Bridgit Mendler Has Found Her Post-Disney Voice

"I'm a stubborn person and I'm not gonna do things because they'll sell." We talked sexism, anthropology, and not being "edgy" with the singer and actress, whose new EP 'Nemesis' is out now.

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Nov 22 2016, 2:38pm

Not every coming of age story has to involve unraveling at the seams. Take Bridgit Mendler's new EP Nemesis, on which the musician and actress departs from the ebullient, radio-friendly pop of her 2012 debut Hello My Name Is... to an introspective, electronic-influenced sound—the bones of pop R&B bangers simmered in moody synths and hip-hop rhythms. 

The California-raised has been writing songs since early childhood, but first earned fans on the small screen as the star of the Disney Channel's Wizards of Waverley Place and Good Luck Charlie. These days, when not guesting on shows like Nashville, Mendler reflects on lost love and ill-mannered men with a matured emotional depth and resilience stripped of self-pity. After years writing the songs she thought people wanted to hear, Mendler's Nemesis heeds honesty over any kind of carefully crafted post-Disney identity.

"It was such an inspiring process to just be open and vulnerable with my lyrics and see where the music led us," the 23-year-old Mendeler says of creating the album alongside collaborators Spencer Bastian and Toronto's Book. 

Mendler recently stopped by the VICE offices in for an episode of Noisey Radio on Beats 1 to talk finding her voice, fighting sexism in the entertainment industry, her advocacy work, and more. Listen the episode here and read on for an extended version of our interview below. 

Noisey: Nemesis is definitely a departure from the last project you put out. Can you talk about the shift to that stylistic direction and crafting it in general?
Bridgit Mendler: You know, I had a really good time making my first music project, Hello My Name Is. For me it was such a process of learning what it was to make a pop song, because I've been making music all my life, and I have had the privilege of developing my own taste. But I'd never contextualized that within mainstream music. For the first project I think it really skewed more pop because of that, but after that process, I kind of like stepped back, and had to reorganize my taste and my perspective. I think I was just more grown. The music just had more complexity at this phase of life. And I think that looked like, you know, maybe more alternative sounds, more abstract lyrics, more dark subject matter. But that's just really what I like, authentically and what I came up with with my collaborators. It was such an inspiring process to just be open and be vulnerable with my lyrics and see where the music led us. And it led us to a place I'm really happy about.

It's a lot heavier on electronic sounds. Is that something your team brought to you, or that you kind of sought out on your own?
I think my personal music taste has it. There are a lot of different influences. I think I'm influenced by songwriters a lot, which is why Bob Dylan has always been one of my main influences. Another songwriter that I think is amazing is Lauryn Hill. Just her conviction behind the delivery of her music, I really like. For whatever reason, Irelate to more jazzy sounds. [On my] first album, the leading song, "Ready Or Not," was an interpretation of the Fugees's "Ready or Not." So I think hip-hop has always been something that I've gravitated towards. But I definitely learned a lot from the guys that I worked with. The one guy, Spencer Bastian—he goes by Bastian—he was a part of a DJ group and he does a lot of electronic music. So that was a new addition to the sound. The other guy, Book, was from the Toronto hip-hop scene. They kind of introduced me to new sounds. I'd never heard J Dilla before. It was just it was a lot of random sounds that came together. I was really inspired by The Animals' retrospective album. I know you can't probably tell based off of the music, but for me there was a rawness and kind of a haunting, gothic sound to their music that I was really drawn to. 

Let's talk about the first single from your EP, "Atlantis." Tell me about how that song came together and that collaboration process with Kaiydo.
It's funny, that was one of the songs we wrote later on in the process. Book and I had a spare day, we just went into the studio and we were messing around, and he played this one beat that was more underwater sounding. I was having a particular mixture of emotions that day, feeling kind of...just in the dumps. And so I wrote the song and we didn't think much of it. We kind of thought that it was a dud. We revisited the song two months later and decided to finish it, and it just came to life when all of us gave it another go. That was a really cool moment, to just see what that song was capable of being. It quickly became everybody's favorite, and it felt like the right sort of song to have a collaboration on. I'd been familiar with this guy Kaiydo for a while and the team helped connect him with us and he gave the rap one go, and he just got it straight away.

What happened with the lyrics on the track? Talk about those.
It's more just this weird numbness, I think. I had been putting in a lot of emotion to one relationship for a long time. Once that had ended, it was this weird plateau where I just didn't feel anything? And um…I think I was trying to process that feeling of not feeling anything. And it almost felt like the emotion was the wave, and I had been at the crest of it for so long, to then go to the bottom of it felt like the bottom of the ocean where there's this abandoned city, where there's nothing going on in that part. It was the idea of knowing that there would be another cycle, and that I would experience those emotions and that love again, but just that's not where we're at right now. I'm glad that people have related to the song, because even in myself, I'm not comfortable with those moments when you have to just like, not put anything out. When you feel low, when you don't have much to offer. I think I wanna be happy, I wanna be fun, I wanna be enjoying my friends and enjoying life, but I think there is something to just respecting the cycle the wave of your emotions go through and the different times of life. You know? It's okay to be at the bottom of the waves sometimes.

