“What’s that Ariana Grande lyric? OK. Julien taught me love, Lucy taught me patience, and Conor taught me pain. Not because he’s difficult, just because he is the most emo person I’ve ever fucking met.”
Phoebe Bridgers is talking me through what she has learnt from each of her collaborators. They are solo artists Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus – with whom she formed the supergroup boygenius in 2018 – and Conor Oberst, of indie-rock outfit Bright Eyes, with whom she released an album as Better Oblivion Community Center in 2019. Using Grande’s song “thank u, next” as a reference point is typical of Bridgers’ humour; though her musical output is renowned for its piercing sadness, in conversation she is quick-witted and prone to as many pop-culture references as expletives. (The songwriter plays with this juxtaposition online – she recently responded to a Rolling Stone news story that claimed “the music industry only wants one thing during social distancing: happy songs” with two words: “sorry bich”.)
We are speaking over Zoom in late April, in advance of the release of her new solo record, Punisher, on which Baker, Dacus and Oberst all feature. Twenty-five-year-old Bridgers is at home in Los Angeles, the morning sun shining on to the back of her white-blonde hair, over which she wears a yellow Paris Review cap.
Punisher may only be her second solo record, but thanks to her portfolio of collaborations, she is an artist who feels far more established; since the 2017 release of her debut album Stranger in the Alps, Bridgers has been a stalwart of the US indie scene.
At an arts high school in LA, Bridgers says she “wrote folk songs and turned them into pop-punk”, but wasn’t yet sure how her music should sound. When she started writing Stranger in the Alps, she played acoustic guitar and thought she was “maybe country music or something”. She credits the album’s producers – Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska – with helping her find her genre, an emotion-driven indie rock led by frank lyricism and beautiful guitar melodies. “Now I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she says. On Punisher, she joins Berg and Gruska in the production credits.
A “punisher”, for the uninitiated, is someone who talks to you without your permission – “and does not know that your eyes are glazing over”, Bridgers adds. She has been subject to a fair few punishers: a “men’s fucking rights activist” who cornered her backstage, and a guy giving unsolicited performance advice after a show.
But, never one to put herself on a pedestal, Bridgers has caught herself doing just the same to others. The album title was once a “self-descriptor”, and in the title track Bridgers is a punisher who has followed one of her heroes to the bar. “What if I told you I feel like I know you?/But we never met”, she sings, over gentle piano and haunting electronics which roll over you like a wave. A quip that could be brushed off with an eye-roll and an “Ugh, men!” becomes, in Bridgers’ hands, an affecting assessment of her own flaws.
In February last year, Bridgers was one of several women quoted in a New York Times article detailing allegations of sexual misconduct and emotional abuse against the American singer-songwriter Ryan Adams. The other women involved in the report included Adams’ ex-wife Mandy Moore and a then 14-year-old girl. “Luckily the Ryan personality has not been repeated in my life,” says Bridgers, “even one time.”
I refer to the fact that the music industry has not had a #MeToo movement on the scale of Hollywood’s, though many individual allegations have been made. Bridgers puts this down to the insularity of particular music scenes compared to Harvey Weinstein’s central position in the film industry. This lack of connectivity allows perpetrators to move from town to town without their reputation preceding them.
Bridgers is sympathetic to those who feel unable to come forward with stories of abuse: “It’s fucking exhausting to call someone out, especially if that person makes you feel isolated or like it’s only ever happened to you.” Adams has avoided criminal prosecution. Bridgers is left to field inane questions from male journalists. “They ask, ‘Do you think you can separate the art from the artist?’ They use me as a therapy session, and I’m like, ‘Dude, it is not for me to decide whether you still listen to Ryan Adams!’”
Bridgers’ reputation as a writer of “sad” music recently resulted in her speaking to Normal People actor Paul Mescal for a conversation broadcast over Instagram Live, where the two were paired as emotionally wretched kindred spirits. (Another tweet from Bridgers: “finished normal people and now I’m sad and horny oh wait”.) She admitted to crying at Mescal’s portrayal of Connell Waldron in the BBC-Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel, while he described listening to her song “Funeral” before filming particularly tough scenes. “Writing happy music is impossible,” she told him. It would be easy to misunderstand this embrace of sadness as teenage wallowing. But the sensitivity with which Bridgers renders her craft is its greatest asset.
Bridgers insists that there are funny moments in her music, too, though you might not always hear them. “When I talk, I sound like a surfer, and when I sing, it’s pretty monotone. I just don’t have a very expressive voice,” she reasons. Punisher is more instrumentally expansive than her earlier work, offering new tones and textures amid the melancholia.
One such moment comes right at the end of the final track, “I Know the End”, which starts as a yearning ode to a lost relationship and ends with a hopeful onslaught of horns. Its final few seconds consist of Bridgers’ heavy breathing, imitating the sound of a crowd at the end of a show. It’s a wonderfully intimate touch.
It is, too, a surprisingly theatrical finish for a songwriter who has built her career on upfront honesty. “I love playing slow songs, it’s the best. But breaking it up is the only way to make it fun. I don’t just want to be swirling around in my brain.”
“Punisher” is released on Dead Oceans on 19 June
This article appears in the 17 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The History Wars