Bethany Cosentino—formerly of Best Coast—speaks on her Americana-steeped solo project, built to let her vocals shine

Sat before me on a Thursday morning Zoom call, Bethany Cosentino tells me that she connects with chickens on such a level that—even as a pollotarian—she does her best not to eat them. “Turkey is the one I feel like I can do, because they freak me the fuck out. Chickens are sweet.” An astrologist could pin this dietary particularity to the singer-songwriter’s Scorpio sun and Cancer rising—a classic subscription to that tough-yet-vulnerable archetype. Cosentino’s debut solo album Natural Disaster is where all of this sentimentality converges, musically.

Cosentino is best-known for her vocal stylings for iconic indie rock duo Best Coast—and that’s the very thing she’s trying to change. It’s not to distance herself from her past, but to get to know her place in her medium more fully. Inspired by Americana greats like Lucinda Williams, and led by a god-nonspecific faith, Natural Disaster is a portrait of a woman emergent. Cosentino’s glossy vocals shine unencumbered over woebegone guitars, her sometimes-somber lyricism guiding filigree ballads in a way Best Coast’s fuzz obscured.

The newly-minted solo artist joins Document to unpack her new album, putting forward that finding faith in the face of natural disaster might open a world of possibility.

Maya Kotomori: I know you wanted this solo venture to be about you as a songwriter, musician, and performer—rather than as a part of Best Coast. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Bethany Cosentino: The last Best Coast album came out at the top of 2020, right before the pandemic. We were two weeks out on tour, and then everything shut down. When I got home, I started to reevaluate my life and my priorities, like most of us. I realized that I have always identified with what I do [over anything else]. It felt like the answer, at the time, was to make a record as Bethany, and totally reinvent: change the style of music and dig into influences I’d never touched before.

Maya: What are some of the references you felt like you could explore more freely?

Bethany: I really wanted the focus of this album to be my voice—to showcase my singing abilities a little bit more. With Best Coast, I felt like I had to shrink my voice, or make it stylized. I didn’t feel like our style of music allowed me to be this big, powerful singer. With [Natural Disaster], I was like, I’m gonna just fucking sing my ass off. A lot of that was digging deep into the singers I’ve loved my whole life: Linda Ronstadt, Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt. I was listening to a lot of Americana country music.

Maya: What does the term natural disaster mean to you, especially considering how the pandemic inspired this interiority?

Bethany: What I was rubbing up against was the idea of the pandemic as a collective natural disaster. I was spending so much time at home in Los Angeles, on a screen all day, digesting a 24-hour news cycle. It started to feel like the world around me [was just] collapsing. I wanted to focus on, What if you choose to have faith? [What if] these things happen so we can see what needs to change in the world?

Maya: Faith and hope are such country music themes. I feel like people lose track of that because the genre is so broad. What would you consider your album, genre-wise?

Bethany: It seems like people don’t know where to put it. I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with Lucinda Williams, who’s one of my favorite songwriters of all time, and that was her whole story: The music industry didn’t know what to do with her. She’s not country enough for country, she’s not rock enough for rock-and-roll, she’s not folk enough for folk. They almost needed to create Americana for her, because she didn’t fit into one category. If I had to put [my music] somewhere, I would say Americana—because of the storytelling, and the elements of practicing faith and hope, and not staring too far down the tunnel of darkness.

“This is my one life. Why would I waste it, being critical of everything? I didn’t feel like I could be that [hopeful] as Bethany from Best Coast.”

There’s a song on the album called ‘Calling On Angels’ that I had a difficult time even putting out there. I was raised in the church, and as I got older, I sort of parted ways with that and redefined my own [concept of] spirituality. Going back to Best Coast, I would never have made a song like, I’m gonna get down on my knees and pray. I would have been laughed out of indie rock. I think it’s so interesting that people are fearful of the word god. And I get it—Christianity is so weaponized in this country. For me, it was important to touch on some of my spiritual beliefs as things that helped me feel grounded while the world felt like it was disintegrating.

Maya: How do you see Christianity being weaponized?

Bethany: Just the way [that the] United States of America uses God and Christianity as the basis of everything, right? With Buddhism, there’s the idea that everything is connected. And then I think about Jesus Christ—like, he was a person and a radical hippie. I just think that God wants everybody to do well. This idea of a Christian god, particularly in America, [is used] to take away people’s rights.

Maya: Ironically, American country music brands Christianity as a weapon against interlopers—like protecting your country, rather than having faith. I see something similar with indie—it can feel very cynical and almost angry, like another social weapon.

Bethany: A few years ago, I started sharing things on social media that were very surrender-to-life, spiritual vibes. And people would message me and be like, ‘I liked it better when you talked about how the world was fucked all the time.’ What is the purpose of that? This is my one life. Why would I waste it, being critical of everything? I didn’t feel like I could be that [hopeful] as Bethany from Best Coast, because the scene that I was a part of was very much like, We use our depression and anxiety and angst to create music. And that’s valuable, but that’s not all there is.

Maya: Do you think you’ll ever return to indie music?

Bethany: I don’t know, probably not. I know that I created a sound that gave a voice to people. I still hear, ‘You’re what inspired me to start writing music,’ from the musicians [behind] those three-minute indie pop songs. My contribution will always live there.

I do feel like I did something [new] with the record that I made. I don’t know that it’ll have the same effect that Best Coast did on younger artists. But that was why I needed to separate myself from Best Coast. I didn’t feel like it was true to who I was anymore.

Maya: I think back to your MySpace days and your early pop project Pocahaunted, and how important you were to the LA and Inland Empire indie scenes. I have to ask: When was the last time you were at the Smell?

Bethany: I went to the Smell last year because my best friend from middle school, who lives up in the Bay Area, had a show there with her super cool doom metal band. I’m [lucky] that I grew up in LA when the Smell was thriving; it was a real safe space for people to be themselves. I feel grateful that I came from a DIY level and worked my way up. I think about kids now on TikTok who go from nothing to everything, and I just don’t think that’s fucking normal. If only for your sanity, you have to pay your dues. When I look back on where I started, I have so much gratitude; the internet didn’t have to be the biggest thing in my life.

Maya: Some rapid-fire questions on Natural Disaster. What’s the song that reminds you most of your hometown?

Bethany: ‘Real Life.’ That song is really about me reconnecting to my inner child and realizing that, when I’m being mean to myself, I’m being mean to that curly-haired little girl.

Maya: Per your inner child: What about a song that teases at your future self?

Bethany: Probably ‘Easy,’ because it’s very much about being in a healthy relationship for the first time in my life. There’s a line in it that goes, ‘I always thought I’d be a mother.’ It is something that I want, and have finally been exploring in song. We’ll see if it’s in the cards for me.
Maya: Best song to cry to on the album?

Bethany: The final song, ‘I’ve Got News For You.’ Just the way that one is laid out, I think, is a perfect gut punch.

Maya: You succeeded for me! It wasn’t, like, a full-body cry. I cry like that once a year.

Bethany: I’m very water-heavy, [astrologically]. So I’m super emotional. I’m a Scorpio sun, which is very walls up, and a Cancer rising. I’m always coming up against myself—to take the walls down and be soft and emotional. The Scorpio is really Best Coast, and the Cancer is really Bethany.