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Phoebe Bridgers – Autumn/Winter 2020
All clothes Dior Cruise 2021. Socks and shoes worn throughout Phoebe’s own.Photography Clara Balzary, Styling Emma Wyman

Phoebe Bridgers isn’t taking the middle ground

Phoebe Bridgers – Autumn/Winter 2020

Following the release of her second studio solo album, Punisher, the singer reflects on launching her own record label, going to ‘Twitter jail’, and navigating her exploding fanbase

Taken from the autumn/winter 2020 issue of Dazed. You can pre-order a copy of our latest issue here

I meet Phoebe Bridgers on John Lennon’s birthday. You know that matters if you know Phoebe. Poetic flukes, which may be interpreted as incredibly important or totally irrelevant, depending on your mood and astrological sign, fuel her songs. And when speaking of Lennon specifically, well, one of Bridgers’ lyrics goes, “And we fought about John Lennon / Until I cried.”

Bridgers’ lyrics are spiky, moving, tragic, and funny. It only takes one listen for them to seep into your psyche. They stick to you like bubblegum under a shoe. Her music and lyrics are often at odds with each other, which is why they sync seamlessly. Like vodka and cranberry, the sweet cuts the bitter, and vice versa. Creating a whole new taste altogether. A Phoebe Bridgers track can punch you in the gut while patting you on the head.

If I had Bridgers’ gifts, I would write a song about the irony of getting to meet her, only to watch her talk from behind a black surgical mask. The irony being that her smile is kind of famous in its own right, compared by various outlets to a Cheshire cat’s. On the sidewalk outside Silver Lake’s Figaro Bistrot, Bridgers’ mask is on, but her expressive eyes make it clear that she’s an easy person to be with. Sometimes too easy for her own good.

“I hate voicemails. I’m afraid of people asking me for things and I’m afraid of bad news,” the musician admits. “It’s easier to blow something off in an email. But if someone confronts me with something, I’m like, ‘Sure!’ I’m my own worst enemy. I’m really terrified of immediate confrontation so something that calms me down (is to ask myself) what’s the worst thing that could happen? If someone is furious and screaming at me because I said no to something, then, fuck them! Why am I afraid of that?”

Bridgers’ second studio solo album, Punisher, was destined to be a hit. Feverish fans fiened for it ever since Stranger in the Alps announced her as an indie icon in the making in 2017. That is to say, she didn’t need any help, but the world as we know it crashing to a halt only made the album hit harder on its release in June. Punisher seems crafted specifically for aimless strolls through empty neighbourhoods where everything is closed and everyone is in hiding. It’s the sound of depression walks gone mainstream.

“Depression and anxiety are constantly at war with each other,” says Bridgers. “But a cure for both is to literally put down your phone for two seconds and have a conversation with somebody.” The musician has also been dealing with lockdown in other, less healthy ways: in one recent interview she admitted she’d just eaten peanut butter and jelly for breakfast and cold pizza for dinner, which is unlike her.

“Depression and anxiety are constantly at war with each other. But a cure for both is to literally put down your phone for two seconds and have a conversation with somebody” – Phoebe Bridgers

“I have no middle,” says Bridgers. “I’m just not an, ‘Oh, just sometimes’ person. If I toast an Eggo waffle I’ll toast the entire box of Eggo waffles. I’m a weird binger sometimes, and then I’ll wake up feeling like shit, and it’s like, no shit! I think what’s useful for me is taking a walk at the same time every day, having the exact same number of coffees, eating at similar times. On tour you kind of have to do that mentally, (but) deviating from it, there are valuable things about that. Just fucking relax! The world didn’t end when I relaxed.”

It’s hard to dig up a bad review of Bridgers’ work, even if you try to for ‘journalism’ purposes. I’m curious what her favourite reaction to Punisher was. “I don’t read a lot of reviews, mostly just to keep myself sane,” says the musician. “But I think my favourite thing is just that it’s reaching people who are isolated.” Even pre-pandemic, Bridgers was well-versed in end-of-the-world scenarios. Her songwriting slashes through heartbreak, existential crises, personal disasters, and the kind of loneliness one can feel only in Los Angeles.

The drugstores are open all night / The only reason I moved to the east side,” Bridgers sings on the title track of the new album, an ode to Elliott Smith. “I would be really lonely,” says the musician. “I literally just go (to drugstores) for fun. I’ll usually get an Evian and one of those car gum things. I always look at the holiday section so I often buy some sort of stupid Halloween thing… I love just driving somewhere. I’ve driven to people’s houses before and not said hello to them – not crushes or anything, but people from my past, just to know that, OK, there’s a light on in there. It’s terrifying.”

Bridgers’ albums are meant to be heard from start to finish. A rarity these days, for musicians have become desperate, scram – bling for a hit, a click, a scrap. (Who could forget charmball Spotify founder Daniel Ek encouraging them to ignore album cycles and ‘put the work in’, eh?) She produces art the old-fashioned way, while keeping her finger on the pulse of social media and any trend featured in the pages of this magazine. She has one of the most honest and charming social media presences of anyone I follow, including the non-famous people.

“Phoebe Bridgers owns my ass,” fans have been known to announce when sharing pictures of themselves wearing her merch – a pair of black sweatpants with skeleton legs and Phoebe’s name scrawled on the butt, in gothic tattoo font. Bridgers is known for wearing skeleton pyjamas. Somehow, it fits: skeletons are a terrifying reality we all have inside us but hesitate to think of. Bridgers brings the skeleton out of the closet and makes it work. You can’t run from the truth, so you may as well make it cute.

