Published on August 15th, 2018 | by Zara Hedderman0
A Musical Voyage Through the Cosmos: An Interview with Frankie Cosmos
Ahead of her mini-Irish tour, Greta Kline of New York DIY indie band, Frankie Cosmos speaks to Zara Hedderman about recording over fifty albums, dogs of Instagram and the bigs steps she took with her band whilst honing her craft and building an audience.
Photo by Landon Speers
Hey Greta, where are you right now?
I’m at my house in New York, getting ready for the upcoming block of shows for the Frankie Cosmos tour.
Do you write new material on the road?
I do write while I’m on tour but it definitely changes the way I compose songs. When I’m at home I’ll have a guitar in my hands as I’m writing, but on tour I’m in the car, at a cafe or in a green room. I’m not able to hear melodies and chords play out so I’ll focus on the lyrics while I’m on the road and finish songs when I get home. I have so many ideas when I’m touring but it’s really hard to see them through.
To date, you’ve released fifty-two albums, fourty-eight of them via your Bandcamp (as both Ingrid Superstar and Frankie Cosmos) predating 2009. Were you incessantly writing and recording music as a teenager?
It sounds like a lot of music, but so much of that is garbage! So it’s really not as impressive as it sounds. When I was a teenager I tried everything and was always messing around on my computer. Somehow, I ended up with all of these art projects. They aren’t even really songs; they’re tests.
I listened to the first one you uploaded in 2009 entitled Adventures and really enjoyed its spontaneous energy.
Oh wow, thank you! When I started, initially, I was trying to make music and it gradually devolved into a sort of insanity. Adventures was me playing guitar but it reached a point where I recorded myself tapping on all sorts of stuff and humming melodies. I had so many recordings of me doing a lot of different things that eventually became the art project that I had in mind. Now, however, I really like making fully realised, coherent songs.
What were you listening to at the time that, perhaps, excited you and gave you an impulse to create music?
Oh man, so many different things. I’ve got an older brother with an encyclopedic knowledge of music. He showed me a lot of bands when I was getting into music. I like punk music and, at the time, I loved hardcore punk and then I got into New York anti-folk music. Jeffrey Lewis was someone I admired a lot and made me want to make music because he’s not your average “good singer” but his songs really tell a story. That inspired me to sit down and write something. Realising that you could speak or sing lyrics and didn’t have to know exactly what you were doing was the greatest inspiration to me when I was starting to make music.
I also loved Guided By Voices. When I heard them I thought, “Oh! I can make loads of music and just release it, whenever!” My eyes were opened by that band. They’re so great. There was a rumour that Robert Pollard would go to the bathroom and have written two songs by the time he washed his hands.
Do you have a favourite Guided By Voices album?
One that I would recommend to start with is Alien Lanes, from 1995. That’s an amazing album to start with.
You left high school at fifteen to be home-schooled. During this period were you an introverted teenager and, therefore, constantly creating a catalogue of stories and songs in your head?
Yeah, I guess I was like that and was definitely living in my head. All teenagers are kind of like that, though; half-living in a fantasy land. I was totally living in a fantasy land and wrote a song about every thought I had. I thought really hard about everything; subsequently everything and everyone I knew deserved a song. That led to there being so many songs on the internet!
I would build up every interaction I had and make it so much bigger than it was. I was extremely outgoing because of that part of my personality so I probably didn’t seem like an introvert, even though I am. I often feel exhausted by social interaction, yet I’ve always been very social. When I started homeschooling I already had my group of friends and was part of a music scene. That can be hard when you’re homeschooled; not being around people your own age. I had that interaction, though. The music scene that I was involved with were older, but I had my friends, so I had a pretty normal socialisation process as a kid.
I was reading a lot of Frank O’Hara’s poetry around the time I started to write songs. His ability to write a poem about literally any little thing also inspired me to do the same with songs and lyrics.
There are positives and negatives to an artist being prolific, sharing countless songs online. Do you think there’s ever a danger of releasing everything you record and that it demonstrates a lack of editing on the behalf of the artist?
I agree, with that. I mean, so much of what I uploaded initially was crap! Overall, however, it depends on what side you’re looking at it from. As a music critic, you’re going to want an artist to be discerning about what they put out.
