In Conversation: Frankie Cosmos’ Greta Kline Is Always Growing
The prolific songwriter discusses learning to love love and ask questions prior to the release of her band’s fourth album, Close It Quietly.
The prolific indie pop songwriter Greta Kline is usually on tour with her band Frankie Cosmos, but this summer she’s been spending a lot of time at her apartment in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. “I’m trying to really sink into being at home,” she tells me over the phone in mid-August. She still has band practice regularly, and the band self-manages so she has a lot of emailing to do. But otherwise, she’s been on summer break, painting and collaging, hanging out, chilling alone. And now she’s gearing up for back-to-tour season with the release of Frankie Cosmos’ fourth studio album, Close It Quietly, out September 6 on Sub Pop.
“Flowers don’t grow / In an organized way / Why should I?” Kline, now twenty-five, asks on “A Joke,” a straightforward gem from the new album. That’s pretty much the ethos of Frankie Cosmos, and it’s probably also part of why they sound like their own little universe. Kline tells me no matter what different tools she and the band play around with, like they did on the new record, her music will always sound like Frankie Cosmos. It’s that special, cozy lilt in Kline’s voice, the way she returns to investigate the same ideas in new ways, how she sprinkles metaphors across songs. (On Close It Quietly, it’s trees and diamonds, but when I inquire what the diamonds are about, she giggles and insists it’s too silly to tell anyone. “I can’t explain it,” she says. “No one knows except for me. It has something to do with the shape. That’s all I’ll say. It’s just like, so stupid. I won’t even tell my bandmates, ’cause it’s so dumb.”)
Over the phone, Kline is effusive about love and the influence of her life-long friendships, always growing and changing and asking questions, and more.
The fact that most Frankie Cosmos albums, like Close It Quietly, include songs written over the span of years makes it hard to ask about your headspace while writing. But you’ve been exploring similar ideas throughout your career so far, so there are some threads. Like, time itself, personal growth, and plants.
I don’t really think of an album as an album. I think of it as a bunch of songs that I have. I think it also comes from when I was putting out demo releases a lot, I would make a bunch of songs in a week or a month and put them out that month. And it was instant, and connected to that time period. But now, because we’re putting stuff out maybe once a year at most, it’s less cohesive in a period of life way. I think it’s sonically cohesive, but the songwriting isn’t necessarily all from one place. When it comes to arranging the songs, we do that mostly in a chunk of time. We probably arranged 90 percent of these songs in the two months leading up to the recording. It feels like an album. But there’s songs from a fully different time in my life that I can’t even remember.
Afterwards I go, “Oh, there’s a theme here, there’s like five songs that mention trees.” You know? But I don’t plan that stuff between the songs, I only plan it within one song. I still think everything to this point has been my “early work,” so, of course, I’m writing about the same stuff over and over again.
I think what happens in my mind is I write something where I use a tree as a metaphor and then that image gets stuck and I come back to it with other songs. I also have found multiple meanings I’ve attached to it. In “Rings on a Tree” and “Trunk of a Tree,” they’re like, such different trees. There’s the same thing on this album with diamond imagery. It comes up in three songs. I just wasn’t done with it yet, I guess.
What does sitting down to write a song do for you?
“There’s an anxiety that comes with having unfinished songs, for me. If there’s a song I haven’t had time to finish, that builds up and makes me anxious.”
Sometimes I have a song idea that’s, like, spinning inside me and I just have to finish it or it will keep on bothering me. But sometimes I don’t know what I’m gonna write about, and writing a song is helping me figure out what I’m even feeling. Or sometimes an idea pops into my head when I’m walking around and I’m like, “Oh my god, I have to get home so I can write this song.” And then if I don’t, or if I’m on tour and don’t have time to finish it, it will just keep on sitting in my brain, being like, “You have to write me.” There’s an anxiety that comes with having unfinished songs, for me. If there’s a song I haven’t had time to finish, that builds up and makes me anxious.
Are you good at finishing things? Or do you tend to leave a number of things waiting to be finished in the background?
I’ve gotten worse at finishing things. Not having a lot of time at home, there’s so many unfinished threads I haven’t finished thinking out. It’s good because if there’s a day where I wanna write a song or I feel uninspired or I don’t have an idea, I have so many unfinished ideas that I can go back to and work out. But at the same time, those things existing makes me feel really stressed out. I’d rather just have the idea and write the song that day. And have it be done.
I feel you. I said to someone last night, “Why can’t things just finish themselves?” That would be way easier.
I think especially writers have this—I have a chip on my shoulder like, “I have to finish it.” You don’t wanna delegate! You don’t wanna let it finish itself. You’re like, “I have to do it.” Do you have this thing where if you read a book you feel like you have to finish it even if you’re not into it? I have that, and I’m learning to let go, but it’s so stressful. My aunt said to me, “You know, you can put down a book that you don’t like.” I think my fear is that if I let myself start putting stuff down then me having a short attention span will take over and I’ll never finish anything. I have a stack of, like, eight books I’m halfway through right now.
What have you been reading?
Actually the last like five days I’ve been reading the same book every day. I got into Beloved by Toni Morrison. I had never read it, and when she passed away my friend said I should really read that one. That I’ve been really into. I have it on my Kindle and that’s what I bring around with me and read every day. I also have a poetry book I’m reading, a graphic novel, a comic book. I’m reading the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 books. I love Buffy the TV show and I never knew that the books are actually considered the true continuation of the story. I’m savoring them, like I could read it in a day if I wanted to. And then I’m also reading this book Everything by Lynda Barry, which is a collection of her early comics. It’s so good. Really funny, really nice to read. So I’m trying to not finish it. That’s another thing, I’m scared to finish the books because I don’t want them to end.
“When I hear a song I always think it’s about whatever I’m going through. Even if it isn’t at all. You can find a way. And it makes you ask a question to yourself that you maybe wouldn’t before.”
If I go long enough without reading, eventually I’ll get bored and wanna read. I sort of trust that my brain will balance itself out, that eventually I’m gonna be compelled to do it again. I do sometimes do stuff in excess. Same thing with songwriting, if I go a month without having a song idea or something—and I feel like I’m so boring—eventually I’m gonna have one.
And I’m almost halfway through this book Modern Tarot by Michelle Tea, which is something you can pick up and put down because each chapter is describing a Tarot card, so it’s not a continual story that you have to follow. I’ve been reading that for awhile. And Pond [by Claire-Louise Bennett] is here, too. They’re all in a stack and it’s really stressful.
Are you getting into Tarot?
My aunt is into it, so she gives me a lot of books about that kind of stuff. She’s been slowly teaching me about it over the years. I mostly just like it and I like the art. I like the “Fool” card. I like the idea that all of them can be useful at any time. I don’t think that pulling a Tarot card means you need that card in that moment, necessarily, I think you can learn something from any of the cards at any point, probably.
I think songs are kind of like that. Two different people going through different stuff in their life can hear the same song and connect to it in some way. I’m like that, when I hear a song I always think it’s about whatever I’m going through. Even if it isn’t at all. You can find a way. And it makes you ask a question to yourself that you maybe wouldn’t before.
You are full of questions.
I feel like I’m still figuring out stuff, and every time I put out an album I feel like, “This is who I am right now,” but it’s still so open to change and I’m still just figuring out who I am, and it’s so weird to keep writing songs and keep having people hear them. Like, this defines me at this point. And then in a year it’s gonna be really different.
Do you already feel like Vessel is behind you?
We’re still working out our set for this coming tour and there’s so few songs on Vessel that I still wanna play. Well, I would play any of them, but there’s a lot I’m just like, “Eh, kinda over that.” And we’ve been playing them on tour for so long that I wanted to play different songs. I definitely think the meanings of the songs change for me over time, and I find a new thing to connect to it. But for me, Vessel is such a breakup album. I’m not in that same mindset, so it feels really distant to me now.
How are you feeling about love these days?
Um, I love it! [Laughs.] I love love. I’ve always loved love. I think Frankie Cosmos has a really specific relationship with love. There was a moment for me where my love was super out on the table and visible to anyone that was interested. I’m sort of pulling back into myself and keeping my love more private and wanting it to be for me. And I think the songs show that, too. I used to write really straightforward, lovey songs, and now they’re more vague, or they’re more personal. I like the crazy feeling of having your love with someone being just between you two. And not putting it out on display for everyone. That is something that has changed for me. A lot of the early Frankie Cosmos stuff, especially because when I started the band it was me and a boyfriend, it was very public. I’m trying to step away and have it just be for me, which is really nice!
But yeah, I love it. I’m in love, and it’s great. I’m all about it.
I could kind of tell, from how full of love the video for “Windows” is.
Aw, yeah, that’s my best friend. That’s like, such a love concept video. My friend Eliza [Doyle], who I made it with, is one of maybe three people that I could do that with. I could do it with her, I could do it with my mom, or I could do it with my partner. And that’s it. I really wanted it to feel really earnest—me and Eliza have a special, really long friendship. So it was really fun to make and have it be part of the album.
She’s made a bunch of videos for Frankie Cosmos, actually. She did a video probably for every album since Fit Me In. She’s great. She taught me how to play guitar. Even though we don’t play music together anymore, I feel very influenced by her artistically. She’s a great artist.
Aren’t friends the best?
Friend love is so beautiful. To me it’s the same. It’s all just… I love love. I always feel for men, because I think they have a harder time with their emotions. But female friendship is so special. I pretty much only have female friends. It feels romantic in the way that love feels, even if it’s not. You wanna hang out, and lose track of time, and be quiet together, or talk about whatever. Being on summer break right now, I’m really living in that.
Can you tell me about “This Swirling”? What is the swirling?
“I used to write really straightforward, lovey songs, and now they’re more vague, or they’re more personal. I like the crazy feeling of having your love with someone being just between you two.”
I used to cry like, every day of my life. I should say that, to start. About a year ago I started taking medication and I stopped crying for like a full month. Now, I don’t cry every day, but I’m getting back into being able to cry and it’s so great. I love crying. I’m all about it. I think it’s really important bodily and for mental maintenance to cry. So that’s kind of what the swirling is. It’s always this swirling that gets me back to crying. I’m always gonna end up back there. I don’t think it’s a bad thing or a good thing, it’s just part of my process. And that’s what I like about how no matter how much weird mental progress I make throughout any of the other songs on the album, I like that it ends with this sort of, well, “I’m always just gonna have that: crying.” It’s like a love song to crying. I love crying. I probably could do it more, still. Whenever I do it, I’m like, “Yes, finally.”
I’m a great fan of crying. It’s not just for sadness. You can cry when you’re angry, overwhelmed, confused, happy…
I cry laughing. Do you know the show PEN15? Every episode makes me both laugh so hard and also cry the most confused style of crying because I can’t tell if I’m crying because I’m laughing or if I’m crying because it’s so intense. I love it, it’s such a crazy feeling. It really hits something. Takes you right back to seventh grade.
What were you like in seventh grade?
I was like them! Me and Eliza were Maya and Anna in PEN15. We had a band then. It was called Foxy Pig. It was a good band. Oh my god, I think I dreamed last night that I found a recording of us. A couple recordings exist. It was like, rock, you know. We liked The Strokes and Weezer. I played drums and we both sang and Eliza played guitar. She’s an amazing guitarist. She’s still probably the best guitarist I know. And she doesn’t even play guitar anymore, but when she does it’s fucking crazy. We never played one show. But we played for our parents and our friends.
This is a crazy thing but Lauren, my bandmate, I’ve also known for, like, thirteen years and she was in a band with my brother at the time, in middle school, and Eliza and I covered one of their songs. I have this memory of being really nervous playing it in front of Lauren, which is funny because now she’s my bandmate. But she was this older, cool genius songwriter. She was in ninth grade, I think, and my brother was in eighth grade, and Eliza and I were in sixth grade. And they had a band and we had a band. We were so into their band, we thought they were so amazing.
Tell me about what’s different sonically on Close It Quietly.
It’s our first album that we made digitally, not to tape, so it has a different fidelity in that way. We had access to a lot more instruments because we recorded it at this studio that had a bunch of really nice guitars and keyboards. It’s changed our live show. I got a new guitar after making this record because when we were in the studio we just kept finding other, better guitars and getting a sound that was much nicer. And then I was like, “I’m gonna buy a Fender,” because that’s the new sound of the band. It’s just a nicer guitar sound, for the new songs. It just fits better. And the keyboard player, Lauren, she got two new keyboards after we recorded the album, because there’s all these sounds we couldn’t do with our old setup. It just feels bigger, sonically, to me.
We gave ourselves a lot more time with this album, playing around with sounds. It’s this thing where we know no matter what we do it’s still gonna feel like a Frankie Cosmos record, because of my songwriting and my singing. We played around with sounds that didn’t feel like “Frankie Cosmos” sounds, but they become Frankie Cosmos sounds by us doing that. It was really fun to make. And we’re all really proud of this record. It’s exciting. We always feel that way, but it feels like a new and exciting step. FL