Phoebe Bridgers: Exposure Therapy
Despite the current global pandemic, Phoebe Bridgers steps out with a stunning
sophomore effort that showcases her newfound commitment to sincerity.
It’s not east trying to promote an album during a global pandemic, but Phoebe Bridgers is doing a pretty admirable job of it, given the circumstances. The day the Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter announced her sophomore LP, Punisher, in early April, she appeared on an at-home episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live, offering a “Live from the Lavatory” rendition of the record’s second single, “Kyoto.” Instead of teaming up with her band for one of Kimmel’s regular outdoor mini-concerts, Bridgers recorded remotely at her Echo Park house, singing while in a bathtub. Appropriately, she dressed in the same space-themed pajamas she wore in the video for recent lead single “Garden Song,” armed with a Suzuki Q-Chord synthesizer and a toy microphone taped to a stand.
The following day, Bridgers hopped on Pitchfork’s Instagram to offer another pajama-clad quarantine performance, playing stripped-down versions of a few Punisher tracks along with a gorgeous cover of John Prine’s “Summer’s End” in memory of the recently passed songwriting legend, who she called “one of the most important people on the planet, to me.” The Instagram broadcast epitomized Phoebe Bridgers’ duality, juxtaposing her light, heartfelt vocal delivery and poignant lyrics with plenty of camera cheese and several self-effacing references to her perceived technological ineptness. Bridgers is an artist, to be sure, but she’ll be damned if she doesn’t take that label with an eyeroll and a sarcastic middle finger whenever someone applies it to her. And that’s happened quite a lot since her 2017 debut, Stranger in the Alps, skyrocketed her to the forefront of the promising-young-songwriter conversation.
Case in point: When watching her bathroom “Kyoto” performance on Kimmel that night, Bridgers screamed “Fuck you!” at her television and promptly turned it off. “So, I’m teetering on the edge,” she half-jokes about her state of mind while she’s been sheltering in place.
“I got a treadmill,” Bridgers announces on a call from California explaining that she’s walking on the newly acquired machine while giving this interview. “I live in Los Angeles, so it’s never made sense to get one before, but now it definitely does. And I’ve been eating more than I ever have in my life, plus cooking. Which is good and bad—I’ve been dragging toaster waffles to bed every night. I honestly feel like I accidentally backed up my body to an old iOS; I used to act like this as a teenager, when I got pissed that the breakfast place by my house closed at 3 p.m. because I couldn’t get up for it. That’s the person I feel like right now.”
The 25-year-old singer does see some silver linings around the COVID-19 clouds, though. Despite a lack of artistic productivity, she looks forward to a time when she can switch from in-house quarantining to more fruitful socially distanced sessions in a studio, and she appreciates the ways in which people are embracing the camaraderie of a shared crisis. “It’s forcing everybody I know to talk like me and my friends always do—like, ‘How are you, mentally?’”
Bridgers is also hoping that some much needed social change will come from the harsh realities many Americans have finally woken up to during the past few months. “One plus side, to me, is the fact that, for the first time in history, middle-class white people are having to use the infrastructure that was set up by rich white people, racistly,” she says. “Weirdly, this is at least a logistical unifier. People are like, ‘It’s so hard to apply for unemployment!’ Yeah! It’s been hard. And it’s forcing people in power to care about healthcare. Maybe some of that stuff will stick, but I’m not really hopeful when I think about humanity in that way.”
In some ways, Punisher arrives at just the right time for fans of Bridgers, who—as many have attested in countless internet comment sections—tends to prefer listening to her haunting compositions alone, at home, in the dark. Stranger in the Alps has surely been the soundtrack to several solitary quarantines, and the new record follows in the vein of that heartbreaking debut, while avoiding the dreaded “sophomore slump” label thanks to its more complex instrumentation and song structures.
In reality, though, Punisher is hardly a true second album for Bridgers, who has been plenty busy during the past few years. She formed, recorded and toured as part of two different bands—Better Oblivion Community Center with Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst in early 2019 and boygenius, featuring fellow twentysomething songwriters Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, in the fall of 2018. She’s also collaborated on a number of songs with other artists, including The National’s Matt Berninger, and even produced an album for one of her songwriting partners, Christian Lee Hutson, that dropped in late May.
Bridgers’ ever-expanding circle of musical friends also made an impact on Punisher, which features appearances from Oberst, Baker, Dacus and Hutson, along with a parade of guests like Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner, Bright Eyes’ Nate Walcott, Warpaint’s Jenny Lee Lindberg, Blake Mills and even legendary drummer Jim Keltner. But the album’s real strength, of course, is Bridgers’ singular, striking lyrics—wrenching meaning out of everyday events and observations, and expertly conveying emotions that are at once lofty and imminently relatable.
While in the studio, Bridgers worked with her core band—drummer/songwriter Marshall Vore, guitarist Harrison Whitford, bassist Emily Retsas and keyboardist Nick White—and producers Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska, the collaborative combo who also helped bring Stranger in the Alps to life.
Berg, who has built an unimpeachable résumé as both a producer and a musician over nearly five decades in the industry, has been working with Bridgers for the past five years and brought in Gruska—an emerging singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist whose album Slowmotionary he had just finished— to aid in the production of Stranger and help bridge his generational gap with Bridgers. This time around, they decided to officially bill Bridgers as a third co-producer.
“We call each other the ‘trilemma’ because it’s always a fucking issue,” Bridgers says with a laugh, referring to the creatively combative relationship she has forged with Berg and Gruska. “But that’s the best—we’re fighting and we make a breakthrough, and there’s nothing more rewarding.”
