For years, Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast, which joins Wavves at the Bluebird Theater on Saturday, February 27 and Sunday, February 28, has been among the smartest and most opinionated figures on the current music scene.
But earlier this month, she took these attributes to the next level.
In "Burgers, Bitches and Bullshit," published at LennyLetter.com, she took on a big topic: patriarchy in the music business and beyond. The results are honest, compelling and fearless, particularly given her cutting take on the very sort of Internet trolls likely to be incensed by what she has to say.
Our conversation with Cosentino touches on the ripple effects of the essay's publication before moving on to California Nights, her third full-length for Best Coast (which teams her with multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno), and the band's finest effort to date. Subjects include lyrics that double as personal pep talks, the art of contrasting dynamics and contradictory juxtapositions, finding a balance between stubbornness and a willingness to try new things, and her love of music from Southern California — particularly the Eagles.
Cosentino admits that the recent death of Eagles co-leader Glenn Frey was an emotional experience for her while trying her hardest to convey the glories of the group to someone who just doesn't get it: yours truly. And as you'll see, she puts up an impressive argument.
Which should come as a surprise to precisely no one.
Westword: You just published an essay entitled "Burgers, Bitches and Bullshit," in which you take on the patriarchy of the music business, including your decision to speak out about sexual harassment you and others experienced from a publicist named Heathcliff Berru. What kind of response have you received about it so far?
Bethany Cosentino: It's been incredibly overwhelming in a very positive sense. I was feeling very hot and cold about this essay. I was very passionate about it, but I was also thinking, "Oh man, this is going to come out and a lot of people are going to read it." I'm a human being, and when people criticize me, which is a lot of what the essay is about, I can sometimes take it a bit to heart, so I was a little bit worried that people would say, "It isn't written well" or whatever. But I also know that I'm my own biggest critic, which is also why I was worried.
But the reaction's been really incredible. I've had so many people who've reached out to me and thanked me for it or said that to read about me sharing my experiences really encouraged them to be honest and open about stuff they'd gone through. I had a young girl in a band who wrote an e-mail to my manager that was forwarded to me about how her and her best friend just started a band and the essay just confirmed all her thoughts and concerns about being a woman in music.
For me to be hanging out at home and getting all this positive feedback, and using my voice to talk about things that weren't necessarily positive experiences, but using them to shed a positive, empowered light on a not so positive topic, is something that's very humbling for me. It makes me feel good at the end of the day to know I've inspired and encouraged men and women to come forward and be more aware of the stuff that's going on. Because I know it's not just happening in music. It's happening in all fields.
Just to be one person with a voice makes me feel good. So I'm happy I did it and that people are paying attention to it.
One of the themes of the piece is the horribly sexist reactions you've sparked on social media and in response to you when you play live. You mentioned the positive responses to the essay that you've received. Have there been some of the other kind, too? Or do you think you shamed the trolls into silence, at least temporarily?
Oh no. I don't think you can ever shame any of these people into silence, unfortunately. On the Internet, people are always going to come at you from all sorts of angles. I saw some comments that were like, "This is stupid," or "Did you even graduate from middle school?" Just really stupid, petty bullshit.
For the most part, I try really hard to not pay attention to the negatives. The opening line of the essay says, "I learned very early on, don't read the comment sections of things." I still do it sometimes. But now I've trained myself to only fire back when it seems entirely necessary.
I read a couple of things that said, "I'm no longer a fan of Best Coast because of your beliefs in patriarchy." It was just so ridiculous — basically calling patriarchy a conspiracy theory and saying I'm a conspiracy theorist now.
Yeah. I saw it and thought, "Well, okay...." But luckily, I've got some of the greatest fans who go through those comment sections. I feel like they're my children. There were some girls and men who said something back to this person. They were like, "Hey, listen up." They're fighting their own fight on my page, and that makes me very happy. I feel like my experiences and the shit I go through on a daily basis are starting a conversation that really needed to be started a while ago.
In any comment section, even if it's not a celebrity's comment section, there are always really stupid, ignorant comments. And there are always really stupid, ignorant comments in real life, too. So, like I said, it's important to decide when it's important to step up and say, "That's not okay" or straight-up block somebody. But for the most part, I've really received a lot of encouragement and thank yous and gratitude. That's what I'm paying the most attention to you.
