Photo by Frank Ockenfels
“Jesus Christ, I’m so blue all the time/ That’s just how I feel, and I always have and always will,” Phoebe Bridgers sings on “Funeral”. That’s certainly not the only song on her upcoming debut LP, Stranger in the Alps (out September 22nd via Dead Oceans), that indulges in the deepest, darkest corners of the heart and mind. In just 45 minutes, the 22-year-old Los Angeles singer-songwriter cracks her world apart and examines its fragments, both heartbreakingly real and imaginatively rendered.
But Bridgers is much more than the gloom and tears typically associated with the words singer-songwriter, both lyrically and musically. The Broken Social Scene-adjacent “Motion Sickness” smears dizzying sunlight across its windshield while “Scott Street” carries the corrupted country DNA of Neil Young’s grit. Bridgers’ friends, collaborators, and mentors have all had a clear impact as well: she’s toured and become close friends with Julien Baker and Conor Oberst (the latter of whom appears on Stranger) while Ryan Adams has produced and released a 7″ of Bridgers’ on his Pax AM label — which, on the album version, X’s John Doe contributes haunting harmonies.
It’s clear that complex emotions have always been at the core of Bridgers’ artistic experience. The first song she wrote in middle school was about a friend moving away, and she chose to cover a Mark Kozelek tune on her debut. While the rest of the songs don’t date as far back as her pre-teen years, the album shows a remarkable depth and catharsis for someone so young, as Bridgers was able to live and grow with these songs while building up to her debut. Others were written in between recording sessions, yet they all flow together in a seamless, dynamic river, driven forward always by Bridgers’ magnetic, mesmeric presence and vocals.
There’s Something About the Sun
I grew up in the suburbs, in Pasadena, but then I went to high school in downtown LA. I’ve never moved! I’ve just lived in the place I grew up. It is brutally hot here. That is how I would describe it. I like LA, but again I’ve never known anything else. A part of me wants to go for a change at some point, but never forever.
People are always shocked that I’m from LA, because I supposedly make “sad music.” But it makes sense to me. I can do whatever you want here; I can spend a day out in Big Bear, which is this giant lake two hours from here. Two hours and you’re suddenly in the woods; you can be on the way to the desert, Joshua Tree.
The desert and the woods are 45 minutes from each other, and then two hours later, you’re back in the middle of a city. It’s pretty extraordinary. Essentially, an environment will affect someone’s writing no matter what, and because I write autobiographical songwriter music, it makes sense that it slips in every once in a while. I find myself in places that are perfect for reflection.
The Assumption of Depression
Every once in a while, somebody will talk to me and be really aggressive, like, “Well, you’re obviously fucking miserable!” I’m like, “Thanks, that’s a beautiful compliment.” I think whatever people feel when they hear my music, it’s valid. While people think it’s sad, I don’t really associate anything with it other than my own preconceived notions about what the song is about. Whatever people feel is totally fine, and I’m curious to see how moved people are by my music.
Friendly Ghosts and Barking Friends
The cover of my upcoming debut album is a photograph of me. The single art for the song “Motion Sickness” is, too. There are a couple of these ghost photos, and they’re all photographs of me from my childhood. On the cover is my grandpa and grandma’s dog in the background. His name was Bud. He was really old when I was a baby, so he died pretty soon after that photo was taken. He was just the sweetest dog, and I was small enough to ride around on him like a horse.
I definitely leave room for the possibility of ghosts as it completely fascinates me. Even if ghosts aren’t real, historically, weird things like night sweats or sleep paralysis explain why people thought there were ghosts. I thought I’d become one on my debut album.
Heart of Gold
I liked singer-songwriters growing up. I never even wanted to start a band or anything, I just wanted to write songs. I remember romanticizing Neil Young and Jackson Browne a lot, especially Neil Young. I thought he was so cool and dark. I learned every Neil Young song on guitar, which is how I learned guitar to begin with. I was obsessed with him and wanted to know everything about him. My mom took me to see him perform live, when I was 12. Of course, I got to the front row. We originally had nosebleed seats, but we ran into a friend at the show who was sitting by themselves in the front row, and they were like, “Oh, during the intermission, I’ll switch with you, Phoebe, and go sit with your mom.”
So, I was by myself, in the front row of that show, and I remember being so … I touched the ground because it was vibrating from the guitar, and I thought, “Oh my god, I’m in the same room as Neil Young right now.” How crazy is that? That had never really hit me before. That was the first concert that I ever saw, and as much as I have the memory of touching the ground and being mind-blown that I was in the same room as Neil Young, I also remember having the memory of, “This is a really long concert. I wonder where the snacks are.”
Busk It Off
I used to busk in high school, just playing on the side of the street. Nobody gives a shit about you when you’re doing that. And it’s because of that that I haven’t played a show yet that really bummed me out as far as the way it was received. For that, I liked it sometimes. Sometimes my friends would follow me, and I would do random covers, or they would help me sing songs.
But I also got some weirdos who would follow me around. They knew where I was going to be every week and they would watch me the whole time. I had this one guy who followed me every single week. I kind of dreaded going after a while. I think people are just really entitled when there’s a power dynamic of “I’m here to give you money for what you’re doing. You owe me your time and energy because I gave you five dollars.” In the end, I had to just move to another space.
