The Frontwomen

Published August 1, 2016

LEFT: BETHANY COSENTINO OF BEST COAST. PHOTO COURTESY OF JANELL SHIRTCLIFF. RIGHT: JULIA CUMMING OF SUNFLOWER BEAN. PHOTO COURTESY OF REBEKAH CAMPBELL.

Southern California-bred duo Best Coast and New York-based trio Sunflower Bean are rock bands with devout followings. While they hail from opposite coasts, and their music spans the rock spectrum—Best Coast embraces surf inspired sounds and Sunflower Bean leans toward the psychedelic—they each boast badass female vocalists: Bethany Cosentino and Julia Cumming, respectively. Cumming joined Sunflower Bean after the band formed in August 2013, and has been listening to Best Coast for quite some time (they released their first tracks in 2009). The two have since become friends and last week, while Cumming was in Sunflower Bean’s van making her way to Toledo, Ohio, she caught up over the phone with Cosentino. They stress the importance of having a plethora of underwear on tour as well as discuss other realities of the road, Joni Mitchell, and being feminists (but not being defined by their gender).

JULIA CUMMING: Where are you in the world?

BETHANY COSENTINO: I’m home right now in L.A. We’re leaving on Friday to fly to Montreal for a festival. Then we start our tour. I don’t know where we’re going after that. [laughs] I think somewhere in Upstate New York. I’m doing the pre-tour runaround, trying to get a bunch of errands done. I just went and got all my toiletries and of course got to my car and realized I forgot fifteen things, so I have to go back when we’re done with this call.

CUMMING: Oh no! That was me this morning. We just bought a real ass van—like a new van. Our last van broke down. We bought this van and now we have space for actual suitcases. I’ve been carrying a tiny, broken down duffel bag forever and I was like, “I think I’m going to make the graduation to a real suitcase now. I’m going to get some wheels.”

COSENTINO: I’m in this phase right now where it’s three days before tour and in this pre-tour packing anxiety. Does that happen to you? I always wonder if I’m the only person who stresses this much about getting shit together. [laughs]

CUMMING: A little bit, but I have my own ritual of putting it off until ten minutes before I need to leave the house. If I can do it in ten minutes then I’m gone. If it didn’t make it in there in ten minutes then—

COSENTINO: It wasn’t meant to be.

CUMMING: It wasn’t meant to be! I’ll have to go to Target and get another swimsuit.

COSENTINO: Totally. What’s your thing that you can’t really leave home without though? Like the one thing you absolutely can’t forget?

CUMMING: Probably books. I’d say books and underwear.

COSENTINO: That’s what I always say when people ask me, “What’s so essential to take on tour?” I’m like, “A lot of underwear!”

CUMMING: They don’t know that you’re often in a situation where you need to change underwear twice in a day. I need to bring like 40 pairs.

COSENTINO: Yeah, I feel you. Also on tour—especially if you’re trying to conserve space and not bring a whole lot of stuff—you can wear the same clothes multiple times but you’ve got to make sure you have fresh underwear. It’s really funny because I say that a lot in interviews. I’ll be like, “Oh yeah, I bring a lot of underwear.” I can tell the person interviewing me is like, “Okay

CUMMING: They’re always like, “Gross.”

COSENTINO: Yeah! I have to bring a lot of underwear. We’re human beings. We need it. [laughs]

CUMMING: I used to not take my makeup off. I used to put on eyeliner and leave it on and then just put more on. I didn’t really understand how gross that was until I started taking it off and I was like, “Oh my god.” I was such a grody bitch for so long. I went through such a gross phase. [laughs] There’s a turning point where you do so much touring that it is the majority of your life. It’s not like you can say, “I can rough it out here but at home I’ll be normal.” There is no normal; this is it. I’ve been going to the hotel gym and stuff, trying to add a little movement into the whole thing.

COSENTINO: It’s hard man. I feel like talking to people who don’t tour, when you talk about touring—obviously we’re super blessed and very lucky to be doing what we do—but there are so many weird things that could never happen anywhere else. When I talk to people who don’t tour they look at me like I’m being bratty and complaining about this job that I have. It’s not that! It’s the fact that when I’m home I can exercise every day, I can cook myself good meals, then when I’m on the road for a long time it’s like, “There’s a Subway. I guess I’m eating a bowl full of lettuce because I don’t eat McDonalds.” [laughs] It’s those weird little things you kind of take for granted when you’re home but as soon as you’re gone you’re like, “Oh shit, I can’t just do yoga or pilates anytime I want. I’ve got to hunt for the time and the space to do it.” The trying to stay healthy and clean and taking care of myself, that part of tour is something I struggle with from time to time.