Photo by Janell Shirtcliff
Is there any part of you that feels frustrated these battles still need to be fought? Shouldn't these lessons have been learned a long time ago?
Oh, of course. That's a large part of why I even talk about it. And it's not just with sexism, not just with women feeling the need to say, "I'm a feminist." It's with race. It's with gender as an idea. All the issues trans people are facing, all the stuff that's going on in the world, it's really fucked up. There's so much stuff that on a daily basis, I go, "How is this still happening in 2016?" And not just with things I've experienced. We're still seeing police brutality against African-Americans in 2016, and it's absurd. How is this still happening?
But something I think is important is, if you believe in something, you have to speak up for it. Musicians, artists, celebrities of any type — whether you're as famous as Leonardo DiCaprio or you're as famous as Bethany Cosentino from Best Coast, which is totally the opposite end of the spectrum (laughs), there are people who are paying attention to us. There are people who want to know what we're passionate about. And they take that and apply it to their own lives and things they're passionate about.
So at the end of the day, as fucked up as all of this is, and no matter how much it frustrates me that people in all walks of life are still having to defend themselves, still having to say, "This isn't okay," I feel like more and more people are using their voices in a positive way. They're starting to bring awareness to stuff. Awareness was brought to a lot of this stuff a long time ago, but it still needs to be done....
I'm just glad to be part of the conversation in general. I'm not happy there's still a reason this conversation has to be going on, but I'm happy to be a part of it.
Continue for more of our conversation with Best Coast's Bethany Cosentino, featuring videos from California Nights and a passionate defense of the Eagles.
California Nights has made your fans happy, too, even though the lyrics aren't always upbeat. For me, "Feeling OK," the first song, felt almost like a pep talk to yourself — a way of telling yourself not to let the darkness take over and to focus on the positives in your life. And this theme runs throughout the album. Is that indicative of what you were going through at the times these songs were written?
Yeah, 100 percent. I'm my own biggest enemy at times, and I think we can all be our biggest enemies. I have a tendency to tear myself down for no reason, even when life seems to be just cruising along and there's not a whole lot I should be stressing out about. I seem to always find something to stress out about, and so I use my music as a sort of therapy for that — to really get through it. But I don't just use it as a moment of catharsis. Like, "All of these feelings suck, let me get them off my chest." I also like that they can be used by other people out there who are feeling that way. That's something really important to me.
Whenever I'm writing a song where it's me speaking to myself, telling myself, "It's okay, you can get through this," I remember there are millions of other people out there giving themselves that same pep talk every single day. To be in that place isn't always the funnest thing in life. But to be able to do something creative, to get something out there that I know is helping me but I know is also helping other people, is definitely an accomplishment for me.
One of the things I like best about the songs on this album, but also your work in general, is the dynamic between the lyrics and the music. Like in "When Will I Change," you talk about having the weight of the world on your shoulders, but the music is really bold and melodic and inspiring. Do you like to juxtapose words that talk about things in one way and music that pushes in a different direction?
Yeah, for sure. I've always been a fan of artists and bands that do that. I think one of the biggest influences for me when it comes to a band that did that successfully and incredibly is Fleetwood Mac. A lot of the Mac songs are about incredibly intense personal feelings, but they put them through these happy, upbeat melodies. When you listen to some of the songs, you're not necessarily thinking, "Oh man, this is a super-dark or depressing song," or "That's a depressing idea." You're thinking more along the lines of, "Oh, this is making me feel good." And it's not usually until you listen back again that you realize, "These lyrics are darker than I thought."
It's like a weird reverse-psychology things. The Beach Boys did it, too. You're talking about these intense, sad feelings, but you're pairing them with this sunnier, more upbeat sounding music. You feel good, you feel happy, and the vibe is upbeat. But then you personally connect with the lyrics and have your own vibe with it. Life can be incredibly intense; there's a lot going on in the world where you might freak out. So lyrically, you're experiencing them and dealing with them the best you can, but then you're pairing them with happy melodies. And that's a way of saying, "It's going to be okay." In a way, I think that's what I'm doing. I'm just trying to say, "It's all going to be okay at the end of the day."
