Conversations is an interview series in which we discuss a specific component of an artist’s work.
In this edition, Jeanette Wall chats with Greta Kline, a.k.a. singer/songwriter Frankie Cosmos, about the numerous recurring themes that pop up throughout her songs, the origins of her stage name, her unorthodox writing techniques, and more.
You have so many recurring themes in your songs even if they are older songs. You talk about New York, and you talk about your relationships, and you talk about your family and your dog. Do you actively think about that or is it more just these are the things that I want to write about because they’re the biggest parts of my life?
I don’t know, I think they just come up. It usually comes up, if I’m thinking about it I write about it, and I’m probably thinking about that stuff all the time. It’s all the stuff I do, is the stuff you named. I feel like my music gets more and more meta ‘cause it’s just referencing itself or it seems like it’s referencing itself but I also think I do it on purpose sometimes. If I think a reference to a song I already wrote is going to bring up an interesting emotion or, like, a new song, or it would be interesting to reference it or something. I think that’s cool.
What’s an example of that that you can think of?
Just a name or something. For example, I mean, I don’t know if this is a real example but if I write a song now that has the name “Leonie” in it, everyone who has heard my song “Leonie” from last year knows who that is and they have all this information about that, just in that name, so I can play on that. It’s like a theme.
It’s like creating context clues. The song’s still meaningful even if you don’t have that context but it’s that much more meaningful if you do.
Yeah, totally. Obviously they’re never going to get what it means to me but they’re going to slowly build up what it means over the course of listening to all my music if they do that. Or the name “Ronnie.” The longer you’ve been listening to my music the more you’ve heard me talk about Ronnie and then all I have to do is drop his name into the chorus and it’s huge. I don’t know, it just means so much more to the listener who follows you actively or whatever, which isn’t everyone.
Even just within the context of an album you reference the same names, so you can know who you’re talking about.
Yeah, I really like people picking up on my other friendships within the same music scene. People see that I’ve covered a Krill song and then they can hear four albums later I’m talking about Krill or Palehound. Two of my songs off that album are about Palehound and Krill and bands that I like. Or my friends being my heroes and stuff. I like to be talking about stuff that people might be like “Oh, that’s so crazy, I saw her play with them!” or whatever and think that that’s cool or feel like they’re in on it.
And the pseudonyms—how far removed are those characters from you? Or are they not at all?
They’re not removed at all. It’s just, like, names. I call Aaron “Ronnie” all the time, not just in songs. I’m one of very few people who do that. But everyone knows that I’m talking about him. I mean, in real life. Like, “Oh, me and Ronnie are going to come…” and they’re like, “Who’s that?” ‘cause… I probably introduce him to people as “Ronnie” way more often than I say “Aaron.”
Is there an origin story for any of those?
“Frankie” and “Ronnie,” both those names came about the same time, 2011… November 2011, December. When we were starting to date and he was like, he said to me that he wanted to start going to “Ronnie” so when I started hanging out with him I was immediately calling him “Ronnie” and everyone around us picked up, a couple people picked up on it ‘cause they were like “Oh, that’s your name now!” He has, maybe, thirty people who exclusively call him “Ronnie” and all his old friends call him “Aaron” or something. And then also Aaron made up “Frankie” because I showed him Frank O’Hara, the poet, and he was really into it and he started calling me Frank and he was writing a bunch of songs about the cosmos, so “Frankie Cosmos” somehow turned up and that’s the only name that I’ve stuck with.
How do you guys reference each other’s music? “Dancing in the Public Eye,” for instance.
I wrote that one first! I want to publicly state that I came up with “Dancing in the Public Eye” and I didn’t write the song, I was just singing it as a made up thing and then Aaron was recording the PORCHES. album and he called me from Binghamton and he was like, “Hey, I just want to know if I can fill up this space in this song by using your line,” and I said, “Yeah, sure!” And then when I started recording my album at the same place that he recorded it, and we did that song, and I was like, “This is going to be really funny because every one is going to think that I stole it from him.” It’s not about who made it up. We both kind of own it.
