Best Coast's Bethany Cosentino: Hanging With Lo-Fi's Leading Lady
So much for the Southern California sun. The rain has been pouring for days, clogging the freeways and prompting tornado warnings. But here at Best Coast singer Bethany Cosentino's home in Los Angeles' Eagle Rock neighborhood, it's warm. She sits on a couch and pets her now-famous Garfield doppelganger, Snacks, while a space heater and two candles keep things toasty.
Warmth is important to Cosentino, a La Crescenta native. It's the reason that she left New York City, and it's the way she describes the sound of her band, Best Coast.
"There's something warm about the lo-fi sound," she says, clutching Snacks, who appeared on the cover of her debut record, Crazy for You. Her feet, clad in wool socks, rest on the coffee table near a pair of broken sunglasses -- not that she needs them on this gloomy day.
Best Coast is the 23-year-old's sun-kissed fuzz-pop band, her vehicle for resurrecting the 1960s Phil Spector sound, infused with a little Sonic Youth. Formerly a member of the now-defunct, psychedelic, all-female jam band Pocahaunted, Cosentino has entered Best Coast in a small, bicoastal lottery of lo-fi bands that includes Vivian Girls, Dum Dum Girls, Puro Instinct, and Girls at Dawn. Her sound, though, is distinct: Imagine a Ronettes record blasted through a blown-out speaker, or Kim Gordon, if Gordon had the voice of a girl-group chanteuse.
"This Is Real" features Cosentino's oohs and ahhs over jangly chords in a song fit for Marty McFly to dance to with his mom at the Enchantment Under the Sea ball. It has fuzzy guitar, soaring vocals and, yes, analog warmth. But Cosentino's songwriting process begins digitally. "I usually will bring a guitar out here," she motions to a chair that's empty except for a blanket adorned with a lion's face, "and will lay down a few guitar tracks into GarageBand. Then I'll send them to Bobb."
That's Bobb Bruno, musician, producer, and longtime friend of Cosentino's (not her former babysitter, contrary to Internet rumor), with whom she has crafted Best Coast's sound. Bruno has become a staple of the L.A. music underground, having performed with psychedelic sage Imaad Wasif and having opened for Wilco and Fiona Apple, sometimes dressed in a Takashi Murakami-style bunny suit. Cosentino and Bruno were ensconced in the music scene around the all-ages L.A. venue The Smell, where Cosentino played with Pocahaunted.
"When I was about 16, I started working -- at the Hot Topic at the Burbank mall, actually -- and I started thinking more about music," Cosentino says. "My first project sounded like Jenny Lewis meets Tori Amos -- y'know, the kind of music a 16-year-old girl makes. Then I got into punk."
Cosentino's father, who is a musician, also works at the church that Miley Cyrus frequents, Cosentino says. He encouraged her to train as a singer, so Cosentino took opera classes and did session work during her teen years. Then came Pocahaunted, followed by an extended stay in New York.
If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then Cosentino's year in the Gotham chill helped her fall in love again with California.
"It was too intense there," she says. "Within two days of coming back to California, I started writing Best Coast songs."
On her MySpace page, a post she wrote shortly after her return sums up her vision: "So, I am back in California, and I thought what could be more fitting than to record a bunch of songs about summer and the sun and the ocean and being a lazy creep? So, this is what I'm doing."
"When I'm With You," from her 2009 seven-inch on Black Iris, encapsulates the carefree spirit of Best Coast. The song, produced and recorded by Lewis Pesacov (of polyglot L.A. party bands Fool's Gold and Foreign Born), captured a firefly in a Mason jar, creating a single that glowed brighter with time. Cosentino scored the coveted "Best New Music" designation on Pitchfork for "When I'm With You" in the fall of 2009, then she followed up with the singles "Our Deal" and "Boyfriend."
This past spring, the video for "When I'm With You," in which Cosentino lounges on a beach and on the lawn of an In-N-Out Burger, revealed that Best Coast's muse might be Ronald McDonald. Cosentino holds hands with the burger clown while she meanders down the shore. The video, with its perfect balance of sunshine, smiles, and smartass charm, struck gold. In July, Best Coast's full-length debut, Crazy for You, entered the Billboard album chart at number 36. It isn't hard to see why. The record feels like summer sunsets in Topanga Canyon, faded '70s photographs, and slow swaying to Melanie or Janis Joplin.
As for Best Coast's subject matter, Cosentino likes to keep it simple: boys.
"When I was first writing songs, I would try to find the perfect metaphor for telling a boy I liked him without really saying it," she says. "But now I just say it."
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