On a recent Monday afternoon, Greta Kline was thinking about music and memory. On the way from her home in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to a French bistro in the West Village, she’d been listening to a favorite song she discovered in her teen years: “Alphabet,” a downcast ballad recorded in 2003 by Jeffrey Lewis.
“There’s something about music you listen to in high school. When you hear it, it takes you right back,” the 24-year-old singer-songwriter said after ordering scrambled eggs with chèvre. “I felt that way today. Like, ‘Wow, nothing else exists except for that song when you’re listening to it.’”
The songs that Ms. Kline writes and performs with her band, Frankie Cosmos, have that same universe-swallowing quality. “Vessel,” the group’s new album, is full of tiny scenes that hit with incredible poignancy, from her New York childhood up through her uncertain 20s. It’s an LP full of surprises that stay with you long after the often-brief songs end.
Take the single “Being Alive,” set in part at the defunct Bushwick venue Goodbye Blue Monday, where at 16 Ms. Kline once contributed “really bad, nerdy drumming” to a performance by her first band, Milk Ghost. In the song’s second verse, a guy named Craig says “Maybe see you later” to Ms. Kline, and she lets you hear how that made her heart stop and then soar over furiously strummed guitar chords that downshift for a short reverie. “It’s about being a teenager and reading into everything, taking moments that are really small and making them huge,” she said. “That’s the driving mantra behind everything I do: Isn’t it crazy that I have feelings and exist?”
Dressed in a well-worn black hoodie featuring the name of a New York-based musician (Vagabon) over a white T-shirt advertising another band (Big Thief), her dark hair buzzed close in a way that accentuated her expressive features, Ms. Kline looked every bit her role as one of the patron saints and leading lights of today’s fiercely independent singer-songwriter scene. The example she has set over the last seven years — from lo-fi, no-budget home recordings to effusive critical acclaim and sold-out tours, all without sacrificing any of her charm or individuality — has helped open doors for a generation of self-starters like Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail and Julien Baker.
“Vessel” is Frankie Cosmos’s third studio LP — the group also includes the bassist Alex Bailey, who joined after recording; the keyboardist and vocalist Lauren Martin; and the drummer Luke Pyenson — and it’s getting a heavier promotional push than usual. Instead of the small artist-owned imprints she allied with for “Zentropy” in 2014 and “Next Thing” two years later, this one is arriving courtesy of Sub Pop, the Seattle-based indie-rock institution that propelled Nirvana and the Postal Service. “Now we have sponsored Instagram ads,” said Ms. Kline, a self-described “control freak” who also acts as the band’s manager. “Spotify makes people listen to Frankie Cosmos. That’s so weird!”
Growing up as the youngest child of the actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates has given her deft comic timing and a healthy disregard for celebrity. “Part of why I’m not interested in being famous is because I already know that it doesn’t mean anything,” she said. “They’re just my parents; they’re just people. I know that being recognized for something doesn’t make you love yourself any more.”
Unlike her outgoing brother Owen, Ms. Kline was shy, and she felt out of place at her all-girls elementary school. “I always had less than five friends. Probably less than two friends, usually,” she said. “My brother tried to make me cool so bad. He failed.”
She took piano lessons starting at age 6 but found recitals “nerve-racking.” In fifth grade, a close friend opened up a new world for Ms. Kline by introducing her to foundational texts by the Strokes and Neutral Milk Hotel and teaching her to play guitar. By her teens, she was attending all-ages rock shows at since-vanished spaces like Cake Shop and Shea Stadium.
Eventually she worked up the confidence to step onstage herself, although she preferred staying toward the back. In addition to Milk Ghost, she drummed in Period Blood, a short-lived, “super-angry” quartet in the tradition of Bikini Kill whose name was suggested by her brother. Around the same time, circa 2010, Ms. Kline opened a Bandcamp account for the scuzzy-sounding yet sophisticated indie-pop songs she’d begun furtively recording on her computer.
She posted her solo music under several fanciful stage names, including Ingrid Superstar, which she reluctantly dropped after learning that a Warhol superstar had already claimed it in the 1960s. (The name Frankie Cosmos, which she’s used since 2012, is in part a homage to one of her favorite poets, Frank O’Hara.) “I didn’t have my real name anywhere, and I thought that that would protect me,” she said. “I was like, ‘No one’s going to know it’s me! I can write about who I have a crush on!’”
Even when she started singing her own songs in public, she still viewed Frankie Cosmos as an eccentric art project, meant mostly to amuse her family and friends. But any illusion of privacy ended in 2014 with the release of “Zentropy,” a sweet, intimate set that Ms. Kline recorded as a duo with her then-boyfriend, Aaron Maine of the indie-rock group Porches.
Despite its compact 17-minute running time, “Zentropy” had the resonant glow of a full-length statement, and it won rave reviews from critics, drawing new crowds to her shows. “That’s when it got scary for me,” she said. “I only want people to listen to it who care about it, and you can’t control that.” On her parents’ advice, she stopped reading her press coverage.
“Vessel” sounds bigger and bolder than anything she’s done before, thanks to the extra guitar punch added by the multi-instrumentalist Ms. Martin, an old friend of the Kline siblings who joined in 2016. It’s also notably darker in tone, in part because many of its lyrics deal with the late stages of Ms. Kline and Mr. Maine’s five-year relationship, which ended about a year and a half ago. “When you close your dreamy eyes/Are they even close to dreaming of mine?” she sings on “Apathy,” a bruising highlight. “It’s interesting to revisit songs like that and feel like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I wrote this and didn’t immediately break up with that person,’” Ms. Kline said.
Songwriting, she said, often lets her examine emotions she’d otherwise repress: “I probably should go to therapy, but I don’t, so I just write songs.” When she revisits older material, the effect can be disorienting. “I don’t do any drugs, I don’t drink,” she said. “So playing a bunch of songs I wrote when I was 16 is my way of giving myself a weird experience. It’s like microdosing.”
When we met for lunch, Ms. Kline was two days away from her 24th birthday. Parties stress her out, so she planned to attend a magic show with her parents, bake a cake she saw on Instagram — “It’s in the shape of a hedgehog, and it has Pocky sticking out of it as spikes” — and possibly write a song. “I hate birthdays,” she said. “I don’t feel like a grown-up, because I still don’t look forward to showering.”
While the band has tour dates booked through the end of the year, Ms. Kline said she still didn’t think of herself as a natural live performer. “I had to force myself to try it, and I still have to talk myself up to it every time I go onstage,” she said. “One of the things that’s hard is it’s my real self all the time. If I wear a funny outfit that I wouldn’t normally wear, would that make it less wearing down on my soul?”
Ms. Kline, running late to her next engagement, slung a blue-and-green backpack over her shoulders. “This is just one part of my life,” she added before dashing out the door. “One day when I’m a grown-up with a real job and a family, I can tell my kids, ‘I actually used to be a rock star.’”
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