Bethany Cosentino, Best Coast

Put Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast in a hotel bathroom, and she's one happy songwriter. If you're with her and she's in there for a looong time, don't worry. She's creating. Music.

The traveling ways of the songwriter dictate that they can't be too picky with their environment when it comes to writing. They have to adapt to their surroundings and write whenever they can, wherever they can. But according to Cosentino, environment plays a "huge" role in her songwriting process. When she's at home, she writes in her "music room," which contains nothing but music related stuff, from guitars to CDs to posters. She loves to write there because the room's solitude gives her privacy. "I try on tour to write, but the problem is that I don't want people to hear me when I'm trying to write. I like to be able to make mistakes and sing badly and play really bad chords that don't sound good together. It's a very private process for me that I enjoy doing entirely on my own. A place like that is hard to find on tour."

But Best Coast tours, and tours a lot. So Cosentino has to find the most private space she can. And is there any more private space on tour than the bathroom in your own hotel room? When she shuts the door, she's even further removed from the people in the hallway. So Cosentino will lug her computer and guitar in there, and that's where music happens. Regardless, wherever she writes, it has to be a place where, Cosentino says, "I can step outside of everyday life and go into a separate space away from everything."  

By Cosentino's own admission, her songwriting process is not complicated. She doesn't revise a lot, because her songs are about what she's feeling at the instant she's creating. Revising would make her lose that vibe. Cosentino says that the writing process "is very stream of consciousness, and I write about whatever I'm experiencing or feeling at that time.  That’s what the song ends up being about. And that’s what makes my lyrics relatable and simple and honest.  I'm not overthinking things and editing too much."  

To that end, the writing process is therapeutic for Cosentino. According to her, "My best writing happens when I'm feeling the most full of angst. That’s when I feel the most creative. There are times when I feel super stressed and I have to blow off steam and write songs, because, as I said earlier, my songs are like diary entries. Those are times when some people might pick up a journal, but it’s when I write songs. "

Read my interview with Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast after the video for "California Nights," off the new album of the same name. Ed Note: I interviewed Cosentino back in 2010, and you can read that interview here

The last time we talked in 2010, you mentioned that you were reading a lot of Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace.  Who are you reading now?

I studied literature and writing in college, so I've always loved to read.  Unfortunately, I don't read as much as I would like because of my touring schedule. But I try to bring at least one or two books with me on each trip so that I have another outlet besides music. Joan Didion has influenced the ideas in my songwriting. When I was in school, I got into her themes about California. That's when I started exploring the idea of California as inspiration for my songwriting. 
Lately I've been reading a lot of Carl Jung and a lot of non-fiction stuff, like books on metaphysical ideas. I've been reading this book called Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. It's about myths and different stories of the female archetype. My best friend, who's a PhD student, recommended it to me. So I've been exploring different forms of writing that I never used to read.

How do you decide which books to take with you on the road?

That friend of mine that I mentioned gives me a lot of recommendations. I'll tell her what's going on in my life, where I'm at, and what I'm about to embark on in terms of touring, and then she recommends books. She's like a book therapist. Laughs. She'll make me a reading list based on what I tell her. There are a couple of books that I've read many times and that are really important to me. Sometimes I'll take them with me on tour so I can flip through them.  With those, it's about having things that make me feel comfortable and familiar.

Do these writers ever influence your songwriting as far as the lyrical structure?

I don't think so. What I read and what I write in my songs don't really tie in together, especially since I write about the feeling that I'm having at the moment I'm actually writing. When I write lyrics, I don't think about them. I just do it. It’s very stream of consciousness, and I write about whatever I'm experiencing or feeling at that time.  That’s what the song ends up being about. And that’s what makes my lyrics relatable and simple and honest.  I'm not overthinking things and editing too much. 
As much as I respect all the writers I read in college, that’s not my style.  I never wanted to be a songwriter who wrote lyrics that could be dissected and analyzed.  I want my lyrics to be as on the table as possible.  That’s part of the reason I write the way I write, because I know that I'm not going to second guess myself in terms of what I'm thinking or feeling. I know that I'm always writing about genuine emotions.  I'm basically having a therapy session with a guitar. Laughs.

