Frankie Rose interview: "Every record I make is a time capsule of what's happening in the moment."
Frankie Rose’s new album Cage Tropical is released today after 4 years in the wilderness, unsure whether she would ever release another album, despite having lived and worked in the industry for years in myriad different groups, before going solo. We had a chance to chat to Frankie about her time away, the inspirations for the new album, and just how grateful she was to have another opportunity to bring out another album.
Throughout our conversation Frankie was typically honest, humorous and excited. The effervescence in her voice evidenced her genuine gratitude at being back where she's supposed to be in the music world, and made for a very pleasant and enlightening discussion.
I guess the first place to start is what's been going on with you since the last album? It’s been four years and it seems like you've been through a lot?
Oh yeah! Phew. Yeah I mean I guess so. I moved to LA, I moved back to New York. Pretty crazy.
What happened in LA?
It was just not a good fit for me, I mean just a lot of tragedy, a lot of not being able to pay the bills, a lot of feeling that music wasn't gonna happen anymore. And then you know a sort of miracle - it really was actually - I was able to make another record, and here I am! Back in New York! Back to business as usual!
So you actually reached the point where you thought it would never happen again?
Well kinda, yeah, because it just seemed like there were no possibilities... I mean it was also just a pretty strange time for me professionally, because you know labels they want you to have a complete package before you even approach them. Like you're supposed to be this complete entity with a full album and everything done before you even... unless you're already signed to a record label or whatever. It felt very daunting. It didn't seem like it was gonna work out for me to make another record… but I did!
Was it a relief to move back to New York?
Oh yeah, it's my home here. I don't know what I was thinking, really. I felt like maybe space would be a nice idea or something, but in the end actually you're just kinda trapped in a car all day! [laughs]
Let's talk about Cage Tropical, starting with the title - tell me about that.
In LA I used to hang out by this place called Cafe Tropical. It's just sort of a play on that [laughs].
Almost like an autocorrect. I see. So is there in a lot of LA influnce on this album?
I think so, because it's where I started the record. In my closet in my apartment across from the Echoplex in Echo Park, so yeah undoubtedly. But I feel like every record I make is a time capsule of what's happening in the moment. So a lot of the lyrics, a lot of the themes are just about what was happening during that time. And the back end of it was done in New York, but the initial inspiration for everything was very much LA based.
Do you think you can hear that in the new sounds as well?
I suppose, I guess, I don't really know. You can hear because of the themes - I can hear it, I don't know if you can hear it necessarily.
Do you still start writing songs on your guitar or do you start from other places?
Usually on the guitar or a keyboard. Pretty much I can figure out everything from there.
And the lyrics, you're still taking a pretty casual approach?
Suuuper casual. That's why I think things end up being such a time capsule, because sometimes I'll just write them the morning that we record them, or the night before.
There's no songs on the album that you laboured over?
I feel like I definitely labour over the music like a psycho person, but lyrics a lot of the time for me, it's just something I have to do while I'm working on recording the song - the day of, or the night before. I don't know why; I've just always been that way. I'm definitely not a poet, that's for sure [laughs].
I still get a theme running through it about control and figuring out what you're going to do with your life - is that accurate?
Oh for sure. That's definitely what was happening at the time when I was making the record. It's definitely honest, there's nothing made up on there for sure - this is what was happening. Those are the themes.
Did you think you were losing control of your 'destiny', for lack of a better word?
I think it's more the opposite; I had to let go of control. I think that I was just trying so hard to make things happen that weren't gonna happen, and it was more a matter of letting go of control I think. Which was my big lesson from moving to LA in the first place.
I guess that's what the last song 'Decontrol' is about.
I think that might be my favourite song, it gets stuck in my head every time I finish the album.
Really? Wow! I just put that one at the end like “maybe they won't notice this one” [laughs].
A lot of the songs sound happy and then the lyrics are less happy, it almost sounds blissful. I'm thinking about the title track when you're singing "you're on your own again," which seems miserable written down, but the way you sing and present it sounds heavenly.
Gosh, I know! I think that's a theme in all my records. They're pop songs that are a little dour or whatever. I love that though; I love The Smiths, I love The Cure, I love snarky pop songs.
'Red Museum' is a perfect example of that on this. First I want to ask about the Geneva Jacuzzi video - how did that come about?
