"Everyone says your second album is the most difficult," says Best Coast leader Bethany Cosentino, relaxing between takes in Los Angeles' Capitol Studio B. "Three years ago, I dropped out of college and lived with my mom – now I'm making an album at fucking Capitol Studios, where Frank Sinatra recorded. But a lot of stress comes from being successful."
The California indie-pop duo – the other half is multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno – toured nearly nonstop for two years behind their 2010 breakthrough, the fuzzed-out girl-group blast Crazy for You. One wild leg was a run of shows with Wavves, the punk act led by Cosentino's longtime boyfriend, Nathan Williams. "Touring with your boyfriend is crazy," she says with a laugh, swigging Jim Beam from a coffee mug. "Not sleeping, not taking care of yourself, eating fast food, drinking a lot – indulging in things you might not indulge in as frequently at home."
All that time away from home took an emotional toll – which you can hear all over the follow-up the duo are recording, due this spring on Mexican Summer. "It's a pretty emo record – very personal," Cosentino says. "People who've heard it say, 'Whoa, you sound pretty bummed out.' To be honest, I was. This album helped me to step out of the rut going on in my life. Crazy for You was very much about boy problems, but I'm no longer going 'Waaaah, my boyfriend doesn't like me.' Now it's more, 'Oh shit, life is real.'"
Best Coast began recording last December with Fiona Apple and Kanye West producer Jon Brion. Bruno had worked as Brion's personal assistant nearly a decade ago; the partnership clicked when the producer sat in on keyboards during a February 2011 Best Coast gig in L.A. "I absolutely adored Best Coast's first record, and Bethany is an astonishing singer," Brion says. "This one just pushes the poles further. Their chemistry is everything: I'm working more as an outside filter, helping them figure out the palette."
Brion equipped the duo with vintage analog gear – and took full advantage of the studio's Les Paul-designed reverb chambers. "Capitol is where all the great Beach Boys records were made, and that's the stuff they love," Brion says. "They might as well use that same amazing reverb."
The producer also helped them upgrade from Crazy for You's low-fi sound. "When we first started, I'd drench everything in distortion and reverb – I didn't want people to hear my voice," Cosentino says. "For this album, I was inspired by Loretta Lynn, Dusty Springfield, Dolly Parton, Stevie Nicks. I wanted people to be like, 'Damn, this girl can sing!'"
Highlights range from "The Only Place," a passionate ode to West Coast living – "We were joking we need to send it to the tourist board as the new state theme song," Cosentino cracks – to "Don't Fool Yourself," Best Coast's first-ever piano ballad. "I wanted a song that people hear and say, 'Oh, I wasn't expecting this,'" she says.
The new material, Brion adds, "seems to have two sides. The fast stuff is faster, drier and a little punkier, and the quiet stuff is really dreamy and slow." Those new directions are evident on "Why I Cry," a hooky pop-punk cut whose clean-strummed riffs and heartfelt vocals recall early Go-Gos.
The album's greatest revelation is Cosentino's yearning, Patsy Cline-ish vocal on the lush "No One Like You": "If I sleep on the floor/Will it make you love me more?"
"Every time I listen to it, I cry," Cosentino says. "Music is therapy to me – I wrote these songs because I've got to get it all out somehow."
This story is from the February 2, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.