Phoebe Bridgers on the Dangerous Side of Writing “Very, Very Sad” Music

The Punisher musician reflects on her path to becoming a singer-songwriter.

by Lynn Hirschberg
Photographs by Olof Grind

Phoebe Bridgers wears her own clothing.
Phoebe Bridgers wears her own clothing.

Last week, during an interview on The Zane Lowe Show, Lorde referred to Phoebe Bridgers, whom she tapped to sing back-up vocals on her new single, “Solar Power,” as a “God-tier female vocalist.” It’s an apt description: Bridgers’s first album, Stranger in the Alps, is filled with slyly catchy anthems that showcase her haunting, beautiful voice. She has deftly covered some of the most iconic songs in history—The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love;” Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees”—in ways that feel fresh and original. And one year after the release of Punisher, her second solo studio album, the 26-year-old musician’s status as a veritable superstar has been cemented. (Did we mention she’s also a part of Boygenius, with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker; and Better Oblivion Community Center, with Conor Oberst?) For W’s music issue, Bridgers spoke with Editor at Large Lynn Hirschberg about hearing her own music during yoga class, getting into Wicked at summer camp, and the joy of being on stage with her closest collaborators.

For thousands of homebound people, your album Punisher was their lockdown soundtrack. Most of your songs are intensely personal. Do you play your new music for your family before it comes out?

Yes, I play stuff for my mom and my friends. After my first record, my mom thought she was going to have to intervene, because every song was so depressing. In fact, I probably needed that, but hey...

Maybe you write music to release your demons.

Perhaps. The whole narrative around catharsis is complex. Sometimes it can put you in a box, where you feel like you can’t write anything but heartfelt songs that offer an emotional release. The other day, Lucy Dacus [Bridgers’s bandmate in Boygenius, the indie rock trio] posted this thing about how capitalism commodifies women’s pain. That being said, I started out by copying music that I loved—people like Elliott Smith and Merle Haggard, to name just two. When you write music, if it’s true, it’s useful. But if it starts to feel like you’re playing a character, I think it can get dangerous. Especially if that character is very, very sad.

Do you remember the first time you heard your music on the radio?

Yes. My first real, serious relationship as an adult was with my now drummer. These days, we’re like brother and sister, but when we met, we connected so hard and started dating. We agreed about everything, especially music, and we moved in together almost on day one. He had a truck that I loved. The first time I heard myself on the radio, it was in that truck. We were on a road trip, just driving somewhere, listening to “Killer.” It felt so cool. On tour, I’ve heard myself in yoga classes, which is really funny. Once, I heard “Smoke Signals,” from my first record, during corpse pose! I went, What are you talking about? It always feels both weird and awesome when that happens.

Were you the type of kid who was always singing?

Yeah, my mom instilled a lot of overconfidence in me. According to her, when I was 8, I was going to be the next Bob Dylan. And I was a typical theater nerd, too. I think if I saw a video of myself as a preteen singing musical theater, I would want to hide forever. But I do try to have compassion for my previous phases.

Did you have a favorite musical?

Wicked. The kids at summer camp were singing songs from Wicked all the time. I thought it was cringey, but I was also into it. The way I was raised, sincerity is a cardinal sin.

How old were you when you wrote your first song?

Ten. I’m a white girl from Pasadena. I went to a very nice school and had a bunch of friends. But my first song was called “I’m the Only Bird Flying the Other Way.” [Laughs] I always gravitated toward songs where the narrator is the outcast.

More recently, in March, you smashed your guitar after performing on SNL. Was that a dream come true?

Yes! That was probably the fourth Danelectro baritone that I’ve smashed. I had watched Nate Walcott, from the band Bright Eyes, smash his trumpet. And I said, I’m definitely going to smash my guitar. I wanted to e-mail Danelectro and have them send me an instructional manual on how to smash it right, because it’s hard! SNL was excited. It was a last-minute decision, but so fun. Now the pieces of my smashed guitar are up for auction, and the proceeds will go to charity. [Update: The remnants of the guitar sold for $101,500 at the GLAAD Media Awards Auction in April]

Is there a memory that makes you completely happy?

Yes, being onstage with Boygenius. There’s one song where Lucy and I are belting together that’s so great. And there’s another song where you can hear the whole crowd screaming the words back to us. Those three seconds, over and over and over, are joyous. In my head, that was the best time of my life.