After weighing the pros and cons of moving on to another producer or even taking the reins by herself, Bridgers knew that she wanted to keep the “trilemma” train rolling along for her sophomore effort, noting that she believed the trio really hit their collaborative stride at the end of Stranger—a recording process that ended in tears over what Bridgers calls “some big fight about some stupid shit.” But, she admits, the experience just proved how passionate they all were about the project.
“Our dynamic has gotten so healthy, it’s insane,” she reflects. “We all got really good at apologizing and communicating. We know, at the end of the day, that we are all going through the same things. We are all so fucking invested in it. Nobody is mailing it in.”
“It’s this three-headed monster,” Berg says. “We’ve never said anything to each other that was hurtful, but that doesn’t mean we don’t disagree vehemently sometimes—we do. But that’s healthy, right? That’s good art. And this second record was actually joyful to make, and almost depressing to finish.”
One moment of collaborative magic during the Punisher sessions happened when Bridgers brought in her initial version of “Kyoto,” which was originally a slower ballad. Berg quickly had the idea to speed up the song’s tempo, leading to a bouncy standout moment that serves as one of the LP’s most upbeat offerings. (However, it certainly doesn’t hold back when it comes to poignant lyrics, with Bridgers singing of strained relationships and addiction.)
“I don’t really feel like a song is done until I’ve shown it to those guys,” Bridgers says. “I let myself write the same song over and over, and then I’m like, ‘Fuck this up.’ I think that’s their strong suit. Before I made the first album, I thought, ‘Am I a country artist? Do I just play acoustic guitar?’ So that’s how we started a lot of those songs. This time, I was excited to fuck shit up from the start. Also, having been on tour so much—especially with Better Oblivion and boygenius—I know how fun it is to break up the set with up-tempo songs.”
“Writing ballads comes quite naturally to Phoebe. Writing up-tempo can be a little more difficult,” Berg notes. “I’m always encouraging her to up the tempo, but then it’s hard to argue with a song like ‘Garden Song’ or ‘Halloween,’ because they’re just so fucking good.”
“It’s very self-effacing for her to say that she writes the same song over and over because she doesn’t,” Gruska adds. “Phoebe needs literally no advice on lyrics—if there’s advice, then she’s giving it because she’s so amazing at them. But with harmony and her chords and inversions—sometimes we’re latching on to a little thing that she did and just growing that.”
Berg and Gruska only have praise for Bridgers, and she echoes their sentiments when describing her working relationship with the producers. Given the current social climate, it’s reassuring to learn that this sort of mentor-mentee relationship can still thrive in today’s music business—especially given Bridgers’ darker experience with early patron and producer Ryan Adams, whom she spoke out against in an expansive early 2019 New York Times piece about alleged career manipulation and the troubled troubadour’s questionable professional-turned-personal relationships.
“Phoebe is like no one I’ve ever worked with—and I have worked with a lot of people,” continues Berg, whose credits include Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, Beck and Andrew Bird. “[When I first met Phoebe,] I was immediately struck by the intelligence of her writing. I found her lyrics so compelling for someone so young. They had a gravity to them and a humor. She exhibited no self-seriousness. She was just someone who wanted to make great music, and I really admired that. She never talked about how successful she might become or exhibited any of those false ambitions. She just wanted to do great work.”
One studio tactic that Berg introduced during the Stranger in the Alps sessions was having Bridgers record her vocals in nearly complete darkness, a process the singer continued to implement on her new record. She likens the feeling to being in an isolation tank and says the process helps her get over the fact that she’s generally “uncomfortable with sincerity.” It’s an interesting take for a songwriter whose lyrics can be so achingly sincere, but it absolutely vibes with the ethos an artist who will write a soulbaring ballad one minute and toss off a random tweet (e.g., “panic! at the costco”) the next.
“Well, she’s funny as hell, isn’t she?” Berg observes. “I mean, just listen to ‘Kyoto,’ a song about a very difficult subject. But after the first chorus, on one of her vocal passes, she went, ‘Woo!’ I said, ‘You know that’s staying’—and it stayed because it lets you know so much about her.” Bridgers herself certainly embraces the careful balance of making serious music without taking yourself too seriously.
“The most important thing I’ve learned is that the truth is the only interesting thing you have to share,” she says. “Other people might be better at character descriptions and getting inside someone else’s head, but my favorite songs are personal and blunt.
“The weirdest phenomenon of late is writing stuff and feeling like I’m making it up, then looking back later and realizing, ‘Oh my god, I wasn’t,’” she continues. “It’s like reading a tarot card or looking at your horoscope—it’s actually just your subconscious talking to you. Sometimes I feel like I relate to my songs more later on. It’s like exposure therapy. You have to face it every day. But most of the time, when I’m singing dark lyrics, I’m thinking about how I’m going to do my laundry in the venue. It can be both.”
As for the “trilemma,” it seems that all parties involved are willing to continue the fruitful collaboration—Berg and Gruska have plenty of their own projects, but both are game for a Phoebe Bridgers record whenever they’re summoned.
“She could call me in the middle of anything and I would be there—I think she knows that,” Gruska says. “Phoebe’s a career artist and is going to grow in a million different directions, and I’m there when she needs our kind of collaboration.”
“I want Phoebe to follow her instincts and do what’s best for her,” Berg adds with a proud, parental air. “It is not for me to say what that is, but I am devoted to her. I can’t speak highly enough about her; she’s very unusual. Phoebe is this bright fucking light, and she remains modest and undeterred by the trappings of a very seductive business. She writes from experience. Just listen to ‘Garden Song,’ which is not just one of the best songs I’ve ever worked on; it’s one of the best songs I’ve ever heard. Every line is true. In other people’s hands, it might come off as prosaic or awkward. But, in her hands, it’s poetry.”