By her own admission, the 2015 Bethany Cosentino is far more comfortable in her own skin than the 2009 version.
Cosentino, the lead singer and principal songwriter (along with multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno) for Los Angeles indie-pop duo Best Coast, first burst into public consciousness with the unfathomably catchy "Boyfriend," from her band's 2010 debut Crazy For You. The song is a wistful yet sunny song yearning for unrequited love, with a sort of early-'60s girl group charm and a surf-pop tinge that sounds like it couldn't come out of anywhere except a sunbathed Los Angeles apartment. It's a touch innocent, perhaps, and her desire for friendship to blossom into something more seeps into other songs on the album. This vulnerability in her lyrics helped make the band accessible and relatable, and these themes and the ones she explored on the band's follow-up, 2012's The Only Place, contributed to the her reputation as a singer who wrote only about relationships.
Those days might be behind her, at least partially. Best Coast has a new album, California Nights, out May 5 on Harvest Records, and the only single the band has released so far shares a name with the album, meaning, as you might guess, it has more to do with geography than interpersonal drama.
"I tried to be a little more conscious in terms of exploring things a little more thematically in this record," Cosentino tells New Times, noting that she felt more creative freedom writing the upcoming album than ever before. "Just allowing myself to take a deep breath and get down with a guitar and allowing myself to write a cool atmospheric song and allow myself to write a song with landscapes and weird imagery that I didn't let myself explore before."
The newfound assuredness didn't come easy. It was a six-year process for Cosentino, she says, one that saw her grow and mature in the ways that all 20-somethings eventually do -- except she catalogued it in a series of three critically and commercially successful albums.
"I was 23 when the band started," she says. "I'm 28 now. I've definitely gone through some personal changes and growth things."
California Nights is Best Coast's third full-length album, the latest release from the band since the 2013 EP Fade Away . After the touring cycle for The Only Place ended, Cosentino found herself exhausted from the wear of the road, so she spent time performing only sporadically and focusing on writing the new album. Two years ago, she bought a house but hadn't spent much time in it, and she seized the opportunity to live a life off the road and do a little better job at self-care. She spent time in her house and got into exercising, taking advantage of little things like cooking dinner in her kitchen and spending time with her friends, re-centering herself and winding down from the crazy life of waking up in a different hotel in a different city each night.
"I had to get my aura back; I had to realign my chakras," jokes Cosentino, an L.A. native to the core. "You're really worth nothing when you're exhausted."
Her interim time in L.A. between albums wasn't all dinner parties and Bar Method. She was actually writing the album, too. There were no artificial deadlines, no record exec breathing over her shoulder, no representative with dollar signs in her eyes steering the band toward working with a commercially viable producer. Just Bethany alone in her room. (She prefers to write alone and says she and Bruno once tried to sit down and write a song together, but it felt forced and unnatural.)
"The vibe with which we approached making the record is really more laid-back," Cosentino says. "This one, we just went at it in a way where we were like, 'Okay, we are just going to do whatever we want.
"It's cool to listen to this record in terms of the other two because I can totally hear the difference in terms of being calm and comfortable and confident in the studio than I was on the past two records."
When she and Bruno had finishedCalifornia Nights
, they found themselves in a unique position when they looked for distribution help. Riding the success of their previous releases, they had the luxury of choosing a label. So they shopped the record around and eventually landed on Harvest Records, which is part of Universal Music Group.
"[Harvest execs] didn't have any comments on like, 'Well, we think want to change this about it, we want it to be more commercially successful, we want to do this and this,'" Cosentino recalls. "When you go into a major label office, there's a lot of those conversation happening, and that didn't happen at Harvest."
Critics have accused Best Coast of sounding the same from album to album, of not showing sufficient musical growth through the years, of sticking with the same influences and refusing to broaden their at-first promising sound. Six years after the group's debut album, perhaps Best Coast has shed the self-imposed shackles that may have led to that perceived stagnation.
"When I wrote , I was really inspired by a lot of music that listened to but hasn't necessarily come out in my songwriting," she says. "Stuff that ranges from Led Zeppelin to Slowdive to Oasis to tons of bands that you would hear Best Coast and think, 'She doesn't like that stuff. That's not what this sounds like at all.'"
We didn't go in and say, 'we're gonna make a '60s lo-fi surf pop record . . . I wasn't concerned with what people are going to make of this record."
Cosentino is a prolific Twitter user, with a massive 23,000 tweets, something like a dozen tweets a day for six years. She tweets random missives about her life, music, and pop culture, but sometimes she'll tweet out a truth that informs her music. She did this recently, in the form of a lyric by the late-'90s one-hit wonder Lit: "It's no surprise to me I am my own worst enemy."
Maybe that's no longer true for Cosentino.
"For once, I'm not going to overthink everything that's going on, because I do it all the time and I legit punish myself sometimes because i was overthinking things," she says. "I tried really hard on this record to just let all of that stuff go and just write."
Best Coast is the top of the bill for Viva PHX, a 90-band extravaganza that will seize control of downtown Phoenix (at 20 venues) on Saturday, March 14. The festival, organized by Stateside Presents and , is modeled after Austin's South by Southwest festival in both spirit and consequence -- Stateside Presents' Charlie Levy put together the first Viva PHX last year as a dragnet of sorts to catch all the bands coming from California through Arizona on their way to the Texas festival.
"I'm not a big fan of traditional music festivals. I think it's just way more exciting to walk around and bounce around from venue to venue to venue . . . I have such a short attention span. I start watching a band for 10, 15 minutes, and if I don't like it, I can bounce to the next venue," Levy says.
It's a busy weekend for music in the Valley of the Sun. In addition to Viva PHX, there's Lucky Man's Pot of Gold Music Festival, which runs Friday, March 13, Saturday, March 14, Sunday, March 15, and Tuesday, March 17, with a wide array of headliners, including Korn, Kendrick Lamar, Fall Out Boy, and Bastille. There's also Rampage Fest on Friday, March 13, and Sunday, March 15, featuring a slew of smaller acts like Guantanamo Baywatch and La Luz. The three festivals aren't necessarily competing with each other, though -- there's no hip-hop stage at Viva PHX this year, unlike last year, because Pot of Gold is hosting Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, and more Saturday night.
Check out more coverage of Viva PHX, including artist interviews, field guides, and more, of all three festivals.
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