CUMMING: It’s part of the job. It’s the good and the bad put together. It’s like being on a family road trip that never ends.

COSENTINO: I was telling someone today that I feel like it’s adult summer camp all the time.

CUMMING: Especially since we just get one hotel room. I think that would be the next luxurious step up. Going from floors to a hotel room was a really big step up, and going from one hotel room to two hotel rooms will be a really big step. I don’t know if it’s in the foreseeable future but that would be nice. [laughs] It’s hard constantly working with everyone’s personalities. I don’t know… It’s crazy. I saw on Instagram a while ago that your house is pink.

COSENTINO: It is, yes. [laughs]

CUMMING: Do you love it?

COSENTINO: I do! I moved the end of last year. I sold my house and I bought a house with my boyfriend.

CUMMING: That’s what I was going to ask—if you bought it. That’s the dream.

COSENTINO: I’m turning 30 at the end of this year and I now am in my second home that I’ve owned, which is really insane. If you had told me when I was 13 that by 30 I would have owned two homes I would have laughed in your face and been like, “You’re out of your mind.” When I grew up my parents never owned a home. Neither one ever owned a home. We rented my entire life. I rented forever. When I became successful enough where I was making money I was like, “I think I’m going to do what adults in the real world do and I’m going to try to buy a house.” So I bought a house in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles where I lived for five years. Then my boyfriend and I found this house—it’s in this canyon. It’s a little outside of L.A. but it’s not super far. It’s just 20 minutes outside of the downtown area. And it’s pink! Just being on tour all the time and being in bars and clubs, when I’m home I need to escape everything. I wanted to be in nature and out of the city. I live in this pink palace now and it’s pretty amazing. I’m not going to lie.

CUMMING: It’s very, very amazing… I feel like owning a house is the ultimate fantasy. It’s the ultimate, “You’ve made it, you’re living it.” I’ve had so many fantasies about owning a house and building a studio when I’m an older, gray-haired producer woman inviting little bands to stay in the house, and making them food. That’s one of the later in life musical fantasies. Seeing your house—that’s the ultimate boss ass bitch move. We also love [Best Coast member] Bobb [Bruno’s] house. We stayed there last time we were in L.A.

COSENTINO: Oh, did you? Isn’t Bobb’s house the best? It’s like a weird little toy store. He’s one of the best people because he’s so cool and collects so much amazing stuff. Between that awesome bar, a million bootlegged DVDs, a bunch of CDs in alphabetical order—Bobb’s house is rad.

CUMMING: I remember when we were there we were looking at all his guitars and he was like, “I’ll show you more in the garage.” I was like, “Are those the ones that need repair or aren’t working so well?” And he was like, “No they’re all fine.”

COSENTINO: Yeah. One of the really cool things about our band and our success is that it has allowed us—like you were saying—these fantasy things. I dropped out of high school. Bobb, I think, graduated, but I fully dropped out. I was like, “Fuck this.” I hated school. I thought, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” I didn’t have any skills as far as the workforce. I was just like, “I’m going to take a risk and try to make music.” I tried to go to back to school and I was like, “Nope, I still hate this.” It’s not like I was raised as a wealthy kid and this fell in my lap. I had to work really hard to make all of this happen. For Bobb and I to be adults and to be successful and to love what we do, it’s really cool. Your wanting to own a home and to be a producer woman taking in younger kids and bands and cooking them healthy food—that fantasy is what owning a bunch of vintage music equipment was to Bobb. It’s really cool that he got to do that and I got to be the first person in my family to own a home and make my parents really proud. For as exhausting as the job is sometimes and how many fucking pairs of underwear you need to bring when you leave the house, it’s worth it. [laughs]

CUMMING: Absolutely. It’s amazing to see that good stuff happen to people and see the work pay off. It’s easy to get disenchanted… It’s cool to talk to you about it too because I have been a huge fan [of Best Coast] since the beginning. I remember listening to your guys’ music and thinking about your lyrics and how you have been able to say things that a lot of people have tried to say but it doesn’t come out right. Especially [it] coming from your voice and coming from a woman was important.

