Natural Disaster

Bethany Cosentino’s debut solo record is a stunning moment of reflection and reinvention
By Conor Hudnut | Music | 31 July 2023

“I understand the person I am today,” Bethany Cosentino tells us over Zoom in the sweltering heat of peak LA summer, “and I might not be this way two years from now. But I know that at my core, this is the feeling I have. The feeling I explored on this record is the authentic truth of me as a person.” The record, Natural Disaster, out this week via Concord Records, is an ambitious step forward for Cosentino.

In certain ways, Natural Disaster is the antithesis of a Best Coast record (Cosentino’s band, who are currently on hiatus). Gone are the beachy, pot-smoke-filled days of her Best Coast persona, the lyrical minutia of her early work, and the surf-rock motifs and lo-fi production, and in their stead a Nashville-born clean and austere country record. Moreover, beyond the stark thematic and genre changes, Natural Disaster shows Cosentino taking the biggest vocal and lyrical risks of her career. With her voice delicately pushed to the front, much in part thanks to producer Butch Walker, Cosentino sings “I always thought I’d be a mother, with a purpose to discover, but the clouds cover me.”

Natural Disaster also marks the first time in Cosentino’s storied fifteen-year career that she’s been able to pause and reflect. As Cosentino shares, the record was created following a period of hitting a breaking point feeling swallowed up by the music industry. As such, the record is raw and full of grit; her walls are down as they’ve never been before. The project, as Cosentino shares, was a masterclass in relinquishing control – for the first time, she did not play any instruments on the record. In moments of self-doubt, almost as if it were a mantra, she reminded herself that “I felt more alive than I’ve felt in a million years. And so I had to keep returning to the feeling and being like, this is why you’re doing this.”

Conor Hudnut: I’m very excited about your new album. I was surprised by some of the vocal risks you take on the record – it was cool to hear you do things with your voice I’d never heard on a Best Coast record. What motivated these risks?
Bethany Cosentino: I think when Best Coast started I was very, for some reason, insecure about my abilities as a singer. Not insecure in a way where I didn’t think I could sing. I knew I could sing, but I was like, I’m toeing the line a bit with punk and I can’t come out and be, like, a very good singer. I mean, I took opera lessons for a long time as a kid and singing has always been my main thing. I would say my voice has always been my main instrument.

With each Best Coast record, I unveiled my voice a bit more, I stripped back some of the reverb and some of the distortion and was like, “Here it is” – a little bit more and a little bit more. But with the kind of songs I was writing for Best Coast, I wasn’t particularly able to explore my range in the same way I was with this record. Also, with this record it was a very intentional thing, I wanted to showcase my voice more than anything else. And I think that, one, it probably has to do with age and confidence and being in this industry all these years, and two, realising there is nothing wrong with being a good singer. Looking back at my twenty-two-year-old self, I want to hug her and be like, you don’t need to hide this talent that you have, you can actually embrace it and show it off. I think that musically it’s very different, but also, I’ve just reached a place in my life where I feel very confident in who I am and the things that I’m good at doing. So why would I want to hide those?

CH: I’m struggling with how to formulate this question, but I think there can be a double standard held to women in rock, where the more they showcase and focus on their voice the less credit they get for the rest of the work. Do you think that’s at all fair?
I don’t know if I’ve ever really thought about that, particularly for myself. I’ve always felt that I need to be good at all things – good at piano, good at guitar, good at drums, good at singing. But yes, I do think there’s a double standard here, I think for women in music if you’re just standing on stage singing people will be like, well can she do anything else? And it’s so interesting because like… Why would singing not be enough?

That reminds me – Empress Of tweeted this thing that said “Being a singer is crazy I literally open my mouth and music comes out.” And it’s true! Obviously there’s theory to singing, but to play guitar you have to learn these various structured chords and learn the notes and all that. Singing is this thing that some people are just born to do. Some people have better voices than others, right? You think about Christina Aguilera, who has this insane voice, but you never see people walking around going, “Wow, Christina Aguilera is such a talented singer-songwriter,” they’re reducing her just to singing.

If you’re a rock musician, then I think they want you to hold an instrument. So it’s been an interesting journey for me with this record because I often joke that singing is like my party trick, I kind of just… like I’m the most annoying bitch at karaoke. I’m at the mic the entire time, singing every song, and even people who have known me for a long time will hear me sing a song and be like, “Shit, I forget that you can sing like this.” So this record was really about allowing myself to be all of the things. Allowing myself to be a singer, allowing myself to be a songwriter, to be a guitarist, to play the piano, and you know, I’m not claiming to be as good at those things as I am at singing. Singing is my main instrument and I have always felt that way. I just finally feel comfortable saying that.

“I’m the most annoying bitch at karaoke”

CH: That’s really well said. You touched on this already, but what instruments did you play on the record?
BC: You know what, I didn’t play any instruments on this record.

CH: Hell yeah. How did that feel?
BC: You know, it’s interesting because I wrote everything, but I didn’t play anything. For one, my producer Butch Walker is an insanely talented musician, to the point where you can watch him play something and you’re annoyed at how someone can pick up an instrument and do these wild things.