I'm a fan of her - she's amazing and so bold, she'd do things on stage I'd never dream of. So I've always looked up to her and her work a lot. I approached her and just asked her if she was interested, and she liked the song and she wanted to do it. So I just let her do what she wanted - I don't do well on camera myself, I really don't like to be in my own videos, so I just tried finding somebody whose work I admire and asked them. And she loved the song and said yes, so I just said "do your interpretation of this, I just want you to be an artist and do what you want to do." And she did! She did a really amazing job!
She did, it's very cool. You've said 'Red Museum' is a love song, and you've said previously that you're not very experienced at writing love songs - has it become any easier?
It's not really a love song, it's more just like smart-ass. What goes through my head when I think that something like that is happening with another person it's immediately just like a panic, y'know? It's just like a sort of a Jekyll and Hyde of two voices, it's just terrible. One side wanting it and the other saying "it's a terrible idea, it's going to end badly." It's probably what goes through everyone's head.
You haven't used any strings on this album, as you did on Herein Wild.
Nooooo. No. That was my 'big budget album' [laughs].
Did you want to or was that one-time thing?
No. I mean I would do it again in a second if I had millions of dollars to work with. But I'm not so sure that it's needed. I think that everything I do is a little orchestrated, but I feel like with this one I wanted it to be a little simpler. I just wanted to do what I could do without any fancy business. I worked on it when I could, where I could. I worked on it in about 4 different studios, including my own closet, so it's sort of a return to the way I used to work when I was with Vivian Girls or on that first record [Frankie Rose and the Outs], which was nice. It also forced me to slow down a lot. I wasn't in a big hurry to finish it, it was sort of like “I'm gonna do this as I go," and that also gave me some room to breathe around the songs. I had like six different versions of every song, which is good, I could see, like, "am I happy with this? Do I wanna change something?"
And who did you get onboard to help you finish it off with production?
First off was Jorge Elbrecht, he's a really amazing producer, he did the last Tamaryn record and he's got a project called Lansing-Dreiden. He is the ultimate guy if you have a closet to work with - he will make anything sound incredible, so I used him as my guy. So he sort of helped me with the first run of my demos, making them sound kind of how I wanted them to be. Then I worked on them alone for a while. Then I brought in Dave Harrington for a little arrangement stuff, because I think he's able to look at things differently and make some different decisions - like wildly different to what I would make. I got to a point with the songs where I was like "argh, these are flatlining a little bit, they need to change," and it was cool. He brought in ideas like "we must have this percussionist - we simply must!" And I was like "OK, that's something I would never do." But yeah we did a session with this awesome percussionist and ended up using a lot of that. And in between that it was lot of me sitting in a studio by myself.
I wanted to ask about 'Dyson Sphere' - I had to look up what it was, I thought it was a vacuum cleaner! What made you name a song that?
I was in LA at the time having totally bad sleep problems, and the only thing that would put me to sleep was paranormal radio host named Art Bell. He's not actually on the air anymore, but I listened to his archives a lot. And he actually had a show when I was in LA and it was awesome, because it was his big return to radio and he was on from like midnight to 4am. And at that time there was a star that was found that was making very strange light and there was a brief moment in time where legitimate scientists couldn't figure out why it was emitting these light patterns that they'd never seen before, and one of the explanations was that it might be an alien megastructure. I know that sounds totally insane, but there was a brief moment where actual legit scientists were thinking "this could be an alien megastructure!" And what they mean by that is a Dyson Sphere - you can look it up on Wikipedia and that'll explain it better than I can - but it harnesses the power of the sun to create more power. So at the time I was listening to so much Art Bell, and I thought "oh I'll write a song about that, that's cool." They still don't actually know what is making the light so strange from this star. Could be aliens!
Could be! It's a great thing to write a song about though. And you named a song 'Art Bell' as well, so he must have had a massive influence on this album.
He kinda did. The whole time I was working on this stuff it was just how I would go to sleep at night, it would invade my dreams.
Is the song 'Art Bell' actually about him?
It is! Because eventually his show ended and I was super sad. It was called 'Midnight In The Desert', and if you know anything about this guy it's that he's pretty crazy. He'll get on the air for a while, like he had a show on Sirius XMU for a while, and he'll make this big commitment that he's gonna stay on the air, and then he'll have this big freak out or some excuse and the show will end out of nowhere. And his excuse to get out of doing 'Midnight In The Desert' was that there was a person stalking him and shooting at his house with a gun. And I think it might have been fake, I don't know, you can't really tell with him. But anyway he was suddenly off the air and I was like "oh no! How am I going to sleep now?" I was so sad.
