Girl Genius and Better?
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 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.
(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”)