Phoebe Bridgers Breathes Life Into The Blue Nuance of Being
Her debut album 'A Stranger in the Alps' is as much about death as it is intimacy and the lost memories we'll never forget.
Photo by Imogen Freeland
Phoebe Bridgers and I are wearing the same jumper. It’s a crisp Saturday at the end of October when we meet—“Halloweekend,” as she calls it—and our location, St John’s churchyard in east London, is finally swirling with autumn after some unseasonably warm weather. It’s a fitting spot for the spookiest holiday and to mark the occasion we’ve both apparently come dressed in a classic emo uniform: standard issue black sweater from American Apparel, skirt, tights, and Dr. Martens, which shuffle among fallen leaves as we conduct our interview atop an old, elaborate grave, whose occupant is long unknown.
Though the time of year makes it ultra-apt, this setting would probably always feel appropriate for an interview with Phoebe. Her debut album, Stranger in the Alps, released back in September, is a meditative, mournful thing; it inhabits a world far from her hometown of Los Angeles, sonically folk-y but with a bloody heart. It is, in fact, the sort of album you might choose to listen to in a place like this—through headphones, alone—contemplating its subject matter of death, love, and so much life, communicated via an understated but commanding vocal, truthful lyrics, and Phoebe’s weapon of choice: an acoustic guitar.
Today, she’s playing Oslo in Hackney as a part of Mirrors Festival, an event spread across four venues in the area. The night before, however, she was in Brighton, playing a show at the city’s Unitarian Church and I’m struck by just how suitable an environment that seems for her serious, quieting music. Does she find herself performing in houses of God often? “I do kind of! They’re the small venues that are really good for acoustic music. But it is funny. I actually wore a giant cape,” she says, referring to the Halloween costume that she’ll also rock for the London crowd later on. “I’m surprised they let me into churches, but they do,” she adds, before confiding that she stole a mug emblazoned with the logo of a funeral director from the church’s kitchen, to keep as a souvenir.
This admission is one of a few forays our conversation will take into the great, sprawling valley of death, and speaks to her fascination with the topic—sometimes playful, sometimes not. Stranger in the Alps is heaving with references to life ending; listening to it feels less like escapism and more like confronting the things that eat away at you when you wake up in the middle of the night, if they had soft, solemn voices. On opener “Smoke Signals” the lyrics pay tribute to some of the musical icons lost to 2016 (David Bowie and Lemmy both get a mention), “Killer” muses on murder and old age, and there’s a song called “Funeral” too, which aches with the weight of depression, about performing at the funeral of someone who has died prematurely—with lines like “I've been talking to his dad; it makes me so sad” that catch you right in the chest.
I’m curious as to why death is such a noticeable thread through the album. Was it a literal processing of experiences? Or, in keeping with today’s occult sensibilities, are we talking about more of a figurative, tarot-style death, whereby—maybe through releasing music she’s been working on for so long—she’s allowed one part of her life to end so that a new one can begin? “You know, it’s funny you say that because it feels like that now that I have the album out. It feels like a sense of newness,” she says, pondering the question. “But I think at the time it was totally unintentional, it was just what was on my mind. And it still is. It’s the most human experience, but I had no idea I was writing song and song again, of death.”
Death is a heavy subject but it’s also a very universal one which she writes about extremely candidly and affectingly. Phoebe puts her ability to do so down to her “tight knit group of truly open and emo friends,” among whom “it doesn’t feel like a bold move to talk about my feelings so openly, or talk about death.” Sometimes, however, she is surprised by the range of people who connect to her music, which in itself is testament to the ubiquity of its themes: “It is really striking to talk to a rando dude in a tucked-in t-shirt and sneakers who’s like, ‘It’s awesome that you talk about death because I think about it all the time.’ And I’m just like, ‘You don’t look like you think about it all the time—you don’t dress in all black and wear crazy eyeliner.’ It’s awesome. It does feel kind of like, universal. Dark themes are universal!”
