After following the hilarious web content singer Phoebe Bridgers puts out via Instragram and Twitter, I was very excited when a press date in Berlin was announced. I had been looking forward to meeting the musician with the knack for melancholic and somber lyrics for a while, when – you guessed it – the pandemic came along and so did a change of plans. Earlier in April then, instead of meeting the musician in person, I caught Phoebe on the phone. She is strolling through her neighborhood in her hometown of Los Angeles while we speak.
‘I am just glad I finished the record before the virus spread’, the artist says when I ask her about her current state of mind. ‘It is strange, putting something out and then not being able to perform it. But it is much better than having something only halfway done at least.’ Punisher is the second solo album by the artist, who kept herself busy touring all across the globe for the last couple of years. Now she is forced to slow down. ‘Even going outside feels strange at the moment’, she admits. But Phoebe Bridgers also found time to connect with her fans in different ways than usual. On the Instagram Live of Pitchfork, she played a full concert set. ‘It was great. I really want to do more of that stuff’, she says, and I can hear the excitement in her voice through the telephone. ‘I have never played in front of 10.000 people.’
So, it happened that the artist played in front of a much larger audience than she is used to. Through free livestream concerts published over the Instagram or facebook, the concerts have a certain openness to them. Anyone can join, everybody has the same experience, no pushing and sweating in the first rows, no stretching in the last ones, no missing out on buying tickets. Of course, this holds little against really seeing an artist perform on a stage and the intimacy that comes from the immediate bond between artist and audience, but it is a new way of exploring music and one worthwhile. Phoebe Bridgers has been entertaining audiences even before times of shutdown with her hilarious uploads and personal videos on her Instagram account fake.nudes.
That was partly why I was so excited to meet the singer in the first place. Her songs and lyrics are deeply personal and bear an inherent heartache and nostalgia but in interviews the singer shows a, maybe, unexpected character if you had only listened to the music. She makes it clear that just because she writes melancholic and even sad music, she is by no means a sad person. ‘I would hope people can tell me from my music.’ she laughs. On Punisher she sticks to the vibe we love so much but elaborates by using more synthesizers and effects to achieve a multi-layered sound compared previous releases.
The Dangers Of Idolizing
The relationship of artist and art is one topic that keeps Phoebe occupied. On her record she references several artists from John Lennon to Eric Clapton to which she has a conflicted relationship. On Moon Song she sings;
We hate Tears In Heaven
But it’s sad that his baby died
We fought about John Lennon
Till I cried
She holds on for a second to think when I ask her about the relationship with these artists. ‘I idolize a lot of people but I also think that is dangerous. Like John Lennon beat the shit out of his first wife but I really love his music.’ That is definitely a struggle she is not alone with. Is it okay to admire the art and the music of a creator with who you do not agree? ‘Are you allowed to idolize people’s music and work even though you think they are assholes?’, Phoebe wonders but isn’t really sure about the answer. ‘I guess everybody has to decide for themselves where they want to draw the line. If you can enjoy the art separate from the artist then yeah, I’d listen to it. It’s a case by case thing for me. For example, I cannot watch Chinatown without thinking about how horrible Roman Polanski was.’ Idolizing can be dangerous if you take it too far, she agrees. But on the other hand, there are thankfully many artists who are as great as their music. Elliott Smith being one Phoebe Bridgers admires especially.
Phoebe Bridgers in Three Projects
When talking about pop culture personas that keep appearing throughout the record, we also end up talking about the phenomenon of Dylan Thomas. The poet did not make it onto Punisher but found his way into one of the tracks of the side project Phoebe has got going with fellow musician Conor Oberst; Better Oblivion Community Center. She laughs when I ask about the Dylan Thomas reference and admits that she did not know much about the writer to begin with. It was only during the recording process that she became familiar with his words. ‘There was a book from him lying around the studio and Conor started explaining him and his work to me. He was an interesting character, I believe.’
