Phoebe Bridgers’s rock songs are casually sad as hell
On Stranger in the Alps, the tenaciously self-made songwriter stares darkness in the face.
“It feels really liberating to finally have something out,” Phoebe Bridgers told me over the phone from her home on the Eastside of Los Angeles. It was mid-September, and she was talking about her ridiculously strong debut album of sad folk songs, Stranger in the Alps. “I’ve been touring for so long, with barely anything on the internet,” the 23-year-old continued. “It feels so cool, like, this is weirdly the beginning for me.”
“Motion Sickness,” the first single from Stranger in the Alps, is an axe to the heart. “I hate you for what you did / And I miss you like a little kid,” she opens, casually sad as hell, her voice trailing close behind a quivering guitar line. “I faked it every time but that's alright / I can hardly feel anything.” How did she pinpoint exactly how it feels when you loathe someone so much for hurting you, but you still can’t let them go? I had the same visceral reaction to the deeply gloomy “Funeral,” on which she sings, “Jesus Christ, I'm so blue all the time / And that's just how I feel / Always have and I always will.”
On the phone, we spoke about depression a little bit, and about how when you’re in the bad place it can feel like you’re the only one in the world who knows what it’s like. But it’s music like Phoebe’s that gives blue-prone humans some shelter from the storm. “I have a friend I call / When I've bored myself to tears / And we talk until we think we might just kill ourselves / But then we laugh until it disappears,” she sings later on “Funeral.” It’s a line that anyone who’s ever leaned on a pal in a hopeless-seeming time will understand.
Phoebe recorded Stranger in the Alps on and off between tours, with producer Tony Berg, who has worked with the likes of Aimee Mann, ‘80s punk band X, and Blake Mills, who Phoebe says makes her “favorite-sounding” records. She’s been touring with Julien Baker, which is a good fit because of their shared dysphoric sound, and Conor Oberst, one her favorite musicians. The Bright Eyes mastermind sings on “Would You Rather,” a country-tinged tune about a mutually destructive relationship. And recently, Grimes featured "Motion Sickness" on her personal playlist of artists “who write and produce their own shit,” a philosophy Phoebe feels very strongly about. Seems like Phoebe is really living her dreams, which a self-made artist like her utterly deserves.
Let’s start at the beginning: when did you start playing music?
PHOEBE BRIDGERS: When I first picked up an instrument, nothing really happened. I played piano when I was a little kid. I hated it so much, I actually don’t play piano now. It was too early. I associated it with fear. I was so afraid of my piano teacher, who probably wasn’t even mean to me. I think I was pretty spoiled, and having someone tell me to practice — I was totally incensed. My form of rebellion was starting to play guitar. I was 13. The first song I played was “Lovesick Blues” by Hank Williams.
Did you grow up around country music?
I associate country so much with my mom. My mom has a really big record collection. There was always music around. None of my family are musicians, but there was a lot of classic rock and country going on. I always wanted to sing. As soon as I expressed an interest my mom was super supportive of me.
I’m really close to my mom. She lives in Pasadena still and I’m there all the time. She helps me do my laundry when I get home from tour. I’m gonna be home for Thanksgiving this year, and so will my brother, who goes to Carnegie Mellon for computer science and visual art. He’s about to be 20, which is insane. He’s actually working on a music video for me. We went to the same arts high school, called LACHSA [Los Angeles County High School for the Arts]. My mom and I looked into a couple of music colleges [for me], and they were all super expensive. And I was like, “What if I just start, going, as freaky as it is?” And she was like, “Yes, totally. Do it.”
What’s it like touring and collaborating with Conor Oberst?
Conor is awesome. I love him. It’s really refreshing to meet people you look up to and they just rule. Going on tour with him, I remembered songs of his that I had forgotten. Most recently my favorite is “Lime Tree” off Cassadaga. It’s kinda creepy, but I love it. I actually reference it — or, tried to. When Tony [Berg], the producer of the album, and I were talking about how to produce “Funeral,” I made him listen to “Lime Tree” first.
I love all the music and literary and pop culture references on Stranger.