That's really nice. Tell me a little bit about how that fits with your other single, then, "Do You Miss Me At All."
I wrote this so I was doing a lot of road trips during the creation of this EP. My family lives in the Bay Area, I live in LA. I kept having this feeling that I needed to escape LA. And just have the open space of that long-ass drive on the 5. I would just listen to a ton of music, and it was during one of the drives [that] I listened to The Animals. That album was really inspiring to me, and I wrote a lot of music on top of it as I was going. Then I got up to San Francisco, and I remember I had been on the phone with a friend of mine and they had told me something regarding the person that the song is about, and it just felt like such a weight, [I wanted to] lash out, some sort of burst of emotion…I needed to get something off my chest. I remember I just sang out the chorus. I was driving around Golden Gate Park like, "Ugh!" frustrated on the phone. I think that's why it feels very straight to the point? Because that was me just hopping off the phone with my friend, being frustrated, being exasperated, and just being like "do you even miss me at all? Do you wonder what I'm up to without you? Do you want to leave a message on my phone? 'Cause you're not calling me, my friend's calling me." Then I took that chorus back down to LA and I worked on it with Spencer Bastian. And this was before Book had joined the project, this was way back last October or something. We just like finished it up and I threw the verses on there and that was that.

You seem to take a very strong, self-advocating tack in your songwriting. Tell me more about that.
Dude, it's been a journey. I just have a very hard time having conviction behind something that I haven't processed fully in myself. Between my first album and this EP, I've written songs constantly. And I think for a long time, I wrote songs that I thought were what people wanted me to say. But I wound up getting weaker and weaker in my voice, like I couldn't like perform them. Which I think is a really interesting connection as a singer and a songwriter, like you write these words, and then you have to believe in them enough to say them. For a long time I just couldn't stand behind the words. Last summer I wrote the whole summer and became more fearless saying what it was that I actually wanted to say. Behind every one of these songs, I would probably go to a coffee shop and write for two hours. You know, just like doodle, stream of consciousness...I lived at frickin' coffee shops during this EP because that's just my process. I just wrote and wrote and wrote until I came to a nugget of something that felt really honest and felt really worth saying. 

You're also an actress. To what extent did that experience influence how your songwriting took shape? Especially with this EP, was it something you were aware of, in terms of consciously trying to distinguish yourself or grow away from, if that makes sense?
Yeah, totally! I used to be on the Disney Channel, and I made an album with Hollywood Records, and it was fun, it was great, it was nice pop music, and I'm proud of it and I'm happy with my Disney crew. Honestly, I have no complaints about that whole chapter of life. What was scary was stepping outside of that sweet little corral. 

That was something that I intentionally did when I first started my songwriting sessions with Spencer Bastian. The first session I went into with him was after this summer of pushing boundaries with my sound. I decided I wasn't going to try and write a pop song when I went in. I was like I just wrote this random little thing. I'm going to go in here and this is what I'm going to present to these strangers. And it was really scary for me. But I did, and through the process of working with him and Book, making something that other people would like was never the consideration. And that was just such a foreign concept for me that I kept having to shake off of myself. I had come from a past where you make something that people will like, and you know that people will like it, and that's great. The whole idea of just making something that you like is something that takes a lot more work. It was scary and it was hard but I think that it's been the most gratifying thing in my life.

That's interesting, because with many women performers who have been with Disney and then have gone on to have careers as musicians in their own right, there's often this trend of, "I'm going to rebel from this image and I'm going to talk about sex and getting drunk," and all that stuff. As an artist you're certainly not like a boxed-in Disney angel, but also you've chosen not to go to that other extreme. You seem to be doing your own thing. Which I think is really cool. Did you feel pressure one way or another to be a certain version of yourself? Were there people pushing you to be like, "Here's the grown up Bridgit" or anything like that?
It is hard to turn down roles that do sexualize me. I think that's probably where I feel the most pressure. That's something that's really hard as an actress, because you want to work and you kind of are almost told that if you compromise your sexuality, then you'll get to a place where you can choose the roles you want to do. And that just really hurts my heart. That's something that I just never want to see as a compromise that you're doing as a stepping stone. Same as in music. I've been told, "Write edgy lyrics." Like what the hell is an edgy lyric? To me that just feels so dumb. Like just write the truth. The truth is like what's gonna prick peoples' hearts more. I'm a stubborn person and I'm not gonna do those things because they'll sell. I think I'll do them when they feel authentic and they feel like they are worth worth it. That's not a comment on how anyone else has done it, 'cause I think that it could very well be an authentic expression for the other artists. I think for me it just hasn't been authentic, and I don't wanna compromise that.

