Phoebe Bridgers On Her Sad, Stunning (And Funny!) New LP, ‘Punisher’

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Phoebe Bridgers used to conduct phone calls while walking outside her home in the trendy Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. But things, obviously, have changed. “I’m getting on the treadmill right now, so you’re going to hear some weird sounds,” she warns.

I caught up with the 25-year-old Bridgers one month ago, in early May, back when things were bad but somehow better than they are now. She was already in the midst of promoting her stunning second album while sequestered in quarantine, the quietly seething Punisher, which finally drops June 19. Bridgers had planned to be on the road at that time, playing her first arena shows as an opener for The 1975. “I was terrified and excited,” she says of the nixed tour. “There’s the chance that you’re basically playing when it’s still light outside and people are getting out their charcuterie boards. So, it was scary to me, but I also fucking love those guys. Jesus, that tour was going to be fun.”

In conversation, Bridgers speaks in a deadpan SoCal accent and punctuates her blunt and hilarious observations with generous amounts of curse words. She sounds, in other words, utterly unlike her music, which tends to be quiet, contemplative, and gorgeous. Because of her gently murmuring vocal style — ” I don’t sing with a lot of emotion, it’s almost an apathetic singing voice,” she confesses — Bridgers tends to be cast as yet another sad-sack singer-songwriter out to jerk every last one of your tears. It’s precisely that image that made her 2017 debut Stranger In The Alps a slow-burn sensation, setting in motion a promising career that was further bolstered by her participation in two indie supergroups: Boygenius (with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker) and Better Oblivion Community Center (with Conor Oberst).

Bridgers has the ability to sing a perfectly heartbreaking lyric in such a way that it makes you feel like she’s directly addressing you and your worst personal tragedies. That talent has made her a budding superstar, but it’s also attracted the sort of fan who has extreme emotional needs. “You’re, like, having just a normal Tuesday night, and then you’re holding someone crying, talking about their dead husband,” she says. “And it’s not bad, it’s just super intense that that’s your job, and that that’s the way that you affect people.”

Over time, that sort of ritualistic catharsis can take its toll. The title track from Punisher refers to the sort of fan who winds up inflicting pain on their idols. (For Bridgers, it refers specifically to her obsessive love of Elliott Smith.) Many of the songs on the album refer to Bridgers’ conflicted feelings about her own burgeoning indie fame, like the depressive travelogue “Kyoto” or the referential “Graceland Too,” which includes nods to Paul Simon and The Replacements while reflecting on the strange legacy of Elvis Presley’s Memphis home/celebrity shrine. There is a lot of humor, too, though Bridgers’ voice and the album’s muted, sneaky-sophisticated production tends to mask it. (One of my favorite lines, from the otherwise doleful “Moon Song,” takes a shot at Eric Clapton: “We hate ‘Tears In Heaven’ / but it’s sad that his baby died.”

As Bridgers settled into a steady power-walk — her “shitty knees” prevent her from running on the treadmill — she thoughtfully answered my questions about her life under quarantine, the making of Punisher, Eric Clapton, Elliott Smith, crazy fans, and why her “world revolves 100 percent around me.”

In the midst of all this weirdness, do you have a routine to keep yourself sane?

I’m definitely a fucking Silver Lake bitch. I’ve been writing three things I’m grateful for every day to keep myself sane, and it does fucking work. You don’t have to show it to anybody, you just fucking do it. It really makes a difference. When I don’t have anything to write about, I’m like, “I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for breakfast.” Which is true, that’s exactly what I had for breakfast. I’m regressing into my high school self, as far as my eating habits, but I’m staying relatively sane.

I wanted to ask you about the last song on the record, “I Know The End,” first. It’s totally fitting for this moment, though you obviously wrote it well before 2020. What inspired it?

It’s my first end of the world song. Conor Oberst and I were joking about how he’s been writing apocalyptic songs since the beginning of time. And now his material’s going to feel like old news. I was imagining a giant tornado, or California separating from the rest of the United States. It definitely feels relevant, but in my brain it was just an invention. I am rereading Oryx And Crake, the Margaret Atwood story where she predicted the pandemic. She calls it a “waterless flood.” God, that book is insane.