Do you ever see people using these intensely personal anecdotes you share, that like, putting them through their own perception of their lives, and “this is so like my life because of this,” even though it’s not like it at all?
There was a girl on Tumblr who I saw, like, a video of this girl, or this girl emailed me asking for the lyrics to a song and then she did a cover of it at a school talent show. And it was so good and I was really excited. It was really cute ‘cause she emailed me and was like, “Can I have your permission to cover this at my school talent show?” And I was like, “Yeah, totally!” and then I saw the video. It was really funny because you see someone who just is the most removed from you, someone who doesn’t know anything about what the song is about.
The farther I get from writing the song, the more I don’t remember what it’s about and I think of it as being about something else or related to a newer part of my life when I sing it now, but it’s really funny to see someone and be like, “You’re singing about something that’s so personal,” you have no clue because it’s not specifically said. I think that that’s interesting. I’m totally pro people taking it however they want, and if someone is, “Oh, that song is about that!” I’m like, “Yeah, totally!” even if it’s not what I meant for it to be about. “Yeah, that’s what it’s about!” or sometimes that’s what it’s about.
It’s like, I had this song, “On The Lips.” When I play it live, I really like writing songs where it could be about two totally opposite things. In “On The Lips” the lyrics are “Where would I kiss you if I could kiss you?” and the first half I sing it I point at the audience and the second half I point at Aaron, because it could be either one. It could be about someone who I’m not dating or it could be about Aaron. It was written about Aaron but it’s interesting to explore the different things that it could mean, or how it could be perceived and to accept them as that’s how it’s going to be perceived anyway.
I feel like there’s so much nuanced stuff about New York, whether you’re singing about a cab or you’re singing about a venue or just moments that happened to be in New York. Do you think that you see yourself as a New Yorker singing about New York? Do you personally identify with the city in any way that sort of comes out in your music?
Yeah, I mean, I love New York so much, that’s why I’ve never left, but I also, I always have felt like really mixed emotions about it. I feel so strongly like “I’m a New Yorker” and I’m always so much of a dick about being a New Yorker. Like “Ah, that fucking kid doesn’t know anything about New York,” and I get really snooty about it sometimes, which is stupid, but I also have a love/hate relationship with New York because I feel very trapped here and that comes back with every other theme. New York is like related to all the other themes in my songs because I’ve sort of felt trapped here because my dog lives in New York. I literally didn’t want to go to college outside New York because I wanted to be with my dog. That was the main reason I stayed in New York and then it was lucky that I did because after applying to college I started dating Aaron and then it was like, “Thank god I’m not moving away soon” or whatever, so it’s this kind of endless cycle of being stuck here and then I want to go on tour and then come back to New York and all the feelings that are involved.
What do you think are your creature comforts here? I guess literally your dog, who you sing about. You can talk about your dog.
I don’t want to talk about him. America’s heard enough about Jojo. It’s really funny because the places that I really love in New York, I’m not even usually there. I have these iconic places where I spent a lot of my childhood or my teen-years. I used to go to the Natural History Museum every single day when I was sixteen. I went every day for three months, something really crazy like that. Because it was free! Once I found out you can get in for free I would go and spend every morning there because I lived on the Upper East Side so I could walk and it was really nice in the summer and then every time I was going to hang out with a friend I’d be like, “Let’s go there!” So that’s a place, but I haven’t been there in two years or something crazy like that. It’s crazy that I haven’t been there. That to me is the number one iconic New York spot.
And other stuff like that. Like The Met. Places where you can get in for free and walk around all day and hang out. I really like the old Silent Barn. I feel like it’s really iconic. 915 Wyckoff, it’s like a new venue now, which we played at. It was really funny to go back there ‘cause I’ve spent so much time there when I was little, not little, but fifteen. I worked for Showpaper and we’d have our meetings there five days a week for the whole summer. So I had a really strong sensory memory of being there for that. That came back when we walked into it. It’s funny because my view of the music scene before being in a band was so different than now. The places that I would go… I would go to Death By Audio all the time and I’ve played there twice since being in a band which is really different than growing up in New York and being an adult being actually creatively part of it. Because I was always an observer at that age. I wasn’t making music or trying to play shows so it’s really funny.
