Phoebe Bridgers Talks Music, Punishers, Burger Records, ‘Fansplaining,’ and Stardom at Home

Phoebe Bridgers
Frank Ockenfels

Phoebe Bridgers was already a rising star when her sophomore full-length “Punisher” was released in June, but the rapturous response the album has received from fans and critics has vaulted her career into the fast lane. Needless to say, Bridgers’ view of her incipient stardom is almost entirely from her Los Angeles apartment. “I find myself in my house thinking, ‘Do people like my record?,’ and I go on Instagram and I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, that guys likes it!,’” the 25-year-old singer-songwriter tells Variety.

Bridgers’ high, pretty voice and the soft delivery of much of her music often mask her blunt and intense lyrics, yet what poises the hushed and subtle “Punisher” — which takes its name from musician slang for an overly attentive fan — to be a major breakthrough is its multigenerational appeal: There’s Elliott Smith and emo rock from her own youth; the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters she was raised on; and even splashes of Gen X-era Liz Phair/Belly alt-rock.

A prolific songwriter and serial collaborator, in the two and a half years since Bridgers’ debut album, “Stranger in the Alps,” she’s dropped an EP as one-third of Boygenius, her harmony-heavy, ironically Crosby Stills & Nash-style “supergroup” with fellow femme bards Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus; released an album with Bright Eyes founder Conor Oberst under the name Better Oblivion Community Center; produced an album for guitarist Christian Lee Hutson; guested on the new 1975 album and more. She was slated to open the 1975’s North American tour in the spring before launching her own headlining trek, but the pandemic had other plans.

An exhaustive New Yorker profile published shortly before the new album’s release pretty much covered her entire life up to that point, so this interview for Variety’s “Young Hollywood” issue, which took place late last month, focuses on the past few weeks — life in lockdown, what she’s been listening to and reading; her creative process; the awkwardness of virtual concerts and TV appearances; her interactions with fans; the great sexual-misconduct reckoning in the indie-rock world; and what’s next, whatever that might be.

What has it been like to have your career take off when everyone’s stuck at home?

It’s super, super strange. I’m so used to connecting with fans every day on tour and being in a room full of people, and I’m realizing how much my ego relies on it. I find myself in my house like, “Do people like my record?” and I go on Instagram and, “Oh yeah, that guys likes it!” It’s a relationship I never planned on having with the Internet. But I’m trying to stay sane — if it was a singular experience I’d be in hell, but it’s better to have a shared trauma with the world.

There’s been no shortage of rave reviews — you feel that way because the one-on-one element is gone?

Yeah, it’s just the human interaction. I f—ing love touring, although I hate it when it goes on for too long. I was literally on tour for like two and a half years straight and I was romanticizing my house, which is a lot of what [“Punisher”] is about: “I knew I wanted [to be a successful musician], this is my dream, so why the f— am I unhappy?” It was just too much of the same thing and too much not being home — and now it’s the literal exact opposite. I feel like I rubbed a crystal and asked for more time at home and this is what I f—in’ get. It really does feel like a weird curse for wishing I was home.

What’s coming up?

I don’t know! Everything is so unprecedented. Press cycles are nonexistent in certain ways, because you do all the album-release stuff and then you’re supposed to go on tour. So I’m just thinking of other projects and reading a lot, and trying to write and not use tropes in my writing about this shared experience. I never got to spend any time at home — I live like a divorced dad, my apartment is so divorced dad — and it’s been kind of nice to be like, maybe I should have a garden or maybe I should cook, maybe I should learn how to do this and this. I Facetime with my friends all the time.

Do you mean writing songs or writing writing?

Both. I don’t consider myself anything more than a songwriter, but for sanity it’s nice to keep a log of your feelings, I guess? And I’m trying to song-write a little bit.

How does your creative process work? Do you write a lot of songs at once and then have downtime, or is it constant?

I write really sporadically and really diligently. I’m trying not to be down on myself, but it really does feel like I’m the slowest writer I know. I have a lot of friends who will write a song and then throw it away because they don’t like it very much, and instead I make sure I only write songs I like — I had ten songs that I liked and that’s why [“Punisher”] is ten songs long. But since then I’ve written two other songs, so it’s pretty slow. I don’t really have creative bursts, but I’m always writing something, and if [the process] ain’t broke …

What are you reading?