Later that evening, upstairs in Oslo, the tender tremble of Phoebe’s voice and her exploration of some of life’s most consuming topics prove to be a room-silencers. As she meanders her way through reflective versions of a few album tracks, the place feels haunted by a spectre of hush, as if we’ve all been shut up by something slight but formidable. It’s this ability to stop listeners in their tracks that perhaps attracted approval from some of acoustic emo-folk music’s leading luminaries. Conor Oberst, the final boss of the genre, appears on Stranger in the Alps, and soon after we meet, she’ll be embarking on a US tour with Noah Gundersen. You also can’t really talk about Phoebe’s high-profile admirers without mentioning the fact that her “Killer” 7 inch was released on Ryan Adams’ label Pax-Am. And while she’s grateful for having had the opportunity, the co-sign from Adams’ has also become an irritatingly major (and actually kind of sexist) talking point.
“The only thing I had out before the album was a 7-inch with Ryan Adams. And just like, every interview was like ‘So, Ryan Adams.” And it’s like, well, ‘So, my music!’” she tells me, exasperated. Indeed, throughout our conversation, Phoebe is most outspoken when we talk about women’s place in the music industry right now, which she says she’s pleased to discuss with a woman journalist. “It’s great to talk about but literally, every interview on the planet it’s like ‘What is it like to be a woman in music?’ ‘Uhh, it’s cool?’” We both laugh, painfully aware that for a long time, ‘female singer/songwriter’ was basically a genre tag rather than a vague descriptor. “So it’s nice to discuss it with someone who knows what I’m talking about. Instead of just saying, ‘Yeah, my gender isn’t a genre anymore! Which is tight!’ you know?”
The issue of where women are at in the music industry right now is one that clearly matters to her. She continues: “I feel like in pop music and even indie music, there’s this weird thing where women have been pitted against each other.” I explain that I recently wrote about female guitarists who resist rules defined by men in music and beyond and while that’s obviously nothing new, the rapidity with which female voices are emerging right now makes it feel like a genuine sea change. I wonder whether if that feeling is palpable for Phoebe too? She nods enthusiastically: “It feels really energetic, the vibe, and the desire to say “fuck you” to the patriarchy and all support each other,” she says.
She tells me about the ways in which artists like Mitski, Julien Baker, Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast, and Paramore’s Hayley Williams have supported her. For each woman, she has a different anecdote—how they’ve helped, or something sweet they’ve done for her (Mitski texted her with tour tips; Hayley heard her music and invited her to a Paramore show). It’s interesting to have confirmation that by lifting each other up and doing things on their own terms, women are claiming their rightful places. As Phoebe puts it, referencing another woman musician she loves, “I read a thing that Grimes wrote once about how men will try to convince you that you need them to succeed, and it really does feel like that’s getting proven wrong a lot.”
And if Grimes is right—which she is—Phoebe is a prime example. She wrote Stranger in the Alps alone, in her east LA apartment, and while she says she hopes to collaborate more on her next record, she certainly doesn’t need anyone else. What she’s achieved on her debut, one of the standouts of this year, is something singular. It’s a record about death but it’s about life, too—its stories are told with a palpable warmth, and it has a special knack for evoking connections between people. Maybe the heart of her songwriting is best observed, again, on “Funeral,” where she sings: “I have a friend I call / When I've bored myself to tears / And we talk until we think we might just kill ourselves / But then we laugh until it disappears.” It’s sad, of course, but there’s an ongoing search for warm relief, and, crucially, that means there’s hope.
It’s for this reason that speaking to her—two emos on a gravestone; crisp, brown leaves rustling under our feet—and watching her silence a gobby, half-cut east London crowd with one strum of her guitar strings makes me feel excited. Being young in 2017 can be tough; the world is a hard, sharp-toothed place. Phoebe’s music captures that: it reckons with difficult truths, but it’s also a testament to the fact that they can be contended with. You’ll feel lonely, and you’ll black out, and you’ll send desperate sexts late at night, but in the end, that’s life, and that in itself is special—or at least that’s how Phoebe makes it sound. As she sings on one memorable chorus “I'm so blue all the time / And that's just how I feel / Always have and I always will”. It’s a sentiment couched in melancholy but also one that’s never sounded so comforting.
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Stranger in the Alps is out now, and Phoebe will return to the UK in March 2018, on tour with Pinegrove.