Greta Kline, the creative voice behind Frankie Cosmos, is known for her super prolific, off the cuff lo-fi pop smarts. With those artistic qualities in the back of our minds, let’s just do a hyperspace jump into the Q&A-part of this interview, conducted on Valentine’s Day in Amsterdam, straight away. As you might guess, the maddening subject of love couldn’t elude our conversation.
DiS: In the past, I spoke with fellow musicians who made a similar transition as you, from house shows to more professional venues. Mitski is one of those people. She did a lot of DIY shows, devising situations where you can take a lot of risks performance-wise. Are you happy you got that foundation as well?
Greta Kline: Yeah, but I think for me, performing is scary no matter what. Whether it’s a DIY show or a proper venue. I’m equally scared playing for 10 people as 10.000 people. Fewer people might be even scarier, the smaller shows usually even more intimate. Everybody is watching you full scale. When you are far away on a stage, nobody can really tell if you’re messing up. I almost feel more comfortable on bigger stages. I’m still learning the transition, I’m only going to get better on stage, growing more comfortable being a performer. But I’m not really a natural performer, I feel it’s very hard. It takes a lot of effort for me to get in front of an audience.
It’s interesting that you address messing up on stage, when you actually mess up on the songs on this album, Vessel. Makes it seem that perfection isn’t your point of emphasis. ‘Ur Up’ is a good example.
With that recording, I kept the mistake in, because Hunter, the guy who produced the album… I like hearing his voice in it. That’s like his little cameo where he says, "Keep going, it’s good!". He’s very encouraging and I thought it was a cute moment. I just wanted people to hear Hunter. But we recorded the album to tape, and when you record on tape, it wears over time. You have to capture it in the first couple of takes, so you have to move pretty fast. We started recording with almost all the bass, guitar, and drums all at the same time. And we did almost all of the songs in less than four takes. So it’s basically just like playing a show. We played all the songs like a set, it has that live energy to it.
That reminds me of those Connie Converse recordings, where she would announce “This has a Biblical text” and stuff like that. It just adds to the charm of the songs.
Yeah, oh my gosh, I love Connie Converse. ‘Playboy Of The Western World’ is so good. That guitar part is crazy.
I like that her songs, though perfunctory, allow you to hear your own completely reimagined versions. I hear a whole Macy’s Day Parade behind ‘I Have Considered The Lilies’. Your music has that same quality.
I love how people will hear different things, see different things when they hear a song. That’s what I’m trying to do on our records. Nurture all this stuff, the people I’m getting involved with. I want to hear what they think of my work, how it’s going to be very different from what someone else might want to add to it. If you play keyboard on a Frankie Cosmos song, you might write a totally different part for it than someone else. It’s important to nurture the band members’ individual takes on the music.
Before this interview, you said the album’s cover art was something you visualized beforehand. Is that the same thing with writing songs, that you envision the setting, the situation, the place?
It’s strange, with the album art it’s so different because the whole image just came to me and I wanted to make it real. There was this whole process of getting it to become what I wanted it to be. But songs happen more naturally, there is no finished thing that I have in my head I’m trying to get to. I just know when it’s done. I trust myself about it. Sometimes it’s ‘weird’ that I pick songs that last 30 seconds. I get the question often about "How I know when the songs are done?" I don’t know. I just know. With songwriting, the whole time that I’m doing it is like having a conversation with myself. I’m trying to get closer to something but I don’t know what it is. Each song is getting me a little bit closer…but I’m not sure if I’ll ever achieve what I’m trying to.
There’s this really good letter Martha Graham wrote to Agnes De Mille. It’s basically about making art and the point of it. Everybody is going to make what they make, you're the only person who can make what you make. Your job is not to judge your own art, or to compare it to other people’s art, just to keep the channel open and keep making stuff. No artists is ever a hundred percent pleased, there is no satisfaction whatsoever. Only a clear divine dissatisfaction. That’s part of what making anything is. You’re just continuing to milk this divine dissatisfaction that’s always meeting you forward, but you’re never going to achieve it. But you’re just always making stuff.
The ‘idea’ part of making something is always best, that lightbulb Eureka moment. Then when you spring from that, it only gets more and more disappointing, it becomes constrained, like “THIS HAS TO BE A STORY!”. I like that a lot of your songs stay elemental and rooted to the basic ideas. They stop where they need to before they start sounding too contrived.