But also, to what I’m saying about singing, I knew that with this record I wanted to showcase my voice and my songwriting. I didn’t want to be caught up in, “Oh my playing is sloppy here.” I just let Butch do his thing and I sat there and directed, produced, co-produced – I did all of that. But I was like, for once, I’m going to sit back and allow the process of this to unfold – I realised I don’t have to be involved with every single aspect of it. To be honest with you, I’ve been afraid to say that out loud because I’ve been afraid of what people might say or write about it, or that I might get the, “Oh, she’s not even a musician after all, she had us all fooled.”

CH: [Rolls eyes in agreement]
BC: Your face just says it all. That’s the shit some people will say, but at the end of the day, I think it was an exercise for me in understanding that I don’t have to be good at everything. And it’s not even a matter of being good, it’s a matter of… I don’t have to be ‘prolific’ at everything. I don’t have to be an expert at everything. I can still write a really fucking good song and be proud of myself without having to then go in the studio and slay on guitar. Also, I made the majority of this record in Nashville, and Nashville has some of the best musicians in the world. So if I had that at my fingertips, what was I going to say? Like, “No, don’t have Willie Nelson’s harmonica player come in and play, I’m just gonna play the harmonica myself.” Of course I want Willie Nelson’s harmonica player to come in. You know what I mean?

“I don’t have to be an expert at everything. I can still write a really fucking good song and be proud of myself without having to then go in the studio and slay on guitar”

CH: It seems like this album was a lesson in taking and letting go of control. I’m sure that must have been uncomfortable.
BC: So uncomfortable. And I love that you just said that because it’s so interesting, I say this often, but sometimes doing interviews is like a bit of therapy because I hear people say things that I wouldn’t have said to myself, because I’m so critical of myself. But this really was an experience and an experiment in having complete control, and at the same time relinquishing control. It was new for me to allow myself to focus on the things I’m very good at, and allow someone else to do what they are very good at.

But again, this was one of the most uncomfortable experiences I’ve ever lived through. Because at the same time, even though it all intuitively felt so right, every time I felt uncomfortable or like giving up I was like, “What the fuck. Why am I doing this? Who do I think I am making a solo record?” And I would just go back to the feeling of rightness, and the feeling of the moment I landed in Nashville and got to Butch’s studio and started singing these songs… I felt more alive than I’ve felt in a million years. And so I had to keep returning to the feeling and being like, this is why you’re doing this. And being uncomfortable means you’re growing, that’s why it’s called growing pains.

CH: The theme of growing pains came up a lot while listening to the record. You can go anywhere with this question, but has your outlook on making music changed after making it?
BC: Yeah, it’s funny, someone asked me yesterday what I learned about myself through the process. And it was like 5:30 in the evening, and I was so tired because I’d been doing interviews all day, and I felt like I had to give such a profound answer. My brain just felt flat, and I just said the thing out loud that came to me, which is that my intuition is some real ass shit.

I often joke that I’m a powerful witch because I always feel one step ahead of myself. I feel like I’m always saying to myself, like, “We’re going to do this thing right now, or we have to try this thing tomorrow, or we have to walk away from this relationship immediately.” I don’t know… I just always feel like I’m on the right path. And even when I was young and very detached from myself, I felt my intuition guiding me. Making this record really helped me realise that my intuition has never failed me, and if it does fail me, it will be for a reason. I’ve learned that I need to have faith and trust in what I’m doing, even as I rip myself apart with, “You’re such an idiot, you don’t know anything.” That’s some fearful inner child shit! I know what I’m doing, and I hope this experience can help me have faith in that.

CH: Having your first record explode at 22, talk about inner child work. I imagine it’s been stressful to have been held to such a high standard for that long. Do you think your guard has been up since then?
BC: 2012 was also such a different time in music. Well, it’s interesting. I was raised in a very creative household – my dad is a musician and my mom is a fashion designer. I’ve been singing and performing since I was a kid, and a lot of my value has always been tied up in my talents. I was always the kid where whenever I walked into a room parents would be like, “Sing for us, sing for us, perform for us, perform for us.” When you learn that your value is tethered to that thing, it’s very difficult to figure out who you are outside of it.

So, when Best Coast took off with the first record, very early into the life of the band I was like, “OK, now all of these people are looking at me. Now all of these people are expecting things from me. And the industry is chaos.” It’s a really intense industry, and it’s brutal when you’re young and don’t have a connection to yourself, you’ve never lived in the real world. I mean, I dropped out of college and started a band! And then it was like, bam bam bam bam bam bam. And yes, I worked very hard, but it all happened so fast. I didn’t have a lot of time to sit and think about what I was doing, who I really am.

It just went and went and went until it stopped. I think when it stopped, it was the first time where I was able to really take a breath and look back at what had happened. It wasn’t until I was 30, after the third record had come out, where I was like wait… How did I get here? And that’s when I had to do some deep soul-searching and self-reflection. I got really deep into therapy and started working on everything. I realised that many years of my life had gone by and I didn’t really feel like I had lived them. I was just out there doing it all, getting all of this external validation. Meanwhile, internally, I was like, “Hey, help, what about me?” You know?

