She was still so green when her solo debut Stranger in the Alps was released in 2017. The years that followed brought Phoebe Bridgers a lot of victories, collaborations with her idols and, above all, new best friends. All those experiences and encounters give her the inspiration for second album Punisher - as well as a book of short stories where zombies and ghosts can show up as if it's the most natural thing in the world.
Written by: Loulou Kuster
Illustrations: Frann de Bruin
It is early April, a form of lockdown is in force in both the US and the Netherlands; the world lives in fear and uncertainty. We speak with Phoebe Bridgers, who is about to release her second album. She's restless, wishing she was on "the shittiest tour ever" somewhere in Europe - she'd be doing anything rather than sitting at home while she releases Punisher, her second solo album. “It's crazy to release music in these times, but I feel like I should do it now. I listen to Elliott Smith a lot again to relax. It gives me hope and I hope people will have something like that with Punisher too. It can be very soothing to listen to very sad music. In any case, it helps me.”
Bridgers grew up in Pasadena, a suburb of Los Angeles. The love for music can be found in her from an early age. The Bridgers house is filled with records by Joni Mitchell, Hank Williams, The Pretenders and Neil Young. Although she generally has many fond memories of her childhood, it is not always easy. Her father, an alcoholic, has been guilty of domestic violence for years.
Bridgers finds a getaway in music. Her mother sends her to piano classes, although she is not exactly waiting for that. “I hate doing something that's an obligation; I hated reading music and didn't feel like taking piano classes at all. I taught myself to play the guitar, actually as a form of rebellion against my mother, like: you are not going to decide for me what I do.” Eventually, Bridgers' mother joins the rebellion, drives her to all the music classes and gigs, and even goes to punk concerts with her daughter and her friends.
“I would be a huge punisher for Elliott Smith. I wouldn't stop talking; I would say things I shouldn't say. I know everything about him.”
At the age of thirteen, Bridgers gets to know the music of Elliott Smith, who is still a huge source of inspiration for her. Punisher's title track, for example, is about how fans sometimes feel they know an artist they think they are a fan of. Bridgers has clever little references to Smith hidden throughout the song. For example, "And walk right by / the house you lived with Snow White" is a direct link to the cottage where Elliott Smith once lived, an imitation of Snow White's house. “Man, I would be a huge punisher for Elliott Smith. I wouldn't stop talking; I would say things I shouldn't say. Because it's weird that I know those things, the smallest details. I know everything. I had it too when I first started talking to Conor Oberst five years ago. I hardly dared to say anything because I thought I would be that punisher of a fan.”
In her puberty Bridgers turns into a classic punk, her hair short and pink. Later, in 2012, she becomes bass guitarist in the punk band Sloppy Jane, fronted by one of her best friends, Haley Dahl. Sloppy Jane was rough. For example, it was not uncommon for Dahl to tear off her clothes on stage or throw herself into the audience. A role in two Apple commercials and one by Taco Bell (who were looking for an "edgy silverlaker") eventually yield the money that Brigders can finally pay for the recording of her solo debut.
That album will be Stranger in the Alps, produced by the same people Bridgers worked with on Punisher: Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska. “When I was making Stranger in the Alps, I was much greener than I am now. Three years ago it was just really exciting. I had a lot of fun with Ethan and Tony, but it was also a bit of trial and error. I recorded Punisher with my best friends, because that's what they've become in those three years. We were all less tense than with my first album, we could say everything and freely spew ideas. I speak to Ethan and Tony even now, in quarantine, almost every day. I wouldn't know what to do without their jokes."
“That's how I want to write my songs: that something really strange can happen in the middle of a song, and then it just goes back to normal, like nothing ever happened.”