The thing that a lot of people struggle with is… some things never feel finished. There’s this funny meme of like a skeleton at the mixing board… you can do it forever! You can keep nitpicking. I think in my case, the songs are never finished, but in a way they are always finished. Sometimes my problem is not finishing any project I take up. That’s why the songs are often so short.
Your records remind me of reading comics, a sequence of images and panels rearranged and sewn together.
That’s so cool, I can tell you have a very visual connection with music, it’s like synaesthesia – seeing something when you hear it. Not everyone has that.
Thanks. But the panels, they seem completely random… it becomes this Rorschach idea of interpretation how they intermingle. And that can a be super personal inner logic I guess.
My friend, who wrote the bio for this album, asked me: why do you think this album is important in your whole anthology? And I said: “I don’t really think it’s more important than all the other ones. The whole point is that there’s bunch of them. This is just one chapter. And I’m going to write a MILLION songs hopefully in my life. And they’re all working to-geth-ther! (Kline puts emphasis on each syllable of ‘together’) Tiny parts working together to reveal my life.
When you channel something very personal, does it become harder to be totally self-serious, or easier? Is it in your nature to parry that into something witty or funny?
Well, it’s not always funny. I mean, it’s inherently fun to play a song, so if you’re going to write a song about heartbreak, sure. Because at least you’re going to be playing a song. So even if you’re sad, there a happy energy to that. You are playing music, and music is fun. I’ve been told – and I agree – there’s a sneaky element to my work. The music sounds happy on the surface, but there’s a sadness hidden underneath. It’s fun to mess around with that, to make it enjoyable to play it, despite the subject being about something very painful. But I’m not always thinking about doing that. Sometimes I’m feeling really sad and I feel like writing a really sad song! (Laughs)
Speaking of that: there’s actually a song called ‘The End’ on this album…
Yeah, I wrote that song the day after a break-up. And that recording was done right after it was written, within five minutes. We tried to arrange that song with the band, but in the end I wanted to use the demo-version for the album. I like that urgency, it’s the least thought-through song on Vessel. Especially from an emotional standpoint. I had no time to process anything! Months later, when I tried to arrange the song with the band, I was already trying to change the lyrics, because I wasn’t feeling the same way anymore. But that’s what I like about the demo. It’s so quick, it’s not thought-through. So the feelings are very weird, it’s all over the place.
Since you enjoy that immediacy of releasing and playing music on the fly, wouldn’t it make sense to record a live album someday?
I haven’t thought about doing that, but the records we make are by default live recordings. We do them all together. I think the reason I make the studio albums, so far, is to preserve what the live set sounds like. This is the first time we had this many songs we haven’t played live before. But we’re going to. I like the idea that in ten years, if the current band ceases to exist, you can still pinpoint what the songs sounded like with these members in it. Same with Next Thing and Zentropy, those are different iterations of the band, with different bandmates. If you wanted to know what we sounded like on those albums, you can be transported back immediately. That’s what it’s doing for me at least, that’s the fun part of recording and sharing songs with all these other people!
The song ‘Accommodate’ appears to touch base on how you define community, and how it’s defined universally. Can you elaborate a bit?
Yeah, ‘Accommodate’ is such a weird song. The lyrics are hard to explain: it’s mostly about trusting people too much and finding out you’re wrong. Or about opening up to someone and they’re not hearing you, and don’t react in a way you want them to.
There are difficult and strange contradictions in that. Because a lot of people love... well, maybe ‘love’ is the wrong word. Maybe I said that because it’s Valentine’s Day today. Okay, hear me out: the willingness to get through to somebody can be more comforting than actually getting through to somebody. Once you finally get to some form of mutual understanding, a relationship can become stagnant.
Yeah, you hit the nail right on the head with that one I think. A lot of this album is about that: getting through to someone who is not listening. When people are not communicating well, the word love is actually a great example. When someone tells you they love you, what does that mean? And more importantly, what does that mean to you? What does it mean to them? Your whole personal history and language of using that word and that phrase, what love looks like, how you treat someone you love… Everybody’s bringing in their own baggage to that. You never say exactly the same thing.