From the perspective of a teenager making art, however, I believe the best thing is to encourage teenagers to make as much art as they possibly can. What’s so horrible and hard as a teeanger is being self-conscious and to be told that they aren’t good at something. Being pushed away from a passion is terrible, teenagers take that criticism so seriously. If I was teaching a class of kids I would tell them to write every song. I didn’t think all the music I made was good, but that was part of the learning for me. I figured out how to edit myself and get to a point where I could write a song and feel good about it. I probably had to write a hundred stinkers before I wrote one that I was really proud of. That’s an intrinsic part of the process.
Although, I don’t think a musician should do what I did and put everything out there on the internet. All I was doing was experimenting with songs and then put them on my Bandcamp, innocently. I wasn’t writing press releases, intendeding for them to find an audience. I remember freaking out when I discovered a review of one of the album-art-projects online.
The way my Bandcamp profile is framed has changed now because I’m a touring musician. At the time, in 2009, 2010 and 2011, it made sense but now it looks ridiculous. Now that being a musician is my job, I don’t want to be someone that releases too much music – that’s how my work and music has changed.
How was the transition, then, from bedroom Bandcamp musician to signing to major label, Sub Pop?
I feel like, in the grand scheme of things, that was actually a pretty easy and slow transition. The first time I released an album on vinyl or recorded in a studio, they were the things that felt like big steps, to me. The biggest transitions are always at the beginning.
Once you take the leap to be like, “I’m gonna put out a physical album!”, then the next thing doesn’t seem so big or scary. Pressing an album felt like a crazy decision, I didn’t think anyone would buy it. Everyone else thought it was, so we did it and had to repress it. I was completely shocked. Again, that felt like another big step to take.
From there, I became more discerning about how much and what music to put out. Then, it shifted to how I wanted the recordings to sound which turned into me holding onto ideas and rethinking them through before working on them with my band. That was one of the biggest changes for me throughout the entire Frankie Cosmos project. So, signing to a major didn’t feel so intimidating because I’d gone through so many other stages of growth, as a musician, that by the time SubPop came around I realised that we just needed to get more copies of our records to be made, and other stuff that comes with that.
Everything has felt very natural, maybe because our first tour was so DIY. I would get in touch with a bunch of people around the country over the internet to book our shows. That’s how I built up a list of contacts in different cities. There was never anyone around us looking to gain anything so I never felt like someone wanted a piece of us, we were building a community of friends to work with.
On that note, I saw an interview with you and Colin Hagendorf on his Pizza Pals series. He mentioned that you had emailed him, years prior to this, asking if he’d eat pizza with you and your mom. Was cold-emailing people something you did regularly?
Absolutely! That is the perfect example of the extroverted behaviour I was talking about earlier, when I was too outgoing for my own good. I used to read his blog where he reviewed every cheese slice in New York. I knew we had a mutual friend and I emailed him, I always went for it with stuff like that!
Is that how you got Tom Scharpling to direct the music video for ‘Apathy’ from your current record, Vessel?
Exactly! Well, no, not really. That’s one of the amazing things about working with Sub Pop, having the budget and resources to make music videos. I remember our first meeting with the people from the label and I told them that I really wanted to make music video with Tom Scharpling. But yeah, I got him on the phone and it happened. Now I really want to appear on his radio show, The Best Show. That’s my goal for the rest of this year.
His dog, Good N Poochy has been a guest on his show. You also have a close relationship with your deceased dog, Jojo. You’ve written about him, in those songs I’m reminded of my childhood dog as I’m sure many of your fans are. Why is he such a muse to you?
I had a perfect attendance in college and when my dog died I took a full week off because I was devastated. It was the first time I experienced a death that was close to me, so it was pretty dark. I stayed in New York for college so that I could be close to my dog. I was only two months into my first semester sand Jojo died. I was totally freaked out.
I’m obsessed with dogs, particularly Jojo, but I love all dogs. I feel like the human-dog connection is so powerful and I think having that kind of relationship with a dog, at a young age, is so important because he was an amazing confidant to me. My friends make fun of me and tell me to cool it with the dog stuff. I just want to hang out with dogs all the time. They’re perfect and they’re never going to disappoint you.
Completely! I read a quote where you said Vessel was born from “Not feeling like a woman and not feeling like I was able to make babies.Not feeling like a vessel for my art and being projected onto, not feeling like being a performer comes naturally.” Can you expand upon that in relation to the arc of the records narrative?