Aside from Better Oblivion Community Center, which is more on the rock side of the spectrum, Phoebe also collaborates with two other singers. With Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus she formed the trio boygenius and released the first EP a while ago. ‘I think I am able to express different personas of myself through the projects I work on. Boygenius is probably the closest to my work because we are talking about very personal subject matters. Working with Julien and Lucy was kind of like summer camp because we only had five days together and it was so much fun. For Better Oblivion, we wrote every song together from top to bottom. The tracks ended up being a little bit more political and rock n roll – it is a true partnership effort.’
The drive to collaborate and the yearning for new influences and inspirations is also something that took the artist around the world for her own record. The single Kyoto directly references her experiences of visiting the town in Japan. Phoebe was supposed to travel there to shoot the music video but those plans, like many others, got crashed by Covid-19. Instead she released a charmingly lo-fi video with retro-style footage into which she photoshopped herself in a skeleton jumpsuit. Working with what she has got, she shows us that we have to make the best of the current situation – as the video does.
‘I think Japan is my favorite place that I have ever been to’, she says when I ask about the several references throughout the album. ‘It is also the most different place from the US that I have ever been, and it was so fun to go there! I had a couple of days before the show in Japan’, she remembers, and her tone shifts as she dwells in memories. ‘When I was there it was very clean and beautiful in the rainy springtime. I was also fascinated by how old the place is.’
‘I was going to go to Japan right before this happened. I was looking forward to that so much. When you visit a place for the first time everything is new and you have so many impressions. You are just getting guided through a place without knowing where to go. The second time is the best time, because already after the first time you know what places you want to revisit and to explore.’
Hiding in Plain Sight
Being trapped in Los Angeles for now, is not the worst thing but, of course, Phoebe cannot wait to tour the new material. ‘Especially after sitting on it for such a long time I really wanted to get it out there. At least there are plenty of options to play on live streams. And the city is spacious and more or less empty because people drive to many places instead of walking’, she explains.
On the title track she sings; ‘I love a good place to hide in plain sight’. Within Los Angeles that is not always easy, but she tells me about a reservoir close to her house she likes to go to these days. ‘In that song I talk about being on tour. When I am oversees, at different places, I do not have to talk to anybody. One time on tour, it was Black Friday I think, we were in a Mall and it was super crowded. There was something nice about it, having so many people in one place but no one bugging you.’ That is also a reason why the singer loves large cities like New York and Tokyo. In the middle of a large crowd you can become invisible and hide in your anonymity.
Punisher is the second solo album the artist is putting out after her career skyrocketed over the last couple of years. ‘I did change over the course of time – of course. But the weirdest thing about listening to my older stuff is that I feel like many of the things I wrote about have come true. It might be my magic power’, she jokes. ‘But I write a lot of really sad poems so hopefully the magic power is not too literal.’ When I suggest she write a song about the end of the pandemic, Phoebe laughs and then breaks into a loud random chorus to what the song could sound like, singing out loud walking on the street. Even though I did not get to meet her in person moments like these really speak of her energetic and open character.
That also shines through on the songs she writes. They might be inherently melancholic, but the lyrics are marked by a dry (at times even dark) wit, making the situations the singer describes humane and relatable.
I hate living by the hospital
The sirens go all night
I used to joke that if they woke you up
Somebody better be dying
I Know The End
Another rather dark song, I Know The End seems to fit well into the pandemic context. ‘Yeah,’ Phoebe laughs, ‘it is quite dystopic’. The five-minute long closer starts off on a quiet nostalgic note but the band bursts into a noisy crescendo, with Phoebe even shouting to the distorted instruments. It ends with the singer breaking out into something between a breathy laugh and a muffled cry. It gives the serious track a twist. ‘After recording each song in the studio, I made this noise with my mouth, kind of like a crowd cheering and it somehow made it on this track. We thought it was kind of cool.’
So, the song ends on a sarcastic note, is that the same way the artist sees the end? ‘Oh, it is going to get even darker than your question,’ she jokes. ‘I do not see an end to this. It is dark and slow but hopefully there will be another renaissance of things going back to a normal-ish way. I think people will figure it out. Hopefully we will be better equipped in the future and learn from this and never let a guy like Donald Trump be president again.’
Punisher is out 19th of June via Dead Oceans.