Even when you have longer conversations, you will never ever fully understand each other. My favorite thing is just the concept of communication, which in itself is so absurd. Because we’re never going to learn exactly what’s going on in each others’ heads. That’s what I like about writing songs, just trying… even if it’s never going to work. No one is ever going to exactly get what I’m feeling. And that’s cool, because they go with their own gut. It becomes special and interesting to them.
Just going by relationships in my direct surroundings: some of them are built on that dynamic of miscommunication, and a willingness to figure it out, even when that’s downright impossible.
Sometimes when you love someone, you willfully misunderstand them, so you can keep loving them! When you don’t love them anymore, you turn that off. You flip that switch and you decide there and then you don’t love them. You can finally hear what they’re saying, you realize you don’t agree with anything this person thinks about in the world. I think people purposely misinterpret each other to maintain friendships and relationships. It’s good to be honest with yourself, to see what’s really happening. But… it’s also hard!
I’ve always been really willing to change so I can fit with what the other person wants, and make a compromise. I think a lot of people compromise in relationships. And a part of ‘Accommodate’, its message, is to not become like that anymore. I want to be with someone who likes me for who I am, who doesn’t want me to change. Just for right now in my life, that’s what I want. And I have that now, and that’s very nice. But maybe that’ll change too. People are always changing, and they’re reluctant to admit it… but it’s okay to keep reassessing. There should be no shame in admitting your wrongs, because you’re learning something new.
It always starts with something you have I common. You and Aaron (Maine, Porches) met because you both love DIY-culture and performing live music. Not to be too nosy…
No, no, that’s okay… it’s not nosy when the album is pretty much laying it all out there pretty hard. Our break-up wasn’t too bad, but it did spark a lot of change in my life. It made me realize you don’t need to keep certain people in your life. He is not in my life, and that’s been good for me. I don’t know if it’s good for him, but… This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot in my life: when someone tells me they broke up with someone I always congratulate them. There’s no such thing as a break-up that isn’t supposed to happen. If you’re supposed to be with someone, you stay together and make it work. I think me refusing to be friends with Aaron is good for both of us, it’s good for me. You don’t want to be friends with a person who doesn’t want to be your friend.
Sometimes certain friendships feel like a plant you have to water every now and then. And I feel constricted by that.
I think that’s part of why the world is filled with so much anger. People are so afraid of unfinished business. They don’t like stuff that doesn’t have a clear definition or conclusion. It’s either, we’re friends that talk all time or we are not, when there are so many kinds of friendships and relationships. It’s the same reason a lot of people don’t understand gender politics. I’m reading this book right now called The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. A lot of that book addresses gender, people can get so angry about people who are transitioning, who don’t have a final destination they are trying to get to. People who are trans… she talks about people who are defined as ‘butch en femme’, as opposed to becoming a definitive man, the general definition of a man. But the idea is just: I’m myself, and my gender stands in the middle of whatever your definition of it might be. People just hate that, they become uncomfortable with that.
Well, good thing that ‘The End’ isn’t the final song on Vessel. But about what you just said, I have family in America, and a 35-year-old adult male not being able to drive a car in Texas is often frowned upon. I reckon it’s like that, only a gazillion times worse.
I’m actually starting to learn how to drive right now. So I’m no normal American either. It’s hard… it’s scary to drive! Have you ever tried it?
No, I’d probably get myself killed. Or somebody else.
People who are from cities with good public transportation never have to learn to drive. But since I tour so much, I’ve decided I should help with the driving! I feel like it’s positive to be helpful to my bandmates in as many ways as possible. Two out of four people in the band do the driving… and I feel bad for them.
Nice hustle. Obviously, you grew up in a pretty rich and privileged family environment, so you had ample space to carve out your values and ideals.
I feel really lucky that my parents are super supportive of what I do, they understand that being an artist is a real job. A lot of musicians have parents who tell them to go to college and get a ‘real job’, being pushed into this opposite direction. I’m really lucky my parents have helped and supported me over the years.
That’s potentially a good basis to build compassion, having a good support system. Does that notion drive you to be a support system for others?
Yeah, I think I have a tendency to often show too much support of others, and not enough for myself. But not everybody can do it all the time, even if it is important. My parents took in so many random kids when I grew up. I’ve lived with so many of my brother’s friend s who came in to live around the house. I learned that from my parents and I do a lot hosting myself. If you have a good place to live, you should.
Is there a guilt-factor at play? Not everyone you run into at house shows is born with such privilege.
