When I was in middle school and high school, I and seemingly my entire generation recorded our every thought in blogs on platforms like WordPress, Livejournal, and Xanga. I had several Xangas; every so often, I would hop accounts and conjure new usernames out of whatever I was obsessing over at the moment, linking certain accounts to specific years. Many of the things I wrote about, especially once I started dating a close friend in high school, are mortifying in their candor and openness of feeling, even as I (unsuccessfully) tried to veil or code my feelings in oblique shorthand. (What one would now call “subtweeting.”) When that relationship went sour, I logged into my main Xanga account and deleted the entire thing.
When I tell this to Greta Kline, the charming and snappy center of the band Frankie Cosmos, she lets out a sympathetically devastated “Oh noooo.” It’s easy to see why Kline felt my loss; she’s an avid journaler and phone notes taker, and the idea of extracting and destroying the exact kind of personal memory archive that informs so much of her art struck a chord.
“I’m a journal enthusiast because a lot of the times, you come home from, for example, a three-week tour”—as the band had done at the time of our interview—”and everyone wants to know how it was, and you just can’t remember a single detail about it. So I really tried every other day to write about my days and what was happening while I was there, because I was like, this is gonna be really useful to me in like, ten years, when someone’s like, ‘Wow, it must’ve been crazy when you were 22 and you went to Europe!’ And I wanna be like, ‘Yeah, it was crazy and here’s all the details about it!’,” she jokes over the phone.
But those details aren’t just for her future self; they’re a way for her to process the raw emotions that make up the backbone of her incredibly observant and touching songs, which are more often than not pocket vignettes set to tender melodies. Though the band’s latest album Next Thing is, well, a full album, Kline’s Bandcamp (under the moniker Ingrid Superstar) is littered with drafts in various stages of “polish,” all sent out into the world as they are.
Kline’s thought process when coming up with her songs is to focus on a specific thing and then zoom out from it: “I’ve always been obsessed with documenting every tiny thing, and I feel like that stuff can… As opposed with coming up with a grand scheme and then coming up with the small metaphors, I do the opposite. I start with a small thing that’s affecting me and then expand on that until I can understand why I care about it.”
“I like being in touch with how I feel, and when I don’t feel like I’m in touch with my own emotions, my life starts to crumble. I really try to be on top of it and understand how I’m feeling all the time, and be really open about it with myself. That ends up coming out in my songs.”
Naturally, relying on your personal experience for your art, particularly if you’re performing these songs for weeks of tour, if not years, can be an emotionally draining process. Part of the drain is physical and professional; as the core member of Frankie Cosmos, whose band arrangement has also included Gabrielle Smith (now performing as Eskimeaux) and Aaron Maine (Kline’s boyfriend, now performing as Porches), Kline often finds herself juggling a multitude of responsibilities: “I’m trying to do sound check, and then I’m selling merch, and then we’re playing the show, and then we’re talking to the person in charge or trying to get paid or whatever. All that stuff, it takes over and I can turn around and be like, I haven’t had a second to myself for five days.”
“It’s very easy to get in the zone of all those other jobs that I’m doing. They’re so present; okay, I gotta do this now, I gotta do this thing. It’s harder to just be like, lemme just stay in touch with what I actually want right now, which is to eat a sandwich by myself.”
Self-care then isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity, the kinds of small circular rituals that can alleviate buried but potentially disruptive loci of stress. Kline’s self-care on tour includes listening to music through headphones and “allowing myself to be in my head and not worrying about coming off as rude.” (Her jam at the time was the album Respect by Squarehead, an Irish band Frankie Cosmos toured with.) And among other salves like the simple act of being home, with her family, and having a room of her own to write alone, Kline also champions some “common sense” things that can fall by the wayside during times of stress: “I used to go a whole week sometimes without showering … You don’t realize that you need it! And drinking water; that feels so good. I’m still learning about all the things that I have to do just to survive, and those are always things I overlook. So I have to try really hard to remember to do them.”
