Compulsively prolific songwriting is a time-honored tradition. R. Stevie Moore has released 2,000 songs on 400 albums. Robert Pollard recently celebrated his 100th release, both with Guided By Voices and other innumerable project names. Prince supposedly left behind a bank vault full of unreleased recordings.
Greta Kline, Frankie Cosmos' lead singer and primary creative force, went through a similar period. Her Bandcamp page lists about 45 releases made between 2009 and 2014. They include hundreds of songs, many downloadable for free. Kline also went through numerous names and incarnations — Ingrid Superstar, the Ingrates and Zebu Fur among them — before settling on Frankie Cosmos around 2012."I was originally making the demos and not putting them anywhere, starting when I was like fifteen," Kline says via phone from her home in New York City. "I was just recording a lot and making really short songs. I had amassed so many of them on my computer and just wanted to make sure they were archived somewhere. That's when I found Bandcamp. I started splitting them up into 'albums,' each based on a time period or theme."
Kline wasn't necessarily putting them out there with any expectation of being heard. They were more a way to connect with people she knew who were doing the same thing. "I only had about five friends who were listening to them," she says. "It was a way of interacting with those people. There are a couple of recordings there of my friend Emma and my friend Michelle, just like singing or saying stuff. And I would just record them because I wanted to feel like other people were involved in some way."
So when Kline had the opportunity to record a Frankie Cosmos studio album, she had a deep well from which to draw.
In 2014, Double Double Whammy Records released Zentropy, the first Frankie Cosmos effort to exist as a physical product. With help from Aaron Maine (now of Porches), Kline picked ten of her favorite songs from the tapes and gave them a full studio treatment. Where the original tracks were largely skeletal guitar/voice and keyboard/voice arrangements, the Zentropy versions were the work of a tight, guitar-centric band.
"I definitely had no idea what I was doing in terms of recording at first," Kline says. "It's nice to be able to give those songs a new life."
2015's Fit Me In EP followed, a one-off foray into electronic production. By the time the most recent album, Next Thing, came out in 2016, Kline had largely abandoned the DIY approach and become a full-fledged touring musician. A natural step forward from Zentropy, Next Thing is full of brittle, spare songs that reward repeated listenings. The new songs — "Floated In," "Outside With the Cuties," "O Dreaded C Town" (not about the East Coast supermarket chain, sadly) are concise and catchy, yet take unpredictable twists and turns. Songs speed up and slow down, and at one point (during "Outside With The Cuties") stop completely to ask, "I haven't finished this part yet/Will you help me write it?"
More than most, Frankie Cosmos' songs brilliantly evoke the feeling of being an extroverted introvert. The character that emerges seems to enjoy social interaction, but all too often feels removed from the group. Kline's conversational lyrics describe awkward events and second-guess good things, but also revel in simple pleasures like (as on Fit Me In's "Sand") browsing the racks outside the Strand Bookstore on a date.
Kline does admit to stage fright, which can make playing such personal songs a challenge. "I've actually grown to really enjoy touring and performing in a way that I'm surprised at. Especially because I started out with much worse stage fright," she says. "For me, the really important part of the process is getting the songs written. The performance thing is really secondary to me. If I write a song and put it on the internet, I don't care if a million people hear it. But playing it for people and watching them react to it, that's the part that's scary."
At July's Pitchfork Music Festival, for instance, the band found itself in front of thousands at Chicago's Union Park. "I just felt really unprepared," she recalls. "We started the first song, and I couldn't hear the guitar. I was singing in a different key or something. And then, by the fifth song, I figured it out and got oriented. I got into the groove after a certain point. I mean, it was also really amazing, because I couldn't believe how many people were watching and singing along. It just gets crazy when you go through that in front of so many people."
The current Frankie Cosmos lineup includes longtime bassist David Maine, as well as keyboardist Lauren Martin and drummer Luke Pyenson. The group signed to Sub Pop earlier this year and recently finished a record that should be out later this year or early in 2018.
"I'm definitely starting to think about what it means means to live the life of a touring musician, just being on the road almost all year," she says. "At this point, it has taken away a lot from how much time I get actually working on music. I want to rethink the system in a way that I'm still getting to do the whole point of why I do this."