WLUW Sits Down with Frankie Cosmos

by Anais Turiello

Greta Kline is no stranger to the indie music scene, but most people may not know her by that name. 

Over a decade ago, alone in her bedroom, Kline gave life to the project that is solely – and widely – known now as Frankie Cosmos. The 25-year-old musician has gone from posting lulling tunes on her Bandcamp to playing in front of hundreds of adoring and entranced fans, singing with mesmerizing, unapologetic power and accompanied by an equally passionate band.

Today, the full ensemble consists of bassist Alex Bailey, keyboardist Lauren Martin, drummer Luke Pyenson and, of course, frontwoman Greta Kline. On Sept. 6 of this year, Frankie Cosmos released their fourth studio album, “Close It Quietly.” The record embodies a feeling of empowerment – without shying away from all of the pain, melancholy and hardship faced along the road to reclaiming one’s self. Complex and poetic lyrics are the framework for the diverse energy of the record; sounding both grandiose and tender, “Close It Quietly” is strikingly eclectic and playfully raw. 

Before Frankie Cosmos hit the stage at Thalia Hall on Sept. 23, WLUW had the opportunity to speak to Kline about her new record … as well as touring, songwriting and staying humble.

Anais Turiello: I want to start off with “Close It Quietly.” It’s your fourth studio album and second with your label, Sub Pop. Could you talk about the differences between being on a label, like Sub Pop specifically, and being without? 

Greta Kline: I’ve been on two other labels before Sub Pop, so it’s been a while since I’ve put something out without an actual label. It definitely makes it easier. With more people who want to buy stuff from you, it makes it easier to have people whose job it is to sell it to them instead of it being my job. So, when I was a kid starting out, I would be touring and making all the merch by burning CDs, making CD cases by hand, selling them and shipping them, etc. So the biggest difference is not having to do that and getting to just focus on making music. Sub Pop is really great, and they have a lot of really great resources that help us.

AT: There’s definitely been a major evolution from your initial releases up until now. What have been the changes or just ways in which you’ve progressed as an artist over time?

GK: Frankie Cosmos started as a solo project, and then it became a two-piece band with just drums and guitar. Then it became a three-piece band with drums and bass and guitar. Then we added in the keyboard. At that time, my bandmates were my friends, Gabby [Smith], David [Maine], and Aaron [Maine]. We then first switched our drummer, so Luke joined the band on drums. Then, we switched the keyboard player to Lauren instead of Gabby. We most recently switched the bassist to Alex. So now the final lineup is Luke Pyenson, Lauren Martin, Alex Bailey and me, Greta Kline. That’s been the lineup for the last couple years of touring, and it feels more solid. The other band was always shapeshifting, like, if someone couldn’t come, we’d play a show without them, and it was always sort of like whoever could come that night would be in the band. Now we all take it really seriously, and it’s all of our focus. It’s definitely changed in that way. Now, it feels more like a collaborative project, and not just mine.

AT: In terms of collaboration, do you mean with lyrics as well? Because I know writing has always been something important in your creative process.

GK: The lyrics are still just me. I still write the songs in their basic form with the melodies, chords and lyrics ー just the basic format of the song. Then I bring it in and everyone writes their own parts, or maybe will make little changes to the basic form of it. It’s my song, but they bring it to its highest potential.

AT: Okay, I see. That’s cool to see that it’s still you but they’re able to elevate it. 

GK: Yeah!

AT: “Close It Quietly” is 21 tracks. I  know the last one was 18. It seems to just keep on building. Is that intentional, or something that just came to be?

GK: I think I’m just kind of bad at editing. I want to keep as many [songs] in as possible. We always cut some songs, but I just write a lot, so 21 tracks is the edited down version. It’s just sort of what happens. 

AT: Do you think in future records it will continue to be more and more, since that seems to be the pattern? Or is there a specific algorithm for it?

GT: There’s really no rhyme or reason; it just sort of turned out that way. It might be more, it might be less. You never know!

AT: In terms of writing, I also am a big lyrics person, so I really admire your music because I feel the lyrics are such an essential piece … I just absolutely love that.  Could you guide us through the process of writing those lyrics? 

GK: There’s not really a uniform process; it sort of depends on the day. Sometimes I’ll just sit down and write all the lyrics to a song in a row. Sometimes I’m piecing stuff together from years of notebooks. It’ll sort of be like doing a map of an idea. Or, sometimes I’ll have a melody where I’m trying to fit something into it and keep tweaking it. There’s certainly a lot of different ways that I go about it. But I feel like the way I like the best is just sitting and playing guitar and then seeing what comes out, because I feel like you just get into a weird meditative space where you aren’t thinking about what you’re saying and interesting stuff can come from that.

