by Brandon Bertram
Phoebe Bridgers doesn’t remember a time she wasn’t into music. “I listened to a shit ton of music when I was a kid, I went to concerts all the time when I was a teenager. I can’t remember not playing or not wanting to be a musician,” she tells me over the phone from L.A.
“It started with Joni Mitchell and Jackson Brown and the Laurel Canyon songwriters and stuff. And then it turned into, you know, Bright Eyes and Mark Kozelek and songwriters who were basically doing the same thing except in this new way that felt like more my generation, or closer to home as far as subject matter and stuff that was still very emotional singer-songwritery. And now, it’s like that except women,” is how she describes the arch of her musical upbringing. Bridgers has toured with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and he is featured on Bridgers’ song “Would You Rather,” and she covers Mark Kozelek’s “You Missed My Heart.”
Bridgers, now 23, was born and raised in Pasadena, CA. “A strange place, but I love it, it’s beautiful. It’s right by the mountains, and I went to a hippie school where we didn’t even have to wear shoes. I had a very Los Angeles upbringing.”
Growing up in L.A. and attending a performing arts high school, she had access to a lot of art and culture. “You would get free museum passes if you went to my school, so I did that a lot.” Her uncle was a film critic, her brother a visual artist. “I Just feel like I was exposed to a lot of art,” says Bridgers.
The first time I heard Bridgers’ song “Smoke Signals” I was immediately struck by its ethereal production (featuring reverb-soaked baritone guitar and a jet engine) and evocative snapshot-like imagery; a collection of memories time stamped by celebrity deaths that reads like an unreleased Noah Baumbach film set to a Twin Peaks soundtrack. By this time Bridgers had only released one 7” EP on Ryan Adams’ Pax-Am label in 2015, just over a year before signing to the Dead Oceans and beginning work on her debut full length. 2017’s Stranger in the Alps is a collection of songs written between the time she was 16 years old up until the album was recorded. “I wrote Chelsea when I was like 16, Chelsea’s probably the oldest,” says Bridgers.
Bridgers’ brand of melancholy is not put on. “I don’t think I’m playing into anything necessarily, I think it’s just where I am at a certain time. A lot of my songs were written in a very heavy time period where I was feeling all that stuff.” Songwriting, for her, is a kind of therapy and also a form of documentation: “It is a little bit cathartic but I think that later it’s fun to look back and see exactly how I was feeling at a certain time even if I don’t feel like that anymore. It’s like seeing an old picture of yourself or something but even more intense,” says Bridgers.
The songs on Stranger in the Alps are categorically sad, and brilliantly so. “Funeral,” for example, is about her singing at the funeral of an acquaintance (“a kid a year older than me”) who died of a heroin overdose. But there is hope on the album, too. “I buried a hatchet it’s coming up lavender,” Bridgers sings on “Smoke Signals.” “‘Smoke Signals’ is more like me looking back on those feelings, and it is like a little bit hopeful because inherently I was like not feeling super intense when I was writing it.”
Since the release of Stranger in the Alps late last year, Bridgers has been touring steadily and performing often, and the list of dislikes about touring (“I don’t like inhaling other people’s fucking farts all day,” she laughs) is longer than the likes, “but I do like playing my music every night to people that give a shit,” she says.
And as for what’s next for Bridgers: “I’m still writing [the next album], and I hope it’s not a ways off. It is funny playing, you know people request some of my songs when I’m on stage they’ll yell requests at me, and I’m like dude, I literally have one record, literally I have basically an hour of music I can play, so of course I’m gonna play that fucking song, so uh, I can’t wait to have another record so that I can do a different set every night.”
Phoebe Bridgers is playing Winnipeg Folk Festival this weekend.