Bethany Cosentino, Best Coast

Sure, Best Coast is bikini beach lo-fi pop, and Bethany Cosentino says that she doesn't think too much about her lyrics.  But she is a huge fan of David Foster Wallace, arguably one of the most influential and creative writers of the past twenty years, and that gives her instant street cred in the literary world.   

Best Coast is one of the hottest indie bands of the summer, and their album Crazy For You dropped at the end of July.  You can read any one of the endless interviews with Cosentino on the internet, but this may be the only one without a mention of her cat.  I chatted with Cosentino for a few minutes this week about California, creative non-fiction writing, David Foster Wallace, and how the weather affects her creative process.

Did you dabble in any other type of writing before songwriting?

Yeah, I went to school for creative writing, actually.  I was focusing on non-fiction and was a really big fan of Joan Didion.  I was writing mostly about my history in California, growing up there, and just about California in general.  Things I experienced here.  I majored in creative non-fiction, and I wanted to be a music journalist as well (note: Cosentino went to Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts).  But that has changed now that I am in this seat being asked the questions.  I no longer want to be the person to ask the questions again. Laughs.

You mentioned Joan Didion.  Any other authors you really enjoyed?

David Foster Wallace is one of my favorites.

Did you ever read Infinite Jest?

No.  I was a bigger fan of his non-fiction pieces.  Like the essay "Ticket to the Fair."  That's the essay that made me a fan.  Then I read Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and a couple of his other books.  But Infinite Jest intimidates me way too much.  I don't know that I could ever read a book that long.

I love "Ticket to the Fair."  When I was a professor, I assigned my students that essay. I notice that a lot of songwriters also write poetry? Do you?

When I was a teenager, but not any more.

How do you think your training as a creative non fiction writer helps you as a songwriter?

I don't know if it really does.  It's completely different.  The way I approach songwriting is very relaxed, and when I was in school, writing essays, I was really stressed out with research and stuff.  But with songwriting I just make up my lyrics on the spot.  It's not something I think too much about, as opposed to if I were writing some kind of academic piece.

But with creative non-fiction, the use of language and how it sounds is important.  That's obviously important with songwriting.

In some ways, but I try to write simple and straightforward lyrics.  The topic I was writing about the most was California when I was into studying creative non-fiction, and that's probably what inspired me to write these songs as Best Coast.  So in a weird way it helped me out.

Talk to me about your creative process.

Normally I will be sitting around the house and I'll hear something, some beginning of a melody in my head. I'll just go to my room and sit with my guitar and computer and mess around with a couple of chords.  I focus mostly on melody and harmony; I try to think about what I can do melodically with my voice on top of what I am doing with the guitar, since the chords in my songs are very simple power chords.  So I'll try to add more melody with my vocals.  The lyrics always come last.  I'll always come up with the melody and then the chords first.  Most of the time I sing whatever lyrics come to my head, and I go back and filter stuff that doesn't work.  But the actual lyric process is not something that I focus on as much as the melody.

How disciplined are you as a writer?  Do you set aside time to write, or is it a spur of the moment thing?

Definitely spur of the moment.  This is the longest amount of time I've had off the whole year, and I know I need to be writing songs.  But I don't force myself.  If I am not feeling creative, I won't do it.  I am very spur of the moment.  I will literally be watching TV and think, "Oh, I want to write a song now."

What inspires you to write?

Sometimes I'll listen to a record and will hear a song that I really like.  Obviously, I don't try to copy the song, but I'll hear something in it and I'll think of something that I can do that's influenced by that song.  As far as California goes, the thing that really affects me is the weather.  So if I write a song on a gloomy day, it tends to be a slower song or more of a darker song.  And on days when it's really nice--like it is most of the time here--I tend to write a more poppy, upbeat song.  I am also really inspired by the whole 50s and 60s aesthetic of California, old school bikini beach parties.  I try to make music that sounds like it would be played at something like that in 2010.

So do you try to avoid writing on the gloomy days?

If it's like a rainy day and I feel like writing a song, I will do it. It's not that I only write dark songs on gloomy days.  But I am more inclined to be inspired and do something creative when it's nice out.  With a lot of my earlier songs, when I had just moved from NY to LA last June, it was June gloom here.  A lot of those songs were dark and angst-y because that's how I was feeling.

Are you more of a night owl when you write?

Nope.  It all depends on when I have an idea.  But I've actually noticed that it happens for me a lot in the morning, around 11am or when I wake up and am getting adjusted to the day.  I feel like I have done something productive for the day if I can get something done early on.

Anything you must have with you when you write?

I don't really write when I am on the road because I've kind of made my bedroom the place where I do most of my creative work.  It is the place where I can go where no one can hear me.

What's your ideal place to write?

In a house on the beach, since that influences the music aesthetically.

So do you need the water?

Not necessarily the water.  Just people having fun on the beach, since that's what inspires me.

How do you know when a song is done?

That doesn't really happen until Bobb (Bruno, her bandmate) does his stuff.  But when I am writing demos and I know that a song is melodically finished, I'll listen to it a couple of times after I've recorded it on my computer.  It's hard to say, because the way Bob and I write is not typical.  I write all the songs, and then he comes in and fills in spots where there is not a lot going on.  I'll listen to the other parts that Bob is doing, then we sit, agree it sounds good, then do any sort of final touches like tambourine or hand claps.  But it really isn't until I hear what Bob is doing.