Los Angeles musician Phoebe Bridgers made waves in 2017 with the release of her excellent debut album Stranger in the Alps. The singer-songwriter's sound is often described as sad and heartbreaking, and her music has even caught the attention of the likes of John Mayer and Ryan Adams.
Ahead of her show in Denver tonight, April 6, at the Gothic, Bridgers talked with Westword about occasionally lying, teenagers being bad people, weird iPhone notes, accidentally swearing during her set on CBS This Morning, and hearing one of her songs in a coffee shop.
Westword: You were on CBS This Morning earlier this month — how was that?
Phoebe Bridgers: It was kind of epic. I was freaked out, and, yeah, I’m sure I pissed them off. I have a song where I say "shit" that we played, and I accidentally said "shit." We had to re-cut it and everybody was really anxious to get us off stage. But it was amazing. It was the perfect amount of stress, if that sounds reasonable in a messed-up way.
Was that your first national television appearance?
It was not. I did a CBS thing when I was a teenager that was a Music Minute or something. But this was the closest thing to “You’re on the clock; we don’t have time.” CBS came to my rehearsal space that I rented, by the way, because they were like, "We want to come to your rehearsal space," and I was like, "No, you don’t." So I rented a really fancy rehearsal space and had them come.
It was definitely the most nerve-racking [performance] other than my Tiny Desk concert. That was really nerve-racking.
Tiny Desk has so many incredible artists come through that always sound fantastic. I’m sure that’s intimidating.
Well, yeah. It’s either your Tiny Desk [performance] is like, "Oh, have you seen her Tiny Desk?," or it’s just brushed under the rug as another live performance, you know what I mean? It’s nerve-racking to play stuff like that, but I think I’m getting better at it with more practice.
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Wait, what’s wrong with your rehearsal space?
Oh, it was just my apartment. I was at a place and I was mostly playing solo, so I didn’t have a place where I rehearsed except for maybe my mom’s house, which — I don’t want CBS coming to my mom’s house. It’d be crazy.
What made you more nervous, CBS This Morning or your first headline show?
I can’t really remember my first headline show. I definitely played a room where people didn’t give a shit, so probably CBS This Morning, just by default. But there have been headline shows where I’ve been crazy-nervous. We just played two nights in New York, and I was very, very nervous.
Do you feel like they went well?
I do. I think weirdly the second night was way better for that reason. I was so insanely nervous the first night, and then the second night I had just played, basically, so that was great.
Going back to that CBS This Morning interview: You talked about having an iPhone note filled with a melody you might like or a piece of a lyric that might have potential. Do you ever look back on some of those notes and think, "What the hell is this?"
Oh, nine times out of ten or I’m like, oh, my God, I just want to kill myself because it’s like some b-squad Taylor Swift lyric. I also write down my dreams sometimes in my notes, so sometimes I’ll look through my notes and it’ll be literal nonsense, because I’ve just woken up and I’m typing in my phone, and auto-correct has had a field day with whatever I wrote. I’m like, what is this bullshit?
There was one note in my phone once that said “I forget about pears.”
About pears. One of my friends must have been like, "Pears are good, I forget about pears." But I wrote it down without anything else. Okay, here’s another note in my phone. It just says "drip."
The word "drip." And one that says “Oregon house” with nothing else. What house? I have no idea. Why Oregon? I have no idea.
What’s your best guess?
Um, "drip"...maybe I was starting to make a grocery list or something… Oh, no, no! I know what it was: Andy LeMaster is a guy that played in Bright Eyes a bunch, and I have a relative that I had never met who came to my show. He lives in Athens, where Andy LeMaster lives, and I said, "Oh I have a friend that lives in Athens, his name is Andy LeMaster." He said, "Oh, I toured with his band, Drip." I was like, what? This is someone I’m related to, like a cousin of my dad’s.
So, drip — that means something to me. My point being, I didn’t write "Andy LeMaster’s old band." I just wrote the word "drip," and this is the first time I’ve looked at it in, like, two months.
Have you heard your music while out and about?
Yes. I was actually with Conor Oberst on tour, and we were walking down the street getting a coffee. I walked into a random hipster-y coffee shop and I heard my own song, and I was so stoked. It had never happened to me before, but because I was with Conor, I had to play it extra-cool. I was like, "Oh, for sure, that’s sick," because I’m sure his music’s on every coffee shop playlist since the beginning of time. Meanwhile, I’m texting my mom super low-key.
He might be the father of coffee-shop music.
Much to his dismay, yes, indeed.
I was actually listening to a podcast a few months ago and somebody was talking about this terribly sad, heartbreaking record that they play in the car all the time, and it was Stranger in the Alps.
Amazing. Which podcast?
The Watch podcast, from The Ringer.
It was Jason Mantzoukas talking about his end-of-year lists, and you made it!
Amazing. Also, I will tell you that I’ve now met all my heroes, pretty much. I don’t get starstruck by musicians anymore, but podcasts? I’m a total podcast groupie. Do you listen to Reply All?
No. Tell me about it.
Okay, it’s amazing; it’s one of my favorite podcasts. It’s about the Internet, but really it’s just about people. PJ Vogt and Sruthie Pinnamaneni, two of the hosts from the show, came to one of my New York shows. ... I went into fangirl mode so hard. If their drink was, like, half-empty, I’d be like, "Oh, my God, do you want something else? What can I get you? Do you want some chips?” I was so nervous. I love podcasts, so that’s good to hear.
I met a sportswriter that I love and I fanboyed really hard. It did not go that well. I’m sure he was very uncomfortable.
