This article was first published on May 12th 2018.
Folk-rock singer Phoebe Bridgers tells Patrick Smith how a fling with an older star led to her breakthrough hit
The curse of any young female folk star is to be compared to Joni Mitchell. “I’m just lumped in with her,” says Phoebe Bridgers, a 23-year-old singer-songwriter from Los Angeles. “It totally pisses me off. I love her, but nobody sounds like f------ Joni Mitchell.”
She’s right, of course. No one does – and certainly not Bridgers. Backed by gentle reverb and subtle electronic flourishes, her songs switch between the mordant and the melancholy: what holds them together is a voice that’s jaded, but mellifluous. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, whom Bridgers supported in London earlier this year, calls her music a “gift”.
Lyrically, her gorgeous 2017 debut album Stranger in the Alps – which she recorded independently before being signed to the Dead Oceans label – grapples a lot with death. The late Lemmy from Motörhead and David Bowie are both referred to, while the song Funeral was inspired by a boy Bridgers knew who died of a heroin overdose. “Jesus Christ, I’m so blue all the time and that’s just how I feel, always have and always will,” she sings, the mournful mood recalling the late American miserabilist Elliott Smith.
Yet, in person, Bridgers could hardly be sunnier. “I didn’t realise there was such a heavy theme on the record until I started recording and listening to the songs,” she says. “A lot of my close friends are musicians and are consumed by the idea of death; their heads are like a torture chamber. I’m not like that – I don’t have death anxiety and I don’t think about it all the time.”
Bridgers and I are talking in a west London hotel ahead of her first British tour, which begins on Friday. She’s wearing a black leather jacket; her almost-white hair is tucked behind her ears. Close by are the remains of the Indian takeaway she had for lunch. As in her lyrics – for which, she says, “sometimes, I get a little bit too much credit” – she is both sweet and sardonic; words pour out of her rat-a-tat-tat.
Growing up in LA, with parents who never had much money – her father was a construction worker; her mother, a receptionist – Bridgers cloistered herself in a twee Harry Potter world. Her bedroom, she says, was a shrine to the J K Rowling stories. “I was totally obsessed until I was about 13 – I love that the female characters aren’t just accessories.” She gets out her phone to show me a picture of her posing gleefully at Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross station.
As a teenager, Bridgers joined the tuition-free Los Angeles County High School for the Arts to study singing, an experience she describes as being “like the movie Fame”. Then, in 2013, while playing in a punk band called Sloppy Jane, she was approached to record a cover of the Pixies song Gigantic for an iPhone advertisement. It aired a year later. Bridgers wears this as a badge of honour.
“Doing stuff on my own terms and making a record without being signed to a label – I credit that all to my commercial work,” she says. “I was playing so many shows at the time that I barely even went to my senior year of high school and was certainly not turning a profit. Then I did that commercial, which was only five days’ work, and it was like getting signed to a label. It was like a development deal.”
If the advert raised her profile, then Motion Sickness revealed the precocity of her songwriting. The standout single from Stranger in the Alps, it has amassed more than half-a-million views on YouTube and is an exquisite evisceration of a former lover. “I faked it every time,” she sings, before landing another blow to the solar plexus: “And why do you sing with an English accent?/ I guess it’s too late to change it now.”
The song, she tells me, is about the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Ryan Adams, whom she met in 2015. “A mutual friend in LA was like, ‘Ryan would like you’. He really was just trying to get me recording and trying to get Ryan to hear me, but Ryan was like, ‘Let me see a picture of her’.” Bridgers says that she and Adams “ended up hanging out all night and recording a song together called Killer. Then, a couple of weeks later, he was suddenly trying to hook up with me. I was super-down and had just broken up with my high-school boyfriend. We slept together on his 40th birthday and I’d just turned 20.”
She wrote Motion Sickness after they broke up. What did he think of it? “We were back on good terms by then but after I sent him the song he didn’t talk to me for 24 hours. Then he sent me a sweet text saying ‘it’s a great song’,” she says. “Yes, interesting character…”
Our interview drifts towards the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, specifically the fact that, while the film industry is making a public show of exposing and denouncing past misdemeanours, the music business appears to be keeping its head down. “It’s really f----- up that the music industry is behind Hollywood,” Bridgers says. “We’re 1,000 per cent due our movement. I can only do what’s in my power, which is to tell people about the real abusers who are out there. If anyone f---- with me in a way that I don’t like, I tell them to their face.”
While there’s a small community of female singer-songwriters who look out for one another, she says the industry could do more to support them. “People need to stick by the women. It’s women who have done all the f------ work.” She mentions Canadian musician Alice Glass, who has accused Ethan Kath, her former bandmate in Crystal Castles, of raping her (Kath has denied the accusations). “I was so upset by that,” says Bridgers. “But I will say another really rad thing, which is that a lot of my sweetest male friends were like, ‘hey, please let me know if I’ve exhibited any of this behaviour’. I do feel like some people are really listening.”
Bridgers speaks with such self-assurance and enthusiasm that it comes as a surprise to discover that, not only does she get stage fright, but she also struggles with lethargy. “Sometimes I’m so exhausted and I don’t really want to play,” she admits. “Often people have to wake me up from a nap to tell me to go on stage.” I laugh and she checks herself. “But I am doing exactly what I want to do.”