As a teenager growing up in New York, Greta Kline did what most young musicians do: She began writing songs, honing her craft by experimenting with recording techniques, lyrics and sounds. What started as a trickle of very short, lo-fi demos, quickly turned into a torrent of creativity as the budding songwriter recorded hundreds of songs in just a few short years.
Her productivity was notable, but what made Kline’s evolution as a songwriter truly unique was the very public way in which it played out. Unlike most musicians who guard their early work, Kline put it all out there. Along the way, she became one of the first prominent bedroom pop artists to emerge on Bandcamp, the now much-loved digital marketplace for musicians.
Almost a decade later, Kline fronts the critically-acclaimed band Frankie Cosmos. The group is signed to storied indie-rock label Sub Pop and released their fourth full-length album earlier this year, an impressively polished record called “Close It Quietly” that’s easily one of the year’s best.
While Kline may no longer be recording exclusively in her bedroom, some things clearly haven’t changed. You can still hear her music on Bandcamp. And like her earliest solo demos, Frankie Cosmos songs are short by modern standards, tethered to an almost obsessive love of efficiency. Although that might sound like a stifling philosophy for creative output, the result is surprisingly refreshing. The band makes a point to not recycle lyrics and choruses, no matter how insanely catchy they may be. The song arrangements are never boring because Frankie Cosmos makes absolutely every second count.
Frankie Cosmos (Greta Kline, Alex Bailey, Lauren Martin and Luke Pyenson) performed songs from “Close It Quietly” at Type Foundry Studio in Portland, Oregon, on Halloween. Kline also chatted with us about her love of short songs, coping with stage fright, and the struggle to overcome her wunderkind reputation as she enters adulthood.
Jerad Walker: You’re an incredibly prolific songwriter. The first line in the song “41st,” which you played for us, also directly references that. How many songs did you write during that album cycle?
Greta Kline: I think it really was 40.
Walker: Was that the very last song?
Kline: No. It was one of the more recent ones [but] I do think “41st” was one of the later [songs] written in that cycle …
I definitely, since [my previous full-length album] “Vessel,” had written probably 40 songs and scrapped 20 of them.
Walker: Well, I’m really glad it made it onto this album. It’s one of my favorite songs on the record. You pumped so much into that song, but it’s only a brisk 2 minutes and 6 seconds long. By modern standards, you write really short songs — 45 seconds or a minute and a half isn’t out of the ordinary on your albums. Why do you prefer shorter compositions?
Kline: I think, partially, it’s just that I have a short attention span and that’s how much of a song I want to listen to or play. But also, I guess I just am kind of averse to the normal sort of pop song structure of repeating choruses. I feel like unless there’s a reason that I want to repeat a chorus, like if I think it would have a different meaning, I don’t really see a point to it. I just like to keep them moving.
Walker: As a listener, it certainly makes me repeat your songs more often than other bands that I listen to. And you said it — you don’t recycle lyrics. Choruses may only happen once in a song. Bridges are truly special moments where you seem to give a lot of attention to the writing. I find that approach really refreshing. In particular, there’s one song on the album called “So Blue” where I just don’t want it to stop. Basically, it’s this close to becoming an anthem when the bottom just falls out. Do you ever find yourself fighting the urge to extend tracks?
Kline: Oh, you know it’s funny [you say that] because actually “So Blue” was even shorter than that and we extended it when I brought it to the full band. Originally, it was just like the parts with the lyrics and there weren’t any instrumental measures at all.
So, to me, “So Blue” was kind of extended. It was kind of stretched thin, I would say. I mean not really, because we added so much and Alex on the guitar made it just a totally different song. But I mean, lyrically, I like keeping it concise.
With “So Blue,” especially, the lyrics only work because it’s concise. I think it would get boring to kind of take the same structure and stretch it thinner. So yeah, sometimes it’s hard to edit stuff down, but with that one, it’s definitely the longest lyrically that it could have been. We could probably stretch out the instrumental [portion] longer if we wanted to, but I like them as just little nuggets, you know?