[Laughs.] Oh, no, I’m sure it’s fine.
At what point did you stop freaking out when you met your heroes?
I think just when I started having real relationships or having a normal interaction with someone. And having people project weird shit on me, now I’m just horrified by the way I acted toward some of my heroes in the past. Do you know what fansplaining is?
No. I’m assuming it’s not that different from mansplaining?
Yeah, it’s like finding ways to tell you about yourself, which I know I have done to people. Because you want to tell someone you love, "This is the first time I heard your record," and that makes sense, and sometimes someone tells you something that really means a lot to you. Like, "All last year I was listening to your album in my car because it made me feel this way," and "I would listen to this album and it would make me feel this way" and sometimes some people will give you no other information other than "I watched your Tiny Desk, and then I saw you in Chicago! You played Lincoln Hall with Julien Baker!" and I’m like, "Cool. I did all those things. I did."
Or to Conor they say: "Oh, my God, I hear 'First Day of My Life' in Starbucks all the time!" What new information did you just bring to the table? You didn’t say, "'First Day of My Life' is my favorite song in the world, and I hear it in Starbucks, which I love." You said, "I hear 'First Day of My Life' because it’s a song you wrote." I’m horrified that I’ve done that to people before.
As an artist, what do you do with that when someone does it now?
Most of the time it’s very sweet and it’s not annoying at all. It’s really cute and sweet to see a teenager get really nervous and tell you about yourself. But when it’s an older man, especially, it gets so fucking old. Or if they relate it to seeing another female artist in like the ’90s; they’re like, "Reminds me of the first time I saw Liz Phair. I saw her in a coffee shop when nobody gave a fuck." It’s like, cool, congratulations.
I love talking to people; it’s one of my favorite things, actually. Very few of them are irritating.
Do people assume because your songs can be sad and heartbreaking that you are a sad person?
Yeah. I also have this coping mechanism when I’m really nervous where I start talking like a surfer bro. I feel like I'm overcompensating...for dropping such heavy shit on people all the time. When I meet people I’m like [in a thick surfer accent] "What's up? How’s it going, sup?" I don’t want people to think I’m so serious, but also sometimes it [creeps] into being super self-deprecating all the time, which is also really irritating.
So, yeah, I have a coping mechanism of being really loud and cheerful. It’s not the worst.
Do you think that finding success will have an effect on your future songwriting and records?
Weirdly, no. I think the hardest thing about writing really emotional music is when I write songs about my personal friends or my relationships or my life. Releasing a song like "Funeral" and realizing my mom heard that and it’s, like, "What the fuck, are you okay?" I don’t think public perception or what weird genres I’m getting lumped into or who I’m being associated with will really affect it. I think mostly it’s just hard to write...and then be normal with my friends when they’ve basically read my diary.
That’s vulnerability in a completely different way than being in front of strangers.
Can you go back and start working on new stuff quickly? Do you have to take time to just be on tour and work in the moment?
Definitely. I’m really excited to have new songs out, because a lot of the songs off the record are older, especially now. I keep writing whenever I can. There is an element to just powering through while touring and trying to have a good time, but also being so excited about recording new songs.
How many of the songs off Strangers in the Alps did you write when you were a teenager?
Let’s see: “Killer,” I was nineteen, I think; “Georgia,” “Chelsea” …are there more? Maybe not. I think that’s it, as far as teenager songs. I wrote a lot of songs as a teenager that I will not put on an album [laughs].
How many of the teenager songs are terrible?
Oh, my God, dude. I mean…I just…there are some things that I love about growing up with the Internet, and some things that I hate about it, and one of them is that all your musical crimes will always be forever immortalized by YouTube and stuff.
I know, it’s terrible. I even hate seeing photos of myself from high school where I remember that I was a dick to somebody or just like a terrible person because a lot of teenagers are terrible.
Nobody talks about that. ... I was a straight-up bitch to someone I was intimidated by. Or I just lied because I thought someone would think I was cool. That’s the stuff that makes my skin crawl. Not necessarily the shit that people can relate to and feel bad for me about.
If you had asked, even five years ago, have you heard Reply All?, I would have said yep, just because.
Oh, my God, dude, yeah. That was like a New Year’s resolution maybe three years ago, and it was the best decision of my life. I met my drummer, Marshall, who’s amazing and writes songs with me — he dropped out of high school, so he does this thing where, I don’t know, he could not know the capital of his home state, and he’d just be like, "Yeah, I don’t know, I didn’t graduate high school. I don’t know this. I’m interested to know." Which is so baffling and amazing to me because I feel so embarrassed by the holes in my music taste or education. I’ll just pretend, or I have been known to pretend, but people are just as self-conscious as you, so it’s so fun if someone’s like, "What? You don’t know the first Big Star album?" and I’m like, "No, tell me about it. Tell me why I should listen to it." And then people are excited to tell you. I love doing that.
What’s next for you? Festivals and tour stops throughout the summer?
Are you a festival person?
I don’t know. I haven’t played a festival since my album came out, and I’ve played festivals before, but they were always weird because nobody knew my music. I used to go to Coachella every year. It was something I looked forward to every year. You can make fun of Coachella all you want, but it really was a way to see all your bands that you love.
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Sleeping on the floor with a bunch of your friends and getting to hang out with people you think are cool just because they’re there — it was definitely part of the L.A. experience. So, yeah, I do consider myself a festival person more than the average person.
That’s what summers should be about: being hot and sweaty and feeling terrible and standing for hours, waiting for someone to play.