COSENTINO: Thank you.

CUMMING: As a kid I used to listen to The Beatles and ’60s bubblegum. I remember asking my parents why, when I was listening to a single, it had to be about a girl. It was always from that perspective. I was like, “Why is everything sung by a boy?” The sound of a woman [singing] sounded foreign for a while. It was different from my childhood. The past few years I feel like I’ve switched into only wanting to listen to girls sing. I’ve listened to Kate Bush, Carole King, Joni Mitchell.

COSENTINO: Totally—I totally know what you’re saying. My first real female musician obsession was Gwen Stefani and discovering No Doubt. When I saw Gwen being a total badass with all these guys I thought it was so cool. Who was that for you? Who was the first female musician you looked up to and made you think, “Girls can really do whatever it is they want to do”?

CUMMING: It wasn’t really one person; it was kind of gradual. I remember asking questions like, “Why does it have to be one woman to get me inspired?” I would probably have to say Joni though. I could listen to “California” and it would still make me cry every time. I’m from the city and I only started going to California recently, but her voice is just insane. But Gwen and No Doubt was amazing. When I was a kid it was “Hollaback Girl.” It was a little later, so I didn’t get to see No Doubt in the same way.

COSENTINO: It is so strange because I feel like what you just said makes a lot of sense. I remember too being raised on The Beatles and The Beach Boys and my parents listening to a lot of simplistic pop music. I always heard it from a male perspective. Even when I saw the Spice Girls, when they were huge when I was a little girl, I thought, “This is so cool.” I was in awe of the fact that I saw women doing this. When I was really, really young and getting into music­—because I was a singer when I was a kid, I’ve been performing since I was really little—I’d go to the biggest pop song at the time. Those were all females, like Christina [Aguilera] and Britney [Spears]. That world for me [was when] I realized, “Oh, girls can do this too.”… For me that’s sad that even happens, that we’re on a planet where you go, “It’s crazy girls can do the same thing boys can do.” It’s so fucked up. Once you get there as a young girl it’s such a cool thing. From No Doubt I then got into Garbage and then The Distillers and I saw Brody Dalle—a complete badass frontwoman. Basically, at that time I was like, “Whatever band has a girl in it, that’s where I’m going to go.” Then I got into Joni Mitchell and Carole King and Carly Simon. I immersed myself in this world of females making art because it feels so much more emotional and personal coming from a woman. Like you said, I feel like “California” by Joni Mitchell is the kind of song where you say, “You’re not from California but you listen to that song and are like, ‘Oh, California!'” It just makes you feel so many amazing things, number one because Joni is a goddess among us, but number two because it’s that real, true emotion and beauty in what women create. It’s really cool to see how many awesome, badass ladies are out there now just doing their thing and putting their foot down, saying, “Nope. You’re not going to tell me I’m doing something women shouldn’t be doing.” It’s a scary time but also I think a really important time. I’m happy to see how much girls are responding to a lot of the other powerful big boys swimming out there right now.

CUMMING: Yeah! Even when we were talking about doing this piece, the talking points are about feminism and stuff like that. I’m like, “Yes! And there are parts of me I want to talk about, like the truth of what it is, of hearing your music and your voice as a woman and a songwriter, as just a human.” Just the truth and the realness of these issues, but also talking about stuff like wanting to buy a home, your sound changing, and being able to make more albums, and [how to] have a lasting career and live your life and your dream and fly to Montreal. I just didn’t want us to have to do a piece where it’s all been done before.

COSENTINO: I agree with you. It’s complicated because as important as all of those talking points are, to be a woman in music right now is to talk about being a woman in music. We’re all women and we’re all playing music and the world is really fucked up and there’s still a lot of backs turned against women and there’s still a lot fighting going on but it’s like, “Dude, come on.” I completely understand what you’re saying. I’ve become this voice for a millennial generation of feminism, which is awesome, but at the same time it’s complicated. We all know I’m a girl, I’m a woman, but it’s difficult to figure out how to talk about it and express how important it is without beating it with a hammer and having it be, “So you’re a girl in music! So you’re a girl in music!” Yes, I’m a girl in music—can we just talk about something else? At the same time it’s an important conversation to have. I appreciate being able to talk about how important it is and being able to show what it means to us, but at the same time there is a lot of other important stuff for us to talk about and a lot of other stuff we enjoy talking about. We don’t know only how to talk about being girls.