I feel like I deal with people all the time who are entitled or say inappropriate things. Weirdly, busking set me up for that as well. As a woman in music, you’re just going to fucking run into that every day. Some people think about music or musicians as, “Wow, I can’t believe it, you’re famous. You found a way to do this for money!” And then other people are like, “You perform for me for a living. I am above you.”
I’ll play a show, and someone will come up to me and say, “Keep going, I know it’s hard but keep at it.” And then at the exact same show, someone will be like, “I can’t believe that you get to do this. How does it feel to be so successful?” Sometimes I get so uncomfortable that I make it okay for people to act inappropriately. But then you get in their brain, and you’re like, “What made you ask me for my number?” Someone got super upset with me because I didn’t sign their 7” with my number once. He was super offended. How does that behavior make sense?
The Intimacy of Singer-Songwriters
Because I like singer-songwriter music, I’ve thought about the dynamic of its fans a lot. Conor Oberst makes such personal music that people feel entitled. I see the other side of it. They think, “You’re my best friend!” Julien [Baker] is the same way. People feel that just because they connect so insanely to your personal lyrics, you now owe them your time. They think that we’re on the other side of that friendship, when really they just listened to our music by themselves. I don’t know if someone with less personal music deals with that specific thing as much; having someone come up to you at the merch booth and share that you’ve saved their life is a really intense thing to deal with.
I’d like to think that I can be upfront with people and be like, “No, that makes me uncomfortable.” But it has to be pretty extreme for me to do that. For me, the issue is the gray area. There are scenarios where I’m too polite, and I’m trying to be better about separating that from the weirdness of nice people who just want to talk. There are people who just genuinely want to talk to you for a minute. Julien, on tour, sometimes she’d come out, and then she’d have a fucking weirdo there. Somebody gave her a “charged crystal” and was like, “This is a piece of my soul.” He gave it to her, and then it made her not go out the next night. It kind of ruined it.
It is a weird feeling having people be mad at you for not wanting to hang out with them after your show. It makes you feel bad as if you’re not doing enough. One time, someone punched Conor [Oberst] for not taking a picture with them. I wasn’t there, but I heard about it. He was at a bar with some friends, and someone went up to him and said, “Hey, I want a picture!” And Conor said, “Maybe later, I’m busy right now with my friends.” And the guy punched him. People are so weird.
The Power of Being Quiet
I went on tour last year with The Violent Femmes, and it was amazing. They were so fun, but also their fans weren’t 1000% into my music. It was kind of brutal. They would rather sit, huddled, like there was just bar music happening in the background before The Main Attraction. That was rough. But weirdly, some of the lessons that I took with me from that experience, even though it’s kind of counterintuitive, is that if people are being loud, sometimes getting really, really, quiet works better than trying to compete with the room. I didn’t think it was going to work, but sometimes it makes people uncomfortable enough. But then I’ve also been shocked, playing giant venues for people who are really, really quiet for some reason, which doesn’t make any sense. I’ve been in intimate places where someone is on their phone four rows back or trying to talk over me. There’s power in being prepared for running into that behavior.
Getting Stoned and Sexting Demi Moore
I just love the feeling of being super attracted to someone. It’s exciting, the prospect of looking forward to things. It’s also really weird to be alone with someone [when texting]. It’s so strange. It’s kind of cool and freeing. If you’re thinking about someone, half the time you’re in boxer shorts and your worst T-shirt, but still feeling hot. I have had a history of being a serial monogamist. When I like someone, they’re all I think about all the time. But also, I am attracted to people all over the map.
Demi Moore is such a babe. The song’s title comes from the dumbest reason ever. Someone misheard me when I said, “I don’t want to be stoned anymore.” They were just like, “stoned Demi Moore?” It was a dumb working title, but I got lazy when I tried to think of other titles. Jokingly, I said, “How about ‘The Sexting Song’?” And everyone was like, “Nope, none of that. How about it just stays the same?” I definitely call it the sexting song. That’s what I call it when I’m showing people my record. I want to make sure that they know that I know that it’s a weird thing to write about.
“Georgia” On My Mind
The track “Georgia” comes from the fact that I dated someone from Georgia. I had never even been there before. I was just feeling super self-conscious in a relationship for the first time and just needing constant validation. That’s definitely what it’s about. That night [I’m singing about], there was a rainstorm, and he followed me to some weird coffee house. I think I played a bunch of Bright Eyes songs, actually. That’s the oldest song on the album. I was still in high school. Now, I feel a little separate from it. My songs are getting a little more similar to each other now. I know what my songs are going to sound like now instead of just setting out and writing and wondering what they’re going to sound like.
What Ryan Adams Taught Me About Twitter Rants
I feel like half the time Ryan teaches me what not to do. He’s amazing. He was the person who told me to get quieter in a loud room — but he also wigs out at people on Twitter all the time. Do I ever text him and say, “Stop?” Never. I think I’d wind up on the wrong end of a Twitter rant. With Conor, Julien, and Ryan, you can’t help but get inspired by people you connect with who are doing things that you want to do. There are a lot of valuable lessons.
Stranger in the Alps hits stores on September 22nd via Dead Oceans. The original published article has since been amended to include Ms. Bridgers’ comments on Ryan Adams after initially being removed.