“We’re Tearing Down Confederate Statues And Trolling Trump Rallies…” Phoebe Bridgers Interviewed

Phoebe Bridgers speaks to MOJO about working with her heroes, appearing in Playboy, Donald Trump and more.

Phoebe Bridgers

by Victoria Segal |
Updated on

Radically honest singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers is the Generation Z star whose Elliott Smith-
tinged music makes sense to her elders, too. In 2021,
MOJO sat down with Bridgers to discuss working with her heroes, appearing in Playboy, Trump and more. As Bridgers' supergroup, Boygenius, release their debut LP, you can read the interview in full…

If Phoebe Bridgers doesn’t stop running away from her heroes, they’re never going to be able to disappoint her. Last February, she played the Tibet House benefit at Carnegie Hall; one wave from Patti Smith, and she bolted. “I’ll probably be in a room with Patti Smith again,” she says boldly, “I don’t want her to remember me as the person who, first time, gushed. Just wait until the opportunity arises to say something, instead of being like, Hey, I need a picture of you, otherwise my mom won’t believe me.”

Father John Misty, meanwhile, was perplexed when she didn’t say hello to him backstage in Belfast: “I did not assume he would remember me or know what I was up to. He was like ‘Hey, Phoebe?’ like he thought I was mad or something.” She laughs at herself. “You’re allowed to know people. I don’t know what kind of complex that is.” It’s not shyness, she decides: “I’m way more likely to say something out of bounds or overly sexual that misfires as a joke, trying to be fun. My nervous brain is not my favourite brain, so I try to wait until I’m a little less nervous.”

Bridgers is at home in east Los Angeles, the same neighbourhood where Elliott Smith – a core hero and the quiet presiding spirit of her second solo album Punisher – once lived. Here, the 25-year-old singer-songwriter has spent the last few months becoming “addicted” to her treadmill and reading Margaret Atwood. She performed her song Kyoto from her bathroom for the Jimmy Kimmel Show, underlining how personal space has slowly become public through Zoom’s power. In conversation, though, she appears buoyantly unguarded, mentioning an embarrassing vibrator incident within seconds.

“I think honesty is for me, at least, the easiest,” says Bridgers, “you don’t have to keep up some kind of façade.”

Punisher, as with 2017’s predecessor Stranger In The Alps, draws on this honesty for its limpid, reflective songs, but it also shows what happens when life gets too complex to hold in your head all at once, spilling out in cracked images, suspicions you might be an alien, or a ghost (the sleeve has Bridgers in a skeleton costume, apparently about to be beamed up, X-Files style). It fuses Generation X aesthetics with Generation Z mores – Bridgers, as she points out, was born the year Kurt Cobain died, right on the millennial-zoomer faultline – and contains blurry romantic friendships, family trauma and violent death, a final blast of apocalypse and lines that shock at first hearing. “I hate your mom/I hate it when she opens her mouth” on I See You; or Moon Song’s “We hate Tears In Heaven/But it’s sad his baby died” – a line that, she admits, was almost too much, almost cut.

The National’s Matt Berninger, who recorded Walking On A String with Bridgers for Zach Galifianakis’s Between Two Ferns: The Movie, believes she has “really good instincts when it comes to self-expression. She has an ability to sense when something is worth scratching at, uncovering and showing to other people. She’s finding something true and useful about herself and letting us in on it. It’s not fearlessness. She has all the fear but she goes in anyway. That’s bravery.”

As a teenager, Bridgers passed the audition and attended Los Angeles County High School For The Arts. Gospel choir was a positive; opera class less so. “I went into the delinquent squad in music technology for the last two years; I learned how to use Logic but mostly got the teacher snacks and wrote songs.” She was accepted at Boston’s Berklee College Of Music but eventually declined to go, deciding “being around people” would be more useful than “taking a Sheryl Crow writing class from somebody who’s not Sheryl Crow.” Her mother, Jamie (her parents divorced when she was 20), supported her daughter’s ambitions, pushing her, for example, to say hello to Richard Thompson at a San Francisco bluegrass festival. “My mom has a pictures-or-it-didn’t-happen brain.”

Yet Punisher’s title refers to the kind of fan Bridgers most fears becoming: one who corners an artist, trapping them in over-eager conversation. Specifically, it refers to the punishment Bridgers suspects she would have inflicted on Elliott Smith, had they ever met. Autolux and Jack White drummer Carla Azar introduced the 13-year-old Bridgers to Smith’s music: already a Beatles fan, she immediately understood. “His chords are so interesting and he’s such a great guitar player,” she explains. “I’d always heard lyrics that were like poetry, things you’d never say out loud – and Elliott would say something like ‘whatever’ or ‘oh well OK’ or talk about uglier, more day-to-day stuff like Kiwi Mad Dog 2020.”

