Finding Their Own Way
Singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers creates story songs that are wise beyond her years; choreographer Brian Sanders questions received wisdom.
Phoebe Bridgers is a celebrated musician and songwriter known for her poetic folk-pop. She was nominated for four 2021 Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist and Best Rock Song.
Bridgers was born in 1994 in Pasadena, CA, and played in several high school bands. She was accepted to Berklee College of Music in Boston, but dropped out before her freshman orientation. She released an EP, Killer, in 2014, and toured in support of Julien Baker, Conor Oberst, and the Joy Formidable before finding critical success with her first album, Stranger in the Alps, in 2017.
In 2018, Bridgers formed the indie supergroup boygenius with fellow musicians Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus. The following year, she released an album with Conor Oberst as Better Oblivion Community Center. She has also collaborated with Fiona Apple, the 1975, and Kid Cudi, among others.
Bridgers second album, Punisher (2020), was an international hit, reaching number 43 in the Billboard charts and number 6 in the UK. The single “Kyoto,” about her strained relationship with her father, received two Grammy nominations.
Brian Sanders is a celebrated dancer and choreographer and the artistic director of physical dance troupe JUNK.
Sanders grew up in Princeton, NJ. He founded JUNK as Archetype Dance Company in 1992, the year he graduated from University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He renamed his company Brian Sanders’ JUNK in 1997, a reference to his habit of incorporating found objects into his dance pieces. JUNK has produced work for the Philadelphia Fringe Festival for over twenty years and collaborated with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the National Constitution Center, among other major cultural institutions. The company’s Urban Scuba series toured throughout the United States and internationally.
Outside JUNK, Sanders has choreographed for Eleone Dance Theatre, Koresh Dance Company, Pennsylvania Ballet, and other companies. In the 1990s, he performed and collaborated with revered choreographer Moses Pendleton of MOMIX. In 2006, Sanders’s show NOGRAVITY was performed as part of the Paralympic Winter Games in Turin.
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores how art tells all of our stories. I’m Jim Cotter, and on this episode, “Finding Their Own Way.”
Phoebe Bridgers is one of the most talked-about singer-songwriters of her generation. She shares her observations and experiences in songs that are wise and insightful beyond her years.
Phoebe Bridgers: I’m just not a great writer of other people’s stories. I’ve been in bands with people who do that but I have to kind of insert myself, even if there are little glimpses of fiction or summary of a story, rather than every detail. I think I just need to put myself in the driver’s seat of everything.
And with his iconoclastic dance company JUNK, choreographer Brian Sanders makes provocative work that often pushes at the edges of his audience’s comfort zones.
Brian Sanders: I realized at one point that there was little to no control I had over what people were actually taking away from my work. And the best thing I could do was to be true to my own kind of imagery and ideas and what I wanted to put together and present and provide the most ideal and complete experience of that.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
(Excerpt from Phoebe Bridgers’ “Motion Sickness”)
Phoebe Bridgers wrote “Motion Sickness” after ending what she’s described as an obsessive and emotionally abusive relationship. Like much of her music, the song is unabashedly autobiographical, outlining episodes of anger, sadness, and trauma. And while she finds release in songwriting, Bridgers isn’t trying to escape the fraught feelings that fuel her work.
Phoebe Bridgers: I think it’s okay to be angry as long as you have perspective and you know that it’s not healthy to always live there. I think that anger serves a great purpose for kind of deciding your own boundaries and what makes you upset. I don’t think you should feel ashamed of being angry but it’s just exhausting to live there forever.
At 26, Bridgers’ earnest lyrics and finely-honed melodies have earned her multiple Grammy nominations and comparisons to prolific singer-songwriters such as Leonard Cohen and John Prine. But Bridgers isn’t trying to be anyone but herself.
Bridgers: I think I’m just not a great writer of other people’s stories. I’ve been in bands with people who do that but I have to kind of insert myself, even if there are little glimpses of fiction or a summary of a story rather than every detail. I think I just need to put myself in the driver’s seat of everything.
Born and raised in Southern California, Phoebe Bridgers was already making music by the time she was 11. Neither of her parents were musicians but they primed her musical taste through their love of artists such as Neil Young and Jackson Browne. Bridgers built on that informal upbringing with study at a visual and performing arts high school in Los Angeles. She trained in a range of musical disciplines including opera and jazz singing and the concepts behind it all.
