Frankie Cosmos interview: "What the songs mean to me changes every time I revisit them and every time I play them."
Today Frankie Cosmos release their third studio album, and first on Sub Pop, Vessel. It’s an album that continues to display Greta Kline’s ability to use minimal lyricism to capture large moments and inchoate emotions. Through Vessel we see many reflections of Kline’s life on the road and her relatiosnhips, and out of them come universal truths and mutually felt struggles. With her band now a well-oiled machine, they have together built these songs into compact-yet-complex indie rock songs that show dynamism and guile, all of which better serves the scenes and stories that Kline is creating with her words.
We talked to Greta Kline all about the creation of Vessel and dug into some of the imagery and themes that crop up throughout.
I want to talk about the music on Vessel, but I have to ask first about the cover and how and why that came to be?
[Laughs] I really can't say why, there's not a lot of reason, except that it was very vivid in my imagination and I just wanted to make it come true; that's kind of it. I've tried to think of ways to explain what it means or to give it a meaning, but ultimately it's just kind of like a nice image that I wanted to make [Laughs].
Was it hard to bring it together?
It wasn't hard, it was really fun, but it took a long time. We were looking for a dog, and couldn't the right one, couldn't find the right kind of dog, and then a dog that I had written to finally wrote back, and I was so excited. He's such a weird, special dog. Then the dog was coming to New York, and we had to find the bathtub. Finding the bathtub was probably the hardest thing; I had a very specific image in mind. It was cool, it was very fun, and it was a weirdly long process.
It'll be satisfying when you see it on a vinyl cover.
Yeah, I'm so excited to see it! I haven't seen it in person yet.
Were there any outtakes from the shoot?
Yeah tons! And I also brought my camcorder and film camera to the shoot, so I have some pretty cute extra footage and stuff. The back cover of the vinyl is a really nice close up of the dog's wet fur, which is really cute to me. There's outtakes, they're kind of throughout the album art design.
Amazing, I can't wait to have it!
Let's talk about the music. Vessel is 18 tracks and at 35 minutes is twice as long as Zentropy, does that make it a double album in Frankie Cosmos terms?
No! It's still so short! Compared to how many tracks it is it's pretty short, so it's kind of funny. You can definitely fit this on one vinyl, so...
Yeah, you're not quite at the Guided By Voices 30 track albums yet... one day would you like to make a double album though? You write so many songs.
Yeah! I'm sure at some point I will, that would definitely be very fun.
Vessel starts with 'Caramelize' and the first image, "Caramelize/ you make me blue/ I wanna make a man out of you," why did you start with that?
I don't usually think too much about the order or about the first words that people are hearing, but I just think 'Caramelize' is a really weird song, and it has all these different parts that come in and out, and they're very strange for me. So I guess I just like the idea of scaring people off with the first track, it's just like putting in the weirdest one. And also it covers a lot of emotional ground, it takes a lot of tones, so I feel like it's an interesting way to start off. It's like "alright this is a very tense album with a lot of grappling."
Both this and the final title track are the longest tracks on the album, was that on purpose?
No, I didn't even know that! That's cool!
They're exactly the same length, even.
Are they really?! Wow. I didn't know that, that's awesome. That maybe says something about the fact that I just don't want to put a super long song in the middle of the flow of the album, or something like that.
In 'Caramelize’ you mention "my boyish emotions" - why boyish?
That is actually a stolen line, or reference, to a very old Porches song where the chorus is "my boyish emotion" over and over again, so I just stole it.
That's a nice little Easter Egg for long-time fans then.
Totally. I'm sure some people will notice that. I definitely think that me singing it gives it a totally different meaning, because it's a totally different context, so it's kind of funny.
Let's talk a little bit about the "grappling" as you call it. There's a lot of songs where it feels like you're relying on someone else to define you or tell you what to do - am I reading that right? And does writing songs help you process those kind of thing?
Yeah, definitely. I think also playing songs over and over again helps me process the same things.
Did I get that right about there's a lot of times where you feel like you're relying on someone else to give you what you need or tell you how you feel?
Maybe, I'm curious what part you mean?
I feel like in 'Apathy', the "I wanna feel whole..." part and the "do you wanna go on a date" part; in 'Jesse' there's a bit of that, 'Duet' definitely, and 'I'm Fried'...
Yeah! You're picking out exactly the ones. For me those are the most all over the place emotionally. It's not so much wanting someone else to define me, but it's about asking "what do I do?" A lot of those songs, especially 'Apathy' where the perspective changes throughout the song - the "you" in the song isn't the same every time. I feel like 'Jesse', 'Apathy', 'Duet', those are songs where I'm trying to figure out what I want and what I need in the world and how to approach it. Yeah those are definitely for me some of the most tense tracks, because they're just like I'm trying to figure out "do I try and fix this thing?" "Do I try and walk away from this?" "Am I who I'm going to be for the rest of my life or am I going to change?" Just all kind of questioning. That's what I feel like those songs mean to me, but they definitely change every time I revisit them and every time I play them. I'm sure that after I start touring with these songs I'm going to feel even differently about myself and what they mean to me, which is what I experienced with my last album.
