Interview: Frankie Cosmos on stage fright, the millennial mind, and the finding the right vibe at music festivals

“I’m in Iceland trying to find myself. How r u.”

That’s a recent tweet from Greta Kline, known increasingly in music circles and elsewhere as Frankie Cosmos. There’s more truth to the somewhat ironic tweet than appears; the 22-year-old, who just performed at Iceland Airwaes, currently spends her formative adult years in the back of a van, trekking across the States and Europe to share her collection of sparse rock songs from her latest album, spring’s Next Thing. Before her solo gig, she did the same as bassist with indie-pop band Porches.

The feat is equal parts impressive and intimidating, but for Cosmos herself, the success of her blossoming career — which she fondly calls her “fun hobby” — feels just plain weird. The fact that she fronts her own musical project after years of stage fright is more bizarre. Even the all-brief 15 songs on Next Thing present Frankie Cosmos as an emotional wallflower, gifted but hushed in comparison to her native New York City’s noise.

Prior to her upcoming show at the Middle East downstairs this Saturday, Vanyaland chatted with the singer/songwriter about overcoming stage fright, her ye olde days in Porches, and whether or not she actually likes music festivals.

Victoria Wasylak: Your songs on your new album are really short. Is there any particular reason for that?

Frankie Cosmos: It’s just how I wrote ‘em.

I feel like most modern rock songs tend to be on the shorter side and not on the longer side.

Personally, that’s just how long I have the attention span to care about a song. I think songs have to be really worth it if they’re going to be longer than a few minutes. It’s a millennial thing, I don’t know.

How does it feel to be this young and have this much success?

It feels really… weird. It’s weird. I don’t know if you feel this way but, early 20s is a confusing time, trying to figure out who I am, and it’s definitely a weird time to do it, to be away from home most of the year and have people scrutinizing whatever I’m doing with my fun hobby.

The other day you tweeted that your music isn’t boring, it’s relaxing. What’s the difference to you?

Honestly, somebody on tour was saying that to my bandmate. “Your guys’ music, all my friends say it’s boring, but it’s not, it’s just relaxing.” [laughing] I just thought it was so funny and so rude to say that to my bandmate. I guess the difference is — I don’t know, it was just funny! I don’t think my music is boring. People will a lot of times say something about out arrangements being, like too simple or something, but they’re actually really not simple, and we really kind of spend a lot of time discussing them and intricately choosing where they’re going to be simple, and I feel like we’re carefully curating a relaxing song. I was just making a joke about people thinking it’s boring, which they’re allowed to think that.

What was it like playing sold-out shows in Budapest and London at 22 years old?

It was so wild. I couldn’t believe it. I guess I had no idea whether or not anybody in these other really far away places were going to come and listen to our music, so I went into the tour kind of having… not low expectations but I was imagining it that I was going to be like our first tour that we had booked in America, which was just house shows, and people would invite their friends to come. When you perform to a sold-out room, it’s really different than when you perform to ten people that have never heard of you, because you feel like you’ve already proven yourself to them. When the room is sold out, you don’t really have to win them over, whereas if you’re playing to people who have never heard of you, you want to give them an idea of what your music is like from scratch. You’re introducing yourself to them. I was expecting it to be more like that, an introduction tour, and then it was really cool because I got to play for these people who were excited to see us play and had heard the album. It was cool, yeah, I don’t know. It was fun. It was really surprising when those shows sold out, I was really excited about it.

Do you play much differently when you feel like you have to win people over?

I’m maybe more nervous in those situations — it’s like playing an open mic or something, there’s this feeling like no one’s there to see you. I don’t know, maybe I’m just spoiled now by playing shows for people who have heard of us, but when we did out first year of touring in May, and we were doing a lot of the shows with Porches, and Porches was headlining, and so I had this vibe, this feeling like “everyone here came to see Porches, and we have to prove ourselves as a band that they should also watch right now.” You just feel more nervous because it’s almost like you feel there’s more at stake. Whereas if people bought their tickets in advance and they really love your band, know you they’re going to be open to whatever you want to do with your performance. I guess I’ve gotten totally spoiled by playing sold-out shows. I love it so much. There’s just this feeling like “oh, these people deserve to be here, they believed in us, they believed that the show would sell out, they got their ticket in advance, they showed up and they’re all in this room and the want to be here.” It’s a flippant thing to go to a show, you bought a ticket in advance, you really care about my project. It just feels really… I love those people more… not more, but whenever I’m at those shows, I feel more open to trying to connect with that audience maybe. There’s just less pressure.

It’s a lot more welcoming. You’re in a city that you probably don’t know very well, and these people are here to see you, and they know you, but you don’t know them. It’s kind of nice, I would imagine. “Look at all these strangers who know my art.”

I also love playing to total strangers who have no idea about the band. I love when people come up to me and are like “oh, I’ve never heard of you guys, but my friend dragged me here and it was so cool.” I love that too, it’s just a different kind of show. There’s something about a sold-out show that really feels like — you just feel like everyone believes in you. Something about buying a ticket in advance is like saying “I think that your show is going to sell out because I believe in your project,” I just love that. It just makes me love the people there so much. It’s hard to explain.

You brought up Porches — what’s your relationship like with them? You’ve worked a lot with Porches and you played bass with them.