That’s so many different things, right there! The album title came from a disconnect between the body and mind, feeling like there are different pressures put on people’s external shell like being a birth giver or a source of life to someone else, or even being an artist. The idea of being a vessel connotes, for me, some kind of expectation. I was going through a period where I was questioning everything that was expected of me and what I expected from myself. In the songs on the record, I’m mostly asking a lot of questions about that.
The song, ‘Vessel’, is predominantly about being in a band and playing with a group of people. Which is sort of different to what I was talking about before but those were the two key things I was thinking about when I was writing the album.
Lyrically, especially, it’s an extremely mature album. You’ve had some time away from it since it was released, how has it been coming back to songs now that you’re touring it?
Each album is so specific to me and recalls a particular moment for me. Since writing Vessel I feel like I’ve changed so much as a person and it captures a moment when I was changing a lot. I’ve a heightened awareness, right now, of how much I’m changing and the last record definitely demonstrates that. I feel like every song is like a before and after, it shows the different places I was going to.
All my albums are so different so the touring process feels like its own separate thing from songwriting. It’s an exercise for me to think and rethink songs and relate to them differently every night and change with them. I can also change what they mean to me.
When I toured Next Thing, I was thinking about the relationship I was in, at the time. People thought that was a break-up album when it wasn’t. That made me think that maybe my relationship was bad. The touring cycle of that for a year-and-a-half coupled with my feelings changing about certain things is captured throughout Vessel. The realisations and emotional turmoil I felt culminated in that record.
I think I’ll always be like that; having thoughts and rethinking them, revisiting my tour diary and trying to understand my thoughts in my diary; What does that mean? Let’s unpack that and write a song.
In June, you started The Induced Album, an ongoing project via your website where fans can create “an album which you co-write with me through my instructions.” What inspired you to set up this interactive online project?
I thought it would be a really interesting project to do. I was curious to see how many people would participate and write songs, over the coming years. What I love about it is that it’s infinite both in time and with what people can create from my instructions. I mentioned it to my friends and sent them the instructions that I made up, I was so excited hearing the songs they made based on the guide.
I mean, it’s super handmade and it wasn’t well-tested before I put it out there. I’ve had people who aren’t musicians tell me that they didn’t fully understand my instructions. My mom tried it but she said that she couldn’t figure out what to do, that bummed me out cos I really want people to be able to do it. It’s sort of a way to be able to write songs from the dead. People can write songs for me long after I’m gone!
Today, the internet makes becoming a musician more attainable in that you can freely upload music to sites like Bandcamp or Soundcloud, make videos and put them on Youtube and then promote yourself and your gigs via Twitter or Instagram. What’re your thoughts on this way of getting music out into the public domain?
I think it’s a really good thing, people feel like if they put something on the internet then they’re being heard. What I don’t like and what scares me is the expectation on the promotion side of things. I don’t particularly like that people feel that they deserve to be heard. That’s where I think things online are poisonous. I don’t want to have to look at people’s self-promotion stuff online, all the time.
I’m glad I had the experience of putting music out that no one was hearing because I was doing it just for me, that was the nicest feeling to have that closeness to the music. I was never like, “Oh, this is gonna take me to the top.” People often ask me, “How do you get to do what you do?” My answer is that I don’t know but if you’re asking then you’re already doing it wrong. I honestly don’t feel like I necessarily did anything to be a musician. That’s what helped me write the music I wanted to make.
I think trying to make it through relentless self-promotion is bad and scary. I hate Instagram, because of that. I’d prefer people to join our mailing list, to be honest. I purely use Instagram to promote upcoming shows to let people know when we’re playing their town. It’s crazy to me that people are getting information for gigs through Twitter and Instagram. I’m on Angel Olsen and Joanna Newsom’s mailing lists, that’s how I find out if they’re coming to my town.
I have to use social media, though, because that’s what kids look at. But it really frustrates me.
Social media should be reserved for following dog accounts.
Yes! There was a period where I only followed dogs and unfollowed every human on my list because I just wanted dogs!
Frankie Cosmos plays in Voodoo in Belfast on August 21st, Galway’s Roisin Dubh on August 22nd and Dublin’s Button Factory on August 23rd.
To win tickets to the Belfast show, send an e-mail with your name to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject Frankie Cosmos
Vessel is out now, via Sub Pop