In the years that follow Bridgers does not sit still. She is the support act for Julien Baker, among others. It clicks well between the two; both the same age and at the beginning of a musical career in which personal and painful moments are sung - wrapped in beautiful, often subdued songs. Baker pairs her up with Lucy Dacus and the three of them started a group chat in which they share musical ideas; a group that not only started a friendship, but also makes supergroup boygenius arise. In this way they start to write songs and only after writing do they physically come together. The three are open to each other, on different levels. “At the beginning of our joint writing work, we all had a knack for transferring our work to the other in a negative way. Then, for example, I would have written something and sent it in the chat and I would add: 'It's not super good, but this is it.' While I actually thought it was a fucking good song. And we all had. Later on we also just started saying that we liked what we had made and that it is bullshit to downgrade your own work. And we are still very honest with each other, if I'm not doing welI will talk to them about it and vice versa.”
“In any case, our generation is open about our mental health. I think that's a very good thing. It's kind of a millennial thing to share the darkest thoughts and I think that helps a lot in becoming aware of what we're feeling and thinking. For example, we are normalizing therapy in society, instead of rejecting and suppressing all those dark thoughts. And that goes for melancholic or sad music too, it helps you realize that you are not alone and that others are going through the same things.”
Bridgers meets Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst at a concert in LA in the summer of 2016. Bridgers — who grew up with Fevers and Mirrors and I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning — is starstruck, terrified that once she starts talking, she can't stop anymore. But they hit it off instantly. “The old friend you didn't know you had,” Oberst calls her. He sings the song 'Would You Rather' on Bridgers' debut album; she in return participates in Oberst's 'LAX'. They find soul mates in each other and secretly the two make an album under the name Better Oblivion Community Center. It will be an album with beautiful songs and sharp, sometimes topical lyrics.
Referring with minor subtleties to something big and important without the listener noticing it right away; it's a kind of magical realism that Bridgers applies to Punisher as well. “While writing 'Garden Song' I was reading Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. It is a book with a number of short stories, which are written very realistically. But sometimes something really strange can happen without really making a point of it in the story. In one chapter, for example, a ghost floats through her room, without changing the plot. That's also how I want to write my songs, where something really strange can happen in the middle of a song, but then it just goes back to normal, as if nothing happened."
'Kyoto', which follows 'Garden Song' on the record, is far from magical and above all very realistic - about her father's alcoholism, and the struggle of touring when you're actually not feeling well at all. “I love being on tour, especially now. Oh man, I'd kill for it. But when you're depressed, touring is very difficult. You live out of your suitcase and all the little inconveniences can feel very heavy. Then I really just want to go home. "Kyoto" is about the first time I went to Japan to play my music there. I always wanted to go to Japan, but when I was there I just felt bad and out of place. It forced me to think about who I really am and where I come from.”
Love songs are not lacking on Punisher. Bridgers has a gift for writing sweet love songs that aren't about specific people, but about how that love affects someone's life. 'Halloween', for example, in which she describes how people take to the streets in masks; dressed up they can be anything they would like to be. “Halloween” is about a relationship that has ended. It's over, and they feel it, but both people in the relationship are too scared to change it. You can then continue in this way. That is safe, because then everything remains the same, but also quite boring.” Or you end it and change everything, no matter how much it can break your heart. "Baby, it's Halloween / We can be anything / Come on, man / We can be anything."
Now it's 2020. The crisis around COVID-19 is turning the world upside down - as if some kind of apocalypse is going on, as in 'I Know the End', the closing track of the album. While that song is loosely based on a zombie apocalypse that takes place in the book by the aforementioned Carmen Maria Machado, the feeling this song conveys isn't out of place during the current crisis either. “'I Know the End' is about fleeing: fleeing the city during such a zombie apocalypse, a tornado or like now, fleeing for anyone who gets sick. I had the drive on the highway from L.A. to San Francisco in mind, especially towards the end of the song, when the music gets more and more intense. It's an eight-hour drive, where you basically just drive straight and accelerate. I've driven that route many times in my life, so I can imagine driving there during an apocalypse, firing furiously past all the signs, on my way to a place where it's better.”
Punisher will be released on Dead Oceans this Friday, June 19 and can be ordered here .
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.