Walker: You and drummer Luke Pyenson seem to have a particularly strong bond in the music that you make in Frankie Cosmos. I think I first noticed it on the song “Jesse” from your 2018 record “Vessel.” And that interplay is really striking throughout the new record. It stands out the most on “Windows” and “Wannago,” which you also played for us. How collaborative is your writing and arranging on a song like “Wannago”?
Kline: I write the basic sort of bones of the songs for the guitar and the vocals. I usually have it to a point where I feel like it’s done in terms of the format of it. And then I bring it in [to the band] and we’ll tweak it a little bit.
With “Wannago” there was actually more tweaking than usual. Luke had the idea to cut a verse from it, and I was totally down because I felt like it was too long and that there was a verse that was unnecessary. Generally, that stuff doesn’t really happen, but when it comes to arranging it’s just really collaborative and everybody either writes their own parts or sometimes helps write each other’s parts.
We spend a lot of time talking about what we want it to be in terms of the arrangement and I think that’s when it starts to feel really collaborative — when we start adding in other instruments. With the drums, two voices, and the guitar [“Wannago”] feels like a totally different song.
Walker: In the past you’ve said that your favorite thing about music is arranging songs, but not necessarily playing them or touring. And you’ve even said that you get stage fright in the past. You come from a family of performers [Kline is the daughter of noted actors Phoebe Cates and Kevin Kline], so I was surprised to hear that. Is that still true for you? Do you still get nervous when you’re on stage?
Kline: Yeah. I mean, it depends on the night and like where I’m at in my life. But I think as I’ve gotten older I’ve definitely gotten more relaxed about telling myself what I think a show means in the context of my life.
When I was 19, if I played a show and I thought I did a bad job I’d be feeling really worthless and crying. And now I’m just like, ‘Well, yeah, it’s just one show’ and now it doesn’t say anything about my songs or who I am if I play a bad show. So I feel like I feel a little bit more grounded when it comes to my reactions to performing.
But I definitely get really nervous and especially when we go on tour with artists that we really respect … So I think I’ve just gotten more reasonable as I get older in terms of using logic to sort of talk myself down from stage fright.
Walker: You mentioned maturing as a performer, and I guess, not necessarily getting over your stage fright, but learning to cope with it. From a songwriting standpoint, I feel like this record is a much more mature album as well. One theme that I’ve noticed throughout your work is a mention of place and age. The first Frankie Cosmos record “Zentropy” starts with a lyric about high school. And you have a song called “I’m 20” on another one of your earlier records. There’s virtually none of that on “Close It Quietly.” Was that by design? Are you just kind of eschewing the importance of age, lyrically?
Kline: Huh. I think when I was younger, it definitely felt like that was a gimmick. Not personally, but I felt like that was people’s reaction to me making music- — like, ‘Oh, it’s this young girl.’
And I think when you’re 19, especially if you’re a woman, it’s like if you can write any song, people are applauding you like, ‘Wow, look at this little girl that wrote a song.’ And then when you get older, especially the more records you put out, I think people aren’t as impressed because they’re used to it. So it’s less exciting or impressive for a 25-year-old to write 20 good songs than it is for a 19-year-old or something like that. I don’t know.
I think people love gimmicks like that. And I think from a press perspective — even this time around, like I’m 25. All my bandmates are in their late 20s. We’ve all been touring for seven years. It doesn’t seem like it would be a very interesting gimmick anymore, but the Pitchfork review of this album mentioned how old I was when I started making music and like how I used to write about being young and it’s like ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m aging.’ It’s not that interesting. [Laughter]
I just don’t think it’s that good of a gimmick anymore. I’m just an adult.
Audio mixes: Steven Kray
Recording engineer: Nalin Silva
Cameras: Jarratt Taylor, Elias Williamson, Nick McClurg, Jennifer Sowell
Video Editor: Elias Williamson
Interview: Jerad Walker
Executive Producer: David Christensen