I hope everybody privileged feels guilty about their privilege. If you don’t, you should do some hard thinking. I think it’s important to realize how much every aspect of your privilege has aided you to get to wherever you are now. And to stay aware of it.
Obviously you harness a strong value system as a musician, doing all these DIY shows. I’m curious what’s going on in your vicinity, in term of inclusivity.
I still go to a lot of DIY-shows, and I think the idea of DIY is always changing. This is another thing about DIY and privilege: sometimes I catch myself being judgmental of people who are specifically making music for profit, who aren’t making what people would call ‘purist art’. They want to simply sell their music. Sometimes I catch myself thinking: "That’s not good art."
But the reason I feel that way is because I don’t need to work hard to survive. I have a supportive family. I could go back to school if I wanted, my options are endless. Music isn’t my only option. Being able to participate in DIY shows and culture, and write the kind of songs I want to write… it all comes from privilege.
The good thing about the DIY ethos is that it’s welcome and all-inclusive… anyone should be able to learn an instrument, even if you don’t have access to it. Same with the shows I play with Frankie Cosmos, to keep them accessible and affordable, and for all ages. I wouldn’t want to play shows that cost forty dollars. I know that might sound stupid.
No, it doesn’t…
Well, it is, because charging twenty dollars for a show is still very expensive, especially for young people. If you’re just a kid without a job, you don’t get to just attend shows all the time. You have to save up to determine which ones you choose. Whenever we announce new tour dates, I’m aware of that. We recently took an opening gig in New York, and forty dollars was the cheapest ticket. It was an opening slot for Belle & Sebastian, a band I really love. Which is exciting, and something I really wanted to do for myself. But it also meant we couldn’t do a release show in New York.
So I was just kicking myself that all these New York kids weren’t going to see us until the fall. It was a really hard decision for me to play a show that costs forty dollars. I want everybody to get to see and hear live music. Especially in America, art is very exclusive, you have to pay to see art… then you go into other countries, where all the museums are free and art is funded by the government. Over here too, venues have hostels attached to them. Which is so cool. In America it’s horrible. No one gets to see art unless you have enough money to spend for a trip to the museum. It’s annoying, it sucks… it should be for everyone. That’s what I love about the internet: it allows you to live stream shows, google a painting if you can’t go. But then again, having internet is also a privilege.
Which DIY-venues in New York are weathering the storm reasonably well?
One of them – the only DIY venue I grew up attending that’s still around in different form – is The Silent Barn. I used to work at the old one in Queens when I was a kid. Now it’s in Brooklyn, it’s become more legit… they have a liquor license now. It’s pretty nice there. It’s still the same collective of people running the show, they’re doing really good stuff. But much of the other places are either gone or still looking for a spot. The real estate in New York is really crooked and bad, there’s a lot of nasty dealings behind the scenes that are ruining things. Lots of silly laws, like the cabaret law, which basically means that places have to have cabaret licenses in order to have dancing inside. So if I wanted to dance just in my seat here, it would have to have a cabaret license. What’s crazy is, it’s reinforced, but they use it as they see fit when on events they regard as bad, like queer parties!
Lord, where’s Kevin Bacon when you need him?
Yeah, if they see a party and they want to shut it down… they can use that as an excuse to get inside, and it’s legal. It’s really fucked up. I just learned about it, because there’s this guy in the government now who’s actively fighting to improve and help New York nightlife. I did an interview with some people who are making a documentary about this politician.
Let’s wrap this thing up. My favorite song on the album is ‘Duet’, except it isn’t a duet. Explain.
The joke was to do a duet with myself. I wouldn’t let my bandmates think of any harmonies. They had ideas for harmonies, and I was like: "No! This has to be just one person, that’s part of the idea!" I guess it’s about expectations in a relationship; what you want to hear from the other person vs. what you want to say yourself. So I’m singing as two people in it. The voices are panned on either side of the headphone, going back and forth. And when I sing it live, I keep turning to face my imaginary self, like I’m talking to myself. It’s like a short story. When I write a love, a part of me wants to write a love song for me. That’s what ‘Duet’ essentially is. The last line, "I’ll love you till I die"… I’m singing that to myself!
Vessel is out now via Sub Pop. For more information about Frankie Cosmos, including forthcoming tour dates, please click here.