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Phoebe Credit Frank Ockenfels general photo1

Phoebe Bridgers on identity, internal worlds and her new record Punisher

27 May 2020, 08:00
Words by Ty Bennett
Original Photography by Frank Ockenfels

Is Phoebe Bridgers going to release an isolation anthem?

“Oh My God, no!” she exclaims, "[but] there are songs on Punisher that you could argue are pandemic songs. ‘I Know The End’ is about the end of the world,” she says, as we settle in to talk about identity, internal worlds, and the follow-up record to 2017's exquisite debut Stranger in the Alps.

When we speak, Bridgers is in LA, at her wood-panelled Echo Park home. She wears a black hoodie with the hood drawn up and pulls on the strings routinely to tighten the hood and obscure her trademark translucent complexion. Before my hour with her is up, I thought I'd become well versed in the language of Bridgers: the consciously unhinged narrator of “Killer”, the tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating comedian of Twitter, the intoxicatingly intense writer of Stranger in the Alps and Punisher.

Yet, she proves me wrong at every turn, leading with an open, welcoming face and steady gaze. She laughs easily, freely; is uninhibited but also carefully measured. She doesn’t over-talk or over-analyse; she isn’t sentimental or contemplative, but is economical with her words. Even her lockdown routine surprises me: I expect a morning whiskey, some broody song writing and maybe a midday cry paired with insomnia and antidepressants. But: “I get on the treadmill – I bought a treadmill. I like to have coffee on it and call my friends or do interviews. Then I’ll do some Zoom yoga and then it’s downhill from there and I’ll end up procrastinating. I slept for twelve hours last night. It feels like oppression, it’s hard to do anything.”

Born and raised in California, Phoebe Bridgers' introduction to music came when her mother started work as night manager at the University of California’s art complex, opposite the family home, while she was still a baby. The young Bridgers would watch the piano tuning in the auditorium; later she'd attended the LA County High School for the Arts, take up busking, and gain strength as a lost-in-her-guitar performer. In 2012, age 17, she joined her (still) best friend Haley Dahl in LA punk band Sloppy Jane as bassist and then landed herself roles in a series of commercials for the likes of Taco Bell, Homegoods and QuickBooks, earning the money she needed to gig and record.

As the years progressed, Bridgers would be introduced to the music of Elliott Smith - who remains a huge influence on her work - by Autolux’s Carla Azar; she’d meet the now-disgraced Ryan Adams and would release her first EP, Killer on his label PAX AM. She’d befriend future collaborators Conor Oberst and make hard-boiled indie music with him as part of the Better Oblivion Community Centre project, as well as Lucy Dacas and Julien Baker, with whom she'd form supergroup Boygenius.

Bridgers voice is low and throaty – both reassuringly so and as if it is permanently suffering from lack of use. It seems to pair well with the black-tie suit she wears throughout Stranger in the Alps: gorgeously composed. I ask her if she’s developed a lock-down drinking habit? “I’m straight up allergic to it, I’ll wake up with a rash on my face. Also, me being drunk is like three glasses of wine. I’m a wuss so I like white wine and am a rosé bitch too. When I first started drinking at 21, I would get white Russians everywhere.”

Does she ever feel that because she’s a 'tortured musician', she should have a torrid drinking problem? “Totally, although I think that’s dissipating as a romanticized ideal. It’s more a thing for the generation above me. I know so many people in recovery or nerds who just make music now, and that’s becoming more romanticised. One time in New York, I was 15 minutes late for a meeting because I’d gotten drunk the night before and overslept. I’m not like that. I’m typically on time, responsive, I pick up my phone, I’m never fucked up. It’s comforting to me that I have a whole rock bottom saved for one day.”

I ask Bridgers to summarise herself in five words. “Avoidant, attachment, style, for life,” she replies, magnificently ambiguous, as ever. And what she thinks the press think of her? “Woman in music, emo, twitter.” Mischief spreads over her face, and I feel this narrow view may allude to more than a simplified synopsis of character. I'm reminded of the press treatment of Bridgers prior to the New York Times' expose of Ryan Adams two years back. The well-documented relationship between Bridgers and Ryan Adams saw him retract the professional aid he'd promised following a breakup - their collaborations went unreleased and he replaced her as an opening act on his tour. Bridgers lamented her experiences with him on "Motion Sickness".

"I tend to dissociate. That’s my thing. I’ll drive by a car crash and see a dead body and not realise until a year later that that happened."

