“Ugh! Can you hear me now?” It’s 10am in California, and Phoebe Bridgers is sitting in the garden of her Silver Lake home, hood up and hunched in front of the laptop that she’s trying to wrestle a decent Zoom connection out of. Like most of us, she’s barely left the confines of her house in the last two months, and is teetering on the edge between welcome rest and nervous energy.
“I go through phases, and I’m trying to allow myself that,” she says. “I talk to a couple of my bandmates and they’re all like, ‘Why don’t you use this time to do that thing you always talked about doing?’ I’m just like… excuse me? This is the most psychologically taxing time of my life! But I’ve been learning my own songs on piano, and I’ve got a treadmill, so I walk on that like a crazy hamster for like, way too many hours in the day. The weird silver lining for me is that everybody is being honest right now. You say ‘How are you?’ and it’s like, well… I’m not sick, but my friend’s mum is sick and it’s just crazy to get really deep with people right off the bat, but that’s kind of cool. My therapist tells me that therapy is all just about one thing right now for everyone, and I guess that’s quite connecting too.” She takes a deep breath, smiles. “So, how are you?”
Born in Pasadena in 1994, Phoebe Bridgers has spent her life in the heart of Los Angeles, the city that makes dreams come true. Where most young musicians have to wait until they’re old enough to set out on the pilgrimage for their big break, she was already in the right place, set on becoming a musician from the age of 13. Encouraged by her mum, she studied vocal jazz at LA County High School For The Arts - a cornucopia of rich kids and determined fame-seekers, carving out their own slice of Hollywood.
“I do forget what California means to people who aren’t from here,” she admits. “I had the least money of anyone in my friend group, but if I lived somewhere else I would have been rock-solid middle class. My parents aren’t in entertainment, but my friend’s mum was the director of Hannah Montana, and my other best friend’s dad is the AllState guy [a high-profile American Insurance advert personality]. Everybody around you is involved in something. There were straight-up American Apparel models in my class at high school, people doing drugs in the bathroom. There were two camping trips a year, and the musicale - with an e - where everyone got to perform a song. I sang ‘Puff The Magic Dragon’ at that talent show, but obviously, because it was a hippy school, it wasn’t really called a talent show - kids, it’s not a competition! There are no grades here! Every year I’d look forward to it so much, and end up talking to lots of parents who were in entertainment or in bands.”
Grateful for her own privilege without being entirely at ease with the jazz hands and ruthless networking of her peers, Phoebe describes herself as something of a high school misfit. She was outgoing and well-liked, but very aware of the cookie-cutter mould of expectation that the city rewards. “It does come with a level of pressure, but I like, loved attention,” she laughs. “I say loved, as if it’s past tense… But yeah, if I wasn’t raised here, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to play a club and get scouted for a commercial, which was what my early 20s were like.”
“I cried on my 11th birthday when I didn’t get a Hogwarts acceptance letter.”
Her early 20s also gave Phoebe her 2017 debut ‘Stranger In The Alps’. A slow-burning hit, ‘Stranger…’ felt startling in its intimacy, telling stories normally reserved for late night confession sessions with a trusted friend. She’s quick to lay her own plaudits at the doors of others (“I didn’t really know what I sounded like for the first record, Tony [Berg, producer] took a huge chance on me”), but the quiet power of the record feels distinctly her own - imbued with her collaborative spirit and ability to evoke dark humour from her own vulnerabilities. From ‘Motion Sickness’’ pithy dismissal of a toxic ex (“I faked it every time / But that’s alright”) to the ongoing depression management detailed in ‘Funeral’ (“We talk until we think we might just kill ourselves / But then we laugh until it disappears”), it was a debut record that asked for little but offered almost everything of its unassuming creator.
“There was literally no entitlement to do anything other than play a million small gigs in LA. If one cool person came to a show, I’d be like, ‘Tonight was the night of my fucking life!’” she smiles. “I remember the summer of 2016, when I first played a show with Conor Oberst. I went home and started jumping up and down because he talked to me for a long time. Every level has felt like a success to me, which is great. But also, if I went back and told my 16-year-old self about the things that I’ve done since, I would have fucking lost it. It feels so corny to say it, but it’s just so weird that my life has been so specifically curated to make me happy.”