For me, a lot of the music that I've really connected with on a very personal level over the span of my life is music that I can apply directly to a situation that's happened in my life. When you want to listen to a really sad song and cry, it's really easy to find that. But I think when you're feeling emotional and want to be lifted up, finding a song that has that happy medium can be a little more challenging. And that's sort of what I try to do — let people feel a bit better about what they're going through.
On this album, you also have those kinds of juxtapositions from song to song. Like "Fine Without You," which is about a bad relationship, comes right before "Heaven Sent," which has lines like, "You are the one that I adore." That suggests to me the album medium is something you really prize, and you put a lot of thought into the way songs sit next to each other. Is that fair to say?
Over the lifespan of Best Coast, the last five or six years that I've been doing this, that's changed. In the beginning, when I made Crazy for You and The Only Place, I wasn't necessarily thinking in terms of, "Oh, I'm making a full record." When I made Crazy For You, I was coming off making all these singles, all these seven-inches, and being in that place. And when I made The Only Place, we were coming off this incredibly hyped and successful record. We were literally on tour for two and a half years and then went directly into the studio to make another record. So I wasn't necessarily thinking that much about it. I think California Nights is the only record I've made in Best Coast where I was really conscious that we were going in to make a record, and I was really thinking about that, rather than, "This is a collection of songs that I have, and I'm going to work on them."
That's part of the reason why California Nights is such an important album to me. It really grabs the idea of life's ups and downs, then brings them all into one place and says, "It's okay that you have all these thoughts and feelings and you're all over the place." I really worked on it as a collective piece of art, and that's not something I really thought about when I was making the other two records.
For that to be something you've noticed, and a lot of fans and critics have noticed as well, is something that makes me really happy. I realize, "Maybe I actually did my job right this time." (Laughs.) When I make art, it's very therapeutic for me. So when I was making those first two records, I had so much in my head and there was so much going on that I wasn't necessarily able to kick back and think, "We're making a record." But this time, I was very aware of what I was doing. I wasn't trying to overthink it too much, but I definitely was like, "The sequencing and the art and everything is really important to me."
I don't think I've ever achieved that before in Best Coast. So to experience that for the first time, on my third record, was very nice. It made me think, "If I approach every record like this, maybe it'll be a lot easier for me" (laughs).
In some ways, you're swimming upstream with that approach. A lot of artists are abandoning the idea of an album as a cohesive piece of work. They're more in the singles mentality. But I get the sense you kind of like swimming upstream.
I've always been about doing my own thing. Sometimes it can be a very good thing and sometimes it can be a bad thing. Sometimes I have the mentality of, "No, I"m always going to do things my own way." But other times, I realize that if you go for that 1,000 percent, it can sabotage things. So for this record, I tried to keep an open mind and know there would be moments where I'd think, "That doesn't work."
Going into the studio with Wally [Gagel], our producer, it was the first time I did pre-production with the songs, where somebody could say, "This is a great song, but I think it could be formatted differently." Wally and I would sit there and go, "How can we strengthen this song?" And we wound up formatting them so they were more, like, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, in a way that I'd never done before. Before, I'd always just do the songs my way.
I think a lot of the success of Best Coast has been because I am what I am and I don't apologize for it. But there were times I'd think, "If I'd let someone come in during The Only Place and went through the songs before we recorded them, it might have turned out differently." I don't have any intention of going back, though. I think everything happens for a reason, and I think I learned to be a little less stubborn in the artistic sense for the right reasons. I think I have a bit more of an open mind as far as letting others be more involved. I do things my way, but now, I also realize that it's important to listen to other people — to be able to say, "Okay, that's worth trying," and if it doesn't feel right, we don't do it. But I'm at least taking the chances, whereas before I would have said, "You don't get to come in and tell me what to do." And that allowed me to make a record that feels more commercial than the other records.
