making good music; that's all that really matters."
So what's your favorite Jon Brion record aside from the one you just made?
"I think my favorite Jon Brion record is probably the Eternal Sunshine [of the Spotless Mind] soundtrack. And the work he's done with Fiona Apple is really amazing; Extraordinary Machine is obviously a really great record, and his work on When the Pawn... was really beautiful. But, to me, his film compositions are what stand out the most. Especially Eternal Sunshine and Punch-Drunk Love. I remember, before I even knew who Jon Brion was, seeing those films and thinking 'man, this soundtrack is really good, who is this?' After that, I found out it was this guy Jon Brion, and I discovered he was also a producer, and got more into him as a producer. I remember when Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out, I bought the soundtrack because I loved it so much; so, years later, thinking that I just made a record with the guy who made that soundtrack, I'm still pretty giddy over it."
Did you pursue working with him? Or did it fall into your lap?
"It definitely fell into our laps. It happened pretty naturally, on its own. We definitely threw his name out there as someone we were interested in, but after that it was just, like, one day we found out we were working with him. It wasn't like one of those things where we had to work really hard to convince him to work with us, to get him to do it. We're very, very, very, very lucky we got to work with him, because he's a very, very, very picky guy; he's really selective about what he spends his time on, so it was a privilege to be in the studio with him. When we were working with him, he was working on a million different projects at the same time; the guy just lives in his studio. It was great to see what his process was, to pick his brain, to learn about how he gets certain sounds. He was really like a mentor to us, he was always giving us advice. I was so stressed out making things record, because it was the second record, and I was so concerned about what people were going to think. And Jon would just say: 'none of that stuff matters!' Whenever I was nervous, he'd always have this good advice. He also taught me to write revisions on some songs. He suggested that I take a couple songs home and rework the lyrics, which is something that I'd never, even done before, and never, ever even envisaged myself ever doing."
How did you shake off the weight of second-album expectations?
"I just stopped caring. One day, I was just like: 'I can't be concerned with what other people think, I just have to focus on making something I'm happy with.' Because, otherwise, if I hadn't done that, I was going to lose my mind. I trusted that Jon wouldn't let us make a shitty record. I trusted that, as long as [bandmate] Bobb [Bruno] and Jon and I were happy with it, that we made the record that was exactly what we wanted to make, that it didn't matter if everyone else hated it. I learnt long ago that if you put your name on something that you don't like, just because other people like it, it sucks. I've been writing songs my whole life, making music and doing art since I was a little kid, and in younger years I remember thinking 'wait, I don't even like this' about things I'd made, but I put it on the internet, anyway, because other people said they did. And now, the fact that it's out there, is so embarrassing to me. I made myself, mid-way through making the album, remember that feeling, and realize that I just had to make something that I loved."