So many of my songs have so many references that it just becomes nothing at a certain point. Every studio environment I’ve ever been in, you get pumped, and you listen to stuff. Before we recorded one of the songs we watched Charlie Chaplin roller-skating with no barriers on the second story of a building. We watched some sort of weird interpretive dance. We plugged a baritone guitar into an echorec pedal, and suddenly “Smoke Signals” sounded exactly like Twin Peaks. Everybody who worked on this album is such a big music fan. We all have totally different stuff to bring to the table. It was almost like going to school everyday.
Stranger is also pretty dark. You address depression pretty head-on — there’s a line in “Chelsea” about chemical imbalances. Have you experienced any mental health issues yourself?
Some of the album is about me, some of it is about my closest friends. “Chelsea” is about Syd and Nancy, and how ridiculous it is that people romanticize them, when it’s just, like, a sad story. The reason I was drawn to it is because I do struggle with depression, and have a fascination with the darker things in life.
I wasn’t really expecting it to be as gratifying to release an album and have people reach out to me and say, “That’s exactly how I feel!” For every single person who’s struggled with depression, there’s this weird part of your brain that tells you you’re the only person who’s ever felt like that, even if you know for a fact it’s not true. It’s cool staring that in the face. I definitely look for that in the music I listen to.
“I’ve curated the group of people I let influence me. I lucked out with a really solid squad.”
What’s your actual songwriting process like?
It definitely changes from song to song, but mostly I have an ongoing iPhone note of random shit throughout the day that I am thinking about. Or like, That word sounds cool. I lean on my phone so much when I’m writing. When I sit down to write the song, I transfer the note to my actual notebook and go from there. I just need a starting point.
When I’m not working so hard on a song, I’ll just write poems, with no particular form. Just stream-of-consciousness poems. I loved creative writing in school. I’m reading the Margaret Atwood series from the ’80s that starts with Oryx and Crake. It’s fucking up my life a little bit. It’s like a sci-fi series that’s like the darkest. It’s like Handmaid’s Tale, but somehow even darker. All of her writing is so real and fucked up. It’s the kind of book you close and you’re like It’s not real. It’s not real. It’s not real.
I’m so cliche; I’m also rereading some Joan Didion right now, so she’s on my mind a lot. Didion reminds me of when I’m really dark and the way I think about the world. It’s so hopeless. She just shamelessly goes there. I’m like, Jeez, dude! I don’t need this in my life right now! It probably will make it into some music, for sure.
Is it fun for you to read Didion, since so much of it is about L.A.?
It is funny reading Joan Didion. You get so jealous of her lifestyle, though. She’s like, “And then I flew from New York and I ate at the country club and went for a nice walk in a beautiful garden.” Constantly having brunch and stuff. Patti Smith’s Just Kids is the opposite — it’s like, “How many times can you guys get bed bugs?”
I grew up in New York, and people ask me all the time, What was it like to grow up here? Do you get that a lot, too?
That’s a question I’m continuing to answer: What was different about my experience? I didn’t think it was weird to grow up in L.A. until I turned like, 20, and started meeting people who didn’t grow up here. Talking to people who didn’t take a train for 45 minutes to school everyday, or who didn’t have a punk club where they grew up. All my favorite bands played here. I got to see everybody I’ve ever wanted to see, pretty much.
How’s it feel to be on Grimes’s “the faé” playlist? Are you a fan?
My brain isn’t letting me process that information yet, I don’t think. It’s so cool. She walked by me in the little press area at Coachella, and I almost fainted. I love her. She wrote something really cool about being a woman in music and how men are gonna constantly try to convince you that you need them to succeed. And she’s like, “I’m living proof that you fucking don’t. You don’t need anybody.”
I’m super protective. When I write with people, I write with my closest friends. It’s hard for me to relinquish control, but sometimes I’m glad I do. I try to stay far away from really condescending people. I’ve curated the group of people I let influence me. I lucked out with a really solid squad. I’m just glad I didn’t meet someone too early who was too much of a dick to me. I see that all the time — someone who basically negs you, and convinces you they’re always right. I’ve watched a lot of my women musician friends deal with that.
Has anyone tried to mold you into something you’re not?
There were tons of people who wanted me to be something else. Classic, totally classic L.A. story: “We want you to be a pop singer!” Even people my own age who kind of inserted themselves into my scene and were like “We’re a band! And I write all the songs!” Like, no. No. Along the way there were definitely people like that, but I’m glad I settled where I did. Everybody I worked with on this album I would not hesitate to send an idea to. I feel so comfortable with all of them.