Nine Songs: Phoebe Bridgers
To say Phoebe Bridgers had a good 2017 would be an understatement.
Stranger In The Alps was one of last year’s most acclaimed records, yet meeting the songwriter on spring afternoon in London is to encounter an artist with neither airs nor graces.
Bridgers learned her craft performing songs as a teenager at a farmers market, but when we meet she’d played a much grander venue the previous evening, the first of two shows with Bon Iver. She posted a picture of her teenage self after seeing them play a few years ago, but of the experience of playing with, rather than watching Bon Iver she explains “I kept trying to centre myself and be less terrified. Being an opener in such a giant venue is scary, but lot of people knew who I was, which was strange, people were singing the words”
Lyrics inform the songs that inspire her, the songwriter and storyteller in Bridgers uses poetic phrases such as falling in love with the songs in question and she muses on how some of the songs could be better, which from an another artist could sound cocky, but not so with Bridgers. It’s simply that she loves music so much she wants everything to sound perfect.
Describing theme of these nine songs, Bridgers reflects that with one notable exception they’re all ballads. “I’ve realised something about myself recently, which maybe you’ve noticed from these songs, which is that my music taste really is ballads, I love a band ballad.”
Like her own songs, the artists she loves stretch their wings musically but Bridgers finds herself returning to bittersweet songs. “Soccer Mommy has a lot of grungey songs and Bright Eyes has a lot of faster songs, but I love the ones that tackle some sort of crushing feeling, that are longer and sadder melodically.”
“I’ve just finished a big tour with her. One night she came onstage and screamed along to a Sheryl Crow song with me, we’d never practised it before, all of my friends just ran out onstage and then we started doing it every night.
“On that tour ’Scorpio Rising’ was the song I looked forward to hearing again and again every night. I didn’t have a recording of it and I never do the NPR First Listen, I don’t know why, I think it’s because I hate SoundCloud, where it takes that extra click, it’s like ‘Why isn’t this working?’ then it’s ‘You can skip in fifteen seconds.’ Why would I do that? I hate navigating anything that’s not Spotify or iTunes but I went on the NPR First Listen and listened to ‘Scorpio Rising’ eighteen times in a row. It isn’t a single but they close the set with it, so they know how strong it is. It just hit me really hard every night I heard it and now I get people to put on headphones and hear it.
“The album Clean is amazing and I think this song is the most representative of what I love about her melodies and her voice. The lyrics are so casually fucked up and sad, it reminds me of a summer of loving somebody and then they turn around and say they don’t care about you anymore and you remember all this stuff. And she doesn’t even have to say that in the song, it’s literally all experiential imagery and you get that from it.
“And dropping the phrase Scorpio Rising into a song is the most next level, amazing thing. For one, Scorpio is unanimously the worst sign or as hippie-dippies would say, it’s the one that’s the hardest to deal with. And two, I just love the sentiment, that she’s not just defined by her parents or how she was raised or her rising sign, I think it’s such an interesting way to talk about yourself.”
“This wasn’t the first Bright Eyes song I heard, but it was the first one I discovered that wasn’t being shoved down my throat by all of my very close friends. I’d loved the music, but this was a real self-discovery and it totally crushed me. I immediately learned it on guitar and memorised the lyrics.
"I used to busk at a farmer’s market in the town I was raised in. I started doing that when I was fifteen and I remember doing this song and kind of cheating, just playing the chords that I thought they might be. I think I got them right but I just made it up on the spot at the farmer’s market because nobody cared, no one was listening to me.
“I loved singer/songwriters because my parents listened to a lot of Neil Young and Jackson Browne and then as teenage girls... honestly a lot of the music they were listening to at that time was total shit. I’m trying to think of something that I can truly say is shit without feeling bad, but I want to encapsulate it… OK, Howie Day, my friends were listening to that one Howie Day song, I mean it’s a pop song, but it can’t be held at the same standard.
“Then I heard this band Bright Eyes that everybody was obsessed with and I was like ‘Oh my God, these lyrics remind me of all the stuff I love, all my favourite songwriters.’ I was so glad there was someone in our generation that was new, that was writing folk songs that had different lyrics for every chorus, that weren’t just relying on the mechanism of a pop song, but they are pop songs.