Bridgers: I repeated theory one like the entirety of high school because I was really bad at school, but I do think repetition of especially voice, like vocal jazz really helped me even though I would never sing in that style, and I think that there are fewer things as sinful as a group of people singing, like scatting together. But I do think being able to sing in a group, singing a lot, I feel the same way about playing shows. Playing a lot of shows is really important. You just get better at it with it naturally, and I think just practice every day. And I don’t know if I would have practiced every day if I hadn’t gone to art school.
But the classroom was only a piece of Bridgers’ musical education. She also learned by playing out in the world. Her mother was supportive, taking her to open mic nights, picking her up from late night performances and encouraging her to play at a local farmer’s market to earn pocket money.
Bridgers: Busking was really nice for my confidence because you just practice and practice and practice and practice. Sometimes nobody’s paying attention to you, sometimes someone’s watching you really intently. So it was very humbling, at the very least, like it actually set me up to be able to play bars where people are screaming at each other and not care. You just kind of have to keep playing.
And Bridgers kept playing live after high school. She turned down an opportunity to attend The Berklee School of Music, instead playing her way onto stages with prominent indie stars including Julien Baker and Conor Oberst.
Bridgers: I didn’t have huge expectations. I really wanted, like at the very least I just wanted it to be my full-time job, which is a lot to ask. I had been doing some work that I wasn’t super passionate about when I started really making records. And when that started to happen, I’ve just been content. Like, of course I wanted to do all sorts of stuff and it’s been on an upward trajectory luckily, but when I sold a hundred tickets for the first time, I was like, boom! Made it. I didn’t think very much further.
But further she did go. Her debut album Stranger In The Alps was released in 2017 to widespread praise. Her second, 2020’s Punisher, garnered four Grammy nominations. Two of those were for her song “Kyoto”, an exploration of her strained history with a father, who she says was an abusive drug user.
(Excerpt from Phoebe Bridgers’ “Kyoto”)
And Bridgers’ songs are often both a way to process and move past tough times.
Bridgers: Up until the last point of making records I will edit and edit and edit. You know, I changed words in the very last minutes of Punisher, but then once it’s done, it’s just finished and I never think about it again.
Since the pandemic, Phoebe Bridgers has begun to reconnect with her father who split from her mother when Bridgers was 20. But as old wounds heal, new ones form.
Bridgers: That’s a whole other genre that has appeared where it’s like grappling with the idea of being a public person and being on tour all the time and what that means, and grappling with my character versus my actual personality, and if they’re the same. And there are parts of my personality that I think I protect, for safety, for emotional safety. I think I’m publicly way closer to the way I would probably nervously be at a party or something, like I’m actually quite loud, I’m not a shy person. And then I shut the door to my hotel room and it’s just like blank, very solitary.
AJC: It’s an odd thing because everybody says you have to either be an extrovert or an introvert. Most of us are largely, we have both of those things going on.
Bridgers: Yeah. I think it’s very nuanced. I think it’s, the root of that question is do you feel drained by alone time or do you feel drained by time with other people? And I am always like, yes. I feel drained constantly by things. I need a little bit of both to be able to survive either thing. I think that a big thing about the pandemic has been grappling with the amount of my own ego that comes from being applauded every night by a group of people and having my own little world kind of just constantly revolve around me. I do feel energized by that. And then 10 days into tour, I feel exhausted by it and don’t want to ever be perceived by anybody ever again. It’s like this year I would love to play the worst show ever. You know, there was a venue in Boston that got shut down recently, but like the dressing room was the bathroom, I’d play there in a heartbeat. But when I was on that tour I would’ve killed to just go home.
Still, Phoebe Bridgers is confident in who she is and doesn’t feel the need to change as the stages she plays on grow larger. If anything, she just feels the need to amplify the desires, beliefs and feelings that have brought her from the farmer’s markets and open mics of Southern California.
Bridgers: So I think the only biggest difference to me is just realizing how lucky I am to have a platform to talk about the things that I care about, trying to wield it for good. So I think it’s better to amplify voices of smarter people honestly. I don’t want to take up space in a world where somebody else should be speaking. But I also think with the big megaphone, it’s like, why not? Why not kind of stomp your feet when you see something unfair happening, not on social media just like internally, you know? I think it’s nicer to be able to be literally just listened to more.
AJC: Did you think the megaphone brings it with it any sort of any obligation?
Bridgers: Yes. Definitely. People who say shut up and sing…you know, “This Land is Our Land” is by Woody Guthrie, who never shut up ever. Like, so Bob Dylan never shut up. I don’t know. It’s just that’s not what it’s for. Nobody’s ever shut up and sing, it’s just not, it’s not a thing it’s fake.