When did you start writing music?
Funny you should ask! I’ve played music since I was really little because I took piano lessons. First I took violin, but I quit because it gave me neck problems when I was five, and then I took piano for 10 years, and then in fifth grade I had this funky uncle who taught me bass and lent me his bass. But he was my aunt’s boyfriend and then they broke up and I still have his bass. I should probably give it back to him. I think he gave it to me? He sort of lent it to me and then he was like, “You can just have it,” because he had a lot of instruments. So I learned bass, and then I figured out guitar. I started really getting into writing songs. Actually, this is really funny, I just remembered the other day that I had this really funny band when I was in fifth grade with this girl Emmie, and we had this red composition notebook, and we wrote all the songs in it, and I played bass and we both sang. That was the only instrument, was the bass because I didn’t know guitar yet. And the songs were really emo and really funny. The two songs I remember, I don’t even want to say them ‘cause they’re so bad. It was just really funny; I just remembered all these terrible songs I was writing.
And then I had another band called “Foxy Pig” in sixth grade, which is when I played drums in the band. My friend Eliza played guitar. That band was awesome, but also really dweeby in retrospect. It was my first “rock band.” And then I didn’t write songs for a couple of years. And then in eighth grade was when I started playing guitar, and then in tenth grade was when the real project began. I dropped out of high school and became home schooled and had a lot of free time. Or, it was the summer before tenth grade I was writing a lot of music and spending a lot of my time doing that, and then in tenth grade when I decided to stop going back to high school I was like, “This is what I’m going to do every day.” Make songs, all day every day. And I was way more productive than I am now. I was making five songs a day for the first couple weeks I dropped out, I was like “I’ve got to be productive!” It was before I started doing my home schooling. It was so awesome; it was really a crazy period of time. Since then it’s just kept happening like that, just making a lot of music and discovering Bandcamp as a utensil. Bandcamp is so awesome. I feel like that inspired me to keep posting it. Nobody was listening to them but it was fun.
They’re not all good by any means. So much of it is so bad. Part of me wants to take it down but then I’m like “No, this is so cool.”
It’s the evolution.
Yeah, it’s the evolution! You can pinpoint the day I stopped putting the megaphone on my voice. It’s so hard to do that. I don’t know how to sing and I’m scared of how my voice sounds and I’m going to put the megaphone effect on and put reverb on it and no one will know that I suck. I still do it sometimes when I can’t get a good recording. It’s really funny because then once people start listening to it, and my mom’s like “I can’t understand the words. Try a couple that don’t have that.” I think it’s really cool to have the whole evolution on there and not be ashamed of it. I’m not going to ever take it down.
Do you ever go out when you’re writing a song and be like, “I’m going to have this specific song structure,” or is it related to what you’re writing about?
It depends. It’s funny because there’s maybe three ways I write songs, and you can kind of tell when you hear them that I wrote it this way. Some of them it’s really obvious that I’m making it up on the spot. I’ll have lyrics and then I’ll have a tune, and sometimes I’ll totally make it up on the spot. I’ll have a tune and some lyrics and I’ll think “Maybe it’ll go like this” and then I’ll record it and that’s the final recording. That’s very rare. There are maybe one or two songs like that on every album or something. I like experimenting with different ways to do it. There’s definitely no set way. But I just recently wrote a really structural song, not on purpose. Sometimes it just happens, and it seems like it’s on purpose and it’s really amazing and special and sometimes you have to make it work. And sometimes it doesn’t work. I just decided the other day—I was at my parents’ house and there’s an amp there (which there isn’t here) and I have my electric guitar there, and I thought, “Oh, I could plug in the guitar and record it and THEN write a song.” It was so cool, I never thought about writing on an electric guitar. I don’t know why I thought it would be really different. It wasn’t. It was a good feeling, it gave me a totally different perspective on it and a different style of writing it, and it has a weird Krill-inspired funky guitar solo between the verses, and I was like “This is cool, this is really different!”