“She’s finding something true about herself and letting us in on it. It’s not fearlessness. She has all the fear but she goes in anyway.” 

Matt Berniger

On the track Punisher, she sings “And here everyone knows you’re the way to my heart/I hear so many stories of you at the bar.” It’s all true, she admits. “There was an A&R guy when I was about 15 who sent me some unreleased Elliott demos,” she laughs. “I became, Oh my God, the world of the music business is beautiful.”

Unfortunately, uglier discoveries followed. Bridgers was one of the women who spoke publicly about Ryan Adams’ abusive behaviour after a brief business and personal relationship when she was 20. Yet the idea of true collaboration has remained vital to her work. In 2018, she formed Boygenius with fellow singer-songwriters 
Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus. Last year, she united with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst as Better Oblivion Community Center. She should have spent spring touring with The 1975 after singing on Notes On A Conditional Form. “Phoebe just wants to make the best, most interesting thing and can actually set her ego aside to take input from the people around her,” says Dacus. “She may not even agree with me – I feel like she makes fun of herself for thriving at the centre of attention. She’s a Leo, after all. But she’s able to get out of the way of herself, which is a remarkable and humble skill.” Dacus also pinpoints her ability to cross generational boundaries. “She’s a student of the greats and actively tries to learn from people she admires.”

“I hang out with a lot of the generation before and I end up in a lot of arguments about the internet where I end up being the internet’s advocate,” laughs Bridgers. “It seems like there’s a writing-off of Gen Z as buried in their phones and stupid and believing anything, and I’m like, We’re tearing down Confederate statues and trolling Trump rallies.”

That generation gap was highlighted recently when she self-directed a photo-shoot for Playboy, influenced by “camming”. A lot has changed since P.J. Harvey caused an indie meltdown by appearing topless, back turned, on NME’s cover in 1992. “I think there’s more of an open conversation,” says Bridgers, pondering her demographic, “and I don’t mean I think my generation invented sex at all. My management makes a lot of fun of me because of how excited I was to be topless – I was like, Why won’t anybody let me be topless? Seriously, I spent years being, Who wants to see my boobs?, because I just want to be a person whose boobs you can see and have it not be, like, people undressing me in their minds.”

Read MOJO’s verdict on the new album from Phoebe Bridgers’ supergroup, Boygenius.

In her late teens, Bridgers – then playing with performance art band Sloppy Jane – appeared in commercials for Apple and Taco Bell, a welcome songwriting subsidy. Yet there were less pleasant consequences. “My mom found this page of people drawing porn of me and there was something so fucking gross – everything fucking gross – about that. Like, you don’t get to do that. I get to do that. For my hipster Los Angeles friends, [the Playboy shoot] was a no-brainer, but I definitely had some weird DMs of people saying ‘what the fuck are you doing?’ But I don’t really care.”

Unsurprisingly, the idea of belonging to some great tradition faintly horrifies her. “I feel my version of going against the grain is rejecting the idea that being a white woman in music is revolutionary,” she continues. “The amount of lists I have seen which are like ‘Phoebe Bridgers, Snail Mail, Soccer Mommy, Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus – breaking every boundary’ and I’m like, what is similar about all these people?” Instead, she wants “a good healthy way to have conversations of how men have dominated for a long time and not make it like the answer is just liking these five white girls with guitars.”

“I wanted to see the world/Then I flew over the ocean/And I changed my mind,” sings Bridgers on Kyoto, a song that expresses the touring musician’s burnt-out ambivalence. Those days might seem distant but, for Bridgers, that careful-what-you-wish-for quest is a “big theme” of Punisher. “I’m a touring musician, this is what I ask for, but I still have days when I can’t leave the hotel room because I’m taking depression naps all day.”

Yet there’s reward along with the punishment. “My favourite parts of my life have been on tour being surprised by something. I played in Fargo and the show was sold out and I was like, Whoa! People like me 
in Fargo! I was such a depressed teenager – I’m so surprised I didn’t bail out of high school because I just felt I couldn’t be bothered to do the work at all. And then I found something that I would do forever.” If you can’t meet your heroes, join them.

This article originally appeared in MOJO 323

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