And then there’s the fact that she’s performing songs that, while never quite heavy or dark in sound, are laced through with potent sadnesses: Anger, shame, resentment, and the like. Next Thing track “Too Dark” boasts the line, “I wish I had some control / You embarrass me in full / I feel low low low”; “Fool” bleakly remembers, “Once I was happy / You found it intriguing / Then you got to me and left me bleeding.” When she’s recounting these kinds of lyrics on stage, Kline has to strike a tricky compromise with her memories.
“I’ve been working really hard at this very delicate balance between trying to have the songs be enough of a muscle memory thing that I don’t have to entirely have a breakdown every down I sing them, or get too emotional basically, but also trying to stay in touch with the meaning and the emotion behind them because otherwise, the performance is boring. You know, if I’m just going through the motions and just playing the songs, and not thinking about the lyrics. But there are some nights, if I’m really down, I’ll say to my band, ‘We can’t play this one tonight because it’s gonna make me cry.'”
Throughout our conversation, we keep coming back to the idea of communication. Though Kline is a slight, young woman, she is careful to note that her music isn’t about those things—youth, womanhood—only: “A lot of people will make a generalization about our fan base and just assume that it’s people that look like me. Everyone’s like, ‘You know, little teen girls with bangs!’, or something. It’s not at all like that; there’s so many different kinds of people at shows, and it’s awesome … It’s nice to know that my thing’s not so self-centered that only people who are like me, can like it.”
But even though her music is driven by the universal language of emotion, Kline is careful and precise in how she views her songs, both as their creator and as something based on her personal history going out into the world. “Everyone has their own personal history and it affects the entire way they use language or view their ideas. We all think that we’re communicating with each other but really we’re just saying words,” she muses, before adding, “I know that no one’s going to hear my songs in the same way that I intended it for myself, but the fact that they can get anything from it! That’s why people like talking to each other; it doesn’t really matter that you’re not having the exact same experience. You’re getting closer to some kind of understanding, and that’s beautiful in its own way, even if it’s not exactly right.”
“I don’t need to get this point across in a way for anyone else, because it’s not gonna work anyway, so I might as well do it the way I wanna do it, when I’m writing a song. I just write the thing that I wanna write and then hopefully somebody will draw something from it, but there’s no way you can affect the way that they’re gonna see it.”
Kline’s hands-off approach to her music’s reception also carries through to her feelings about an unlikely other subject: Fashion. Her mother, actress Phoebe Cates, runs a clothing store and instilled in Kline a sense of what style can be—”When I was a kid, she was the person who’d pick out my clothes”—but for her own part, Kline has never adopted the idea of dressing “for” her performing profession.
“I always bring at least two extremely comfortable, really soft shirts on tour for the days when I’m really needing to be happy. I don’t think twice about wearing that stuff on stage, even though it’s not ‘attractive.’ But maybe there’s a part of me that me having to look good on stage is a sexist thing, and I shouldn’t have to, because no one ever cares if a dude wears a t-shirt on stage. In a way, me dressing really comfortable is a statement. It’s not that thought through, but I feel like maybe it is in that way.”
After her thoughtful response to my clumsy question about style on stage, I panic, thinking that I’ve accidentally pinned her in the exact way she didn’t want to be. But Kline assuages my fear and acknowledges the bind that she and many other performers find themselves, joking: “There’s a part of me that thinks I could wear something to make a statement on stage or to try to show who I am, or be a part of a persona, but nothing that I try to get across is gonna come across, so I might as well wear the thing that I like, and that is my persona! Who I am is my persona.”
This is the boundary Kline has to cross, again and again: The one between personal and public, between demurring from explicit statement and demarcating her true beliefs. In her knowingly “imperfect” renditions of her life, she’s found a community of listeners who take her at her word but also reconfigure her experiences around their own. She is grateful to be part of their journeys, but at the tender age of 22, she’s still navigating not only a constant flurry of responsibilities to others, but also that core one to herself: “Learning to not be on all the time, that’s probably the hardest hat for me to wear. The one that’s the real me, that just wants to relax!”
Writing this right now, I know it’s only a matter of time before she hits the road again, again. I hope she’s in the silence she seeks, to whittle away at the conversations and feelings in her memories until they become whatever she wants them to be: Songs, or sonic sketches, or notes in a journal that’ll never be read by anyone other than herself. Yet she persists in recording it all; studiously taping part of a conversation that will never be complete.