“It’s not, you know, too different than what I do when I’m home, but the environment of the world and being forced to… is kinda dark.” It’s week three (or seven, I haven’t been counting) of our worldwide COVID-19-induced lockdown, and I’ve just sat down for a chit-chat with prolific comedian and 25-year-old indie-rock icon Phoebe Bridgers. If her latest tweets are anything to go by, spirits are still running high. “I think the president should absolutely inject disinfectant,” reads one take on yet another Donald Trump misstep. “When I die bury me in nutritional yeast,” says another. “Does Phoebe Bridgers just think in banging twitter one-liners?” asks girl band MUNA. The answer, and we’re all thinking it, is a resounding yes.
This is just the tip of the iceberg however as if a knack for condensing her quick-witted asides into viral titbits isn’t gift enough. It’s Bridgers’ supernatural ability to craft spellbinding folk-rock that positions her as Silver Lake’s second coming of Shakespeare — admittedly with way nicer hair and a good understanding of stan twitter. It comes as no surprise when Bridgers lets slip that she’s “always gravitated towards songwriting”; I suppose being a modern literary genius just comes with the territory. Her varied musical palette ranges from Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, to Elliott Smith and “fucking Regina Spektor”, a blissful fusing of 60s staples and the best of 00s indie.
Bridgers attended Los Angeles County High School for the Arts where she took classes in opera and jazz, cutting her teeth on a plethora of different styles and surrounding herself with a community of musicians all intent on making it big. “I was certainly convinced,” Bridgers tells me, admitting it was probably a “thought I could before I could” situation, “even when I had no money and was moving out of my parents’ house.”
The singer got her start by playing at flea markets around LA whenever she could. “I didn’t know you weren’t really supposed to play two gigs in the same week and try to make the same people come,” she jokes. After a while, flea markets turned into odd venues, which turned into festivals, theatres, and even palladiums. When I ask if doing things on a wider scale was anything like her expectations, Bridgers pauses for a moment. “I knew that I wanted to play music, but I didn’t really think about how it would feel to have people know your songs, which I think is good,” she says. “I had no expectations of how it was going to feel, so it [was] just great. I love touring — I hope I get to do it again.”
(LEFT) Trousers RODARTE, Stylist’s own bra (RIGHT) Dress DIOR, Phoebe’s own cape, shoes CHANEL, jewellery CARTIER. Hair and Makeup Nicole Wittman.
Trousers RODARTE, Stylist’s own bra Dress DIOR, Phoebe’s own cape, shoes CHANEL, jewellery CARTIER. Hair and Makeup Nicole Wittman.
At the time of writing, Bridgers was set to embark on a US tour including overseas pit stops at Glastonbury, Madrid’s Mad Cool and The 1975’s colossal Finsbury Park show in London, all in the run-up to festival season. Here, fans were supposed to finally meet their maker by way of Bridgers’ upcoming sophomore album, Punisher, in all of its stripped-back glory.
A title with numerous allusions — whether it be wrestling moves or filthy euphemisms — to Bridgers and her inner circle, ‘punisher’ describes a certain type of spirit, one we’ve all seen in action to varying degrees. At parties they unwittingly ensnare their victims, baiting them with empty compliments and sweet nothings before launching into a script full of psychotic babbling; oversharing and the ill-advised confidence of too much red wine. “Usually they’re really nice, like a nice person who doesn’t know they’re doing it, you know,” Bridgers tells me, and I do, “but sometimes it can be an older relative talking about Donald Trump.”
Unpacking this paranoia in the album’s title track, Bridgers tiptoes into vocoder territory, delivering introspective lines like “What if I told you I feel like I know you but we never met?” as if she were a punisher herself. “I think it’s everybody’s fear,” she tells me — “You see someone’s eyes glaze over when you’re talking to them and you’re like, ‘Oh god, what if I am that to people?’” In essence, the song is a confessional ode to connection, one that flares with orchestral magic and that captivating sadness synonymous with Bridgers’ dark and brooding sound. Work on the album began almost immediately after she finished her standout debut record, Stranger in the Alps, back in 2017, with Bridgers building on the album’s 11 tracks intermittently between touring. “This time I went in with way more ideas,” she says of the main difference between the two records. Now with three years more experience under her belt, everything from mixing to collaborating was an elevation from what had come before.
Though Punisher retains much of the delicate folk that characterised her debut, Bridgers is the first to admit things have changed. “I wrote some of the songs on Stranger in the Alps when I was a teenager, these [songs] were all pretty consolidated,” she explains. Take “Motion Sickness” for example, Stranger in the Alps’ scathing refrain laying bare her experiences with producer Ryan Adams.
In one of the music industry’s first major #MeToo moments in February of last year, Bridgers and several other women bravely came forward to The New York Times with allegations of abusive behaviour from the American singer-songwriter. Bridgers, in particular, spoke of emotional manipulation and the carrot dangling of career opportunities from Adams, whose label PAX-AM released her “Killer” EP (not without a struggle) back in 2015. “I think before [the article] was put up was the scariest, and then after the death threats and stuff kind of just bounced off me,” Bridgers tells me. “I don’t mean like actually to my house, just like abuse on the internet, but that was overshadowed by the amount of love and support I got from my friends and the people I met through that article.”
Punisher feels like the processing of those experiences, the reality of Bridgers prevailing despite the odds. If Stranger in the Alps was misty blue skies and foreboding storm clouds, Punisher is a shepherd’s delight of burnt oranges and brutal pinks; the promise of a brighter tomorrow. You can feel it in the bones of “Garden Song”, featuring the tender vocal stylings of Bridgers’ Dutch tour manager Jeroen Vrijhoef (who just so happens to sing two octaves below her), and see it in the track’s wholesomely deranged music video.
Second single “Kyoto” takes this baton and hits the ground running, offering calamitous ruminations about the push and pull of living the dream, being on tour and wanting to be at home, then be- ing at home and wanting to be on tour. “That’s kind of the album theme,” explains Bridgers. “Then it’s about my dad, and caring about people with addiction. It’s about all kinds of shit — just complex emotions when dealing with people in your life.”
Bridgers had actually wrote most of the album’s 11 tracks as slow tempo ballads, and giving pace to “Kyoto” was a conscious effort. “I was like, ‘Let’s mix it up and have eight ballads in a row…’ Especially ‘cause I wrote them so close together, you can’t have this song sound the same,” she explains. “I think I was trying to differentiate.” But nowhere is this air of triumph more prevalent than in Punisher’s closing track, “I Know the End”. Rekindling the static reverberations and stoic calm of “Garden Song”, “I Know the End” shows Bridgers’ mastery in capturing the sweet spot between pain and beauty. She’s seen both sides of the coin and traversed them in equal lengths, tallying the odds with a pen and paper. This is where the album’s soft, slow-burning tension finally forgoes its marvellous and anticipated climax, a sonic end credits of sorts, signalled by electrified guitars and lines like “Either way, we’re not alone / I’ll find a new place to be from.” Layers of dramatic strings, brutal drum beats and tinkling pianos unfurl to expose her final curtain call — with trumpets and screaming, it’s no doubt a fittingly twisted happy ending.