But was there anything in particular that made you want to write a song like that?

I was talking to a friend the other day about what separates the millennial generation from other generations, and for the most part, we’re the first generation to not really be living for the next generation. So many people fought for a better world before us, like our parents. And now we’re just fighting to even stay alive. People have stopped romanticizing the future. I just feel like I could never imagine a time beyond now. I used to know what my life would look like in eight months, now I certainly don’t.

Do you feel like that’s a scary thing? Or is the pessimism so ingrained now that it only inspires apathy?

I feel like I have learned these skills through trauma, and fucked up shit in my life. But I tend to completely not live in myself and dissociate when sad or good things happen to me. So, right now it’s coming in handy. I’m like, “I’ll have this feeling later.” I’m trying not to be scared. Trying to listen to the news every morning and then shut it off so that I find the line between staying informed and torturing myself.

You’ve talked about how during the making of Stranger In The Alps you were going through a depression. How was the experience of making Punisher?

So fun. I’ve been getting a pretty regular question of, were you afraid to put out your second record because there’s more pressure? I’m like, “Fuck no.” I made the whole record knowing that people were going to hear it. And I made the first record being like, “I wonder if I’m going to have to get a day job after this.” Mostly I just wanted it to be better than the first record, which I think it is.

How so?

Lyrically better. I didn’t really want to be as dirge-y anymore. There are some dark songs, for sure, but I tried to get creative a little bit with the production. I just had more fun. I wanted to sound like an adult wrote it. I wrote a lot of Stranger In The Alps when I was still in my teens.

How do you think you’ve improved as a writer since then?

I’m learning how to tell the truth. There’s some language on my first record that I don’t use in real life. Like that “Chelsea” song is almost in old English or something. I just try not to put anything in songs that I wouldn’t actually say.

What’s a line from Punisher that you wouldn’t have written before?

“I’m going to kill you” [from “Kyoto”]. On the first record I’d be like, “Oh, I can’t say that.” And then as I started writing better songs, I just got more comfortable with it.

You’ve said that “Kyoto” is about being on tour in Japan and not being able to enjoy it.

Yeah. I think you’re stealing from yourself if you don’t go to therapy, basically. I thought for a lot of my life I could just kind of bulldoze through my own mental health issues and just live my life anyway. And it works sometimes, but then in quiet moments by a fucking river in Japan when you’re thinking about your fucking … or you’re not thinking about anything and your thoughts become weird, gray matter. You’re like, “Damn, maybe I should examine why my brain does that.” That’s mostly what it’s about.

When that was happening, did you know in the moment you were going to write about it?

Not at all. But I do think it’s a recurring theme on the album. It has to be something I think about in my subconscious. Missing home when you’re away and missing tour when you’re home.

How much do you miss touring right now?

Oh my god. So much. I’ve actually been DMing with Clairo about this. We’re like, basically, sexting about playing a show. I was like, “I would literally kill to fucking play the shittiest show.” And she was like, “Yeah, PA doesn’t work in a basement.” And I was like, “Smells bad. It’s an early show because there’s a DJ after you.” Yeah, I would love to be on the shittiest tour in the world right now. In a hot van.

The one thing that writers always note about you is that you are much funnier in conversation than you are in your songs. Have you ever considered being more funny in your songs? Or are your songs already funnier than most people give them credit for?

The latter, for sure. I think there are jokes in my songs that totally get missed. Like if I were to say them in my “I work at the Circle K” speaking voice, I think people would think they’re funny. But because I sing them in my singing voice, that’s generally pretty, I don’t know … I feel like I don’t sing with a lot of emotion, it’s almost an apathetic singing voice. So, I don’t think people get my jokes when I sing them.

Which songs of yours do you think are funny that people don’t see as funny?

There’s definitely going to be those on this album, but “Scott Street” I feel like is pretty funny. Drinking a beer in the shower.

The lyric that made me laugh from Punisher is in “Moon Song,” when you reference your hatred of the Eric Clapton song “Tears In Heaven.” But then in the next lyric, you acknowledge that it was “sad that his baby died,” which is a bit of a gut-punch.