“’Poison Oak’ is about his cousin who killed himself when they were teenagers and it says a lot of stuff that up until that point you’re not really supposed to say in a song, like about someone’s sexuality and these little details that were really interesting to throw into this immediately recognisable and familiar melody. It was the newness of it and referencing of all the things I already loved about singer/songwriter music.”
“Again, as with the Bright Eyes song, I’d been listening to Bruce Springsteen forever because of what people recommended or what I was exposed to and then somehow I happened to come across this song on my iPod shuffle. It was the first Bruce Springsteen song that I personally discovered and I fell in love with it.
“It’s the storytelling of it, it’s amazing and it’s long. Johnny Cash, who I thought was so cool, had done a version of it but this was the version I fell in love with, it made me so sad, listening to it I felt like I was watching a movie, which is maybe why Sean Penn made the film The Indian Runner about it.
“The other thing was that I loved the four-track sound of it and I became obsessed with Nebraska after hearing ‘Highway Patrolman’, the romanticised idea of a guy going into solitude and recording this whole album on a four-track, especially as it was such a rock heavy-hitter doing that. There was a full band version of Nebraska and there’s so much disagreement about that, in an interview somebody said ‘It’d be cool if that was released’ and then everyone flipped out about it. But it’s not out yet, so who knows?
“A lot of the themes on Nebraska are so specific in their storytelling, the song ‘Nebraska’ is about serial killers and then there’s this song, which is ‘where is this even coming from?’ And that was amazing, it’s obviously fictitious but he had such an interesting angle. It’s casually sad, which is my favourite kind of sad and with ‘Highway Patrolman’ he doesn’t even have to say why it’s sad.”
“I heard ‘Jack at the Asylum’ when I was on tour with The Felice Brothers and Conor Oberst, I was opening and they were his backing band. I’d been a fan of them forever, but honestly I kind of thought of them as this old-timey, genre based band, instead of what I then discovered with this newish album Life in the Dark, which is that their lyrics are crazy. Ian Felice has a recent solo record In the Kingdom of Dreams and the lyrics are out of this world; none of it is trite, he doesn’t say words like ‘turpentine’, ‘whiskey’ or ‘cigarettes’ once, even though that’s so relied upon in that genre.
“This song totally encapsulates what it feels like to live in the United States right now, in a way that doesn’t sound corny or bitter or like they’re standing on some sort of pedestal. It’s literally about how shitty it is and why we still live there, it’s so heart-breaking to me. With the lyrics there’s no level that you can delve into them and be ‘that could be different’, they’re all just amazing.
“It’s so powerful and it’s not a ballad, like all of these other songs are. I like that about it too, that it’s got this really heavy chorus. I ended up covering it with them and Conor and singing their song was really funny and weird. It was awesome, I don’t play many really heavy songs, so it felt so good to play this every night.”
“Because I became a fan of Elliot Smith after he died my listening of him was so backwards, but also I could kind pick from whatever to start with. A drummer in LA, Carla Azar from Autolux, showed me his music when I was a pre-teen and she picked the weirdest song first, which was ‘Kiwi Maddog 20/20’. It’s an instrumental, which is so strange, like ‘why would you show me that one?’ I guess I didn’t really get it but then someone else showed me ‘Waltz #2’ and I was totally in love, so I bought the CD of New Moon at Amoeba, which is the big record store in LA.
“I love his complex chords, it really does sound like he’s interpreting an orchestra with his chords but ‘Whatever (Folk Song in C)’ is kind of the opposite of that. It’s a departure for his writing and for my taste in his music, there’s just something about how’s it’s kind of a throwaway song that makes it even sadder, the lyrics about being blown off by somebody hit even harder when it’s not complex sounding.
“It’s like he was really fucking bummed after a night of hanging out and just picked up a guitar and wrote almost a joke song and that’s so sad to me.”
“Tony Berg, who produced my album, showed me this song. He has an unbelievable appetite for music, he listens to everything. He does this thing where he puts on something he wants to show me and then he’ll turn around in the chair and stare at me, which is mostly really irritating, but it’s something that really resonates with me. We were talking about Guided By Voices, because I have a friend Bobby whose in that band now, and me and Tony discovered we had a mutual friend so we went on a rabbit hole of looking up their songs.
“I think Guided By Voices can get a little too lo-fi for their own good on a lot of their records but they really are like a pop band, truly, so many of their songs are so catchy and amazing and short. I think Robert Pollard has something like five thousand songs registered to BMI, which is insane.