We talk about her upbringing; I reference a FADER interview, where she brought up the "textbook domestic violence" of her parents' relationship, before they divorced in 2014. “I think I knew technically while it was happening," she tells me, "but it wasn’t until I’d talk to people and hear it coming out of my own mouth that I’d realise it [her parents’ relationship] was different to everyone else’s. I wish it was more different – I’ve definitely related to too many people.”

Is that more present in the music than we realise? “I think it leaks into the music. I think a lot of stuff from therapy leaks in – have you read The Body Keeps The Score?” – she pauses for me to confirm that I have not, and then slides the reference away – “it really changed the way I think about trauma, and I think about trauma a lot... I tend to dissociate. That’s my thing. I’ll drive by a car crash and see a dead body and not realise until a year later that that happened. If something happened that’s hard, I’ll push it to the back of my brain, and it won’t be until I’m driving on that highway that I’ll be like oh fuck that was fucked.”

Dissociation is a practical coping mechanism, but I know from experience that it can also feel hugely oppressive, as one struggles to connect to any emotion – even the good ones. She agrees: “That is what 'Kyoto' is about – it’s about living outside your body when cool shit is happening. Like it’s hard to feel. You have to be forced into yourself.”

Bridgers never thinks about the future - just about her reality - and finds it hard to dwell on the past; a notion she attributes as a “generational thing.” Being a musician feels more romantic to her every day, but she still struggles to get out of her body and write – she currently hasn’t written in a month. She couldn’t get through the Zendaya-starring HBO series Euphoria because it "was too dark" and as Sally Rooney’s Normal People “destroyed” her - she’s not sure she’s ready to watch the BBC adaptation yet and she struggles to articulate why it had such an impact on her: “The book fucked me up. It’s two really lonely people, and the miscommunication, I feel like ...I spent the whole book feeling like ‘if you just fucking talk to each other you can get to the bottom of this.’”

Was that anything like her parents' relationship? “They talked too much. They weren’t authentically themselves, which I suppose is true of the book.” She later appeared on an Instagram interviewing Normal People-star Paul Mescal, tweeting: "I finished Normal People and now I’m sad and horny oh wait." Mescal reciprocated: "My life is now complete."

She tells me that she doesn’t write all the time, and in fact writes so little that she didn’t have to cut a single song from Punisher. She writes in order, from top to bottom, and won’t finish songs she feels “whatever” about, meaning that her creative process is pretty prescribed, almost challenging, exhausting, for the artist who puts so much of herself into each track: “I don’t think in sentences, I don’t have an internal monologue. I have a lot of grey matter where occasionally a coherent thought will peep through.”

"I’m not afraid to write about really disturbing feelings because all my friends do the exact same thing.”

Although that’s not to say that her mind isn’t full of tumbling, ink-ready phrases and complex observation - but the conscious mind of Bridgers isn’t the place where the on-score realisation comes from. She figures out a lot of her internal world through therapy, talking to friends, and writing music. “How I talk to my friends is constantly going super deep," she says. "If someone bothers us, we talk about why, what our reaction means about us and about them. We’re all in therapy and we all talk to each other in a certain way.”

Alongside an impressive side projects resume, her new album Punisher is waylaid with a seductive list of collaborators such as Christian Lee Hutson, Julien Baker, Lucy Dacas and Nick Zinner. Considering her music is so intimate, it’s surprising that collaboration is Bridgers' foremost form of creativity. Does she ever have to step back and take a moment for herself? “Not really. Writing is very private for me unless I’m writing with a band, or with my closest friends (boygenius, Conor, Marshall, Christian). It’s nice to have a bunch of people around that I really trust creatively. I’m so lucky to be surrounded by people who make just as emo music as me. I’m not afraid to write about really disturbing feelings because all my friends do the exact same thing.”

Bridgers gets up halfway through our interview and takes me, on her laptop, through her settled-oak home, discarding a keep cup and flipping her hood on and off. I start to think more about the personalities we project onto the artists we know and love: “I don’t really think about perception of me at all," she tells me. "I don’t think of myself as a character, even if some people think I am.”

She isn’t interested in being depressed all the time, just because it is on brand: “It’s all real and true, and I suffer, but I am not going to be moody all the time just for a brand. I just want everyone to know, which is what everyone already knows: everyone is everything all the time," she told FADER back in 2018.

