A frontrunner of the wave of female indie musicians that have started releasing their own music within the last decade, Greta Kline – aka Frankie Cosmos – has helped to open up a new world where a young woman’s brutal honesty is not only listened to, but cherished. Her latest studio album, Next Thing, a record that finds Kline exploring vast new emotional territory, drops April 1. We chat with the New Yorker about perfect pop songs, ripping off Jeffrey Lewis and demanding respect for women.
How long have you been writing songs?
Probably since I was 12 or so. So I guess almost 10 years.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
I do. It was a total rip off of a Jeffrey Lewis song. I just took a format from a Jeffrey Lewis song and made my own version of it. It was for my band in sixth grade with my friend Eliza. She played guitar and I played drums and sang. It was cool. [The song] was listing all the bad things I did at every age and how I’m going to hell. It was loosely based on the song “Back When I was Four” by Jeffrey Lewis.
What was yours called?
It was called “Hell in a Handbasket,” I believe.
What’s your typical songwriting process now?
Well, usually I just listen to a Jeffrey Lewis song and rip it off. Just kidding. Now, I always have a notebook on me and I write down ideas all the time for lyrics. I have a bunch of melody ideas that are saved on my computer or in my phone, and I’ll usually spend some time trying to pair lyrics and melody ideas. Once I’ve struck upon the one I want to work on, I’ll go from there.
What percentage of your songs do you finish and how many of those do you actually end up using?
I don’t know. It kind of depends. Sometimes it’s like one out of 10, and then sometimes it’s like one out of four. In the past, I would just put all of them out, but now I’m being more selective. Out of songs that I’ve completed and made a finished demo of, anywhere from one out of five or one out of 10 I’ll choose and be like, “This I need to bring to the band. This one’s good.”
How much influence does the band have once you bring them something? Do you bring them a full, finished product or do you have a skeleton and they help you flesh it out?
When I bring a song to them I always have the lyrics and melody and chords finished, but they all write their own parts. I mean, everyone works on arranging it together. Sometimes, but pretty rarely, someone will be like, “Let’s add a section.” That’s pretty rare that I’ll let that happen, because usually I feel like the songs are finished. For example, on this record, I recently found a demo for “Outside With The Cuties” and the song ends after the last lyric. I remember during band practice someone said, “Let’s repeat the verse and have a keyboard solo,” and that’s what made it on to the record. So there are times when they’ll have a big effect on the actual layout of the song.
I was reading an interview of you where you mentioned that it’s more difficult to preserve your individuality in your songs these days. How confined did you feel when you were writing this album to fit into that mold of this new, “indie woman” thing that’s happening?
I have tried really hard to not feel that way. I’ve never really felt like I have to write something that will go with my character that I’ve created. The way that I’ve tried to escape that is first of all, continuing to write a ton of songs and try to be as purely me as possible and then pick my favorite songs from there. If anything, I think it’s affected that process: choosing which songs to bring into the world. What was scary with this record was there were definitely some moments where I was super vulnerable. I think making those decisions and being like “I’m going to sing this every night to a bunch of strangers,” that’s the scary decision to make. But I don’t think it’s ever a writing decision. I’m going to write that stuff either way. I never let that hold me back. But I think the idea that other people are going to hear it makes me more critical of whether or not something’s good. But I haven’t really let it affect anything else. We were in band practice the other day arranging a new song and someone said something about a part [of an idea] being really cheesy, and we were like, “Well, we never let something being cheesy affect it before. Let’s just do it if that’s what we want to do.” I’m not going to wonder what some critic will say about this keyboard solo.
On that note, you’ve always been very forthcoming in your lyrics. You were one of the first artists in this recent wave of young women who have started coming into the music world and being honest about real things and sharing their thoughts. There’s such a weird culture around the whole thing, and people are often very critical, sometimes in a gross way. How often to do you encounter that in a real setting, and how has that affected you in your writing, if it has at all?
Luckily, people who are assholes usually stay at home, so I haven’t really encountered it in real life. My version of it is that I think people love to discredit women who are doing things. I know that sounds really extreme or whatever, but it’s totally real. I think the way that most people have been experiencing it is through an article that’s needlessly discrediting you or comparing you to someone you don’t need to be compared to. For example, somebody recently tweeted at me and Gabby from Eskimeaux, who’s in my band, and the tweet was literally like, “@eskimeaux > @frankiecosmos, and immediately, I quoted my own tweet from a month before and sent it to them. The tweet was like, “It’s really useless to compare women who make music for no reason. Everyone’s making a different thing for our own reasons. There’s no need to pit us against each other, especially when you do it with women for no reason.” It’s just interesting that people feel the need to pick one like, “This girl is the only one that I want to listen to.” It’s like there’s only one female musician or something. For our EP release show when we got back from tour, we played a show that was entirely our friends making music that all had women fronting the bands. It was just by chance that it happened, but I looked around and was like, “Damn. This is awesome. Thank god there’s a show like this that we’re playing.” It’s just really important to be like, “See, we can all do it. All the bands are different, and it’s really unnecessary to only pick one or pit us against each other.” So I feel like that’s the way it comes out: just assholes on Twitter writing stuff like that. The other thing that’s really scary that I don’t think male musicians ever deal with is judgment on how you look. It sucks. Actually, Mitski does a really good job writing about that publicly and being like, “I’m not pretty or ugly, and it doesn’t matter because I’m a musician. You should be writing about my music.” I don’t want to misquote her, but she wrote something like that. It just sucks, because I don’t think men spend half the amount of the time worrying about what they look like on stage because it doesn’t matter what they look like… I think it’s important that people talk about that stuff, because if you don’t then people are just going to keep doing it. Also, another thing – and I’ve written about this on Tumblr before – is that people think they deserve to touch you because they heard your band. It’s just the kind of thing no one would ever do [to a male musician]. Nobody would ever go up to a man and try to force a hug on him. It sucks because you have to try way harder to be unapproachable as a girl if you want to not get groped, basically.