AT: How do you get over the pressure of knowing that people are going to hear what you write? Kind of as in more and more people have been listening, as opposed to writing the first record, “Zentropy,” where you didn’t know that you were going to get the big response that you did. 

GK: It’s definitely scary and I think about it sometimes, but I also think every time that every album could be the last one people care about. Every tour could be the last one people come to, so I don’t expect that people are going to listen to it, really. That kind of helps, though, because it is just for me. I also don’t write every song with the intention of putting it out. It’s more about writing the song and then later deciding which ones are going to stick and end up making it into a record, so it’s actually good that I don’t really think about it as an album when I’m making it. I don’t really think about that part at all.

AT: So that pressure doesn’t bother you too much? 

GK: Yeah. I mean, once in a while, if I am going to put out a song, I’ll probably edit part of the thought. 

AT: How is the writing process on tour? Is it more difficult to write, or do you even have time to sit down and do it? 

GK: Not really. 

AT: Is that hard? 

GK: Yeah, it’s hard. Tour is more for scribbling notes, and home is where I piece it together. I’d say 80% of tour is spent inside of the car. 

AT: Are you touring in a bus or a car right now? 

GK: A minivan. We’re sitting with merch in our laps. A bus is a whole other lifestyle and we’re not quite there yet. But, yeah, sometimes in the car I’m scribbling notes. But mostly, I’m just chilling. You’re basically surrounded by everyone you’re on the tour with, like, me, my bandmates and Amanda, our merch person. We’re all just within an inch of each other, so we’re all just talking or playing phone games. It’s really hard because there’s not a lot of silence or private time. I’m pretty much never alone in a room ever. 

AT: What’s that been like for you?

GK: It’s great. I couldn’t pick a better group of people to have it with. We’re a family, and it’s really lucky in that way. There’s pretty much no issues ever. But it is still hard, because you’re never alone, and I’m someone who really needs to be alone with my feelings to understand them, so if I’m feeling weird, I can’t put my finger on it until I’ve sat, journaled and thought about it. I just need to take my time with it, and when you’re socializing every second, the feelings sort of hit you all at once sometimes. Because we’ve been doing this for so long though, we’re pretty used to it and don’t have very high social expectations of each other on a day-to-day basis. If I wanted to go have breakfast alone or something, then I could do that, but I don’t really want to because I get sucked up in the fun of the tour energy.

AT: I’m the same way. I like socializing, but everyone needs their alone time to process everything. 

GK: Exactly, but then there’s something fun going on, I have “FOMO” [fear of missing out] basically. I don’t want to miss out on an opportunity to be part of the social hang. 

AT: One lyric from the song “Windows”  that I think is my favorite off the record, that I wanted to ask you about, or just talk about is, “Spit up diamonds / Cough up rubies / Call me when you can see through me.” I love that. You don’t have to get in too deep into what it means personally if you don’t want to, but maybe just talk about the inspiration for it?

GK: Thank you! That one was just one of those things that just came out when I was just sitting, playing guitar, zoning out and just singing stuff. I was just seeing what my innermost, unfiltered brain would spit out, and that sort of came out, so I feel like that lyric is just a weird mantra bestowed upon me from within. It sort of just happened … it’s hard to explain that one. 

AT: I think I started listening to you around 2015; a lot of my friends and I really loved your music. You were already pretty well-known then, at least in that realm of the genre. That was only a few years ago and you’re a lot bigger now as an artist.

GK: Time flies!

AT: Is this where you saw yourself when you were just in your room recording by yourself?

GK: Nope, never! I pretty much definitely would have been content to just play DIY shows for the rest of my life … or maybe not even play at all and just write songs in my roomーthat was the goal, and I reached it. Now, it’s doing this, and it’s never something I expected or planned for. 

AT: That kind of reminds me of Patti Smith a little bit. She always said she was a poet or a writer first, before a musician. In her memoir [“Just Kids”], she wrote about how she just sat in her room and wrote poetry all the time until her friends and the people around her encouraged her to be a singer and turn her poetry into songs.

GK: Yeah, that’s awesome. She’s so cool. For me, writing is the thing that I will always do, but it’s awesome to get to tour and play shows. It’s just something I never knew that I needed or wanted to do. So I don’t see myself as a performer yet. I’m a writer, and performing is a part of that process now. 

