The first time I heard Phoebe Bridgers’s music, I was entranced. I’m a longtime fan of Ryan Adams’s Pax-Am Records: When Bridgers’s first EP Killer was released on the label, I fell head-over-heels in love with her songs, her voice and the emotional investment her music creates in a listener. Though she and other artists like Julien Baker follow a wave of folk-nouveau (which is increasing in popularity), Bridgers has a very unique take on the genre: a perfect mix of poignantly simple songwriting and layered production that fuses storytelling tradition with a modern edge, lodging itself in your brain like an earworm for months on end. She’s one of those artists that represents something more than just herself — Bridgers is evidence of a shifting change in popular music towards complete authenticity, proudly wearing her heart on her sleeve. Adams himself has even compared her to a young Bob Dylan.
“In the end,” Bridgers said in a recent phone interview with The Michigan Daily, “I’ll always write what I feel.”
Bridgers spoke with me about this singular authenticity, her creative process and how the songs she’s written have changed throughout time. The transition from her EP to last year’s critically acclaimed album Stranger in the Alps was a big one, a shift between bare-bones voice and guitar to a more fully produced sound.
“Contrary to popular belief, I met Ryan (Adams), who produced the EP, and Tony (Berg), who produced the album in the same week … We started both at the same time, but the Ryan thing kind of felt like he was recording me in his wheelhouse, which is really simple kind of folk acoustic, and the album was just me,” she explained. “That’s what I sound like.”
While recording the album, Bridgers and Berg fought to strike a balance between production and Bridgers’s musical style, forming a strong partnership in the process. “I’m the kind of artist who needs a producer, and he brought so much to the table,” Bridgers said. “We fought a lot, but the middle ground we would reach was like … perfect.”
“It’s exactly like I wanted it to sound, but I could have never imagined it sounding like that, if that makes sense,” she continued. This unique sound carries her incredible lyrics masterfully, touching on topics like depression, heartbreak and death with grace and honesty. I asked her whether this attention to heavier subject matter was a purely creative choice or more tangled with her own experiences while writing.
“I obviously don’t want to be pigeonholed as an artist who only writes sad songs,” she answered, “but the truth is for this album that’s what I was going through and feeling, so I just want to tell the truth and hold up my end of the conversation.”
For the most part, Bridgers finds sharing her own stories to be cathartic, but occasionally has trouble with the highly personal nature of her songs while performing and writing with others.
“When it’s a crowd of people who come to see me, I know that they know this one album, so it’s great, but then when I open for people I have this weird guilt, where I’m like ‘Oh God, I’m about to ruin the mood,’” she said. “I sometimes write with friends, and that’s sometimes hard because I have to explain all these things like, ‘Yeah, I really hate this person, but I also have these other conflicting feelings.’ It’s hard to put those ideas into words, so it’s difficult — I don’t put half the things I think about on paper.”
Despite this, the singer-songwriter is committed to sharing her own story through her music, saying she thinks “the importance of (her) music is to process and share whatever (she’s) going through personally, and how that relates to other people.”
Bridgers consistently maintains a certain ingenuity, even when collaborating with other artists or trying new ways to approach writing her music. She has always found a niche in expressing herself, a natural truth that shows up deeply in her music: “I think, it’s always kind of been easy for me to do that, maybe at some point it won’t be, but I’ve always thought that what I had to bring to the table, someone would think was cool.” She has now worked with people from Adams to longtime hero Conor Oberst (who appears in the duet “Would You Rather” on Stranger), she sees them as a great inspiration for her own career.
“I meet people — especially growing up in LA — heroes that I’m disappointed by all the time. They’re just a dick or whatever,” she laughed. “But these are the kinds of people I want to be around, that they’ve always been true to themselves and real. They’re really inspiring to me on so many levels — the fact that you can make such great music and be a good person. I feel like I really needed in my life, and I love being around it. It inspires me to write more and all kinds of stuff.”
She has grown more comfortable with collaborating with artists she has admired for a long time, saying “I was intimidated at first, and now I feel way more comfortable, like there’s a reason I’m in this room, you know? It feels good.”
Bridgers has evolved quite a bit throughout the process of recording and now touring for Stranger in the Alps, expanding her horizons by translating the album’s music into live performance for the first time. She has now toured with several artists including Oberst, Julien Baker and will open for Bon Iver on two dates during her current foray across the United States and Canada. I asked her about the process of performing live and creating different versions of her songs through touring.
“There’s so many things happening at once on the album,” she answered. “There’s a million instruments; it feels very produced, which is a very weird thing to say about my music. I think that in trying (to replicate the recording), we’ve created live versions. So we try to make it sound like the recording, but if it’s not exactly the same, it’s in the same vein.”
Bridgers also elaborated on her recent experiences touring, sharing a story about one of the songs off the album.
“I still get nervous,” she admitted. “I do this thing now where I sing ‘You Missed My Heart,’ which is this very slow, very long, sad song, but I don’t play an instrument on it, so the first night I got really nervous. There’s piano happening, but I’m not playing anything, and have nothing to do with my hands,” she laughed, “but we were at this club where I couldn’t hear the monitor, so I ended up sitting down, and listening to the monitors close to the floor. People totally thought it was on purpose and like, badass, so for the next couple of shows I decided to do that, and it was really different.”
Bridgers acknowledges her own growth as a performer during live shows, getting out of her comfort zone by trying new things on stage throughout the tour: “I’m not a huge ‘stage presence’ person, I just kind of stand there,” she laughed again. “I can barely tap my foot without going out of time on the guitar, so I’m trying to step out of my comfort zone, but it doesn’t feel disingenuous, like ‘People do this! People do this, right? I can do this!’”
This spunky edge and focus on self-realization is something that sets Bridgers apart from the crowd — she’s genuinely funny, carrying a well-defined sense of dark humor that shows up even in her saddest songs. Even the album’s title is an inside joke, a nod to the TV re-dub of cult classic movie The Big Lebowski.
“It’s the scene where Walter is screaming at this kid, and he says ‘This is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass,’” she explained, “but the TV edit is ‘This is what happens when you find a stranger in the alps,’ which is the strangest quote ever, and I just thought it sounded so pseudo-poetic and thought it really represented my personality and my music in general.”
This balance between drama and the comedic intricacies and accidents of life is what makes Bridgers’s writing seem so real — it captures the humanity in life’s ups and downs with a beautifully poetic twist. She laughed when I brought this up, saying something I don’t think I’ll ever forget: “I’m not entirely like smoking a clove cigarette in the corner of a fucking coffee shop right now, but I’m also not doing stand up comedy; I’m doing this.”
You can see Phoebe Bridgers with Shortly at the Pike Room in Pontiac, MI on March 1st at 7 p.m.