The initial lyric was, “I hate Eric Clapton.” And Tony [Berg, the album’s co-producer] yelled at me. He was like, “Poor Eric Clapton, don’t rip on Eric Clapton.” And I was like, “I’m going to rip on racist Eric Clapton, whose music I hate.” But I’ll fucking change the lyrics. It’s actually more brutal now. It’s a song about his dead kid. It was less brutal when it was like, “I hate your music, but it’s sad that your baby died.” Now it’s, “I hate your song about your dead baby, but it’s sad.” I don’t actually mind that song, I mind the rest of his catalogue more. In an attempt to kind of save it, I think I maybe made it a little bit worse.

What do you hate about Eric Clapton’s catalogue?

It’s just so fucking white. And he famously said that the UK is a white place, and black people should disappear from it. I think his music is just boring. But knowing that he’s a bad dude makes it worse.

I wanted to ask you about the title track. You’ve talked about how you live in the same neighborhood where one of your heroes, Elliott Smith, once lived, and how if he were alive you would have probably run into him by now. Is that what that song is about?

It’s basically Elliott fan-fiction. If we were alive at the same time I think I might have been a little bit of a brutalizer to him, which punisher is a short term for. Just someone who doesn’t know when to stop talking, and might follow you home.

Now that you’re a popular singer-songwriter yourself, has your perspective changed on Elliott Smith and the kind of fan attention he attracted?

Totally. I think it’s easy for people on the outside to be like, “How could you hate playing The Oscars?” Now it’s like, “Obviously you fucking hate it because you’re in a room full of people who didn’t give a shit.” And then every time you go to your bar, that you just want to be alone at, there’s someone like, “Hey, can I buy you a drink man?” There’s a term I love, “fansplaining,” which I feel like we’ve all seen or done.

Elliott Smith had to deal with being called a “sell-out,” which doesn’t really happen anymore. But there is this phenomenon where people dig into the pasts of musicians and “out” them on social media for having rich parents. It’s happened recently with artists like Mitski and Arca.

That’s how people’s voices get lifted up because that’s how fucked up our country is. That a black woman from Ohio who’s making rad music in her basement is not going to have the opportunities that someone with a rich dad who lives in New York is going to have. It’s just fucked up and true. But people always want to take away from women. If Mitski wasn’t good she wouldn’t be famous. That’s just 1,000 percent true.

Getting back to the “punisher” idea: You seem like you have some pretty intense fans. How do you deal with it?

For every punisher there is a sweet teenager that makes my day by giving me a weird homemade necklace or showing me a tattoo, or just having an actual connection with somebody who connected to something I said, which is so special and rad. But then one time I was literally chased by someone who was saying, “I would never chase you.”

Oh my god.

I was trying to get to the hotel, and I couldn’t even really tell if it was a fan, I thought I was just being followed. So I was like, “What the fuck is happening?” And I picked up my pace and he started running, and then was like, “I would never chase you.” I’m like, “You’re chasing me.”

So yeah, people are intense. I’ve seen it happen to Conor, too. And Julien and Lucy. If you write about depression or whatever, you get people who maybe have never talked about it before. So you’re, like, having just a normal Tuesday night and then you’re holding someone crying, talking about their dead husband. And it’s not bad, it’s just super intense that that’s your job, and that that’s the way that you affect people. You can be less famous and have more intense fans if you write really personal music.

Have you ever considered writing about characters instead of yourself, just to distance yourself a bit from the work?

I mean, it is always me even if I’m pretending. If I’m writing about a friend’s experience I am putting myself there, and I see me in my mind. Songs are like dreams, kind of. I was calling you, but also you were right next to me. But when your mouth opened I couldn’t really hear what you were saying. And then you turned into my preschool teacher. It’s your perspective, but they can be about all sorts of shit.

I know better writers than I who have been like, “I’m not going to say ‘I’ or ‘me’ at all on this record.” And I’m like, “I would stop writing.” My world revolves 100 percent around me.

Punisher is out on 6/19 via Dead Oceans. Get it here.

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