I’m interested in the complexity of the heavy intimacy of the music compared to the wit and lack of refrain on Twitter. I think of recent tweets about her collaboration with Matt Healy: "Get ready to fuck yourself to the new 1975 album," and some of her more darkly humourous one liners: ‘God gives his shittiest dads to his strongest soldiers’ and ‘I would like social distance from myself.’ A personal favourite - besides her regular contemplation of eating ass - is "Panic! At the costco!" She laughs, head tilted back, her face in shadow so that the sound is ghostly. “I think I overshare in both ways, but obviously music is more thought out, deliberate. Twitter is more a stream of consciousness. I love Twitter. I obviously think every corporation is evil and capitalism is horrible” – all said in one nonchalant breath – “but I love that some teenager in the South can be a celebrity because they’re funny and relatable. Or because they’re political.”

"I feel a responsibility to be the best version of myself, which I don’t always feel, and to do something, especially during times of world uproar."

Although so seemingly self-assured, Bridgers has fears, doubts, difficulty with being herself – something which is accurately mirrored in the music. “The platform scares me. I feel a responsibility to be the best version of myself, which I don’t always feel, and to do something, especially during times of world uproar. I can bring people’s attention to things, I am feeling that now more than ever. Like my friend’s dog got sick, and I posted their go fund me on my Instagram, and now his medical bills are paid. I hope to do that in my small corner of the world that gives a shit about what I put online.”

And now, she’s unarmoured, in focus, an artist fiercely herself, even if she is still figuring out who that person may be. She’s animated when talking about the social impact of music, clearly painstakingly aware of her position on the platform. “The only thing I really disagree with is when people say ‘musicians should stay out of politics’ like, shut the fuck up that’s bullshit. Listen to every musician ever. No one has ever stayed out of politics. Artists have a responsibility to themselves to be their authentic selves publicly, but there are also things that should stay private. I don’t think artists who are closeted and really old and everybody knows they're gay, have a responsibility to come out. Some things are sacred. And if you want to not get in politics, then go ahead and not. But I feel a personal responsibility, so I feel it would be a betrayal to myself and the world to be a different person in my art than I am in person.”

The vinyl LP of Punisher comes with an eclectic "bio/fiction hybrid" penned by Carmen Maria Machado, author of Her Body and Other Parties, and the autobiographical In The Dream House. Machado is one of Bridgers favourite authors; she describes In The Dream House as "traumatising but great" and is clearly still in awe of the writer. “Yesterday, Tomorrow” is written in Machado’s signature style - one that dismantles its subjects as it swirls around them with sharp observation and astonishingly revealing metaphors. I tell Bridgers that reading it hollowed me out, and she grins appreciatively, agreeing that Machado’s writing is to be revered.

Machado paints Bridgers' home as the haunted "House of Punishment". She writes of the contents of the singer’s bedside table: a suddenly intimate and profound piece of furniture - and the time that Bridgers measured her height on the notched doorframes as five inches taller than she is. I realise that this is a sentiment echoed in “Garden Song": “I don’t know how but I’m taller / must be something in the water / Everything’s growing in our garden / you don’t have to know that it’s haunted.”

Suddenly, the whole album makes sense to me: all the sentiments of orange haze in LA, corner shops, memories of touring in Kyoto, the hospital that sits opposite her house, complexes of wanting to be someone else and wanting to outrun your own self. The record's title track textures the meaning in a song that could be an ode to not understanding yourself as she writes more about feeling lost, feeling unknown.

Bridgers is ambiguous about the significance of the link but does concede that home plays a vital role in her life, and she often feels the inexplicable pull to return to her House of Punishment. “I mean I’m obsessed with home, and Carmen and I talked about that on the phone a lot. When I’m on tour it’s all I want, so I think about it a lot when I’m on the road. I’d love for it to be haunted. My house does this thing where it settles – you know how they say that about wood? It creaks a lot.”

Punisher is a record of identity, difficulty, dissociation, themes which are woven into our conversation and which permeate Bridgers’ internal narratives. On “Kyoto” she feels separate from her experiences as she recounts a series of encounters which are interlaced throughout the song; but on “Chinese Satellite” she writes “I’ve been running around in circles / pretending to be myself.” The lyricism is visceral, caustic - she’s taken a brilliant step lyrically with her sophomore album, cementing herself as one of this generation's best one-liner writers: “a copycat killer with a chemical cut.”

She concludes: “Stranger is about my life; my life, as a teenager and a young adult. Then this album is me as a touring musician for the last three years. Same personality, just different lives.”

Punisher is released on 19 June via Dead Oceans
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