Even before I heard a note of her music, I heard Phoebe Bridgers’ name. It was being tossed around by the people who had heard sweeping, gorgeous ballads off her devastating debut album, Stranger In The Alps, and, possibly, her short, three-song Killer EP. That EP was produced by Ryan Adams, and Conor Oberst shows up to duet with Bridgers on “Would You Rather,” off Stranger, in case you needed a couple of touchstones to help place her elegant, cutting songwriting.
Growing up in Pasadena, on the outskirts of LA, Bridgers wroter her first song at 11 and attended the arts-focused Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, graduating in 2013. The Killer EP came just two years later, in 2015, and set her on the path toward Strangers. Bridgers writes about trauma with the steadiness of someone who has tried and failed to stave it off other ways. As such, her lovely debut record is the work of an artist who knows the heft and power of these songs — you get the sense she uses them to get through, too.
But then, it’ll come to light that she named this gut-wrenching record for the silly, made-for-TV overdub of The Big Lebowski‘s crude line “f*ck a stranger in the ass” (they change it to “fight a stranger in the alps”) and another side of Bridgers begins to emerge. Nestled within these songs about suicide pacts, the kind of breakups that feel like they break you yourself, and singing at funerals, a hint of Phoebe’s humor manages to come through. “I’ve got emotional motion sickness, somebody roll the window down,” she deadpans on “Motion Sickness,” as though fresh air could clear out the inner nausea of toxic relationship the way it does physical illness.
Or, perhaps, it can, and in that case it’s Bridgers’ album that is the cool, clean air, not designed to heal — maybe you’re not there just yet — but it’s a purifying blast of processed pain and glistening loss that will push your own pain back out into the atmosphere, replacing it with a tender certainty. Without letting anyone who hurt her off the hook, Bridgers takes no prisoners in this collection of blunt, beautiful songs, setting her listener free as they unspool. Whether they’ve worked their same magic on her remains to be seen, but in the meantime, here are her thoughts on some of the more biographical elements about her life and some behind-the-scenes notes on the basics of making the album.
Obviously your background growing up so near to LA, and specifically going to a high school devoted to music had a big impact on your eventual decision to pursue music as a career. What was that period of your life like? That’s a time when plenty of teenagers are confused about who they want to be and what they want to do, were you always certain you wanted to be a musician?
Yes. I actually didn’t give any thought to the practicality of this life choice, I just can’t and don’t want to do anything else. There was never even a time I felt conflicted about it, that might be because my mom has always been beyond supportive. In high school I was surrounded by talented friends, that was a huge part of my education.
The album’s themes can get pretty dark, to say the least. But there’s always been something cathartic in hearing painful music, and I think a lot of listeners end up taking positivity out of music this sad. What are your thoughts on that dichotomy?
It makes total sense to me. Crippling anxiety, heartbreak, existential crisis, dealing with death… all those things feel so solitary and lonely to me, when in fact they’re an essential part of the human existence. So hearing music someone else made about their own experience is something I can do by myself, and somehow still connect to everyone who has ever felt that way. ‘The sound of loneliness makes me happier’ to quote Conor Oberst and ‘sad songs make me feel better’ to quote a shirt Julien Baker often wears onstage.
I think the ghost on the artwork is also very striking; can you talk a bit about what your vision for the art’s aesthetic was, and who helped you achieve it?
I had been a fan of Angela Deane forever, and I always knew I wanted to ask her to make the cover. I sent her an album of childhood photos and this one was the obvious choice. That’s me at my grandparents’ house with their dog, Bud.
As a young songwriter, who are some artists that you would cite as influential on your work?
Elliott Smith of course, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell to start; the list is pretty long. Bon Iver, Blake Mills, Julien Baker, and Fred Eaglesmith too, I keep adding people.
The decision to reprise “Smoke Signals” at the end of the album feels like a very pointed move, to make the whole thing feel circular, and almost like, inevitable. Do you see the song cycle as a linear story that unfolds, or more like episodic moments? Is it recurring characters in different songs for you, or do they all feel like their own worlds?
Episodic. Inherently because it’s my first album and I’ve been writing since I was a teenager, some songs stuck around that are a little older than others. It felt like I had to make this record, and put out these songs first. The stuff I’m writing now feels a little more linear, but my subject matter still differs a lot from song to song. On this album there are definitely recurring characters and themes, but each song reminds me of its own time and place.
With songs this personal, I always wonder if there’s a level of concern for the first time they hit the world. Is there a song here you were particularly nervous for the public to hear? And what is it like the first time you play a song that may directly reference really tender stuff? Does it get easier or harder the longer the songs are in the world?
It’s getting a little harder. The reality of the type of record I made is sinking in, I don’t think about it at all when I’m actually writing. Every time I play “Funeral” it makes me kind of uncomfortable, I can almost feel people feeling bad for me. It’s also hard to play “Motion Sickness” because it’s so specific, and about a specific person who was not super stoked when I showed them that song.
Death crops up again and again in your songwriting, whether it’s via “Funeral” and the grief of someone else, or in the somewhat violent storyline of “You Missed My Heart.”
Since it’s still such a taboo topic in our society, do you have any hesitation tackling it? Especially on a debut album?
My only hesitation with it is actually the opposite, I think the subject of death might actually be overdone. But I can’t help it, I write my life and it’s on my mind a lot. “You Missed My Heart” is a Mark Kozelek cover I fell in love with, which again goes to show I gravitate towards that subject matter.
I particularly love “Killer,” when you see the seeds of death and your own fear of it in yourself. That kind of grueling self-scrutiny shows up all over the record. Sometimes it’s rare to hear a narrator laying out their own flaws so bare, or in the first person mode. It goes directly against the expectation from society that women be perfect, and I think it’s really reassuring to hear this. What do you feel when you’re building/inhabiting that kind of character, who is maybe unlikable or flawed, or f*cked up?
That’s a big question, because it’s basically ‘how do you feel being alive?’ The character is just me. I write my life. So, I guess the way I feel about it changes every minute. I love it, I f*cking hate it, I’m sad about it, I’m constantly overanalyzing things, or being willfully ignorant… I FEEL WEIRD.
There seems to be a new resurgence of women fashioning their own folk-rock, that’s very slow and sweet in some ways but gets into heavy, heavy topics. Natalie Prass, Torres and Julien Baker — who I know you’ve often been compared to — both come to mind. How do you see your album in the greater landscape of the musical world in 2017? And for the future, do you imagine your own sound will change and shift as you continue to grow as a musician? There’s so much conversation about rock is dead and guitars are over, but I would argue it’s more that the genre is just changing shape.
I think I have musical dysmorphia. I have no clue where my music will fit in, and honestly I don’t really think about it. Although, apparently I’m in good company there, so that’s something. I absolutely think my sound will change, it’s changed so much over the years and I don’t see that stopping anytime soon. I think I’m just as likely to make an indie folk album as I am to make an electronic album next.
Sonically, what is your songwriting process and how does that change or morph in the studio, if it does? There’s such a specific, silvery world you’ve built here, and I’d love to know more about what steps in the recording process helped shape that.
Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska were the most incredible producers to work with. We recorded in Tony’s studio behind his house, and when we weren’t recording, we were talking about music for hours, and unbelievable musicians were constantly dropping by unannounced: T Bone Burnett, Blake Mills, and Tony’s daughter Z, to name a few. Then when it was time to record, we would pick something from Tony’s wall of instruments to start with, and build from there, and when we recorded vocals, Tony would turn off all the lights… truly a magical experience.
Stranger In The Alps is out now via Dead Oceans. Get it here.