All these questions you're asking, they're never answered, they're always changing I guess?
Yeah, totally. I think that's just life.
In 'Apathy' why "I just wanna feel like I’m neatly designed/ like a telephone pole"?
[Laughs]. I think I probably wrote it in the car, but yeah, just wishing that I had a very specific function and that I was designed perfectly for it [Laughs].
For all those tense songs we mentioned, there's something like 'As Often As I Can' which is so simple and peaceful, is it satisfying to make a relatively easy song like that?
It's just different, I guess. That one, and a couple of the other super short ones like ‘Ur Up' and ‘My Phone', they're almost like jingles, and those are really fun for me to write. 'As Often As I Can' is one of my favourite ones because of that weird musical thing in the middle where everything cuts out except for all the voices. It takes this super simple thing and makes it almost creepy sounding, it goes to a weird place which I think is really interesting. That's something that I think is really fun, choosing the ways that we're gonna record the super simple ones, because we can just mess around more with what we wanna do.
You definitely get a taste of that in 'Ur Up' where you flub at the start.
That's one of two that's recorded completely differently from the rest of the album. 'Ur Up' we recorded on a two track reel to reel tape thing. I didn't know anything about it, and it sounds really different to me, the way that the recording sounds. I like that weird mess up because it reminds me so much of the moment of being there and recording it.
It's also different because it's piano, you don't have that many recorded songs on piano.
No I don't. I don't think there's been any other piano songs on any of the studio albums.
Is that something you might do more in the future?
I've been writing a bit more on piano. I have a couple of newer songs that I've written for piano. Yeah, probably in the future.
'This Stuff' makes me think of a question which I ask myself all the time: do we expect too much of people? I can't find that many people that I can tell "this stuff" to that often, do you find that?
I kind of think that it's not so much about expecting too much from other people, but I think that a lot of people try to deal with their problems outwardly as opposed to inwardly, and require other people as an ear for it, as opposed to just working on it yourself. I don't know if that's positive or negative, it's just something that I've noticed. I think that some people are amazing at being there for their friends and being able to lend an ear, and some people don't ever... I have some friends who never talk to me about their problems and never open up, they work on everything inwardly, and that's awesome too if you can do that.
I feel like for me, that song particularly - it's maybe the oldest previously unreleased song on this album -, it's about kind of having a secret that you can't tell your friends, you've decided not to tell anyone yet, and it's bubbling up inside you. And then even when you do try and tell people they maybe don't understand and don't hear you and it just goes back to normal.
How close are you to getting a "hot pink tour van"?
[Laughs] Nowhere near it! Some day, some day...
In 'Jesse' what's the symbolism of the line "I created a scorpion and then had to kill it"?
It's something that happened to me in a dream, but which I completely psychologically analysed and felt that it made a lot of sense in my life. It's just about setting yourself up for situations that you have to then destroy. Be it saying yes too much and then having to cancel, or saying no, or just finding yourself in relationships that you shouldn't be in and then you have to destroy them after you worked so hard to build them up and put all this energy into them. So that's what that line's about.
And the final line "for you to be a little bit scared of me" - what are the advantages of that and what should people be scared about?
[Laughs] That last few lines right before that, that's another example of kind of a song that the lyrics contradict each other almost, because right before that I'm saying that I want to be invisible and kind of fade into the scenery, and then also I want you to be scared of me - those are kind of opposites. It's just me trying to figure out how I fit into being in this frame. I guess I'm just trying out different things at the end of that song, and one of them is wanting you to be scared of me. I think one of the things that I've been interested in in the last year or so is not - and this is something that I talk about on the album too - is trying to not be the most accommodating person when it doesn't benefit me. I think a lot of people have this problem, just learning how to care about yourself as well as other people, and not just only giving. I think wanting people to be scared of me was something that I kind of joked about, but also kind of am serious about, which is I don't want people to feel like they can just come up to me and touch me without my consent, which happens a lot. I feel like, and I felt like, "if people are scared of me maybe they wouldn't do that." Does that make sense?
Totally, especially when you pair that with the song 'Accommodate', which is all about that. Have you managed to find yourself getting better at not being too accommodating?
I'm trying. I definitely feel like I got a little bit more scary when I cut off all my hair. That was something I was like "well if I buzz off all my hair maybe people won't come up behind me and grab my hair." Although I still have had my fair share of people just grabbing my head, so that's, y'know, you win some you lose some.