I played in Porches for three years, and we did a lot of tours together where I was playing two shows a night. This time in May was the first time I toured with them when I wasn’t playing. It was the first time I got to watch them play, which was interesting.

Do you miss it, or do you like it now that you get to do a solo project?

It’s so much better now to be able to put all my energy into Frankie Cosmos and not feel like we’re spread too thin. It was definitely a lot of work. But I also really miss playing bass just because it’s so fun and I really love playing bass, so I just have been working on a new project now writing bass for it, which is really nice. Just as a side thing, for fun. I love playing on other people’s songs and stuff, too.

It’s a big shift, because when you play bass, you’re the glue of a band, but people don’t necessarily have all eyes on you, but now you’ve switched to your project, and you’re the star, basically. It’s kind of like a metamorphosis.

Well, I also feel like playing bass with Porches was a really big stepping stone for me to get over stage fright. I wouldn’t be able to perform as the frontperson of Frankie Cosmos if I hadn’t had the experiences with being on stage, and getting to work on that. It’s so much scarier when you’re playing stuff you wrote — your own singing, your own lyrics, it’s so much scarier, so I just feel like it’s definitely a good experience. It helped shape my past to be able to be able to perform my own stuff.

How long did you struggle with stage fright before you played in Porches?

I mean, I just never could imagine myself performing. I’ve never been a performing type of person. I would rather be in the audience, I guess. I just had it in my head I wanted to play my songs live, and I just tried it out on a really small scale. It was a really slow climb for me to be able to get up onstage and feel the way that I feel now onstage. It’s been a three or four year process — even a five year process of me becoming the person I am now, and being able to do that.

What do you think is the next step for you to improve? Not just with stage fright, but with your music?

I’m always trying to get better, and really trying to get better at singing and better at playing and making our shows more fun, maybe. I’m writing a bunch of new songs and definitely working really hard on them. I feel like they may be better than the last batch songs — I always feel like what I’m working on is better than the last batch.

You recently played at End of The Road music festival in the UK. Are you a big music festival person or not?

You know, I’ve never attended a music festival that I wasn’t playing. I guess I’m not really a music festival person. I don’t think I’ve ever gone on purpose to a music festival. [laughs] That doesn’t mean that I’m not a music festival person, actually End of The Road was maybe my favorite show of the tour. It was so beautiful. It was like, something about being in the most beautiful English countryside with this amazing grass and hills — it’s just really, really special. We had to leave right after our set, so I didn’t really experience it as a festival, it was really just our show. But it was really beautiful driving there. There’s something about being so isolated and away from anything else, and then everyone is just there because they love music, I think that’s cool. Actually, I think I am a music festival person, it just depends, it has to be the right vibe. There was a vibe at End of The Road where it really felt like everyone who was there – it was probably the most people we had ever played to — and it was like, instead of… I would imagine, all these people walking around, checking stuff out, just talking to their friends and whatever, not trying to actually take in some bands they’ve never heard before, waiting around to see the bands they came to see or whatever, but all these people were so respectful during our show and it just felt like they were they to take in music. I feel like maybe it’s not the same at other festivals in America, but I don’t know.

I think in my head, I imagine music festivals as being a more party kind of thing. I was imagining it at being drugs and parties, but End of The Road really felt like a grown-up festival, it was my scene. I really liked it, everyone was just so cool.

Do you feel like you have much time to take in the culture of whatever city you’re in when you’re on tour, or do you feel more rushed?

We usually don’t have time, which is really sad. You spend all day driving, and you get to the venue in time for soundcheck, and then you’ve got the show, and you sleep and you do it again the next day. We really tried in Europe to eat local food, and they make it really easy because all the venues there will make you dinner, send you to a really good local spot, which is really nice, so we did try to do that in Europe. I like to walk around the area where the show is. There’s certain towns like Boston, for example, where I’ve spent enough time there that I kind of feel like I know my way around certain neighborhoods, but it takes touring a place probably five times before I feel that way.

Oh, I’m sure. I hear that from a lot of musicians on tour — that they get there, they soundcheck, they take a nap, then they play, and it’s off to the next place, which is a shame, because you get to travel so much, but how much do you actually get to take in? But I hope you get to have some clam chowder when you’re here.

It’s a bummer when we come back to New York and everyone’s like “oh my gosh, how was Berlin?” and you’re like “Yeah, no. I don’t know.” I didn’t get to do the thing that everyone wants to hear about. My drummer is from Boston, so we get to have a nice Boston time this time.

Since your stage name is Frankie Cosmos, what is your zodiac sign, and if you could be anything in outer space, like a planet or a constellation, what would you be?

I don’t know if you heard, but they changed the dates, so officially, I’m a full Pieces. I was always the first day of Aries, so I considered myself an Pieces/Aries cusp, but they changed it, so that’s cool.

Hmm… I’m sure I would be some kind of constellation, maybe something about Orion. There’s this one really amazing Connie Converse song about being in love with “the man in the sky” and how you’re so spread out. “When on his shoulder her head she’d lay his eye was a million miles away.” So sad. I love it.

FRANKIE COSMOS + BIG THIEF :: Saturday, November 12 at the Middle East, 472 Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge, MA :: 5 p.m., all ages, $15 :: Advance tickets :: Facebook event page :: Photo by Matthew James Wilson