Frankie Cosmos Talks Growing Up On The Road And Feeling The Bern
Originally published on Slant.
The sincerity you hear in Greta Kline's singing voice Frankie Cosmos completely carries over into regular conversation.
Profiles of Frankie Cosmos tend to feature three reliable "P-word" clichés: "prodigy" (Kline is 21, but started releasing music online in her early teens), "prolific" (there are 51 releases currently on Bandcamp available for download), and "parents" (her mom and dad are the actors Phoebe Cates and Kevin Kline).
But more interesting than Cosmos' backstory are her delicately-crafted, personal songs that touch on heartbreak, young love, and growing up.
Inspired by the poems of Frank O'Hara and New York City's All Ages scene, Greta Kline set off writing and releasing short-and-sweet, twee ditties as Frankie Comsos at an impressive clip. She released her first full-length studio album, Zentropy, to critical acclaim, and followed that up with an EP, Fit Me In, which was also lauded.
We spoke with Kline ahead of her performances at SXSW and the release of her second studio album, the aptly titled Next Thing, which drops April 1 on Bayonet Records.
SD: Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
FC: I grew up in New York City and my childhood was pretty pleasant. I went to an all-girls school and I went to day camp in the summers, which was arts-focused. I mainly just stayed in New York for my whole life.
And then I have an older brother, and he's two years older than me. We would spend a lot of time together as kids. He was always pretty obsessed with making me do stuff with him. So he taught me how to draw, and a lot of stuff like that. We would always make little projects, and stuff together. He's a big creative influence on me.
I've got a mom and a dad, and I'm sure everybody already knows who they are. They're really great. That's about it.
SD: How did you first get into writing and playing music?
FC: I took classical piano for like 10 years, starting from when I was a kid. So that was the first experience playing music that I got into. My school also had mandatory music classes, up through some of middle school. I was singing in some of those classes. I never really liked singing. And then around 5th or 6th grade, I made a new friend who's still my best friend, Eliza, and she taught me guitar and she showed me The Strokes and we started a band. I played drums and sang in the band. And it was the first time that I tried to get into singing, or realized that I could sing.
From there, I tried to figure out more guitar on my own and started writing my own songs around probably when I was 13.
SD: What kind of influence did growing up and living in New York have on your music?
FC: Definitely having access to an all-ages scene was really important. Seeing other people close to my age making music was really inspiring because I think I wasn't originally planning on pursuing that. But when I saw so many kids throwing shows and making bands and starting a record label as a teenager, it opened my eyes to like, "I can do this. I can write a song or play a show." Even just the smaller side of those things. Having access to people who booked shows and just seeing that it was possible.
I wasn't really like "in a scene" when I started writing songs. I was looking in from the outside of the scene and was really inspired by it. That was the big one, just seeing that it was possible and that people were doing it. Also, all the people that I met and became my friends and are in all these amazing bands, that was a big influence, too.
I was in a lot of different bands with a lot of different kinds of musicians and they all inspired me in different ways. That was useful, too.
SD: How did you settle on choosing a pseudonym? Why is that important to you? And how did you choose Frankie Cosmos?
FC: I basically was messing around with a lot of different names, because it didn't really matter. The old name [Ingrid Superstar] that I was using, I realized it was already a name of someone and so I changed it.
And then I put out a couple things with random, one-off names. Aaron, my boyfriend, nicknamed me "Frankie Cosmos" when I would sing in his solo sets. He'd be like, "Frankie Cosmos, come to the stage!" So it just kind of became a nickname. A lot of people started calling me that. And it just stuck.
Probably the first time that I used that name, I realized that this is the one that I like. This is the one that's going to stay. And it has. I haven't felt compelled to change it yet.
SD: What's your process when it comes to writing songs? Everyone writes about how prolific you are as a songwriter. But how do you start the process and how do you decide what you're going to record or what you're going to save for later?
FC: I always have a notebook on me. That's my priority, which is that I'm always writing ideas down. And now that I have an iPhone, it's a really different process. I used to write down my ideas in text drafts, but now it's just way easier to view the ideas off my phone. I can do voice memos, and whatever. So that stuff has actually affected the process a little bit.