At the end of 'Accommodate' we're once again going into invisibility and you're trying a lot of stuff, is that a similar thing to what happens at the end of 'Jesse'?
The ending of 'Accommodate', the very ending, it's just a weird story. I took a lot of those lyrics from this kind of imaginary poem that I wrote, so those don't relate to a very specific moment for me, whereas a lot do, like I remember where I was standing when I wrote most of 'Jesse', so it's just different, I guess.
Those final lines, "Holes out in a wholly unholy place/ you could hardly hear them crack/ crashed down onto concrete so vast" - that sounds really dark to me.
Yeah, I mean it could mean a lot of things. It's a weird part. I don't really know how to explain it. Those ones are particularly fast and all over the place, and it's one of those things where I feel like I could never really explain it any better than with the song itself.
It's like trying to explain a dream, the way it moves and the images change.
I feel like that about a lot of stuff; I feel like part of the reason I write songs is just because I'm not that good at articulating my feelings in real life, so that's where I can do it.
You re-recorded 'Being Alive', one of your old demo releases, in the studio with the band - why did you do that one?
We'd been playing it live because someone requested it at a show and my band had never heard it, so I played it solo and my bandmates were like "that's a really good song, we should work it out." Then we worked out this live version of it and we started playing it all the time, and it's so different from the original demo. The original demo is just me and an acoustic guitar, it has the same harmonies but it's really slowed down and chill, and we just turned it into this... anyone who has seen us live in the last 2 years has probably heard us play that song, and it gets really fast and really slow and it's really loud, and we just liked the arrangement, it's just so different, and I was just like "why not make a recording of this?" So I like it, I'm excited about it. It's fun to put out old songs for me. I feel like that song's about a very specific moment from when I wrote it, but it's changed in meaning for me a lot over the years because I feel like all my songs do; the more I play it the more it means something else, or I can just relate it to my present life.
'Bus Bus Train Train' seems like a New York song, is it the most New York song on here?
That's so funny, because that song is not about New York. It's just about travel, actually. I feel like to me, because I'm always travelling so much, my New York is being at home, so it's not as much running around and taking buses and trains - although I do do that every day [Laughs]. It's just about being out in the world, it could be anywhere. It takes place in a lot of different places, that song. I think I wrote some of it in America, some of it in Europe, and I wrote it on one of my first tours. I think I finished it on one of my first tours. To me it's not the New Yorkiest song on the album [Laughs].
Do you have one that is?
I feel like maybe 'Vessel'. Everything is different for everyone, but it's to do with my own memories of writing the song. 'Vessel' has a specific moment where I'm walking alone through this very boring desolate part of town at night, it's usually a work centre and I'm walking there really late at night and just completely alone in that street, and that's what one of those verses is about. That to me is a super New York-specific moment. But it could also mean something totally different to someone else.
Is 'Cafeteria' an old song? I'm getting a high school flashback, maybe just because that's where a cafeteria is.
It is one of the older ones on the album, 'Cafeteria' and 'This Stuff' are from around the same time, I wrote them 2 or 3 years ago and was sitting on them. It is kind of high school-y [Laughs]. I think a lot of the lyrics in 'Cafeteria' are very high school, but the moment that takes place in the cafeteria is from a dream also.
It could have been a high school cafeteria in the dream...
Yeah, it probably was. Maybe a college cafeteria. I spend a lot of time in cafeterias because we tour and play at colleges and that's where we eat dinner. So I feel like I've probably eaten at more cafeterias than your average person; more of a variety of cafeterias.
It would make sense it would make it into your dream then. What else is happening in that song?
Erm, so much! It's a lot of weird stuff. A lot of it's about this dream I had where I was in this cafeteria eating this leftover rice. There was this party and I was in this cafeteria and for some reason I was supposed to be getting married in the cafeteria during the party, and I was just like "I'm not gonna do it" [Laughs]. That's what a lot of the lines are about in that song, all the verses are about that, so it's kind of funny. It's just about making decisions. I feel like a cafeteria is a place where there's all these expectations of you, especially if you're in high school and you didn't fit into some group, and people just see you as this one thing and you can either accept that or try and change it. I feel like that's what it was meaning to me at the time, it was like "do I wanna do this thing that I'm being peer pressured to do, or do I just wanna say no?"
And then there's that weird change part in the song that's also maybe very high school, the "I had sex once now I'm dead" part. It's kind of a joke but it's also totally serious. It goes back to that line in 'Apathy' we were talking about, just wanting to be designed better. "I wasn't built for this world" in ‘Cafeteria’, that's a line that I was trying to use in so many songs that I was writing at the time and I could not figure out where it fit in, but it ended up fitting into this song. I've played that section so many times over the years before I found a place for it, which is in the song 'Cafeteria'.