“I went to Twitter jail yesterday, because I told a Trump supporter I wished he was dead” – Phoebe Bridgers

“Phoebe Bridgers owns my ass,” fans have been known to announce when sharing pictures of themselves wearing her merch – a pair of black sweatpants with skeleton legs and Phoebe’s name scrawled on the butt, in gothic tattoo font. Bridgers is known for wearing skeleton pyjamas. Somehow, it fits: skeletons are a terrifying reality we all have inside us but hesitate to think of. Bridgers brings the skeleton out of the closet and makes it work. You can’t run from the truth, so you may as well make it cute.

Being a Bridgers fan is a sort of cult, in the sense that nobody dabbles: you’re either in or you’re out. It’s the whole box of waffles or nothing! (When scrolling through her Twitter feed, I noted a fan wrote under a thread, “my friend asked me to describe your sound and I said it’s mental illness music”.)

“I went to Twitter jail yesterday, because I told a Trump supporter I wished he was dead,” says Bridgers, whose politics go hand-in-hand with her art. The latest merch she dropped features a cop car on fire. The front of the shirt reads, “I feel nothing”.

Remember that late-90s MTV show, FANatic? Punisher is named after the type of fan who ‘punishes’ their idol with attention. Bridgers has been on both ends of it, saying she avoided speaking to Patti Smith and Joni Mitchell when she met them because she was so afraid she’d punish them. The title track of her album deals with fearing she’d do the same to Elliott Smith, if he were around: “What if I told you I feel like I know you / But we never met? / It’s for the best / I can’t open my mouth and forget how to talk / ’cos even if I could, wouldn’t know where to start / wouldn’t know when to stop”.

“There’s another term, ‘fansplaining’, which I really love,” says Bridgers. “It’s a type of punishment, where people just tell you their personal experience with (your music)… Ask yourself, is the thing that you are saying to someone contributing to their life in any way? Would it make their day good? Would you like to hear it if you were that person? Can you see their eyes glazing over when you are talking? Maybe it’s time to stop talking? Are they having a personal conversation with friends, are they talking on the phone, are you scaring them? There are lots of questions I wish people asked themselves.”

What about groupies? Do they still exist? Are they relevant?

“I think it’s funny that there is a derogatory term for the people who follow bands around and not the dudes in bands that take advantage of (them),” says Bridgers. “Why is there no word for that? I guess it’s just ‘predator’, but it doesn’t really roll off the tongue. I’ve had some fucked-up fan interactions for sure – people trying to sneak backstage and being super-weird, or this guy who was clearly on drugs coming back to scream at me. But for the most part, the new groupies to me are all these kids who come to, like, eight shows. That’s rad.”

During lockdown, many of us baked bread, learned TikTok dances or shaved our heads. Bridgers started a record label, Saddest Factory (say it out loud). She worried at first that the label she’s signed, to, Dead Oceans, wouldn’t be down with it, but it turned out they were super-down. “I’ve told a lot of my friends who were thinking about signing to Dead Oceans to sign with them. I just love the team. After having a couple projects I was just like, ‘I want to start signing people and making records.’ Although I still can’t figure out how to download Slack, which is really annoying.”

“I think it’s funny that there is a derogatory term for the people who follow bands around and not the dudes in bands that take advantage of (them)” – Phoebe Bridgers

The kids are all right and her fanbase is young, even though Bridgers collaborates with dudes who, let’s face it, are ancient (Gen X-ers like Conor Oberst and The National’s Matt Berninger). Her vinyl collection is bonkers. She’s got one foot in a pair of vintage jeans, the other in resort 2021 Vetements (metaphorically, of course: she mostly wears black, or the skeleton pyjamas, or wedding dresses). She’s quite aware of what’s happened to record stores. Once a pastime for “dirtbags”, she notes that “record shopping (has become) elitist. Now it feels like swishing wine around.”

I remember a time of having to make a pilgrimage to cop an album which represented my status, or shoplift it if my parents didn’t approve. I’ve had entire relationships with boys just to snag their band tees. But if I wore that shirt to school and couldn’t name all the tracks on said band’s album? My punk friends would drag me. Today I can’t tell if kids go through the same thing. You can buy a whole punk (or emo or rave) wardrobe on Dolls Kill. What’s it like being an ‘indie darling’ when indie doesn’t exist in a concrete way? Does anyone today have to prove their devotion to the look they’re repping? To the lifestyle they’re portraying?

“I see trends – like, when I see kids on TikTok I’m like, yeah, that looks like a kid right now – but I don’t really know what (they are),” says Bridgers. “I have a collection of metal t-shirts that I got from somebody horrible… The music is horrible. Like the Sex Pistols, for example (she points to the Sex Pistols shirt that I’m wearing to the interview) – their politics were fucked, Johnny Rotten likes Trump now. All these guys are horrible. (But) it’s a cool shirt, go fuck yourselves! I have a Death Angel shirt; I’ve heard one song and the record sucks. Do MaryKate and Ashley love Metallica? Probably not! But Metallica is in video games and shit, it’s accessible, it’s not even a subculture now. I like that you can buy a weird band shirt on Dolls Kill. I like that, for the most part.”

When we wrap, Bridgers can’t even walk a block before getting stopped by fans. They aren’t punishers – they ask her if she’s busy and if they are bothering her. But by now she’s already cornered. And I guess even if she were busy and even if they were bothering her, she’d be sweet, because she is. “Can we take a picture?” they gush. “My friend will die! She loves you. She listens to your album every night, to fall asleep.”

Hair Dylan Chavles at The Wall Group, make-up Nicole Maguire using Dior, photographic assistants Robbie Corral, Blake Brent, styling assistants Mirko Pedone, Marcus Cuffie, Sharon Chitrit, production Mini Title, on-set production Rhianna Rule