I think that’s the cool thing about not knowing anything about music—it allows you to experiment. You basically write a song any way you want because you didn’t learn how to write one in the first place.
Totally. What’s really funny is what I mean when I say I don’t know anything about music is that I do—I mean, I don’t know when people say “1-4-5, and then it’s going to go to the 4.” I know what that means, but to me that’s—I don’t understand writing a song and thinking about it in terms of, “And then it’s going to resolve to this note,” or whatever. I feel like that’s cool if you know how to do that, but since I don’t, it’s way more fun for me to write a funky guitar solo and think “How can I fit this into the song?” And maybe it’s going to involve a key change. I don’t know what that means but I’m going to do it. It’s a really simple-minded approach where I’m not thinking at all about the theory or composition of it, I’m just trying stuff until it works. I’ll know in my head what I want the note to be, but I don’t know the name of it sometimes. I know that I want the melody to do this, but I have to literally guess until I find the note, and sometimes Aaron’s like “F minor” and I’m like “Fine, I guess I’ll just let you make it up ‘cause you’re smarter than me.” And he’s always right.
On the last record, and I know you’ve done it periodically, but you’ll have extra sounds, like a car honking or something. Is that purposeful?
It’s usually not purposeful. Sometimes it’s, “I don’t want to do this take again, and this one’s fine,” and usually there’s a car in it so too bad! There’s one where I purposely recorded the fire station because I was getting really mad about the fire trucks that go by every ten minutes.
Are most of them still home recorded?
Yeah. Every single one is home recorded. Almost every single record is on Garage Band on my computer, except for Wobbling which is on 4-track. Other than that, it’s about forty albums on my computer. And then this one that’s recorded at a studio.
Do you ever find that when you’re out of New York that you’re writing about different things? Does getting out of that mindset make you think about things differently?
Yeah, totally. I feel like when we’re in New York we’re on such a tight schedule. Not a tight schedule, such a recurring schedule where it’s like, we’re here. We’re in this apartment for the majority of the day. And we’re on the computer and booking tours and going to play shows and we’re lugging our instruments on the L train, which is hell. I hate going to play shows in New York because you don’t get to drive most days unless we’re lugging our guitars to my parents’ house and then driving from there, which is nice. But I love being on the road so much. You can tell from when my songs get really repetitive that I’m just sitting at home being crazy, sweating in this apartment and playing a lot of chess, or whatever it is that we’re doing that’s making us feel crazy. Or making the same breakfast every day, like eggs with spinach and onion and garlic and Sriracha, and we’re drinking coffee and shitting and sweating and making music in our two rooms. It’s such a weird schedule, and then you go out and drive and do a couple days of touring or something, and you feel so nice, and you’re sleeping in weird places or you’re cold, and you’re kind of miserable but you’re really happy, and you see people you don’t get to see. There are so many really nice things that await you when you leave New York.
Someone just asked me in an interview if I’m from the suburbs because all my songs are about the suburbs. But I just love the suburbs so much because it’s so calm and different, and there’s no stress. I really love driving. When I first heard Whatever, Dad, the first song I heard was “R E S T S T O P.” It’s this really long, really repetitive song about driving and being at a rest stop and that’s super-inspiring. It’s such a different feeling from what Elaiza’s life is usually like, which is in college with a lot of stress. I think it’s cool to go out into the world. I always imagined myself when I was younger going on adventures when I get older, so it’s nice to hop into a band that already goes on tours and stuff.
You’re in PORCHES., and you have your own projects. Are you in any other bands?
