Fuck Music, Let’s Talk About Feelings: An Interview with Best Coast's Bethany Cosentino
Underneath the infinity pool and the pink and purple sky of Bethany Cosentino's music is a complicated brain chemistry, dichotomous feelings, and a hamster wheel of a mind.
Illustrations by Joel Benjamin
Bethany Cosentino is a songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist best known as one half of Best Coast. The band has four albums, Crazy for You, The Only Place, Fade Away (an EP) and California Nights, which came out last spring. When I first heard the music of Best Coast—chimeric as Fleetwood Mac, slightly nostalgic in a Beach Boys way, bad-ass and lo-fi too—I was living in New York City, thousands of miles from Venice Beach where I live now. Cosentino seemed to possess an endless summer of youth: a sunset that never fully goes behind the mountain. Even the longing conveyed in her lyrics seemed romantic, not itchy like mine. I imagined that if one could only live by the ocean and hang around with surfer boys, one might harness some kind of chill and ride it.
Now I live three blocks from the beach, and I know that this isn't the case. We are who we are, and no amount of palm trees really changes that. I've also discovered, through the magic of Twitter, that Cosentino isn't as chill as I thought she was. Underneath the infinity pool and the pink and purple sky is a complicated brain chemistry, dichotomous feelings, and a hamster wheel of a mind: just like so many of us. I asked Bethany if she would be willing to talk about what goes on in there, and she said yes.
VICE: Before I twitter-knew you and was just a fan of your music, I always imagined that you were the ultimate California chill girl—like that you were at some eternal bonfire or clambake following a day of surfing. Is all of this a projection, or is there some of that in you?
Bethany Cosentino: I like to think that I'm pretty "chill" in some regard—like, for example, when I'm not working, I spend the majority of my time at home on the couch watching TV, or working out by myself and THEN hanging on the couch watching TV. So like, my "hobbies" are pretty chill. I'm not like a raging party girl. I was at one point, but I'm over that now. It's like, too exhausting for me. I think part of why the aesthetic of Best Coast has always been so "California-centric," and everything is covered in palm trees and the sun and the beach and shit, is because I lack so much of that "vibe" in my personality. I very rarely go to the beach. I appreciate it a lot, but I don't ever really go out of my way to hang out there. The ocean actually really freaks me out. Like, it's way too much to think about. Because I am the way that I am, which can tend to be pretty neurotic and anxious and reclusive, it made sense to me to make the aesthetic of the band very much the opposite of that. My lyrics are super cloudy and have a very what the fuck does it all mean??? vibe, but I try to write really upbeat, happy, sunny melodies. In a way, it's like tricking my brain to be like, Everything is OK because you're in the sun and it's warm outside in December! But lyrically I'm still like "fuuuuuuuuuuck."
When the weather is beautiful, it can feel like there is "pressure" to be happy. Can you talk about your relationship with anxiety/depression? When did you first notice the onset, or did you always feel some discomfort with living in a body on earth?
I was diagnosed with anxiety/depression when I was in high school. I started having a really hard time focusing in school. I never wanted to leave my room and go outside, I never slept, I was so incredibly moody—everything just felt like a chore. I started acting out in the form of self-destructive behavior, and my mom was finally just like, "OK, I'm taking you to a doctor." So I started seeing a psychiatrist who diagnosed me as bipolar II with anxiety, ADHD, and depression. At the time, all I really knew of bipolar disorder and mental illness was Sylvia Plath and Girl, Interrupted. Honestly, that shit made me feel better. It made me feel less alone in the world.
For a long time, I ignored the fact that I suffered from any of these things—but it always got the best of me. I took medication for a while as a teenager, but I quickly decided I didn't need it as soon as it started making me gain weight. Finally, when I was in my early twenties, shortly after the success of Best Coast, I confronted it again and started seeing another psychiatrist and a therapist. I've learned simple yet effective ways to deal with my anxiety, and sometimes it feels like nothing ever works—but I just refuse to give up on myself. If I'm feeling mopey or overwhelmed, I just force myself to go on a hike, or workout on my ballet barre, or take a bath in lavender oil, or rub crystals all over my face.
I used to be really afraid to talk about it, but I think over the last several years—especially with people like you discussing mental illness in such a real way—I've become a lot more open and honest about it. If you listen to my lyrics, or read any interview with me, I think it's pretty clear that I battle with issues. I just think that I've figured out how to control those issues as best I can, and not let them control me.
I'm back in the crystal game. After years of hiatus, I've become addicted to buying crystals again. This time, though, I'm like, OK, I'm not looking for this thing to save me. It's just fucking pretty. What are your biggest anxiety triggers?
I wish I could explain this in an eloquent, graceful way, but I'll just say this: I can basically freak the fuck out over anything. If there isn't a problem or something to fear or stress out over, I will find a way to make it happen. Sometimes if I'm in a crowded grocery store, and there are too many people around, I just get super claustrophobic and have a hard time breathing, and I have to just leave and go sit in my car. Other times, something like opening my email in the morning to like, twenty unread emails, can make me panic.
When I was younger, I used to quit every job I ever had—like straight up just not show up and ask my mom to call them and tell them I was never coming back! Seriously, I did that. And now, I am a twenty-nine-year-old woman who spends a month on a tour bus with little to no privacy, performs six days a week in front of tons of people, does interviews for sometimes hours at a time—I mean, you get it. When I get the most frustrated with my feelings and the world around me, I try to remind myself that I've come this far, and I am able to do everything I do even when sometimes I don't feel like I can get myself out of bed. This is my job, it's my livelihood, and I know that I can't get my mom to call in sick to life for me. I just have to roll my eyes and take deep breaths and make it work, and I do that pretty much every single day.
I identify with you one hundred percent re: When there isn't a problem or something to fear, you will find or create something. General anxiety is more uncomfortable to me than when it's tethered to a tangible issue, so I will find something upon which to project the feeling that already exists. It's why I feel comfortable in a crisis—because it's like the world is rising to meet the level of anxiety I feel every day. It feels earned or normal for that kind of situation, whereas when everything is OK, it doesn't fit. Sometimes I am tweeting about never leaving the house again from my side of town (west), and you affirm that statement's resonance from your side of town (east), and I wonder what forms your anxiety takes: social, general, phobic, panic?
Pretty much all of the above. I have terrible social anxiety, but I'm a musician who lives in the spotlight—it makes basically no sense. As much as I love my fans and I appreciate them so much, I can get weird when interacting with them. When people approach me out in public, I get freaked out. I do my best to thank them and be polite and take a selfie or whatever, but on the inside, I'm usually like, Oh my God, can they see the pimple that's coming in on my chin? Did I forget to lock the door to the bus? Is this bruise on my leg because I'm dying? It's like a whole fucking ridiculous world of bullshit that swirls around in my head. Other times, I have full blown panic attacks, and the world around me starts to feel like it's going in slow motion, and voices start sounding like the teacher in The Peanuts, and my heart starts racing, and I have to like sit down or walk away from whatever situation I'm in, and that can be hard if that happens to me while I'm working—there have definitely been times where I'm on stage, and I can feel a panic attack coming on, and I just have to push through it. This job has presented me with a gigantic challenge. It's like, OK, you are absolutely neurotic and awkward and moody, let's put you in situations on a daily basis that trigger all of those things. In a way, I think this job has saved my life. It's allowed me to realize that my issues are just that—issues—and no, they're not easy to deal with, but it's totally possible to be able to live my life and navigate through this at times terrifying world without having to go hide in a cave for the rest of my life.
It's really inspiring to hear that when you push through it, you can see that these things don't define you. Does anxiety ever affect your experience of performing?
There was a period of time when I just got wasted onstage and awkwardly talked to the crowd as if I was talking to a friend, but I only did that because I felt so nervous and uncomfortable, so I would just like do shots onstage and be like, "So do you guys like cats? I like cats!" It was a mechanism for me to deal with the anxiety of being in front of that many people and feeling self-conscious about a million different things. I don't do that anymore, though. I very rarely perform drunk anymore—I just can't do it.
Alcohol worked for me to medicate my anxiety until it stopped working. If I could have stayed drunk twenty-four hours a day, I would have never had to get sober. Weed, which was at one point my best friend, also turned on me. It became a catalyst for panic attacks. And when it did I really mourned the loss of that love. How does weed affect your anxiety?
It differs from day to day, honestly. Sometimes it really helps me, and it makes me just feel like super chill, no fucks. But, other times, it makes me feel like I'm talking too much, and everyone thinks I'm annoying. I usually have to get high before I go out and do anything social, but every once in a while, it backfires because I'll like get high, go out, and then be like, Whoa I'm too high for this I need ice cream and water ASAP.
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