PHOEBE BRIDGERS: THE DAMAGE IS DONE
photography by gari askew
Everyone knew Phoebe Bridgers was headed for big things. Well before she released her debut album, the L.A. folk singer was touring with Julien Baker and recording with Conor Oberst and releasing a 7” through Ryan Adams’ label—all because this 23-year-old is one of the brightest young songwriting lights to come out of Los Angeles in recent memory. Even with all that buildup, however, Bridgers’ debut, Stranger in the Alps, is a revelation. It’s mostly sad folk songs, dressed up with pop and electronic touches, pop-culture references and the occasional flash of Bridgers’ wry sense of humor. (That sense of humor surfaces far more often in 30 minutes of conversation than in 30 minutes of her music.) After a whirlwind fall (including a Twitter shout-out from John Mayer), Bridgers will perform this Friday at the Natural History Museum with John Doe and Exene. This interview by Ben Salmon.
You’ve been on the road a lot this year. It must be nice to be home for a bit.
Phoebe Bridgers: Dude, it’s so nice. But I feel like I have no life. I think a bunch of people just assume that I’m out of town, and I’m like, ‘What do I do all day?’
Are you close enough to your family to go hang out with your mom?
Phoebe Bridgers: Embarrassingly enough, she has a couple loads of my laundry right now because there are holes in my functioning adulthood.
Is she musically inclined? Or is your dad? Both? Neither?
Phoebe Bridgers: My parents were both music fans, and I feel like my mom’s music fandom got translated to me. She really exposed me to a lot of stuff. So I saw Patti Smith really early and was listening to all these records. Mom was almost overly supportive, I’m almost positive. She always used to tell me, ‘Oh my god, you sound like Bonnie Raitt!’ when I was like 6 years old. Which, of course, I believed. And then I got older and I was like, ‘Ehhh, maybe she was being a little too supportive.’ But it definitely helped make me want to be a musician.
When did you realize you could put a song together?
Phoebe Bridgers: My delusion started before I was actually good. So I was probably like 10 years old when I was first like, ‘This song is awesome.’ Then when I was a teenager, probably like 14, I wrote a song and I thought, ‘Oh, this is maybe good. This is different than the ones before.’
What are the oldest songs on Stranger in the Alps?
Phoebe Bridgers: ‘Chelsea’ was a poem that I started writing when I was like 16, and I discovered it way later and was like, ‘Wow, this still works.’ ‘Georgia’ is old too. I must’ve finished it when I was like 17.
You’re 23 now. Does playing those songs feel like playing songs written by someone else?
Phoebe Bridgers: Totally. I mean, I can still kind of tap into relating to them when I play them live but the way I used to think about the world and people I feel like is different now than it was then. One of the weirdest thing about some of those earlier songs, though, is that my writing has gotten a lot more literal and personal. So it’s almost weirder with songs I wrote a year ago or two years ago. It’s basically like reading my diary to a room full of people.
Do you ever recoil from playing more personal songs?
Phoebe Bridgers: I mean, I didn’t not intend for them to get heard. I just didn’t ever think about it, really. Playing live, I feel like it’s like a weird social experiment … where I just experiment with not giving a shit, mostly. Like, if I want to talk about it, I talk about it. If I don’t want to, I don’t. Mostly, I just kind of have no problem playing really personal songs. Especially when people already know the record. The damage is done.
Why do you write songs?
Phoebe Bridgers: Uhhh … I … [trails off] Fuck! [laughs] Um … I think probably I started because I romanticized singer-songwriters. I just thought it was cool. I wanted to be a singer but I thought it was cool to sing your own songs. This is like corny shit but I also feel like it is a little bit like therapy. Making something cool out of your shitty brain is really cathartic. I need to do it—on a lot of levels. And it’s fun when you have something cool to show for your time. It’s fun to be like, ‘This is what I did last night. I made something positive out of this horrifying mess of a torture chamber.’
I won’t pretend to know you personally, but I get the sense from your social media and from talking to you that the darkness and sadness in your songs doesn’t really bleed over into your non-music personality. In other words, you seem fun and nice and not tortured!
Phoebe Bridgers: I feel like I have gotten better. I feel like I just learned how to function a little bit better, and I’ve been learning how to function better. So who knows? My second album might suck. I still write sad songs but a lot of [the songs on Alps] were written in a time when I was totally drowning in it. But then every time I pick up a guitar I feel like the stuff I want to write about is stuff I can’t talk about or don’t want to talk about. Maybe it’s just a vessel for all that shit. Which maybe isn’t fair to listeners.
Do you think the music you’ve made—and the feelings you’ve expressed through that music—has played a role in learning how to function better? Or is it more about other circumstances in your life changing?
Phoebe Bridgers: The music is a big part of it because my whole life I’ve been saying that I wanted to do this thing that I now actually have started doing. And by that I mean that people know I do it. [laughs] So I think that’s a big relief to me. I’m excited about making a second record. I’m excited about touring, even though it’s exhausting. I feel good about the way shit’s going which maybe has a lot to do with it. But also … it’s a separate level of cool to write this dark album that felt very solitary to me and have people relate. That’s fucking cool, too.
‘Motion Sickness,’ as far as I can tell, stops everyone in their tracks. I haven’t seen anyone have a lukewarm reaction to it.
Phoebe Bridgers: Yeah, you know—I didn’t really try to make it like that. I didn’t try to be like, ‘The chorus happens more times’ or whatever. Actually, it was kind of the opposite. I was writing that song and trying to find all these cool ways to say shit—trying to be really poetic—and then I was like, ‘What if I just said exactly what happened to me?’ It’s amazing that people relate to it because it’s so specific. Also, it’s the most chorus-y of the songs. I didn’t know that I was capable of writing choruses, so that feels good on another level. The rest of the record, I didn’t really do that.
You’ve toured with some big names and made some famous fans over the past couple of years, so I don’t think it’s a shock that Stranger in the Alps is getting killer reviews and landing on year-end lists. But how does it feel to you personally?
Phoebe Bridgers: I feel like I have friends that are in bands, and they make a record and then they tour for half a second and then they’re like, ‘I’m gonna put out another one.’ I feel like I was expecting maybe to do something like that. For people to give a shit … but maybe for people in L.A. to give a shit or whatever. But it’s really cool to go to a place like London and have people singing back to me. That’s so fucking weird and I never thought about that happening to me ever. Especially songs from a debut album, and just sad, like, emo-folk songs. It’s cool.
SPACELAND PRESENTS PHOEBE BRIDGERS WITH JOHN DOE AND EXENE ON FRI., FEB. 2, AT THE NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM, 900 W. EXPOSITION BLVD., LOS ANGELES. 8 PM / $20 / ALL AGES. NHMLA.COM. PHOEBE BRIDGERS’ STRANGER IN THE ALPS IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM DEAD OCEANS. PHOEBEFUCKINGBRIDGERS.COM.