Although the press around the album was positive, many writers expressed confusion, wrapped up in complicated indictments of what a young female musician should look like. How could this sombre artist, crafter of worldly-wise folk songs, be the same meme-sharing girl who gleefully goes by the Instagram username @_fake_nudes_? Can songs about death and despair really sit side-by-side with a press release that describes them as being about “hitting the open road with six strings and a UTI?”
“I feel like it’s hard for people to accept multitudes, for sure,” she says. “People who do seem one-dimensional publically, it’s normally a lot to do with social pressure, y’know? I met with a label when I was 18, and they were just like ‘Your Twitter is weird, you should be tweeting more Elliott Smith lyrics and stuff’. They didn’t want me to have a personality. One of my favourite rumours is that I’m an industry plant; I think my mum would have totally gone for that if she’d known how to make me one, but it’s not what has happened. I’ve always been really inspired by people who refused to be one-dimensional. I grew up listening to people like Fiona Apple. She’s been painted into this weird corner - ‘Oh my god, she’s off the rails!’ - but she’s a fucking human being! It’s fucking gnarly.”
“I feel like it’s hard for people to accept multitudes.”
On record and off, Phoebe is an engaging storyteller. She punctuates the facts of a tale with snippy asides and “like”s, trailing into ellipsis as a more interesting thought occurs to her. 'Shit' isn’t always a negative; 'gnarly' doesn't always mean cool. To speak with her for even a few minutes is to feel like you know her; to listen to her music is to gain an insight into her diary as a means of better understanding your own. But of course, you can only ever know as much of a person as what they choose to tell, and the balance between full emotional disclosure and personal preservation is a tricky one for this self-confessed oversharer to strike.
“Oversharing on Twitter and being self-deprecating in my music - they’re the same personality, just one is shooting off constantly and the other is something I’ve worked really hard on,” she explains. “There are jokes on this album, but some people don’t get that it’s a joke or get it way late because my speaking voice sounds like I work at Arby’s, and my singing voice is very apathetic and sad sounding. That said, I feel like it happens to me all the time, with interviews - just being a little bit too honest. Sometimes in my music or interviews I talk about stuff that I don’t really want to elaborate on, but then I realise that once it’s out there I kind of have to. Shit about my childhood, or certain members of my family that I don’t speak to. It’s just a weird world because you’ll talk to a journalist and make an actual connection where you forget that it’s going online, but the piece is great and you feel great about it so it’s cool. But then two years later, this random guy will be like, ‘So, you’ve talked about opiates before...’ and you’re like, um, did I? The trope about being a Woman in Music is the best example. I’ll have a real conversation about womanhood with another woman, but then, because I’ve answered it before, men are like ‘SO, you’re a chick…”
Despite a growing awareness of her own boundaries, her second solo record shows no signs of shutting anybody out. From the beginnings of ‘DVD Menu’ - an ominous instrumental that recalls the bouncing symbol of a player on pause - to the hefty breathing that closes ‘The End Is Near’, ‘Punisher’ has all the heart of its predecessor, cutting one-liners placed just at the moment where the emotional tension might become too much to bear. Building flesh on the stark bones of ‘Stranger…’, it’s brightened by flourishes of emo strings and horns; on ‘Kyoto’ and ‘I See You’, she almost recalls a ‘Pretty. Odd.’-era Panic! At The Disco, stretching the boundaries of what one might expect from her work.
“I mean, I was thinking more My Chem and ‘[The] Black Parade’, but Panic is good too,” she laughs. “It wasn’t a concerted effort to be different. I think the only real shift was that I hadn’t really toured when I was making the first album, and after touring an album that’s like 10 songs of the saddest, slowest shit you’ve ever heard, I was starting to hallucinate onstage. There’s nothing more exciting than a totally silent room when you’re playing a sad song, but five in a row… you start to spin out a little…”
“I don’t know how people do writing sessions with strangers, where every day has a new dynamic - I need years of bad ideas with someone to be comfortable!”
