Frankie Cosmos Is Alive, Even If It Feels Like Shit

Greta Kline's last two years have been full of uncertainty and stress. Her new record 'Vessel' on Sub Pop is full of question marks, because, as she'll readily admit, she doesn't have the answers.

by Colin Joyce; photos by Julia Leiby
22 March 2018, 1:08am

You were never supposed to know that Greta Kline is Frankie Cosmos. That was the idea at first at least, she says on a February morning walking through the chilly cragginess of Brooklyn Botanic Garden. There would only be the songs she recorded in her room—fumbly, humble, off-the-cuff and uploaded straight to Bandcamp, often without a second thought. There was no plan for ego, no persona, no interviews, no extended photoshoots—not that any of that was really in the picture back then anyway. There were just the songs, strummed quietly in her room, some shows, which were a little louderm but not much. There was some sense that she could do this forever, just making things on her own, in between other obligations to school and friends and all the things that take up a young person’s life.

That plan, insomuch as it was even a plan, was waylaid pretty much from the beginning, thanks to some internet sleuthing by the blogs that were first enamored with the shaggy miniatures she recorded. Somewhere along the line, even as Frankie Cosmos morphed from solo project into full-fledged band, it became about her. And the rest of the world caught on quick. There were shows in every respectable DIY venue across New York’s five boroughs. There were overflowing free shows in university coffee houses. There was press with just about every tastemaking publication you can imagine—from tiny blogs to fashion publications all the way up to The New York Times. New York Magazine named her 2014 album Zentropy, her first release recorded in a studio with a producer, the best pop album of that year.

Now 24 years old, all of that acclaim—as well as the anxiety that’s attendant to sudden changes in what you expect your life to be—that’s come in the years since has rested squarely on her shoulders. At shows, when she’s sitting and selling her merch, it’s her that the kids come up to, offering her both tokens of affection and heir emotional burdens, seeing themselves in the echoes of the romantic turmoil and existential nerves that she’s exposed over the course of the few dozen releases she’s uploaded to the internet. “I feel like my persona is on display,” she says of the ad hoc therapy sessions she ends up offering at the merch table night after night. “To the point that I feel like I don’t have a personality because everyone has this weird idea of my personality...which isn’t me, because they don’t know me.”

A sudden rise like this is a strange thing for a young person to deal with. But now part of the job of heading up the business that is Frankie Cosmos means doing the uncomfortable stuff, like what she’s doing today—waking up early on Presidents’ Day to dodge tourists and stand in the cold as someone takes her picture, and then sitting outside as a journalist pushes her to outline the things that stress her out about the life she’s chosen.

Later, after we’ve settled in a stone gazebo at a northern corner of Prospect Park, she explains that as she’s preparing to release her third full-band record Vessel (her first for Sub Pop) on March 30, she’s still trying to figure out how to deal with being a person in public. “I wish I had the ability to pretend to be mysterious,” she says, tugging at the collar of puffy black parka. “But I don’t understand it at all. I can see how being tough like that would make it easier go through so many interviews. Because sometimes I feel like I’m too earnest and it drains me.”

But then, she follows that statement with nearly an hour-and-a-half of unreserved earnestness. Admittedly some of that is likely due to an amount of familiarity that we have—this is the third story I’ve written about Kline, including one that involved spending many hours together over the better part of a year—but that’s also just kind of how she is. She speaks unreservedly, dipping between subjects and trains of thought with a casual freeness. And yet, she expresses the idea, multiple times in our chat, that she always ends up regretting the things she says in interviews—that she never really feels like she quite addresses the ideas she means to. “Ultimately, we invented language.” she says with a pause in one of these moments of hesitation. “So how can it really fully express actual feeling?”

There’s something endearing in the way she still just does it, walking up to the borders of explaining her social and professional anxieties. Even if she can’t ever feel like she describes the thing itself, she does her best to trace around it, the way a series of straight lines can describe a circle.

Consequently, Kline seems content on Vessel to keep putting as much of herself out there as ever. The record consists of 18 songs, recorded like her last two albums with a full band and the producer Hunter Davidsohn, written over the course of a tense and tenuous time in her life. In the two years since her last album Next Thing, she’s ended up with a whole new band around her. Her long term relationship with Frankie Cosmos’ former drummer Aaron Maine (who also records as Porches) came to an end. She toured endlessly, spending eight to nine months out of each year on the road, with rarely more than two weeks at home. These things aren’t all in the songs literally, but Vessel carries the spirit of these trying times, the incredible lows of romantic dissolution and tour burnout channeled through brief, but potent indie pop songs plumbing the depths of her own psyche.

Some of these songs were written pre-breakup, some were written in its wake, some were written when she was 16 years old—proof if anything to not try to project someone’s biography onto their music. Still though, like with anything she’s made over the last half-decade or so, there’s a lot of her in there. That means there’s also the hope of new beginnings, new love songs and happy endings, or at least comforting realizations that come to in the midst of all the muck and mire. In one of the record’s most memorable choruses she sings, “Being alive / Matters quite a bit / Even when you feel like shit.”

