- 25 Jun 20
As Punisher hits the shops, Phoebe Bridgers discusses Normal People, John Prine, imposter syndrome, anxiety, and her role in sparking a crucial conversation about the abuse of power in the music industry.
Punisher may be one of the most hotly anticipated albums of the year, but in the run-up to the release, there was only one life-consuming subject keeping Phoebe Bridgers, like the rest of the planet, preoccupied: the hit TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People.
“I read Normal People and Conversations With Friends last year, and they destroyed me,” she says. “So I was not looking forward to watching the series, even though I knew I had to, because it was so sad. But they did a beautiful job, so I’m really glad I forced myself to do it.”
It’s hard to imagine her effortless Southern Californian warmth relating to the idiosyncratic energy of college kids in Dublin – but Phoebe reckons the global appeal of the series “makes total sense”.
“They did what gay French films have been doing for years, but for straight people – as far as being sex positive, and the cinematography,” she posits. “That book is like Catcher In The Rye, if both people were Holden Caulfield. They’re constantly miscommunicating. It’s so painful, but it’s beautiful.”
Like Sally Rooney, Phoebe has been hailed for her uncanny ability to articulate the often unspoken anxieties of millennials – a theme she continues to explore on Punisher, while expanding the intimate indie-folk sound she established on 2017’s Stranger In The Alps. With a droll self-awareness and unabashedly strange, platitude-free lyrics, she’s been marked as one of the most compelling songwriters of her generation – provoking repeated comparisons to the likes of Bob Dylan and Elliott Smith.
Undoubtedly, her ability to connect in such a devastatingly authentic manner with her fellow 20-somethings has been the greatest key to her acclaim. As Phoebe tells me, anxiety is “the shared experience of the millennial right now.”
“Especially being from America,” she continues. “It’s like, ‘No shit – you guys didn’t give us any sort of safety net’. And there’s no reason to have children because we’re looking into a very bleak future. All we can do is be anxious and nostalgic.”
Anxiety and nostalgia certainly come hand-in-hand on Punisher, which is bookended with the decidedly dark instrumental opener ‘DVD Menu’ and a gloriously chaotic outro that somehow merges the ambitious orchestration of Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois (courtesy of the same strings man, Rob Moose) with apocalyptic heavy metal – complete with a final, lingering scream.
A preoccupation with death also unites Punisher with its predecessor – though the weighty subject is handled as irreverently as ever, and the ghost that appeared on Stranger’s artwork has now graduated to a skeleton.
“I thought it was goth,” she laughs. “I like things that are cute and scary at the same time. I don’t know what the next one is going to be – I’ve kind of painted myself into a corner now. My manager bought all these skeleton costumes for me on Amazon, for a Halloween show that I did last year. They’re so comfortable, so now I live in them.”
True to her word, the skeleton outfit has become a staple of her wardrobe, memorably making an appearance against a green screen in the delightfully DIY video for ‘Kyoto’ – a single that grapples with Phoebe’s own experiences with imposter syndrome and dissociation.
“Dissociation is something I learned from trauma,” she explains. “You know – something bad is happening, and you just sort of start daydreaming. But then it can also happen when something good is happening, because your brain doesn’t know how to stop doing it. So I’ll be playing onstage to 3,000 people, and I’ll just be thinking, ‘Hmm. Are there snacks backstage?’”
“I just wish I could check into my own body more,” she continues. “Sometimes you don’t feel like it’s really you – you feel like you’re pretending to be yourself all the time.”
Such out-of-body experiences are understandable, given the skyrocketing nature of Phoebe’s rise to international attention at a relatively young age.
“If I could have told my teenage self what was going to happen, I think I would’ve relaxed a lot more,” she admits. “I now have a job that I love, and the circumstantial depression that I was experiencing as a teenager is gone. I have all sorts of other shit to deal with now, but I’m a fully functioning human adult – which I don’t think I ever expected. So it did solve a lot of my problems. Whatever happens next is fine, because I’ve got the baseline happiness and contentment that I needed. There’s learned coping mechanisms that I want to unlearn, so with years of therapy, maybe I’ll be a perfect person!”
Oddly enough, Phoebe is most comfortable when collaborating with her heroes – including Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and The 1975.