What would you say is the biggest challenge of that?
The biggest challenge of that is probably the acting roles, because as an actress people separate you from your character more. But it's still you doing those things, and I think maybe because I'm a musician as well I feel especially aware of my distinct self. I think I'm controlling, like, "I don't wanna do that scene, I don't wanna do that line, I don't wanna say that line" and it's just hard to stand your ground, especially when there's things to lose.

At the same time, you don't necessarily see guys being told to write edgier lyrics or sexualize themselves for a certain part. Or I don't know, maybe you do. 
Well actually, that's not true. There are guys who I've heard have been told to do edgy lyrics. At the same time, for girls, it is a lot more of a pressure thing. Especially when it's for women, there's that whole thing where it's like, "Well you said you wanted to be in this industry." It's that same version of pressure that women get when they are wearing an outfit where they feel like they look good in, they're like, "Well you know, you're dressing sexy, so you're asking for it." That pisses me off! It's like, "No! I'm choosing to do this career for a reason that's different than hyper-sexualizing myself." It's a completely distinct thing.

Right. I can't imagine how frustrating it is. Has being a musician always been part of the plan? Or was that kind of something that grew off from acting? And what does that look like going forward for you? That must be kind of a tough balance, with acting. 
Being a musician was always there. Like that was something I never questioned. That was never a revelation. When I was 11, I decided I wanted to be an actress. But when I was two, I was writing songs. The songs were just always there. It's always been the current through my life. And I think it's an interesting balance, and I love them both. Music is a part of me, it's an appendage. Right now in terms of the cycle of sharing my music with people, that's where I have to prioritize things, and I feel like in a certain time I'll wanna prioritize promoting an acting project. But the songwriting just never turns off.

You've been involved in philanthropic work for most of your life. Did that arise from your career or is it part of your upbringing?
Philanthropy is deeply embedded in my family. My grandpa is a lawyer who fought for fair housing in Massachusetts. My dad designs high fuel efficiency car engines. My mom's a green architect. We just have a lot of people who are trying to save the world in my family. [Laughs] Which is cool. I remember when I was younger my parents would tell me that in my lifetime I should do something to make the world a better place, in whatever capacity that is. That's something that has stuck with me. And it has challenged me as well, because I think in a lot of ways I've led a very privileged life where I've been given so much, but then I always have that voice nagging in my head to use that privilege for a purpose. I've always taken seriously the platform that I have, and wanted to use that for things that are important. 

First album cycle when we were touring, I sought out Save The Children as a charity to partner with, because I believe in childhood education in our country specifically, and that was something that they were proponents of. I've done a lot of work with WE, we just went to Kenya with them this summer. They do great stuff empowering kids to help other kids and creating this cool network of like creativity and change. I did an abroad program this summer for religion, conflict, and human rights. Which was super interesting. That reinvigorated me on the role of public diplomacy. Public diplomacy in my eyes means that I have a platform, and so I want to use that platform to invigorate everyday people to care about global or local issues philanthropically that they can help with. I know that's really broad, but basically, I have I have followers on social media, so I might as well use that for good. I have some sort of sway in a kid's life, I don't know what it is. But I wanna use that for some sort of positive change. Something I'm really passionate for right now is jobs. I really am looking forward to looking at the role philanthropy can have in terms of looking out for people's jobs, and a sense of dignity, especially in our country.

I saw that you studied visual and medieval culture. That sounds fascinating. Anthropology as well, right?
Yeah I'm an Anthropology student at USC. That's my major. This honestly was just a course requirement at USC, which is just why I think it's a great, kick ass school. The medieval visual culture. That was a GE that met some sort of requirement that I had to take. So my my approach to taking courses at school has been, "alright so what fits into my schedule?" It's actually made me wind up with some really interesting things like I've taken that, I've taken History of Jazz, I've taken History of North Korea, um…I took a medical anthropology course. So um it's just been a really nice little educational stew. But the medieval architecture course was really cool. It basically followed um different art forms up until the Rennaissance it was very technical as well as historical, just like giving the history of the time period surrounding the construction of like these buildings…so um…yeah. I dug it.

Is that something you are going to pursue beyond class?
No. I almost was going to be an art history major. Like I had a number of different things that I was interested in. Art history and political science were other ones that I was debating taking. I got admitted as an anthropology major. I didn't know that was how it was going to work. I still have a curiosity for art history, I think it's similar to anthropology in the sense, it's like how people relate to their world. It's a reflection of the culture of the time. And that was the cool thing about the medieval art history, because it's like these people are building these buildings that last beyond their lifespan. It takes 150 years to build a church. So the people who started aren't the people who enjoy it. Which I think is so interesting, and it changes the objective of a building. 

Catch Bridgit Mendler on tour.

Andrea Domanick is Noisey's West Coast Editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Emma May contributed to this article.