Having spent the years between her solo records as part of Better Oblivion Community Centre with Conor Oberst and boygenius alongside Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker, working on ‘Punisher’ renewed Phoebe’s belief that no great idea is born out of total isolation. With Warpaint’s Jenny Lee Lindberg, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner and her supergroup bandmates all hopping on board for her second, it’s an album that comes as a product of a safe space where no concept is too embarrassing to share.
“I don’t know how people do writing sessions with strangers, where every day has a new dynamic - I need years of bad ideas with someone to be comfortable," she says. "The first record ended in actual tears; I had been bundling up all these resentments and feelings and just started bawling in the studio. This record was breezy as fuck in comparison - there were so many times where we were just jumping up and down with joy. It’s fun to make music with people you know really well.”
That said, there were some bumpier moments. “The one I did get a little bit shamed for my ideas on was ‘Chinese Satellite’, because it sounded like really fucking bad U2 for a minute,” she recalls. “It was a little too fist-pumpy, y’know? Taking all the instruments out except for the strings was basically our last resort, and then even when we were mixing it we were like, do we get another drummer? I had my friend Charlie Hickey sing on it, as a duet, but his voice is way too perfect and it made it sound even cornier. Tony was just like, you CAN’T release this, it’s way too gnarly. It was one of those songs that didn’t really feel done with the rest of the record, but even he called me the other day to say that it rocks. I think it lives in a good place on the record; it doesn’t sound like the other shit.”
“[As a kid] I like, LOVED attention. I say loved, as if it’s past tense…”
As the central point of ‘Punisher’, ‘Chinese Satellite’ was worth all the soul-searching. Looking to the skies for a sense of higher purpose, it extends the classic Phoebe Bridgers motif of ghosts to question what else might be out there - the possibility of extra-terrestrial life which helps put her own existence into relief.
“I wasn’t raised religious at all, but I really wish there was a thing I could cling to that resembled faith at all,” she contemplates. “I think I do believe in aliens; I’m really receptive to that shit. I cried on my 11th birthday when I didn’t get a Hogwarts acceptance letter, so I am fully prepared for there to be some other world out there. I’m not scared of it at all - I’m way more scared by this [gestures around]. I mean, humanity, are you kidding me? I think the earth will continue without us whatever, we’re not the centre of the world, but it’s way more depressing to think that this is all that there is.”
As someone who openly admits her affection for attention, does creating work help with the fears of her own mortality, of being forgotten?
“Totally, yeah,” she nods. “It’s weird because, especially with the context of coronavirus, it’s so easy to feel victimised. Like, ‘Oh my god, I’m really missing out on the year that I was supposed to have’. But when I think about it, I’m so glad I have something to focus on. I feel lucky to have a platform to tell people to donate to charities, lucky that when I do a livestream people pay attention. And most of all, I feel lucky to have something new to show people.
“I’m so much happier now than I was on the first record. People get afraid that they have their whole life to write their first album, and then only a short window for the second, but I feel like I had my whole life to write kind of shitty, and in the last three years I’ve gotten so much better,” Phoebe continues. “The first one took me so long, and the label has literally told me that when they look at the first week sales, it’s basically hilariously bad! But even then, playing tiny shows and having people sing words back to me - I thought I’d totally made it.
“I’ve talked to musicians who are obsessed with the idea of people still talking about you after you’re dead, and I’m like, who can you really do that with?” she ponders. “I mean, Shakespeare? I don’t know what my favourite bop from 1890 was, y’know? I think it just matters for yourself and the people you connect with. Something I do think about way too much is that every time I finish a song, I wonder whether it’s going to be the last one. It’s so weird. I wonder if like, Nick Cave has that, or who the most famous person is who feels that way. Especially when you hear people’s later career records, and you wonder when they started to lose touch...” She smiles again, not quite able to deprive herself of one last witticism. “Maybe it’s when they stopped hating themselves…”
‘Punisher’ is out 19th June via Dead Oceans.
As featured in the June 2020 issue of DIY, out now.
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