“It’s surreal until you talk to them,” she laughs. “And then you’re like, ‘Oh my god, you guys are just bros!’ Conor will tell some stupid joke that a 12-year-old boy would tell, and I’m like, ‘Wow – the voice of a generation!’ He’s the poet that defined us all, and he’s there making fart noises into the microphone. Matty Healy’s like that too.
“I really mesh with people I’m a huge fan of. I can sing any Bright Eyes song, and any 1975 song, so of course I can be of use! I can mirror the ways they’ve influenced me in my music.”
Indeed, in the three years since her debut album, Phoebe has been slow to return to centre stage – instead, diving into a series of collaborative projects, including forming two supergroups: Better Oblivion Community Center with Conor Oberst, and boygenius with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus.
“We’ve lived as close to the same life as is possible for three different humans,” Phoebe says of boygenius. “We’re three queer women around the same age who make sad music. We typically get the same festival slots, and the same interview questions. Or, we’re featured in the same article that’s like, ‘10 Women Who Play Music!’ or whatever. So when we’re in the room together, we don’t have to do a lot of explaining, which is great. It takes a little bit of a weight off.”
Despite the success she has found both as a collaborator and a solo artist, Phoebe has also faced the darker side of the music world firsthand. Last year, she was one of several women who accused Ryan Adams of manipulation and abuse in a report published by the New York Times – which sparked a wider conversation about power and men in the industry that reverberated around the world.
“I feel like I’m in a different position in my career than I was five years ago,” she reflects. “I’m sheltered from a lot of toxic people, because they think I’m too powerful now. I don’t think as many people would say something offensive, or creep on me, or second-guess me now. The darkest thing is that when I was a teenager and in my early 20s, people thought they could say whatever they wanted to me, or do anything, and it wouldn’t have any consequences. So who knows if the world is wising up? Because I wouldn’t know.
“But I hope in some ways it’s becoming normalised to talk about that shit, because it certainly wasn’t before,” she continues. “I even told some close friends and they were like, ‘Oh, I don’t know…’ I was kind of gaslit by the world. Women for generations have been like, ‘Well, why would I start shit?’ If I had said something earlier, I think I would have been known as ‘the chick who called out Ryan Adams’. But because it was after a record or two, there was something else to focus on about me. So it’s dark – I used my privilege to call someone out. A lot of people aren’t as privileged as me, and would then be defined by saying something like that.”
Phoebe also recognises that such privilege comes with a responsibility, to do what she can to help young women in similar positions.
“It’s been a lot of emotional labour, but I’ll gladly take that on for the most part,” she says. “After the article about Ryan came out, I had these people from my past reaching out, and people who were in completely different situations, saying, ‘Oh my god, thank you for saying something’. I got tagged in a couple of things that were like, ‘I called out my abuser because I saw that article – thank you’. It’s just a ripple effect, and I hope to normalise it.”
In recent weeks, Phoebe has used her platform to speak out against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, and has raised money for bail funds through merch sales. She’s also eased the strain of isolation during Covid-19 lockdown with stunning live-streamed sets from her home – including an unforgettable tribute to the late, great John Prine, with a cover of ‘Summer’s End’.
“He’s so human,” Phoebe says of Prine. “He’s one of the smartest songwriters who still doesn’t hate the world. Townes Van Zandt and so many of these people are humanising and amazing songwriters, but John Prine was politically involved, a genius, and still loved people – which is a hard thing to balance.
“I was always obsessed with him,” she adds. “I saw him in Oslo, weirdly, like two summers ago. I think of him as such an American songwriter – and the crowd there was cheering when he said, ‘Fuck you, Donald Trump’.”
Despite brief distractions provided by Normal People and the small matter of an album release, Phoebe admits that it’s been hard not to feel “horrified at the world”.
“It’s hard to live in the moment, because the moment is heartbreaking,” she reveals. “But it’s also hard to look forward, because we don’t know what that looks like.
“You have to be a sociopath to feel really creative right now,” she adds, laughing. “How much shitty music is being made right now? How many plays about quarantine are being written that nobody wants to fucking see? You don’t want to feel like you’re monetising it. So, it’s hard to sing about, because who wants to hear what you have to fucking say about it? And it’s hard to not sing about, because it’s all you can think about. I’m trying to reach that balance.”
• Punisher is out now via Dead Oceans.