Speaking of sleep, you've mentioned in the past that you have extremely vivid dreams and nightmares - do you still have that?
Not as bad as that anymore actually. I had a lot of that on my last record, but no I've got that under control a little bit. Before I wouldn't know if I'd slept, my dreams were so vivid it was just like "uhhh, what's real?!"
I wanted to ask about the ambient penultimate track 'Epic Slack'; similarly on the end of Herein Wild for the penultimate track you did a long ambient passage. How do you create these, and why do you like to put them in there?
You know, that was a really funny little soundscape thing that I made while I was working at a fake job that I had in LA. I say “fake” because I was working for this fake production company, which can only exist in LA. It was very bizarre, it was supposed to be some kind of music production, but actually it was just me on the internet all day doing nothing. So I just got Logic and I started making these soundscapes and I really liked that one. And that's the name, 'Epic Slack', because that's what was happening: a lot of slacking off [laughs].
Do you think your voice has changed since the last album? I was listening to your earlier stuff and it sounds different, like you sound more mature now.
Maybe! Oh gosh I'm getting older. You know actually I had a while where I was really sick, I had very bad bronchitis and it totally affected my voice. I think it lowered my voice. I was sick for a couple of months.
Are you nervous about this album coming out?
Nervous? Not really nervous. I think that now I have this sort of more casual understanding. I feel like I'm really happy to be here, I'm really happy to have been able to make it at all. It's gonna be what it's gonna be. I really think making records in 2017, you either have to be incredibly privileged, kind of insane, or you have to be able to completely do it in your bedroom alone by yourself. I think it's such a difficult thing to do now... but it's also an easy thing to do! Like I said, you can do it in your bedroom, but you have to be kind of crazy to do it, to be making music and expect it to become some kind of career. I think I'm incredibly lucky to still be around doing this. So I'm definitely not nervous about it, I'm just kind of going with the flow, you know? I feel like let's see what happens. It's just funny, it's just an adventure every time I put out an album. I've had unexpected things happen from records that I thought would do nothing, and vice versa; things that I thought were gonna be HUUUUGE ended up tanking and nothing happened. So, we shall see!
So no expectations for this one?
Trying not to have any expectations; not good, not bad. Just trying to be neutral about the whole thing. Whatever happens, happens. It's also just a different landscape; I don't think labels understand music now - I don't think anyone does! It's not just putting out a record anymore, it's like "how many Spotify plays do you get?”; “What are your YouTube statistics like?" And I don't have time to think about that! I don't want to think about that! [laughs]
But you still made the video, so you're playing the game!
Yeah, in fact I have three! Which is crazy because on the last record I had none; not one music video.
Have the other two videos been shot yet? Do you know what they're gonna be?
I do! One I'm really excited about. It's really funny, it's all accidentally 'in theme'; my whole family is from east LA, and my aunt found this super 8 footage of my family from like 1950 to 1969 in east LA, and I cut it up and made a video out of it. It's like my mother and my cousins - it's really awesome. You don't really see footage of brown people in that period - you think of Mad Men or something like that - this is like La Bamba era, it's amazing! So I cut that into a video for 'Love In Rockets'. It's starring my family! That's one, and the other one we just did a 16mm live thing for 'Dyson Sphere'.
Are you excited to go out on tour? Do you have a new band?
I have my old drummer, who's been with me for a long time. And then people who have been around; my current guitar player is a girl that used to sing with me and sometimes play guitar, and I have a new bass player. And I love them, they're just a pleasure to play with and be around, so I am looking forward to tour. I keep deliberating whether I want to take my dog with me or not [laughs].
Is that a possibility?
I might have to, because I think I might have to drop him off with my brother in Tijuana, which mean I'll have to take him half way across the country, which seems reasonable.
Is he a needy dog?
No! No! He's a weirdo! He's like a person. He's a really smart husky. Like a white wolf. I'll have to figure it out with my brother. I didn't realise I was gonna do so much touring!
How does the band sound?
They're amazing. They're amazing musicians. I can be like "learn this song," and they'll learn it and it's ready to go. It's such a pleasure to work with musicians like that; they're a talented group of people.
I can't wait until you come to the UK!
I feel like by that time we'll be unstoppable.
Cage Tropical is out now.
This article was originally published The 405 - 11th August 2017.