CH: For sure. I think one thing I was curious about, and why I thought Butch was such an interesting choice, is that on the record you really shirk your regional ties to Los Angeles. I grew up in LA in the 2010s, and Best Coast was such a huge part of the city. It’s interesting to see you cut the regional ties to LA, as well as the temporal ties to the surf rock era. Instead you look to people like Lucinda [Williams] and Nashville. What drew you there?
BC: I think it was imperative for me to do so, because in discussions about getting out of my comfort zone, I realised that LA was my comfort zone. It’s a huge part of my identity, and for all these years I’ve been the California, LA girl. And I’m always gonna be that! As much as I try to walk away from it, and be like, “I’m not that anymore,” every two words I say have, “like” in it. I am a tried and true, born and bred Los Angeles baby [laughs].

But I think my interests and my tastes have always been expanded, it was never just specific to LA. Both of my parents are actually from the Midwest, so I spent the majority of my summers in Nebraska, where they’re from. They moved out here in the 70s or 80s, because my dad wanted to be a musician, and my mom just kind of followed along and had me here. But every summer they would go back to the Midwest, and my grandparents are huge country fans. My grandma would listen to Travis Tritt and George Strait, and I grew up listening to that kind of music with them.

My mom was a massive country fan too, and The Chicks are truly one of my favourite bands. I think they are some of the most talented women in music, and some of the most talented songwriters out there. They are a band I felt I could never really reference with Best Coast. I didn’t think I could go in the studio and be like, “Hey, I’m gonna pull up Cowboy Take Me Away and I think we should sort of listen to this song and figure it out.” So this was an experiment for me in chasing some of my musical interests and heroes, and getting to escape into the South was amazing. I had never really spent any time there, I’ve been to Nashville a million times on tour but I’ve never really spent time there. And especially somewhere like where Butch’s studio is, out in the country. I was literally in the woods driving a truck down dirt roads, waving hello to cows. It was just like visiting my grandparents in Nebraska. So yeah, it felt really important for me to take the record outside of just LA sunshine.

CH: Well said. The record seemed very tapped into your body, your mind, and your environment. It’s very personal. Is it exhilarating to be releasing it? Does it feel raw to get public or critical reception on it?
BC: I mean, I think anyone who says “I don’t care what people think” is a liar. There’s some truth to that, but I think as humans we want to be liked and loved, seen and heard. And you know, being an artist is a really fucking insane thing to do. Sometimes I’m like, “Why do I keep doing this? Why do I write these intensely personal songs and share them with the public?” But the way I feel connected to music… It’s like anything else in life for me.

And while the job is very difficult, and criticism can be a very challenging part of the job, it’s so worth it to me. The experience I have when I create and perform, there’s nothing like it. I was very intentional about making this record in secret, I didn’t want the public to know I was making it. I knew what I was doing, but I wasn’t about to tell the fucking internet, “Hey, Best Coast is going on pause and I’m going to make a solo record… See ya in two years!” Because I knew the moment I opened it up to public reception, because I’m such an insecure, critical person, it was going to terrify me. I just didn’t need that. So it was very important to me that I stayed in a cocoon while I figured out who I wanted to be, and what I wanted this to be.

And now it’s coming out, I would say that of course I’m fearful of the idea that people are going to review it and critique it. But I’m so grateful for the time I had with myself while making the record, that I got to truly nurture it. Because now I can always return to that feeling of, essentially, isolation that I lived in while making it, and that’s the thing that’s going to remind me of exactly why I did this when I start to get wrapped up in the, “Oh, so and so gave me a two instead of a five!” bullshit. I’m sure that will happen. I mean, you’re never going to please everybody, that’s just something I’ve had to learn to live with.

“I was literally in the woods driving a truck down dirt roads, waving hello to cows.”

CH: I listened to the album a few times in a row yesterday – it feels like a feel-good record, in the sense that you sound very comfortable with yourself. I think you can feel on the record that you’ve reached a level of peace with yourself, it’s awesome to hear.
BC: Thank you, I really have. It’s funny, I often feel like my experience with myself is so different from the people around me who I’m closest to. I always… And I don’t say this lightly… I’m always so fucking mean to myself. I’m so critical, when I get going people are like, “What are you even talking about? These things aren’t true.” I’ll walk through my house with my fiancé – I just got engaged a couple weeks ago and it’s bizarre to call him that – but we’ll just be walking and I’ll be like, “I’m a washed-up has-been!” And he’ll look at me and be like, “What are you talking about? Like literally what are you talking about?” He has to shake it out of me.

And then I’ll hear it and realise I don’t actually think that. I don’t know who lives up in my head and tries to convince me all that is real, but I don’t actually feel that way. I think whatever headspace I was in while I was making this record is my real, true, authentic self. I think the version of me that spirals is my ego, just some made-up shit, it’s not my soul or who I am. I’m a grown-ass woman, I have grown-up responsibilities. I’ve worked very hard on myself, and I think this record is a reflection of the person I will continue to become. I understand the person I am today, and I might not be this way two years from now. But I know that at my core, this is the feeling I have. The feeling I explored on this record is the authentic truth of me as a person.

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