Now in her late twenties Phoebe Bridgers would seem to have found her own way exploring and crafting music by embracing discipline as well as the unrelenting messiness and contradictions of living. Sometimes weary of what she’ll find but never giving in to the fear of what she may uncover.
(Excerpt from Phoebe Bridgers’ “Motion Sickness”)
To step into choreographer Brian Sanders’ world is to step into the world of junk. A fantastical place of found objects, where every used and discarded thing and every abandoned idea can be revived and made new again.
Brian Sanders: I find a richer experience in going back and saying, hey, you know, even just with some simple dance move, I could live for just reinventing that anew and breathing new life into it and looking at it from a different angle.
When something simmers in Brian Sanders’ creatively chaotic mind, what can emerge are works that are breathtakingly dangerous and hauntingly beautiful. But Brian Sanders lives in a place of high risk for falls and failures. For him, both body and brain must go through heart-stopping, mind-boggling gymnastics to make such extraordinary work.
Sanders: And it’s always halfway through, why am I doing this? Why am I here? Is this really worth it? It’s overwhelming every time. And I keep saying, “It’s gotta get easier.” It never is.
Even with all his exuberant and mischievous joie de vivre, Sanders is deeply connected to the cycle of life, death, and renewal. He is a man whose own life and body have been broken, mended, and reinvented time and again. Born in 1966, Sanders grew up in Princeton, New Jersey in a house with five siblings. He was the reckless rambunctious one. Gymnastics and classical ballet focused his energy, but when he was 10 years old the innovative choreography of Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ and Moses Pendleton’s Pilobolus captured Sanders imagination and never really let it go. After graduating from The University of The Arts in Philadelphia, Sanders began working for his childhood idol, Moses Pendleton. Pendleton had just launched the dance company Momix, and for Sanders, to dance and choreograph for the legendary director was a dream come true. But the dream was shattered by a nightmare. Sanders’ friends were dying, and it seemed likely that he might too. It was the 1980s and HIV/AIDS was rampaging. He tested positive for the deadly virus, but as a young man in his early twenties, he was unable to face this fact. And so, because he was asymptomatic, he kept dancing and for the next 10 years traveled the world with Momix. In 1992, he was ready to go it alone, so he returned to Philadelphia to start his own company. Brian Sanders’ JUNK.
Sanders: One of the first productions I put together as a whole show was filled with found objects. And it was garment racks and trash cans and stuff. It was cool stuff. I don’t think it was trash necessarily, but it was cool stuff that I had come by and found. And someone else had, discarded it and felt it used up or no good anymore or something like that. And I was able to kind of, breathe some sort of new perspective into all these objects. And so as much as I’m neither here nor there about found object art, I don’t like it to be my motto, I really feel like I’m much more about the idea of not discovering anything new.
One of JUNK’s prized dumpster-diving treasures is the Urban Scuba series. Billed and bragged as bringing new life to the city’s best debris, the shows are quintessentially Sanders: sensual, erotic aerial dance; comedic, often absurd physical feats; and trailblazing, acrobatic dance fusions. Working with Brian Sanders means decoding his brain. It starts with cracking his vernacular, which redefines the very language of dance. He doesn’t call his performers dancers or his work dance, although he will sometimes say the d-word.
Sanders: It has a sort of, I don’t know if it’s stigma, dogma, one of the -mas. And, in that I think a lot of people balk at it. I think I’ve discovered it, of recent, and I might change my mind in the future. That’s my disclaimer. But for now I’m realizing that what I do most importantly with my work is I tell a story, within an entire concert. The entirety of it is much more important to me than each of the little individual gems strung together. So inside of that, I feel like I’m defeating a lot of the people that I could reach by using the d-word because I think that they immediately associate the d-word with the concert form and are not as interested.
And so though his d’s aren’t d-ing, they are highly trained and experienced in the disciplines of dance. They are actors, gymnast, aerialists, athletes and artists of the highest caliber, not to mention that they’re also Brian Sanders’ artistic voice, his collaborators, and his most excellent code breakers.
Sanders: We literally just invent a new vocabulary every year for whatever ideas we have, and study it and practice it. And that becomes our vernacular.
Inventing new venues by re-imagining spaces has also become a common Sanders’ strategy. An underground swimming pool, an abandoned power station, the basement of a warehouse have all been his stages and sets. And to watch his mind at work can be spellbinding.