I usually have a variety of notes and melodies, or small part ideas. Then, when I have time, I'll sit down with a huge amount of material to work with and I pick and choose the stuff [I'll keep]. And I usually know when I'm building on one song or I'll have an idea for something new. It's not like I'm Frankenstein-ing together various ideas.
I used to take a huge piece of paper and write down a bunch of different lyrics and concepts. I'd mix and match and put stuff together. But now it's a lot more coherent, with songs that are focusing on one subject. It's just a lot of playing around. It goes through a lot of phases.
I also use PhotoBooth on my computer. I'll record a few different melodies and then I'll go through and memorize each one, and then put them together. Ultimately, I do all my demos on GarageBand. Now, once I have a demo I really like, I'll bring it in to my band and we all arrange it and add the other instruments in. That's a really new part of the process that's really fun for me.
SD: I got to listen to [the upcoming Frankie Cosmos album] 'Next Thing' this past weekend. I was driving to down to Virginia and got to give it a few listens. How would you say you've changed, personally, since coming out with 'Zentropy' and 'Fit Me In?' What has changed in your life from then to now that might be coming through on the record?
FC: One of the things I've been feeling a lot is that I write a lot about touring. That's a huge part of my life that I haven't had before. That might be apparent, but it will probably be way more apparent on a future record, based off the stuff that I'm writing now.
For me, Next Thing shows that I've matured a lot in the last few years. I'm writing a lot about topics that I've always written about, but with new perspectives and maturity. Or, I don't know if it's maturity, but the emotions have matured to a place where I can write about them from a more adult perspective. With hindsight, rather than writing it while you're in the emotion. I'm writing a lot about being a teenager now and that's what Next Thing is really like. It's like Zentropy if it was like written from the future. A lot of the same subject matter, but from a really different perspective. Just having sat with those emotions and how they change and learning to forgive people, and a lot of that stuff.
SD: You're someone who, through Bandcamp especially with the beginning with your career, subverts the conventional process of coming out with a record, doing a lot of promotion behind the record, and then waiting a few years and coming out with a new thing. It's a little more a steady stream of material and content. Do you not believe in that conventional structure? Do you think things are changing and you're a part of that?
FC: I don't know. I know that in the last year or so I have stopped doing the constant Bandcamp thing and it's because I was focusing on making Next Thing and signing to a record label. So I definitely have become a part of the more old-fashioned process of putting out a record and all that goes into it.
But I still don't know how I feel about if one's better or worse. It's definitely really different to spend a lot of time with a song before putting it out. And after two or three years of playing a song and to just know be putting it out on a record, I've had so much more time to be like, "Oh, I don't like this."
That's what I valued a lot about putting stuff out immediately on Bandcamp. I didn't have time to get sick of it before putting it out. I didn't have time to judge it with distance. Now, with this record, I've had three years for some of these songs and about a year for all the recordings to really decide whether or not I like them. It's just that the wait is longer.
I feel like there's value to both. I really liked having a lot of time to think about what songs to put on this record. And really doing it in a very pointed way. Maybe some day I'll go back to the Bandcamp style of putting out a bunch of things. I still make a ton of demos and I think that those are fun for people to hear.
I've also become a lot pickier about what I want people to hear since this whole process changed.
SD: And it's all just out there, so you get to see as a fan the growth very transparently. So it's interesting to have this next phase where it's a little bit more screened in terms of, "Okay, this is really what I want to get out there."
FC: Yeah, totally.
SD: What's the hardest part about being a musician?
FC: There's a lot of hard parts. I think touring is really hard for everyone because it's just emotionally really draining and weirdly anti-social. Especially when you do it for a really long time, like a month-long tour. By the end of it, you come home and haven't really talked to anyone other than your bandmates, but you also are away too socially drained. You just want to be alone. I've become a lot more anti-social since touring a lot. But I don't think that's a bad thing.