CUMMING: I hope this is a future where we’re heading. Something I think about or often gets brought up is, “Yeah, you’re girls, but who’s feminine? Should you be really feminine? Should you be boys?” You hope the future you’re working towards is that being a woman and doing it is normal. Being a woman, wherever you’re feeling in that day—whether you want to wear a dress, if you feel like you want to shave, if you want to wear makeup—that you can do it and you’re not hyper-character. I hope that if I have a daughter and she does an interview she can be asked different questions than what you and me are asked about, which are different questions than what woman making music 20 years, 10 years, five years before us were asked. I feel like we’re close.

COSENTINO: I know. That’s a frustrating thing, to feel that we’re almost there but we have these setbacks. Obviously with the upcoming election there’s so much at stake. It’s a really scary time and a time where it’d be really easy to shutdown and be like, “I don’t know what to do. I’m not going to say anything.” As artists and creative people it’s such an important time to be expressive and be empowering and supportive of people. It is a time where I feel like everyone has to be together and say, “Hey, we’re all going to be okay. We just need to work together.” Again there are days where I turn on the TV or I look at the news and I’m like, “I want to go to Mars. This is insane.” But I can’t go to Mars! I need to face reality and just to have some hope. That, to me, is what I feel like is the future. If I have a daughter, if you have a daughter, becoming that ideal [where] it’s not about your gender; it’s about us being human, being in this together. How are we going to make it so that awful, awful things aren’t happening every goddamn day? 

CUMMING: It feels like right now that everyday something massive, something horrible is happening. I definitely think as someone who’s out there and has a platform, big or small, it’s important to be educated, to know what’s going on, to have an opinion about it and speak about it. One of the most important things to do is to keep being yourself as an artist and keep making music that people connect with and let your music and your art help as much as it can in its own language. You want to make your music. There has to be some way where there’s a balance.

COSENTINO: I feel like it’s really good to know there are people are out there. Every time there is a troll or some fucked up person on the Internet says something disturbing or horrible to me, I just try to remind myself of people like you and the fact that there are other people out there who are so completely the opposite of those horrible [people]. I have to remember the good people in the world outnumber the bad people. I think when you start to feel frustrated or you have no hope left in humanity or whatever, you’ve got to just remember that there are people out there who are working incredibly hard to get a positive message across. I think what we do is really, at times, a complicated thing. But at the end of the day it’s so important that we make art for people that need to escape reality for a second. That’s what music has always been for me. It’s been a way to tap out of what’s going on in my personal life. Music is now going to transcend me into this other zone where I’m not feeling so messed up. I really respect the fact that you do it and you put a lot of yourself out there in order to make other people feel like—I always say—it’s a community of weirdos. We’re all just there for each other.

CUMMING: Totally. I work with some of the best people I think I’ve ever met in my whole life, in [guitarist] Nick [Kivlen] and [drummer] Jacob [Faber]. They’re just amazing guys. As a team working together we’re strongest. Our manager, Crista [Simiriglia], is one of my best friends. She just kicks ass; she kicks doors down. To be around her, who’s really inspiring, and Nick and Jacob—the future of what it means to be a dude who knows what’s up—to surround yourself with people who get it and want everyone to achieve it together is really great.

COSENTINO: I am so excited that we got to talk. I’m going to see you soon, right?

CUMMING: Really soon.

COSENTINO: Are we seeing each other next week? Am I just an idiot and I don’t know anything?

CUMMING: No, we’re definitely seeing each other next week. I can’t tell you the exact details…

COSENTINO: You’re in current tour brain and I’m in pre-tour brain so I don’t what the hell is going on.

BEST COAST AND SUNFLOWER BEAN ARE BOTH ON TOUR. ON AUGUST 3, THEY WILL KICK OFF A SERIES OF THREE U.S. SHOWS TOGETHER AT THE HAUNT IN ITHACA, NEW YORK.