Sanders: If I’m challenged with it right now, right now I’m pushing, I’m going, “Oh, how do I remake, you know, a little vignette of the pas de bourrée, anew?” And it’s a step that’s been since time began. So, right away, I’m like, well maybe it’s not a dance piece but it’s more of a visual installation where we get to see all the different facets, sides of pas de bourrée even. And so it’s a, glass structure that, an audience member is taken into a glass chamber and then the pas de bourrée is performed on top of them. And so they can see what the actual foot work is and the marks on the glass that it makes or something like that. I’m just, this is me going off, this is how I create.
AJC: That’s a great idea.
Sanders: Okay. So I just say, “All right.”
As his reputation has grown and the Sanders’ has matured, JUNK has evolved to include works that are not only about used objects, but also about commonplace ideas. Funny Bone was about the stupid things that make him laugh, Skein of Heart about love and loss, Second Sanctuary a Halloween pop-up to exorcise demons. Most recently Sanders teamed up with the Philadelphia Orchestra to recreate Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite, a ballet based on themes from the Bizet opera. And though JUNK and the orchestra had worked together in 2019 for an aerial interpretation of Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, this was new territory for all. Participants were required to be socially distanced and wear masks. In the original novella, a mask is actually a plot point in the story. So Sanders incorporated character period masks as part of the costumes.
As Brian Sanders has aged, he has found peace with living with HIV. Lifesaving drugs developed in the early nineties ensured that he could expect to live a full, healthy lifespan. And today he is part of a support group, for people who have survived 30 years or more with HIV. In 2016, Sanders revisited the HIV epidemic of the 1980s through the lens of JUNK. He created Carried Away, a semi-autobiographical account of gay culture during that time. True to form, the show was provocative, beautiful, absurd, and risque. Nudity and sexual content are often part of a Sanders’ show, but it is never gratuitous. And as one critic says, Sanders has the artistic goods and humor to back it up. Unsurprisingly, reactions from the audience are often mixed, but when Sanders hears from unhappy patrons, he’s philosophical about it.
Sanders: I’ve evolved. Definitely. And I used to be fairly concerned with what people were taking away from my work. Then I realized at one point that there was little to no control I had over what people were actually taking away from my work. And the best thing I could be do was to be true to my own kind of imagery and ideas and what I wanted to put together and present, and provide the most ideal and completest experience of that I could, and then from there, it’s really out of my hands and it’s really in the eyes of the beholder. Yeah.
In his late forties, Brian Sanders faced another life altering change. As a dancing choreographer, he had always lived inside a fit, young, athletic body. He reveled in executing the acrobatic stunts, jumps, and movement he required of his performers, and never asked them to do anything that he would not ask of himself. But after enduring three years of pain, Sanders was forced to consult a doctor. He landed in surgery and came out with a hip replacement. He thought the procedure would amount to just a tune-up. Instead, it would end his career as an active performer.
Sanders: Remorse and loss. And yeah, it was really, I became very depressed actually. And it’s been a slow climb, and it’s not been back, it’s been like next door. So I had to kind of move in next door. So I’m kind of happy not to do it anymore. I’ve gotten to that point where I do miss it, but I’m just like it’s better off done by others at this point.
But as long as there are welders, architects, physicists, and plenty of padding and rigging around to keep them safe, there are few feats his JUNK troupe is unable to accomplish. And while Sanders had to give up performing, there are many things that he can still do today.
Sanders: Where I used to feel like it was a place of suffering a little bit, I think as young artists do, you know, suffering, struggling artists, but now it’s really become like a joyful kind of, I’ve accepted it, where I am, and not that it’s gonna be a struggle, but that there’s a beauty and a joy inside of this lifestyle.
AJC: Do you ever experience joy in sitting in the audience and watching your own work?
Sanders: Overwhelming, overwhelming, and it’s, wonderfully twisted and combined with, gosh, I wish I should have. Oh I, oh! Oh yeah.
Brian Sanders’ work is globally influenced and culturally diverse in a technologically advancing world. When audiences see his shows, they are seeing performances that challenge conventions and stir new ways of thinking. But Sanders is not convinced that everything he does is quite so novel.
Sanders: Even with the idea of junk and that I believe that there is nothing new and all we’re really doing is re-exploring and rediscovering the past in a way. It doesn’t get any more traditional than that. It doesn’t get any more classical than that. I mean…
AJC: Will there be a point where you know that you shouldn’t be doing this anymore?
Sanders: Well, I would say, absolutely, I’m certainly going to bow out gracefully, but that… There’s so many inspirational artists I know that haven’t. So I don’t think we have a choice again, you know, there’s part of me that has to do and had to do, and it’s probably gonna get ugly and messy. Like old people get.
AJC: You’re going to bow out disgracefully.
Sanders: Yes, absolutely.