AT: You can definitely hear your voice more on these most recent records, as opposed to even the first EPs. How did you become more comfortable with performing as a musician, or even just recording? 

GK: I used to just put so many effects to just bury my voice basically because I didn’t want my lyrics to be intelligible, because I was just embarrassed. Now, I really want my voice to be at the top because the lyrics, to me, are a huge part of the whole thing. I think just practice and getting encouragement really helped. I remember my mom coming into my room when I was recording and being like, “What if you just didn’t put an effect on your vocals, so I could just hear the lyrics?” I feel like … having other people telling me that I should try and give the songs more of a chance to be understood was important for me. Also yeah, performing is still hard and scary, but it gets easier with practice. 

AT: Are there any pre-show rituals you do to get rid of the nerves?

GK: It depends. There’s not a consistent ritual but the other night, we played what I think was, so far, the best show of the tour. What we did beforehand was, Lauren and I basically just jumped up and down and sang acapella karaoke, like ABBA and “I Will Survive.” We were just warming up by singing the hit karaoke songs and getting excited and feeling like music is good, you know? That’s my pre-show ritual, just trying to sing and feel love and family energy with my band. That’s a huge part of what makes it a good gig. 

AT: So it’s a lot easier with other people, as opposed to when you first started off by yourself? 

GK: Oh my gosh, yeah. I mean, in my life really, I haven’t played that many shows by myself. Even when I was first starting, I wasn’t really playing shows – I was just recording music. I remember I played one show by myself, and then from there it was like, “I need a band.” I still play a solo show here or there, but it’s much scarier because it’s just your own energy, and you have to give it all. There’s no one there to build it with … does that make sense?

AT: Definitely! You need to be able to bounce off of other people’s energy for sure. 

GK: Of course the audience is part of that energy exchange, too. It’s really special. It does also depend on how the audience is that night, too. Sometimes the energy exchange is weird and awkward, and it’s not anyone’s fault necessarily. 

AT: You’re not that far into the tour, but how has that been in terms of audience response? 

GK: The shows have been really nice. They aren’t the most packed, and I think that they’re still really full and fun. It seems like everyone at the show truly cares about the music, and that is really huge for me. I think there was a moment where we were buzzy in a certain young way that we aren’t now. And I appreciate not being [that way] now because, at that time, there would be people coming to the shows just because they read about it on Pitchfork or something, and they would just be there to drink and chat, then get to say they went to a Frankie Cosmos show. Now, everyone is there and is silent, watching the music and giving respect to the opening bands. They just want to be part of the show experience in a way that’s really beautiful, and I really appreciate that. It’s pretty much all the real ones on this tour. 

AT: I know a lot of my friends, who are genuine fans, that either are showing up tonight or talked about really wanting to show up. Either way, it’s going to be such a fun show. This venue [Thalia Hall] is incredible.

GK: We’re playing way bigger venues than we have before in some places. This venue is really big, and it was smaller last time because we played the center circle stage, which can’t fit as many people. Now, it’s a thousand tickets to sell, and it’s a lot. I don’t think it’s going to sell out tonight or anything, but it’s definitely going to feel good in the room and be fun, so I’m not nitpicking the numbers. 

AT: You mentioned the DIY scene earlier. In what aspects do you still stick to those DIY roots that you came from, given you still do?

GK: We still do in a lot of ways. We drive ourselves, pack up the van and do our own tour managing. In the last couple of years or so we started taking a merch person, which is the only sort of thing that we don’t do ourselves. Even that, though, we still help do a lot of the stuff. We’re basically our own accountants and tour managers and all that stuff. I really think it’s important for artists to be part of the inner workings for those kinds of things. I feel lucky that I have the DIY upbringing because I know how shows work, and I know how getting paid works. We choose our openers so we don’t just get stuck with some random opener from the booking agents … When we’re putting on a show, we’re all invested in it, and we care about it, so it’s different than a lot of people who get thrown into big record deals or something, and suddenly they’re touring in a huge car, and they have a driver and a tour manager. So they’re just sitting there, not really knowing where their money is going and can just go on stage and only think about their music – which I’m sure is really nice, but I really like being a part of the whole process. We all really care about this band and this project, so we don’t want to do anything that we don’t care about or believe in. We even work out the routings of the tours. We know where we want to go and how long we want to tour for. We’re not trying to go on a four-week-long straight tour. I really like that DIY part of it.