That’s sort of the sentiment that I come away from our conversation with too—that life is weird and intimidating, full of fear and feelings of inadequacy. Sometimes you just have to lay all that stuff out on the table, purge it from your system. I guess they say that talking about your anxiety can help sometimes, but even when it doesn’t you keep on living. You get up from your interview, you go and buy a doughnut, you get on the train, there is more life ahead. It’s weird but on some level it’s all we have.

Noisey: How does your headspace hold up on long tours? You’ve basically been on the road for two full years at this point.
Greta Kline: The thing that keeps me going is having opening bands that are really nice and getting to watch music that you like everyday. Wanting to actually be at the show is a really important thing. But I’m also someone who spends zero minutes in the greenroom and I do merch for almost the whole show. That’s started to wear on me after two years of it. I basically turn on my social lights just the whole time I’m on tour. Then when I’m home I’m really tired and I sleep for two weeks.

Sometimes even going to one show is hard.
I feel that way at home, when I go to a show I’m like, “Wow, I can’t wait to not go to a show for at least a week.” But on a tour, it’s like “OK, tomorrow again.” Then the next day, again. Then you spend all day in the car. You go to the venue. You maybe eat dinner if you have time. Then you soundcheck. You play. You sleep. It’s this really weird experience, then you start to feel a little crazy. A lot of this album is about feeling like I’m not a natural performer and that performing is hurting me.

Hurting you how?
That it’s hurting my soul. That playing songs is painful. I’ve also played in other people’s projects and it doesn’t feel that way. It’s really different when it’s your own words and your own super intense feelings that are being put on display.You start to feel like, “Who am I?” I started to resent that my bandmates don’t have that same feeling of their soul being eked out of them onstage. Although they put in so much of their own soul as well.

When you talk about the ideas people have of you, how do you actually encounter those ideas?
It manifests in the way people treat me. People know that I’m going to be at the merch table, and know that they can talk to me about their life. I’m suddenly giving therapy sessions at the merch table.

Like Lucy from Peanuts.
Exactly. Emotionally it can be really exhausting. Once in a while I’m like, “This is awesome, I’m making friends with a cool teenager who’s coming to me for advice. I don’t have any advice! I suck!”

As you’ve had to grapple with being more of a public person, have you felt a need to hold more back?
I don’t feel the need to hold back, but I need to make clear that what’s out there isn’t all of me. There’s so much of me that’s private. Because it seems like [the songs offer] such a personal view of me people think they know all this stuff about me. It even shows up in the way people ask questions about the songs, just assuming they know what its about.

The other thing is, I run all of our online merch stuff. I fucked it up and I forgot to mark some stuff as shipped. Fuck! I don’t know how to do this! My business is too close to me. I’m too close to have a neutral reaction to that. Like, “Oh it was a mistake in the shipping department.”

But you are the shipping department.
I was so mad at myself for having messed it up. I was crying and saying to my mom, “Sometimes I wish that I worked at Starbucks so I could just go home after and not think about my job.” I feel like I haven’t been home from work in six years.

Touring started as a thing that was just for fun, my vacation from real life, and now when I’m home it’s my vacation from my job. I don’t know if everyone is cut out for it. And sometimes I wonder, am I cut out for it or not? I don’t know. I’m going on another eight months of tours, how’s that going to go? How am I going to feel after that?

Do you have moments where you think you’re not going to make it through a tour?
There was a moment where I thought it was over in the summer. We were on this Europe tour and we had three days in a row of waking up at 4 AM to fly after playing shows. The third day of getting three hours of sleep we had to play a show at 2 PM at a festival in Poland. We got there and we had an hour before we played.

Then I did two interviews, felt insane, got onstage, it sounded so bad and I couldn’t hear myself. During the show I just felt my brain, like, flipping. ”I...hate...performing...so much.” I was looking at my bandmates with wide eyes, shaking my head, just signalling them, “I’m done. I can’t finish the tour.” Afterwards I crumpled in this ditch in Poland and started crying. Like, “I can’t do it, I want to go home. I want to cancel the next tour. I can’t do it anymore.” Then I had dinner, and got some sleep. And I went and played another show.

"A lot of this album is about feeling like I’m not a natural performer and that performing is hurting me. That it's hurting my soul. That playing songs is painful."

When do you find time to write?
Every second that I’m at home. It’s very precious time now. That’s the main thing that sets off the breakdown, feeling like I’m not writing songs. In the news, when musicians die, I just think about their whole life and what they’ve contributed to the world. I want to put out as much music as I can before I die, I don’t want my legacy to be that I was a touring musician. If I have to have a job that’s completely separate from music and that’s the way I can write the most songs, then I want to do that.

Looking at your Bandcamp, you’ve already released more music than most people do in their life.
That’s true, but you’ll see that when I started touring, that amount started declining so fast. It’s not like I’m not writing the same amount when I’m at home. If I were home all the time I would be putting out that same amount of music.

That’s the level you want to operate at?
I want to make everything! I’m trying to figure out how to write all the songs I want to write. For me, it’s not even about putting them out. I think a lot of people know how they feel all the time. Wouldn’t that be cool? Sometimes writing a song helps me figure it out, sometimes its writing 15 songs about it. Sometimes two years later I hear a song and go, “oh that’s what that was about!” [Songwriting] is really important emotionally to me and the less I do it the more I freak out.