I just think it's difficult because it's confusing for people who don't tour to understand how it feels. If someone's texting you, you sometimes just can't communicate. I hardly talk to anyone that I'm not around when I'm on tour. So especially now, this is like my first year of touring without having my boyfriend in my band. It's like this whole stint of time where we're basically having this iPhone, long-distance relationship, which is really weird.
That's probably the hardest part. Being away from the people you love and finding ways to communicate with them that aren't stressful.
SD: Is it weird talking about yourself a lot? Is that strange? Or cathartic?
FC: Honestly, I've been doing it so much now that I'm okay with it. But in a weird way, like talking about touring, it's a good place for me to sort out how I feel about it because you're asking. A lot of times I'm asked questions that I haven't phrased how I feel about it before. In a way, it's therapeutic.
Also, it's really weird because people are going to read it and know, or not know, exactly how I feel (laughs).
I think being on display is really scary. And I wish that I didn't have to be sometimes.
SD: And I think you have such a direct connection with people who listen to your music. There's mystery in terms of the lyrical content, but even as you listen more and more, you pick up on character names or different themes. You have an interesting division and relationship with your audience. There is mystery, but in terms of your persona, it's very out there and you're very upfront about it.
FC: It's weird because, I know that Frankie Cosmos is me, but also the music is not me. So much of it is fiction and art. It's weird to have people conflate that with what my life is.
My parents have a Google alert on me and my mom was telling me that there was an article. It was really nice. It said something like, "Her writing is so personal, and she writes about her own experiences of anorexia." And I'm like, that didn't happen. It's so crazy that you would just assume that's something that happened to me. To just put it on me that that's truth, or to make an assumption and be like, "That's what her life is like." That can be really intense. Because then, like, my parents are reading that, and they're like, "What?!" (laughs). I think that can be really difficult for a lot of people.
SD: If we take things at face value, we would totally misinterpret your life. And the other thing is that, in a way, it's no one's business, even though you're putting it out there.
FC: Totally! Because it's art! (laughs) What's weird about the current generation of art is that everyone feels like they know everyone because of the internet.
I think that I'm Frankie Cosmos. There's definitely no line. But also, Frankie Cosmos is a performer and storyteller and isn't always talking about my own life.
SD: I saw that you had played a Bernie Sanders benefit at Baby's All Right. Do you have any sort of opinion about the presidential race? Are you feeling Bernie Sanders or someone else?
FC: Oh yeah, I'm feeling Bernie. I'm pro-Bernie all the way. Definitely.
SD: What do you like about Bernie Sanders?
FC: I just like him! I don't know. I've been talking about it a lot recently. So many things. I think that he's, uh...everything (laughs). He's the only one that I like. I can make a whole list.
I also try to be not too in your face about it because I don't want to be a persona. I don't people to be like, "Oh, Frankie Cosmos is voting for Bernie Sanders." But there's a point where I'm like, okay this is important. I should probably tell people who I'm voting for because it will have an effect on the world.
Who knows if democracy even works! (laughs) Does your vote even count?!
SD: There's a lot of camaraderie at the DIY scene. There are a bunch of other bands that you might have a kinship with. Who are some of your favorite artists right now?
FC: Who I'm friends with or just in general?
SD: How about both?
FC: I love Porches. That's the band that I played in for a long time with my boyfriend. We just put a record out.
I love Eskimeaux, who is my keyboard player Gabby's band. We're going on tour with them for a month. The two other artists on that tour are also amazing: Yowler and Anna McClellan. So good.
Girlpool, great band. I have a lot of good friends making really good music in New York. I could list them all day.
Bands that I don't know [personally]? My big dream is to tour with someone like Joanna Newsom because she's my hero. She's one of my favorite musicians. That would be really cool. I mean, she probably wouldn't really like my music, I think (laughs). A girl can dream!
I don't really listen to a lot of current, new music other than the new Joanna Newsom album. I'll get back to you if I think of anything good (laughs).
Check out Frankie Cosmos on tour this spring:
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Cover photo courtesy of Frankie Cosmos