Well, it’s perfect there. I feel like the last three songs on the album are a crying trilogy; there's a lot of weeping in them.
[Laughs] That's like my life.
Is 'The End' the other song on the album that you recorded differently? Because it sounds very different.
Yes. That one was recorded on my computer on GarageBand. That was the demo version of it and I brought it into the band, and we were trying to make a band version of it, and it just never felt right. When we went to record we started recording it and I was just like "no I don't wanna do this" and I just stopped everyone and was like "we're just gonna put the demo on the album." The demo, to me, is very special because part of the lyrics are about being in this room, and I recorded it in that room in that moment; it's literally recorded the day after this breakup, so it's a very real recording. Since then so many of the feelings that are in that song have changed, so it's one of the things where I was gonna re-record it now I would change the lyrics, and I liked the idea of preserving this clear moment, it's such a specific time. And I just like the demo version. It's my first ever GarageBand recording to be on vinyl, so I'm really excited about that. It was so exciting when I got to hear the test pressing, and I got to hear the non-studio recording that I made make it on to the vinyl record, it was really thrilling to me because all my old songs were recorded that way. It holds a special place for me.
That's awesome, I can't wait to hear it on vinyl now I know it's a demo.
It's funny. It's literally just recorded into my internal mic on my laptop.
Wow, that's the same way I'm recording this conversation. I can't believe it's not more high-tech than that.
Yeah, you should put this conversation on vinyl!
Let's talk about the final track, 'Vessel'. In most, if not all of your songs, you're always singing to "you" and "you" is always changing around a lot, is that natural for you to write that way?
Yeah. And sometimes the "you" is me. I definitely mess around with the "you."
In 'Vessel" you sing "you are a word I make up when I'm high" - is that a reference to that?
Oooooh. No, but I like that - you could say that [Laughs]. I mean, you ever make up a word when you're high?
Yeah, of course. Or words that you think are words and then you realise they're not words. Or words that are words and you think "that can't be a word."
Yeah, you're like "tree? Is it really spelt like that, tree?" [Laughs] I should say that I don't smoke weed and that song was written years after I'd ever smoked weed. It's definitely a reference to a past experience. I don't wanna endorse getting high and making up words to the youngsters out there - and the parents reading this.
You've mentioned that you're always finding new ways to relate to older songs, but do you ever come up against an old song where you just don't understand it anymore, can't connect anymore?
In terms of recordings I don't really relisten to albums once I'm done making them, because I think that's when stuff starts to feel like you can't change it. For me, live music is just super fluid, so I feel like if I start to not relate to a song I just change it so that I relate to it. Even just the way that I've been singing some of these songs, like 'Bus Bus Train Train' and 'The End’, when I play them live I change the lyrics so they fit in more to what I'm feeling. Even slightly, just making something into the past tense that was the present tense when I wrote it. I never feel like there's a song that I wouldn't play because I don't relate to it, I feel like I can pretty much make anything make sense to me now. I feel like the more that I live, all the songs and all the feelings are a snowball rolling down a hill getting bigger and bigger, but it doesn't change what it is, it's just feelings, it's just growing and evolving and fitting itself into my life in new ways. They're all still totally valid I think.
I'm sure I might feel embarrassed by certain songs, like "this song is bad." I definitely do that, sometimes my band wants to play an older song and I'm like "no that song's just bad and I don't wanna play it." [Laughs]
Is it true that you've already written the next album?
Yes! Since this record has been done I have like forty unheard songs that are newer than this, so... yeah, the next album is probably done being written.
What do you think the timeline is on us getting to hear it?
Oh god, I don't know. I'm not anywhere near thinking about that. We're putting out this record and then we're gonna go on tour for at least 8 months, so I'm not even thinking about making another record right now. Just while I'm home I'm trying to write as many songs as I can. I'm just writing.
Is there any additional reading people can do? Were there any articles or books that you read while you were recording that stuck out to you?
I always read Margaret Atwood novels and short stories, I really like her writing. The Blind Assassin and The Edible Woman are two Margaret Atwood books that I read over the span of the record, in fact I probably read about 5 of her books over the last 2 years of making the record, but those are two that could be interesting to read alongside listening. I think The Edible Woman is a really interesting book and is a lot about very interesting psychological stuff; all her books are like that. I recommend every Margaret Atwood book! The Edible Woman is one of her first novels, I think I just went off her Wikipedia, just went to the very beginning and ordered some of her first books. The Edible Woman is really good, it's pretty spooky. But yeah, I love her.
Frankie Cosmos’ Vessel is out now on Sub Pop.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 30th March 2018.