By the time Phoebe Bridgers' death-straddling debut album came around towards the end of 2017, she was being hyped up as a modern-day Dylan who could shatter your heart with a single sentence. The haunting 'Stranger In The Alps', full of fractured spirit and uncertain forward motion, did nothing to dispel those lofty comparisons.
The three-year gap between it and follow up album 'Punisher' isn't a result of rabbit-in-the-headlights fear though. There's been the campfire punk rock of her Better Oblivion Community Centre record, a project she shares with Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst that sees both parties challenge what is expected of them, and Boygenius, a supergroup of emo Next Big Things featuring Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus and Phoebe. She's toured in support of all three, with the only time off used to write 'Punisher'. Even a last-minute two-day getaway to see her friends in Nashville ended up as a Boygenius collaboration with Hayley Williams' Petals For Armor.
From sharing the spotlight with The 1975 on their most vulnerable track 'God Bless America Jesus Christ 2005' (and three other tracks on their 'Notes On A Conditional Form') to standing beside her childhood heroes on stages around the world, Phoebe Bridgers doesn't shy away from greatness. She goes toe to toe with it. "I've always felt so relieved when I'm standing next to other people doing the exact same thing as me. It's more special like that."
It's a gushing story, all dream-like collaborations and fairytale opportunities, but none of that disbelief can be found on 'Punisher'. "It's a funny phrase, and it's a metal sounding thing to say." It's also, according to Urban Dictionary, "someone who talks excessively about a subject matter that no one has any interest in," which is something Bridgers is "constantly afraid I'm doing to people. I'm afraid I'm talking too long and that I don't know how to pick up on social cues."
Laughing despite an existential crisis and finding sparks of joy no matter how turbulent your mind is being makes Phoebe Bridgers a confusing prospect to an outsider but for a generation who can express themselves in a TikTok and find inspiration despite everything thrown their way, Phoebe is one of their own.
Two weeks ago, Phoebe wrote a new song, and she hasn't touched her guitar since. "Does it sound like I'm walking on a treadmill?" she asks over the phone from her Californian home. "Because that's what I'm doing. I'm finding little ways to cope, but lockdown is fucking horrifying. Every day is a new adventure. I wake up and have a meltdown, or I wake up and buy a treadmill online."
Announcing the album after America had entered lockdown and with a release date before it'll have been lifted, Phoebe refused to delay 'Punisher' because of her own impatience. "I love just putting stuff out when I'm finished with it because it takes me forever to finish stuff anyway. It would drive me literally insane if I sat on it." It's also "sorta about the end of the world," so there's that. "I feel good about it. Well, I feel as good as I can feel about doing anything right now. I half feel like my life is totally pointless and I'm crippled by helplessness. I half feel like, well music is always quote-unquote "pointless" anyway so it as good a time as any to put something out."
When Phoebe wrote 'Stranger In The Alps', she was a virtually unknown artist and Better Oblivion and Boygenius both moved so fast, people didn't get a chance to second-guess them. There's no avoiding it with 'Punisher', though. People have expectations. It's something Phoebe "thinks about sometimes," she says, "but it didn't change what I do. Every decision on the record, I was thinking about myself," from faster songs being more fun to play to wanting to scream at the end. "Making something in private and having people get it is the coolest experience. If people find this album and get it, great, but I made it for myself," she continues. "I just do what I like."
She has the same attitude with everything she does. Her goofy, observational humour on Twitter is at odds with the weight of her confessional, soul-prickling emo but it comes from a place of fearlessness. "I love that people think I'm funny, are you kidding me? I just share what I think is funny, I don't think about it that hard. I have a bunch of Twitter drafts." It's the same with her lyrics. "I used to be worried a song was too mean or too specific, but I'd write it anyway. " There was a learning curve where Phoebe had to trust her gut but "I'm glad I did because it's exhausting to keep up otherwise. Telling the truth whenever you can is very liberating. And by telling the truth I mean, posting your innermost, stupidest thought online. Even if people are like 'that's so stupid', there'll be people who think it's funny and that's such a nice feeling. I don't want to keep up a social facade and then be completely different with my friends. It's more fun to be your entire self all the time. Of course, I see photos of underneath my chin at some music festival, and I want to die, just like everyone else, but it's funny to zoom in on it and post it below the Pitchfork article." It's why people find her music so relatable. "When you make music that you like or say stuff online that you agree with, the people that find you are typically on the exact same page as you and it's such a relief."
"The key to not thinking about other people is just to make stuff that you actually like," which is why 'Punisher' isn't some huge genre-hopping jump from her debut. "I've been saying it sounds like a sequel, because it's not that different, it's just more. I was experimenting more with production and coming into my own." Picking up where she left off with producers Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska instead of hiring a new team and "having a business meeting where we discuss what we hated about the first record," it was a case of "let's do this again except now we're all friends."
Like her debut, "['Punisher' is] definitely still about death but it's also me figuring out who I am as a person. The first record was me grappling with who I was before making music was my job. This record is the exact same personality copy and pasted into the life of someone who's never at home and plays music for a living. It's inspired by my new day to day life as well as the same existential questions I've always tortured myself over. Maybe in my heart of hearts, I want to be like everyone else; I want to be smart, and I want to be funny, but I guess I don't take myself that seriously. I'm just trying to prove something to myself constantly. I'm trying to prove that I'm a producer, I'm trying to prove that I can learn a guitar part or that I can be in a rock band."
The chirping hammer of 'Kyoto' is about the grass never being greener - "When I'm on tour, I want to be at home, and when I'm at home, I'm dying to be on tour" - the aching title-track is about taking up other people's time, and the closing song, the glorious 'I Know The End' is "weirdly about the end of the world, minute details about my personal life and wanting to escape your mundane life." The song is inspired by the drive she used to do between her Grandpa's house in northern California and her home in the South of the state. "I remember Elon Musk was doing his crazy Space X shit one day, and I straight-up thought aliens were landing, so it's about that too." As for the message of the album? "I don't figure that shit out until someone figures it out for me. It's why I love playing shows and meeting people."
"The fairytale part of my story is how specific it is to me. One of the biggest shows I ever played early on was opening for Bon Iver, Bon Iver was all I listened to for my entire teenage years until now. It was the exact same with Bright Eyes. All the things that are my favourite are what I ended up finding, so that the feels like a fairytale." But she's also worked hard for it. "Technically, I went on tour for three years straight with almost no breaks, and when I did have a break, I made records. It was pretty organic and pretty slow starting out, so I got to be so grateful for every single thing that happened. Bright Eyes' old tour manager had this joke, 'best new artist, fifteen years running' and that's how it feels. Because I'm relatively small and people keep discovering me, you get to have those experiences over and over. Every year is a new, great milestone. It's definitely been this organic growth, but I'm constantly being faced with stuff that makes me ask, how did the universe know exactly what I wanted?"
Right now, though, "I just want to see what happens next. I have nothing to do all day but write and think about my life. I'd love to do another Boygenius record. I'd love to do Better Oblivion Community Centre again. I'd love to someday to do a covers record, I think that'd be fun because I grew up loving that Cat Powers cover albums because everything is so different from the original and I'd love to score a movie someday. I'm just scheming in whatever direction."
Taken from the July issue of Dork. Phoebe Bridgers' album 'Punisher' is out now.
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