If you do act that way, and somebody comes up to you to do something and you say, “I don’t feel comfortable with that,” then they just go, “Well, you’re an asshole.”
And also, I’ve made it pretty clear online that you have to ask if you want to touch me. At some point, I made a statement about that and was like, “Please ask before hugging me. Sometimes I will say yes. I’m not just super against touching people, but there are times where I don’t want to be touched, and I should be allowed to have a say in it.” There was a show pretty soon after that – I had just gotten back from a month long tour. I was really sick, and I wasn’t touching anyone – like I refused to shake hands because I was extremely sick, and Gabby sang most of our set because my voice was totally gone – and then I went outside and was going to get in my parents car and go home. This guy was trying to shake my hand, and I was like, “Sorry, I’m just going to do a big back-of-the-hand handshake with you because I’m really sick.” I said that and we were outside, so he could hear me, and I was giving him the back of my hand and he just kept slipping his hand around trying to shake my hand. And then because I wouldn’t let him shake my hand and I explained it to him, he threw himself at me to hug me. I literally just ran away. I ran down the block crying and was like, “How the fuck do you think that’s appropriate?” It was just so absurd. That would never happen to a man who said, “Oh, I’m sick. I don’t want to shake your hand.” Because when a man declares that you don’t have a right to touch their body, that’s okay, but when a woman does it, it’s like, “No, I need to.” It was very, very scary. I just think that kind of thing is really rampant when you’re putting yourself out there… I’m trying to do the Beyonce thing now and just be really unapproachable. That’s who I’m trying to channel now. No one would ever do that to Beyonce. It has to be a thing, but I’ve definitely started training myself to be less approachable.
Who are your favorite songwriters?
So many. Number one is probably Joanna Newsom. And I really like a lot my friends’ music: Eskimeaux’s the big one. Arthur Russell – I’m a big fan of Arthur Russell. Also, I gotta say –I don’t say this a lot – Bob Dylan. Really good songwriter. Everyone knows that, but that’s someone who definitely inspired me when I first started writing songs. He’s also funny, which I think is cool. And Aaron Maine [of Porches].
Do you ever do any co-writing, or have you tried to?
Not really. I’ve been in kind of co-write-y bands in the past. I’m not very good at that, unless it’s super weird songs. If I have a really specific idea for a song, I need to execute it. I did have a kind of co-write-y project with my friend Leone that was called Hot Wire, and it was basically just really freeform, weird music where we would be singing different things at the same time and stuff. And we would co-write everything. Because it wasn’t super specific subject matter, I was totally fine with it. But if I wanted to write a song about something else, I would just make it my own song. I’m mostly a sole-songwriter-type person.
What do you think your proudest moment has been so far a songwriter?
I have a specific moment when somebody came up to me on one of our very first tours a really long time ago in Syracuse, New York, and was like, “My whole family listened to this song of yours when our dog died and it really helped us. Thank you so much.” It was a really beautiful moment for me. I was like, “Oh my god. My one song affected this one person and their family. I’m done. I’ve achieved all the success I need.”
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing or art?
Separate from songwriting, I have a really small online poetry group I started that’s maybe six or seven people. I try to get people to send in personal poems. That’s a totally different outlet for me than songwriting is: writing written poetry that’s not to be sung. I dabble in other art forms, but really just in really fun, flippant ways. I love making music videos and filming stuff, and I paint and draw. I’m actually writing a comic right now, but totally just a fun, side-project-type thing.
What do you think is the most perfect song ever written and why?
Oh man, so many things I could say. What I’m going to say is kind of evil. I love pop music, and when I think the word “perfect,” the first thing I think of is a perfect pop song. That’s when I use the word “perfect,” is when I’m talking about the most perfect pop song–everything is a hook, everything is catchy, every single section of it. So for me, I think it might be “You Belong with Me” by Taylor Swift. Such a good song. To me, when I hear that song, what I think is, “This is perfect. This is a perfect song.” Just in terms of purely “conceptually perfect.” It doesn’t mean it’s my favorite song. Every section of it is catchy; the bridge is catchy. To me, that represents the future of current pop. In the old days, pop only had to have a catchy chorus and you would sit through the verses to get the the chorus. And now, every pop song is perfect. Every song is like catchy verse, catchy bridge, catchy chorus. It’s like really freaky. Whenever I hear really nice pop songs, I’m always like, “Wow, that was perfect.”