Little projects that are not real yet. I really want to start this band called “All Alone” with my three friends who are all also in their own bands, so it’s going to be really hard to make it its own band. I did this project called “Hot Wire” with my friend Leoni from DC Schneider when she was in New York and it was totally different song writing, and it’s just fun to do that sometimes. But it’s impossible to have another real band.
How does being in PORCHES. educate Frankie Cosmos and how does Frankie Cosmos educate PORCHES.?
For me, being in PORCHES. was so useful in so many ways. It helped me get over my stage fright. I had extreme stage fright when I played my first solo show.
Where was that?
At this little weird café—Aaron booked it—in a town near his. It was my first show. I didn’t know how shows worked. I didn’t have a set list. I had a fifteen-minute set and I talked for ten minutes of it. It was really bad. I played four songs. It was so scary. Joining PORCHES. was so awesome because playing songs that aren’t your own is so much easier, there’s so much less fear in your soul, so that was really great. Aaron booked me my first Frankie Cosmos tour because he had connections and I don’t.
People didn’t hear my music until Aaron posted it because he had his own following, and people listened to him when he posted music. I remember being really pissed because Aaron was like, “All these people are liking you on my Facebook,” and I was like “Yeah, Aaron, you could post a picture of a piece of shit and say it was the best album and they would like it. It doesn’t mean anything,” and being really annoyed because I was thinking, “All these kids at Purchase just like it because Aaron says he likes it,” or whatever, and then finding out that people actually really liked it. It was such a nice feeling to go to Purchase and everyone is screaming the words and stuff and thinking, “They actually like me!” It was really nice to have that, but Aaron is the connection. I was trying to play shows in New York. When I was sixteen I was emailing Cake Shop and they never responded. No one would ever respond. Now Aaron has those friends and he can help me have an actual chance to play shows, which is nice.
I don’t think Frankie Cosmos has informed PORCHES. I love playing PORCHES. shows. It’s a really nice break from baring my soul on stage.
Who are other bands that you look to, or have inspired your writing? Like you say, your friends are your heroes. Who are some of those folks?
I don’t want to forget anyone! I’m working on a covers album right now. I want to read you a list of the bands I’m covering. There are so many people! Like Whatever, Dad, and Baby Mollusk. Pale Hound. Krill. Aaron’s music, which I’ve been listening to since I was fifteen. I did a cover from his first album. Rivergazer, which is the guy from PORCHES. I really like No One and the Somebodies. I just got into Pile, which is really good. I love everyone that I play with. I love hearing new bands that are in the same scene. And Eskimeaux! Gabby, who’s in my band. She played bass on a tour. Right now she’s singing the harmonies in my band. I’m trying to think of what I listen to in my free time. It’s a very small list because I don’t have a lot of time to listen to music. If the house is quiet, it means one of us is recording. But Eskimeaux is really amazing. We just played with this band Florist. She might be in the band “All Alone” that we might start. And my friend Suzanna has a band called “Yours Are the Only Ears” that she just started and there’s no recordings yet but we just saw them play live and it was so cool. It was really amazing. I love everyone. I don’t want to leave anyone out. If I’m forgetting anyone, just put them on there. LVL UP, Sirs.
It’s like bringing your songs to therapy.
Earlier in this interview I feel like I was talking a lot about how people perceive them. I want to make it clear: I don’t think about that when I’m writing them almost at all. Other than being almost somewhat vague when it comes to really personal stuff, but obviously I’m not. There’s a lot of personal stuff. I just want to make it clear for the interview that I’m not carefully constructing my songs to make you feel a certain way. It’s not like a weird, manipulative, Miley Cyrus thing.
Does she do that?
Not her. But you know, I don’t have songwriters helping me craft my perfect—like, “this chord will pull your heart strings.” In pop music, that thing where it goes [scats], in every pop song when it goes like that.
The build. I really want someone to do that for me. I want Aaron to put that into one of my songs somehow, because that’s really funny.
Frankie Cosmos’ latest release, Donutes, is available—along with many other releases—via her Bandcamp page. You can also listen to “Owen,” the lead-off single from her forthcoming debut studio album, below: