Inside Issue #20: A Conversation with Phoebe Bridgers

 Photo by Morgan Martinez

Photo by Morgan Martinez

I met Phoebe Bridgers when she was touring with Julien Baker as they both passed through Madison, Wisconsin a year and a half ago. We stayed in touch, and I kept up with each song she released, increasingly blown away by her effortless and graceful talent. Changing the scenery only slightly, Morgan and I decided to take the trip from Chicago to Milwaukee to see Phoebe open for Conor Oberst, her life-long inspiration, and more recently, a friend.

The two had been touring all year together and it was obvious. There was an effortless chemistry between them, which allowed for pleasant and heart-melting duets on stage and complete comfort when we were all just hanging out.

When I saw Phoebe play for the first time, it was a strange moment of clarity. Morgan and I sat in a crowded Madison venue on the side and had Julien prep us for how good Phoebe’s set was about to be. She was right - and I have this distinct memory of my eyes beginning to water during one of her oldest songs, “Georgia.” When a person can fill up a whole room like that with light and sound and nothing else, you know there is magic in their music. We got breakfast food at a diner after the show that night, and while her presence remained ethereal on stage, she quickly became one of the easiest people to be around. We were laughing and getting along as if we had known each other for years.

Reuniting with her again felt just as natural. All of us were dressed head-to-toe in black, looking like a three-piece punk band. We started the day getting disappointing brunch. She had told us about tour and shared some gossip about the indie folk world that I suddenly felt adjacent to. In just a few short weeks, her highly anticipated record Stranger in the Alps would come out via Dead Oceans, a label that also features our cover artist Japanese Breakfast, amongst other indie favorites like Julianna Barwick, Mitski, and Destroyer.

Shortly after brunch, we sat down in the green room of the Pabst Theatre, where Harry, Phoebe’s best friend and 2nd half of her band, along with Conor and his crew were hanging out. It was quiet and everyone was friendly. Most of the members in The Felice Brothers, Conor’s accompanying band, were reading or just lounging on the nice couches, in a very nice green room, in an extremely nice theatre.

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Stranger in the Alps is Phoebe’s first full-length, meaning everything else she’s put out has been either an EP or singles. Yet, her growing popularity comes at no surprise because each of her songs sounds like an entire lifetime. They are snippets of stories from various points in her life, moments that she was able to write about and grow from. It is a classic singer-songwriter concoction but there is something special about Phoebe’s music, and there’s no doubt that it has to do with an underlying commitment in staying true to her most authentic self, something I’ve noticed in her fearlessness, confidence in her responses, and overall aura.

When I asked her about her music being rooted in lyricism and storytelling, she immediately brought up her song “Killer” off her first EP of the same name. The song is about a period in her life where she had obsessive compulsive tendencies which resulted in her digging in deep into her skull when something disturbing came up. She was having intrusive thoughts about serial killers, and found herself googling everything there was to know about gruesome murders and violence, which left her horrified with both herself and her newfound information.

“Coming into Milwaukee reminded me of this period in my life that I thought wouldn’t end,” Phoebe said, as she recalled Milwaukee resident Jeffrey Dahmer being the serial killer that started her obsession, “It is interesting to look back on a song like ‘Killer’ and think, ‘yeah, I’m past that now. That happened and I grew from it.’”

There is an understanding that once art is released, it is to be interpreted in whichever way the person consuming the art decides. Phoebe laughed, “Sometimes I think people give me too much credit,” as she referred to how someone interpreted “Killer” in an extravagant and allegorical way when in reality, it was a fairly literal response to a specific period in her life.

I asked Phoebe what she had been listening to lately and where her taste stems from. Her foundation is rooted in bands like Television and classic singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell. Although recently, she said she’s been, “Jamming to Snail Mail and the new Jay Som record,” going in depth about how music right now is exploring elements of genre-bending particularly with artists like Mitski, another favorite of Phoebe’s. The wave of talented women & non-men musicians changing the game in how music is listened to and experienced has been something that, I think, everyone (particularly other women & non-men) has been excited about.

Phoebe admits a lot of her background is still dominated by men. She says specifically Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon and Red House Painters is someone she confesses she loves, yet recognizes isn’t the nicest, friendliest, or least misogynistic guy. She understands and sees his flaws, the same way she no longer respects John Lennon, but can still listen to The Beatles. Some people are able to separate the art from the artist and for Phoebe, it’s almost a necessity. She said, “I would not allow myself to like anything if I didn’t. I do draw lines, though. You have to draw lines.”

Sometimes those lines can be blurry and it can get tricky to decide who you actively support and who you let into your ears. Phoebe knows this, though. She said, “I’m conscious of it now so I try to consume as much art made by women, POC, and trans people as much as possible because unlike theirs, music by white men is handed to me.”

This is something that a lot of young artists are aware of, especially if they started out in DIY scenes, like Phoebe. Phoebe, who was in a punk-influenced band in high school, noted that the DIY scene now is changing, and so are media outlets like Teen Vogue. Slowly but surely, important and what was once considered “radical” ideas are making their way into mainstream media (which is the Hooligan agenda!).

While Morgan took Phoebe’s photos against an orange-ish wall, complementing the golden hour that decided to grace us, I abruptly asked Phoebe, “What’s it like being on tour with essentially only men? Do you feel like you ever have to defeminize yourself to feel accepted?”

Phoebe’s immediate response: “Oh, yeah. Absolutely.”

This makes one wonder about the typical tropes for indie-folk singer-songwriters. There is an overlapping theme of confessional storytelling, of emotional ties to romance and childhood and nostalgia. These themes never go away, regardless of gender, yet when I google “Indie-folk”, the first ten bands are all men (aside from The Lumineers, which has one woman). This is not to say that these bands don’t deserve great recognition because I think they do, it is just fascinating that even with all the women affiliated with indie-folk, it is still a man’s game.

So, when Phoebe and I have this conversation, it is rooted in a place of knowing what it’s like to play a game that has been a part of her life since she became involved in music. For Phoebe, she’s had producers that wore their entitlement like a badge and found ways to manipulate her agency. Luckily, Phoebe never let men dictate what she wanted and didn’t want to do with her art.

Phoebe said earnestly, with no remorse in her voice, “Taking the “feminine” out of your personality [because you are expected to] takes the power out of it.” I think my jaw dropped or I took a few steps back to let that sink in so I could understand the gravity of her words. It is this perspective on femininity that allows her to explore what it means to be a vulnerable and fairly feminine musician, yet a person who defies feminine standards.

Still, it doesn't necessarily mean she feels good about it. “Sometimes I’ll want to wear dresses because I like dresses!” She said, but we both know even something as simple as a dress can change how a woman is perceived in spaces where nobody else is wearing a dress. In modern societal standards, to be femme is to be taken less seriously and nobody wants to be taken as a joke, especially in music.

Interestingly enough, in her music video “Motion Sickness”, Phoebe is dressed in a suit singing karaoke. I asked her about the androgynous look and if she had any intention with the gender play. She said, “Honestly, I just wanted to look as nerdy as possible,” laughing, “I wanted to show someone in a suit going all out for karaoke, really into it, y’know?”

I laughed. There something pure about the image in itself, which I recognize now that that was Phoebe’s message after all. Nothing about gender or binaries, but a sense of innocence — a sincere response to what it means to have, “emotional motion sickness.”

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It was jarring to realize how much (and how little) time had passed since we all met for the first time, to think that a year and a half ago felt like a past life, to see Phoebe in a place now where she is releasing something that has meant so much to her for so long. It was a day of reflecting, one of nostalgia and recollection of where we all once were and where we are now. The same way Phoebe’s songs tell us about moments from what seems like another life, we were able to come together as what seemed like new people. It felt like a song being formed, one on friendship and growth, all intertwined with laughter and memory.  

What I’ve noticed from knowing Phoebe as both an artist and a friend is that regardless of how the politics of music and the people within it affect her, she refuses to let it become her defining feature. Phoebe Bridgers is a musician who tells stories through her music. She is someone who consistently makes music for the sake of transforming somber moments of her life into something someone can hold onto. Her work is special because it is the sound of someone’s genuine response to existing. There’s something in her songs that anyone can connect with, even if these are her specific stories, even if we don’t all interpret them the same way.

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