“The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory’ is my favourite song of theirs by far, I’m trying to take apart why I like it so much, it's short and sometimes with Guided By Voices songs I feel like ‘You could have fucking written an actual song, give me four minutes of this! Why is this a minute and thirty seconds?’ Especially ‘Game of Pricks’, that’s a great song, it should be four minutes long. But this song feels a little bit like the Elliot Smith song, like ‘this is concise, this is exactly what I’m trying to say’, although it’s so avant-garde and the lyrics don’t make any sense, but I love the chord changes and I love when the voices come in and scream at the end.
“I really think this recording is the perfect amount of lo-fi, I don’t desire anything more from this, which I often do with that band, but this feels so good to listen to every time I hear it.”
“I love this so much because it has two of my favourite things of all time on it, Leonard Cohen’s lyrics and Nina Simone’s voice and interpretation. It’s the most unreal, absurdly great song. His lyrics are insane but I feel like it’s her song, just like Jeff Buckley’s ‘Hallelujah’ I feel that ‘Suzanne’ is Nina Simone’s. I love Leonard Cohen’s version but Nina Simone brings a whole different thing to it. I also love when people don’t change the gender when they’re singing someone else’s song.
“Its how clearly the band is following her off the cuff vocals, it’s a beautiful version and that whole record To Love Somebody is amazing, it’s a covers album and she does another one of my favourites “I Shall Be Released” by Bob Dylan. She covered ‘Here Comes the Sun’ too and that's unreal, it’s like the ‘Suzanne’ version where it’s ‘That’s my favourite version now’, ‘Jelly Roll’ is amazing too.
“I heard Leonard Cohen’s version first and then not too long ago, maybe two years ago, someone showed me the Nina Simone version and I was totally blown away. It was a little bit frustrating at first, knowing that song so well and then listening to someone doing a totally different thing with the vocals, because I always want to sing along, but now I feel the opposite, every time I hear an interpretation of the song I want to sing the crazy Nina Simone stuff.”
“Big Star missed the mark for me for a lot of my life. I think it was because so many people tried to make me like it and so many of my favourite musicians like The Replacements loved Big Star, but it just didn’t really connect with me. And then for some reason Tony played me their song ‘Nightime.’
“We were looking for a production direction and when he played it to me I was kind of embarrassed. That happened a couple of times with Tony, I wouldn’t say anything to him but I’d write the song down in my phone, listen to it in the car on the way home and then not tell him how much I connected with it or that I didn’t already know it. It was a really cool choice, the production is crazy and the strings are amazing.
“I referenced the strings on ‘Funeral’ from Stranger in The Alps and this is so weird, the two songs that I pulled up to reference the strings on it - because I didn’t want them to be straight up, I wanted them to be really weird - were ‘Nightime’ and ‘Lime Tree’ by Bright Eyes, which is a song that Conor Oberst referenced ‘Nightime’ on.
“And I love the lyrics, it’s so crazy to me that they say “Get me out of here, I hate it here, get me out of here.” I like it when people who aren’t usually direct with their lyrics throw in some really direct, non-poetic lyrics.”
‘My favourite version of this is from a live acoustic record Jackson Browne did that somehow ended up on my iPod shuffle. My Mother probably put it on there, we had the same iTunes and I think she would sneak in stuff that she wanted me to hear on my iPod. This and ‘Pretender’ were the songs that stuck.
“I love Jackson Browne, For Everyman was the first record I heard and I wore that out, but I remembered this song recently, it got stuck in my head out of nowhere. It’s so sad, it tackles death in this very, not light-hearted way, but this ‘you don’t want us to be sad, but we are’ sort of way. The lyrics are beautiful, the melodies are beautiful, the album is amazing and he has the best stage banter ever, he’s so casually cool.
“His voice is one of the only really truly great voices technically that I think doesn’t sound corny, a lot of people with amazing voices get ‘the corny gene’ almost immediately. So many people with amazing technical voices are not my favourite singers because they didn’t have to try and then it’s ‘Where do they go from there?’ They get a vocal affectation and they sound like a fucking elf or they sound like they’re orgasming in their pants whilst they’re delivering some sort of lyric, because they know how fucking good and buttery their voice sounds.
“With Jackson Browne’s voice, he’s almost throwing away lyrics, he’s so casual with this great voice and I love it. ‘For A Dancer’ resonated with the twelve year old me for some reason and has stuck with me through adult life.”