It sounds like you don't revise a lot of your lyrics because if you did, you’d be ruining that raw emotional state the lyrics came from.

I don't really ever revise.  I usually just sit down and write while humming a melody.  Then I mess around on the guitar and come up with a few simple chords.  And it’s then that I realize Oh, I'm in a creative state now, so my brain turns on and I get into that zone. I let it all out, typing ideas as they come to me. Sometimes I’ll hit the end of a line on the page and think about what I want to do next. But mostly it’s about just letting the words happen, just letting them come out of me.  It’s not until I start recording the demo that I look back on the lyrics and realize what I was writing about and what my references mean. I rarely think about those things as I write.  
I also don't ever go back and rewrite lyrics.  I did it maybe once or twice on the second record because our producer Jon Brion recommended that I do that with a couple of songs. It was a cool experience, but the way I operate involves making the songs about the emotional state I was when I was writing.  I think you can tell that from my lyrics: I’m not putting a crazy amount of thought and effort into them. If you can convey a lot of emotion in the simplest way possible, that’s a powerful format.

The last time we talked, you mentioned starting many of your songs with a melody, and the lyrics come later. Do you ever write them together?

Music usually comes first. I don't ever write lyrics first and think I have to come up with a melody for them.  I also do a lot of writing at night.  It's a very inspirational time for me because that's when I do a lot of thinking. That's part of why I don't sleep a lot. In those early hours when I'm still awake, I’ll write those ideas down, but not in song format. It’s just ideas.  So when it’s time to write a song, I’ll go back to those ideas and revisit them.  What was I pondering in that moment?  But usually when I write a song I’ll pick up a guitar and start writing. The lyrics often happen at the same time, but the melody is more structured. I already have an idea in mind for the melody before the lyrics come.

When you write at night, do you set aside those ideas for a certain amount of time to let them stew?

It depends. Often I’ll have thoughts and write them down, then I revisit them the next day when I wake up. Sometimes what I've written will inspire me, but other times I will have no idea what I was talking about. I don't write unless I'm feeling motivated or inspired creatively. I never force myself to write. I don't set aside time every day to write. That can be bad when I have a deadline for a project and I still haven’t started it, but that's how I've always operated.  I've never believed in forcing myself to be creative.

Do you do much journaling, or any other writing besides songwriting?

Not really. I'd say my songs are journal writing set to music.  Getting my emotions out in music form is the same as keeping a journal. I do some writing, especially when I'm on tour. If you saw the Notes app on my phone, it’s packed full of some pretty weird stuff.  I use it all the time to jot down random notes. 

Do you use those notes on your phone to mine for song ideas?

Not necessarily.  The voice memo portion of my phone is also filled with ideas. It might be an a cappella idea or a melody I've been humming.  My writing isn’t that thought out, so I'm never really brainstorming for hours at a time before I sit down to write. My writing is almost always spontaneous.  So while I might revisit those notes on occasion, I create those notes because it’s therapeutic and just a way to get things out.

Is there a certain place or a certain environment when you get your best writing done?

Environment plays a huge role in my writing process. I don't think I can really write unless I'm at home. I have a room in my house called the “music room.” I keep all my guitars there and all of my music-related stuff. It’s all there, even posters and record covers framed on the wall.  There’s a Fleetwood Mac poster and an Eagles poster that Bobb got me for Christmas. I created this room strictly for music, so I really feel like I have to go in there to do stuff. But I do keep an acoustic guitar next to my bed for when the nighttime inspiration happens. That’s when I record ideas into my phone and listen the next day.
I try on tour to write, but the problem is that I don't want people to hear me when I'm trying to write. I like to be able to make mistakes and sing badly and play really bad chords that don't sound good together. It's a very private process for me that I enjoy doing entirely on my own. A place like that is hard to find on tour.
A couple of times I've gone into the bathroom of my hotel room and set up my computer and written something.  Bathrooms are great because of the acoustics, plus it’s the only place in the room where I can close the door and be further removed from the hallway. But I don't like to force things, so I’ll stop if it’s not happening. Of course, I also don't want people in the rooms next to me to hear me, so I'm self-conscious about that too. Laughs.
But that’s why I created the room in my house, so I can be completely alone. I need to feel like I can step outside of everyday life and go into a separate space away from everything.  That would explain why I love hotel bathrooms.  The music room in my house is in the back, facing the pool. And from the window you can see all these palm trees.  When the sun sets, it’s beautiful. It’s an epic view. The great thing about the room is that when the curtains are closed, it’s completely dark. You’d never know that there’s sunshine and a pool outside.  So depending on the mood I'm in, I might keep the curtains closed and write in darkness.  But other times I might open the curtains so that I can see all typical southern California beauty outside.  The room feels like a safe place to me, even though I know my neighbors have heard me messing around and singing really badly. But they know me so it’s ok. I don't get as weirded out about them hearing me as I would a stranger in a hotel.