It makes sense that it’d be hard to have other people form ideas around that.
It was funny, during the year and a half of touring Next Thing, during that time I went through a breakup. The way I felt about that album changed. That was interesting, to have the songs reveal new things to me, to the new version of me that was playing them. I’d have people come up to me and say, “This is a breakup album right?” And I’d be like, “No, I wrote this when I thought I was in a relationship that was fine.”

During the five years that I dated Aaron, every single album I put out, people would ask me if we broke up. And I’d be like, “What? I don’t get it! My relationship sounds bad to you?” It was good to have people be like, “This was bad, we can tell from your songs that you’re suffering.”

You write a lot about love. What about that topic makes it such a fruitful thing for you to untangle?
The thing that I’ve learned about romantic love—and all kinds of love and friendships—is that everybody approaches it really differently, and often incompatibly. I started writing about love at a really young age. I was definitely the kind of person that was fitting myself into other people’s lives and taking whatever I could get, not thinking about what was good for me. I didn’t have an idea of what I needed. A lot of my songs are me trying to figure that out.

A song like “Duet,” which is an old song on the new album, when I was writing it I was experimenting with, what do I want to hear in a duet? What do I want in this relationship and what am I actually getting? The whole joke is it’s a duet with myself. And every relationship is kind of a duet with yourself. Everything you hear is what you think it is. When someone says “I love you,” you don’t know what they mean, you just know what you mean when you say it. It can mean something totally different.

Something that I can hear happening on Vessel is me writing these songs that are really tense and grappling with not understanding what to do. If you read all the lyrics, there’s so many question marks in them.

"I’m just trying to figure out how to be a person [...] I imagine I’m not the only person in the world who thinks I’m wrong all the time."

You seem concerned a lot with embodiment, is that what the title of the record’s about?
That’s the album title in a nutshell, totally. I wish I knew where it came from. I go back and forth between feeling really disconnected from my body and feeling totally connected to it and understanding that. I have a fraught relationship with my own shell. I don’t even look in the mirror anymore, it’s too horrible.

You’re forced to confront the reality that you’re “a thing” in addition to your thoughts.
That you’re visible. There’s this really good moment in Jane Eyre. She sees a ghost across the room and realizes its a mirror and its her own pale face looking back at her. That moment has always stuck with me because I have it all the time. Where I’m like, oh my god, that’s me? What is me?

It can change depending on what day someone catches you on.
That’s something that scares me so much about being on tour because my emotions fluctuate so hard, some people might meet me in one city and be like “Wow, Greta’s so cool and nice and positive and she gave me the nicest hug and advice and it made my day.” Then someone else might see me the next day and go, “That girl’s so horrible and so cruel and wouldn’t even take a picture with me.” They’re two totally different views, and they’re both me!

That line of thought can be really suffocating.
It’s scary. It’s part of why I feel so sad after socializing. I think a lot of people with social anxiety do this, but if I can bring myself to go to a party at all, what I do is after 45 minutes I go, “Maybe I wasn’t really invited.” And then I leave, and then I go home and analyze every single thing I said to every person and think that it was a poor reflection of my thoughts. I’ll probably do it after this interview. I’ll go home and be like, “Everything I said didn’t exactly say what I was trying to say, and I probably sounded really full of myself and stupid.” I’ll go home and think that and beat myself up about it for an hour, and then I’ll do an interview on Wednesday and try to do it better, but I’ll probably do even worse job because I’m thinking about it so hard. It’s pretty fucked up.

Do you have ways of quelling that thinking?
Not going out. That’s a good one. I’m kind of a homebody now. This is one of the things I like about relationships too. We’re all seeking to feel understood by someone and the more time you spend with someone the more you feel that way hopefully. It’s really nice to feel like you can be quiet, [to have] relationships where you don’t have to put on any kind of performance to hang out with them. I just hold onto those relationships as much as I can. I know the truth of what I am. If I can understand who I am, I don’t have to freak out so much if someone else didn’t really get it.

But then you’ve said you don’t always understand who you are.
Well, that’s why I’m trying to figure it out all the time. I think its funny. Which is me? Is it who I think I am or who you think I am? If my personality exists alone in my house and nobody’s there to see it, does it exist at all? I’m just trying to figure out how to be a person. I’m very comfortable with admitting I’m still growing up and learning about it a lot, every day. I imagine I’m not the only person in the world who thinks I’m wrong all the time.

That’s probably why people connect to your songs.
It’s always hilarious to me when I meet someone who seems really cool and sure of themselves and comfortable and connects to my music. I’m like, “How? But you’re awesome and I suck. It’s kinda reassuring.” It’s so nice to know that everyone feels the same pain. It doesn’t actually say anything about who you are that you feel bad. Maybe some people see me—I don’t want to make any assumptions [ Laughs.]—and think I’m cool and maybe it’s nice for them to know that I don’t feel cool and I feel like shit all the time.

Colin Joyce is an editor at Noisey and is on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Noisey US.