It can be very helpful to have other people's opinions in the mix. And I'm a strong enough person to handle that. I'm kind of a punk at heart, actually. As a kid, I was always defying authority, and I feel like I sometimes still do that. But now, that whole defying-authority thing is different than it was then when I'm working with a producer. Now I'm okay with someone coming in and saying, "You should add a hook here," whereas before I would have just rolled my eyes and said, "That's bullshit. I'm not doing that." I realize it's a lot more helpful to let someone to do that while still remaining true to who I am. I think you can do both, and I definitely found that.
That certainly comes through. It still feels very much like a Best Coast album, as opposed to seeming like you're chasing trends or arbitrarily changing your sound. It feels like an organic, evolutionary process.
For sure. We could have very easily just said, "We're making a record with a bigger producer. We're working with somebody who's worked with Miley Cyrus and Jessica Simpson and huge pop stars. So just make us radio rockers. Get us out there."
There's a time when every musician who started a band just to do it has a moment where they go, "Okay, this is my career now." But I don't want to just put out one hyped record and then go work in marketing or something. I want to do this for the rest of my life. So I want to be part of a process where I'm evolving as an artist, and also as a woman and a human being and an adult.
Keeping my integrity is incredibly important to me. So instead of telling Wally, "Make this record sound like a hit," we said, "We want this to be a bit bigger and more evolved, but we still want it to sound like us." And I think that's very true to the people Bobb and I are. We allowed things to happen organically, never forcing anything. And if we had made a record the other way, it would have been really obvious. People would have been able to tell right off the bat: "Oh, okay, this is Best Coast trying to make a rock radio record."
We're very strong-willed people and we can be stubborn. But that stubbornness can be good in certain aspects. I would never go in and say to a producer, "Put us in a place where I never have to worry about money ever again." Like I said, music is therapy to me, and I'd feel like I really lost a huge part of that therapeutic-ness, if that's even a word, if I went in and said, "Whatever. I'm just here to make a hit record."
Instead, I think the album is an evolution that makes sense if you've followed the band from the beginning, and especially if you've followed me as a front-woman of the band and seen the ways I've evolved and changed over the years. I think it makes perfect sense that I'm the person I am today and the record came out the way it did. They seem to go hand in hand.
Anyone who's wary of the changes and the growth, well, that's fine. They're allowed to feel that way, allowed to feel like we ditched an element of ourselves that they really miss, and they can move on to the next hyped band. But we're trying to do stuff that makes us feel proud of ourselves, and I feel like we did that with this record.
One more thing. You're a big fan of Southern California music; earlier, you mentioned Fleetwood Mac and the Beach Boys, who I love, too. But I never really liked the Eagles, who you've also talked about loving — so when Glenn Frey died and there were all these tributes, I felt left out. What is it that I'm missing?
I don't know if it's because of The Big Lebowski, but the Eagles are really that band people either love or hate — and there are definitely a lot of people who go, "I don't like the Eagles." And I understand, because I was raised by an Eagles lover and an Eagles hater who later became an Eagles lover. I'll call them out: My mom was the Eagles lover and my dad was never a big Eagles fan, but he came around, and now he thinks they're amazing. I talked to both my parents on the day I found out Glenn Frey passed, and it was a very emotional thing for all of us.
For me, I think the Eagles' music is just classic. When I think of the word "classic," that's what I think of. I think of these incredible harmonies. I saw the Eagles live; when the Forum in L.A. opened, they did five nights, and when I saw them, it blew my mind. It was insane to me that these guys were my dad's age and were singing these crazy harmonies and notes that I, as a thirty-year-old woman, can't even hit anymore. It's a sound that just makes me feel at ease.
I know the Eagles aren't for everybody and I respect that. But if you appreciate beautiful melodies and lyrics that you can apply to your own life, I think you can get it. There are definitely some Eagles lyrics where I think, "That's definitely not about what I'm connecting it to in my life," but I can connect to them anyway.
They're one of the biggest bands ever, so for there to be so many people who say, "I don't like the Eagles," it's pretty crazy. They are lots of people who go, "I never got it, I never will get it." But there were even more people who did get it. The melodies and the harmonies and the musicianship in general is just really, really special to me.
Next time when you listen to the Eagles, listen to some of the harmonies more closely than you have before. And maybe you'll hear it differently.
Given what happened with your dad, there might be hope for me yet.
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I think there is. (Laughs.) I think there is.