Do the songs you write in that room differ depending on whether you’re writing in light or in darkness?

Absolutely. I usually go in there knowing what kind of mood I'm in and what kind of song I want to write. If I want to write a moodier song or a darker song, I keep the curtains closed because it helps me channel those feelings.  That’s what happened when I wrote “California Nights.” I think I wrote it in the morning.  The curtains on one side were open, but the curtains facing the pool were closed. And the curtains facing my neighbors were open. I remember I wanted a just little bit of light, but it wasn't for the mood. I was doing something with a 12-string and I needed to be able to see what I was doing because my eyesight is so bad and I didn't have my glasses. I didn't do it intentionally, but the vibe of that song could be a halfway sunny kind of vibe. It’s interesting that subconsciously I may have created the environment for that song by having the curtains that way.

Is there an ideal emotion when you are your most creative?

Probably when I'm feeling the most full of angst. That’s when I feel the most creative. There are times when I feel super stressed and I have to blow off steam and write songs, because, as I said earlier, my songs are like diary entries. Those are times when some people might pick up a journal, but it’s when I write songs.  Yet even though I might be full of angst in that moment, the song might not be an angst-y song. It might be a love song, but I can usually tell when I hit the point emotionally when I think Ok, I need to get some creative work done.
I used to be really into making collage art. I don't do it anymore, but sometimes I think I should get back into it. It was the same idea: I'd feel like I had hit the wall and needed to blow off steam. I would take all these old books from thrift stores and all these old magazines, and I'd just make collages. I'd finish and think I made something creative. I wouldn't even necessarily look at it when I was done and wonder what it was about; it was more about the process that helped me relieve stress.  It made me feel better. Things like that are very cathartic for me, those bouts of creative expression, whether it’s in song or collage art.  Once I feel the steam blowing out of my ears, I know it’s time to create.

How long ago did you do these collages?

I started when I was probably 13. I started by using my old Seventeen magazines. Eventually my friends wanted me to make collages for them as gifts. I remember one year for Christmas I made everyone in my family a personalized collage. I got really into it. I love working with my hands. I'm constantly using them.  Even as we’re talking, my hands are gesturing all over the place.  That’s why I liked making collages, because I was always using my hands.  I can’t draw and I can't really paint, but collages let me take other people’s art and make my own out of it. I was thinking the other day of how I wanted to start again.  Who knows? Maybe some day you’ll see some Bethany collages somewhere.

What song are you the most proud of because it was the hardest to complete? You wanted to give up on it many times but never gave up.

I don't have one in mind, because when I write I do it in a let me get this off my chest kind of way. But I will say that The Only Place as a record was the hardest thing for me to complete. There were many times when I wasn't even sure what I was doing.  Part of that was because the process was so rushed; we made it after touring Crazy for You for two years. We got off tour and were told we had to make a new record. And I remember thinking That means I have to write another record to make another record.
I wrote the songs but wasn't really happy with them. I never talked about it when I was making the record and when it came out, but there was a lot of stuff going on where I didn't feel motivated to do it.  But I learned a lot from that process, so in making this new record I knew what to avoid. This time, I didn’t rush it. I gave myself time. I don’t regret what happened because I think it made me a stronger writer and I've really grown from it.  I knew that in making this new album, I wanted to approach it in a chill kind of way, for lack of better word. I didn't want to feel rushed, and I didn't want to feel stressed like I did with the last one. I wouldn't have felt that way if the second album hadn’t happened the way it did, so I have no regrets. I think I'm a better writer for it.