AT: I feel like when you’re sort of brought up as a band in the DIY scene, you’re also on the other side, too, in terms of also being in the crowd … you know how that all works and what people want. 

GK: Yeah, I know how much I don’t want to go to a show that has four bands on the bill. No one wants to see four bands in a row – like, three is enough. That’s one thing I know from being an audience member or even just having grown up working the door at shows, checking IDs, so I know that that job is hard. Even handing out fliers, too. Lauren and I had an internship where we had to hand out fliers for a music festival in the hot sun all day, and you don’t get paid until you hand them all out. I feel like just knowing that every single person working in this venue right now is working on making the show run makes you appreciate it more when you’re playing a show. There are so many jobs and things going on that are important to make it run, and I probably wouldn’t appreciate it as much if I was just thrown onto the stage as was just like, “Alright, I’m doing a rock show!” 

AT: That probably makes you a lot more relatable to fans as well … It’s definitely an attractive feature for people who are in that DIY scene.

GK: I still love going to DIY shows. We still like to play them, too, every once in a while. We played Oberlin [College and Conservatory of Music] a year or so ago. We were there and thought we should just play a house show that night, so we went around collecting amps, just making a show from scratch. That’s the kind of thing that doesn’t happen on an industry tour that’s funded by a label or something. We really love to do that stuff; it’s why we like playing music. We all grew up doing that. 

AT: I love that you still do that. Especially since you’re on the level where you can go on a world tour, which you’re currently in the very early stages of. Could you talk about what you’re excited, or maybe nervous, for?  

GK: I’m hoping that we just don’t burn out. I think we should be okay. It’s three tours in a row basically with a couple of days between them, which is kind of intense and it can be hard. I’m just really scared of losing my voice. I’ve had to play shows with basically no voice before, which can be really hard, but I have some tips and tricks or stuff that I can drink to feel better. I’m excited, though. It’s feeling really good. We all really like playing the songs together, and we really like the set that we’re playing. It’s our first tour where we actually have a setlist. We’ve never had a standard setlist that everyone has a copy of. Normally, I make a list that has all the songs we know how to play on it and, during the show, I’m just picking and choosing. We would literally talk to each other about it on stage and feel it out. Now we have a full setlist where we know what we’re doing and we feel really tight and good, so I’m really excited to go and play it for people. 

AT: You have an impressive amount of songs, so I wanted to know – what goes into picking the setlist?

GK: It’s hard to choose. We spent all summer honing it. We wanted to learn to play the majority of the new album because that’s the one we’re touring with, so we want to play that mostly. Then we want to add in a handful of old songs that we thought would be exciting and new to us as well as the audience … songs that we haven’t played on past tours. We’re playing “Sad 2” off “Zentropy,” which we’ve never played. So yeah, just some things from every album. We’ve also cut a lot of things that felt like standards. We’ve probably played “Floated In” at every show for the past five years, and now we just aren’t playing it. I don’t know, it’s cool and it’s new for us.

AT: I’ve always suspected that musicians got tired of playing the same song every night, so it’s cool to see you’re switching things up. One thing I wanted to wrap up with would be just the artistic direction that you hope to see Frankie Cosmos going in in the future. You probably aren’t thinking too much about new music at the moment, but performing-wise or just within the overall project … 

GK: Yeah! I have some random and fun ideas. I’m working on writing a musical just for fun, so that’s something I can see us doing in the future maybe. I have a bunch of songs for probably another album, but we really have no thoughts about it yet. We haven’t even talked about it because we’ve spent all summer rehearing all these new songs. We all got new equipment so we’re just trying to get really good at “Close It Quietly,” so it feels like a big leap already. But yeah, I don’t know where it’s going to go, but I always try to keep it fun for myself and add something new into the mix – like a musical. I’d like to take some time off touring in the future and try some other weird stuff. Maybe make a musical, maybe write songs for someone else … I don’t know. We’re always coming up with new crazy schemes! I kind of can’t really see that far ahead.

AT: The album was just released this month. I guess one last thing I’ll add in is what that has been like for you?

GK: It’s been great and it feels good. At this point, we’re all pretty used to that process. I’m not doing too much looking into how it’s doing. I mean, I don’t really care, because I know how I feel about it. I’m really proud of the record, so I’m not driving myself crazy reading the reviews. I just feel really content with it. We’re all used to this process, but actually putting it out there is always the scary part. But it’s chill, and it’s done. Now, we just play the songs, and it feels really normal.

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