I’m reading [Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1985 novel] “Love in the Time of Cholera” because… obviously! It’s so many of my friends’ favorite book, and I kinda wish I’d gotten an annotated version because it’s beautiful, although some of the references are kinda passing me by. I want ghost stories, and this is a good middle ground: I read “Carmilla” [an early vampire novel, written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and published in 1872], just to feel outside my reality.

I’m finding it hard to read contemporary fiction because so much of it feels incongruous or silly with a pandemic going on.

Exactly, or it’s just sad. A friend made me watch a bunch of “High Maintenance” episodes and I was like “This f—ing sucks! Watching people have a great time in New York City? I don’t want that!”

A lot of people have been binge-watching TV, but I’ve been binge-listening to artists’ entire catalogs — things I haven’t listened to in ages, like Steely Dan, Caetano Veloso, Siouxsie & the Banshees.

Same! Although Steely Dan, oh my god, that’s the most straight-man thing I’ve ever heard (laughing). That’s awesome, maybe I’ll do Steely Dan next. I’ve been listening to [Estonian composer] Arvo Part, who I really love, the new Perfume Genius blows my mind, the new Fiona Apple destroyed my life in the best possible way. I’ve been listening to lots of ambient music — I like Juliana Barwick a lot. There’s this girl Skullcrusher who’s been blowing my mind, she’s not even done with her record yet and I’m DMing her like “please!” [Skullcrusher’s debut EP was released a few days after this interview.] There’s this kid Charlie Hickey who grew up around me, and his new music, which I hope is coming out soon, is incredible, and also Claud, who’s making incredible pop music, and Muna. I’ve been into a lot of pop lately. And I f—ing love Teenage Fanclub — their [1990] first album, which has this incredible song called “Everything Flows,” just went on streaming for some reason, so I’ve been revisiting them a lot. Teenage Fanclub is the hookiest, coolest band ever, we were “tour-bitting” each other two summers ago and I’ve seen them a bunch of times.

But you’re right, I’ve been listening to music with a newfound enthusiasm, where before it might have felt like a job and now it feels like a necessity. I need to connect to people in that way, if that makes sense, like someone will send me a record and I’ll listen to it immediately. On tour I don’t listen to tons of music because it’s around me all the time, so it’s been nice. I have been totally binge-listening, I did it with Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. I don’t know why — just feeling nostalgic, maybe.

You listened to Neil Young and Joni Mitchell’s entire catalogs? Didn’t that take about a month?

Yeah, I did a couple of times. Because Neil has so much sh– that passed everybody by, like his doo-wop album [1983’s “Everybody’s Rockin’”].

Maybe not so much on the doo-wop album, but there’s an assuredness in his writing that I hear in yours too: You’re not afraid to let a line hang or leave a lot of space in your melodies.

Thank you, that is an amazing compliment. I worship him, I think he could do anything and still sound like Neil Young, and that’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I [binge-listened] Jackson Browne, too. I was like, “I say these are my favorite musicians, but have I heard every single one of their songs?” And it was very rewarding — ‘80s Jacksone Browne is really wild. I was like, “Oh wow, I forgot that the ‘80s happened to you.”

And those albums are good? They don’t have big, stupid, ‘80s drums?

Oh yeah, there are definitely big, stupid drums, but they’re still Jackson Browne songs. I’m not afraid of the ‘80s! Although it wasn’t kind to many people: Wasn’t that “Shot of Love”-era [Bob] Dylan, his Christian phase? I think he wore a tank top for the entire ‘80s (laughter), which nobody needed, but whatever.

How are the virtual shows you’ve been playing? Are they fun or too weird?

I mean, it’s not comparable to [normal] shows, but it beats nothin’. Again, everybody’s going through it together, and it was funny watching people trying to quote-unquote “sing along” by commenting my lyrics in all-caps. It’s fun but very weird. There’s no prep — at shows I’m used to being in the dressing room and having 45 minutes of weird time to kill, and then getting nervous and going onstage. But in my apartment it’s like, “Well… I guess I don’t have to wear real pants!” (Laughter) And then I start playing and I’d get stage fright immediately, like “Oh my god, oh my god, I didn’t know that 9,000 people are watching this!” It’s hard to connect the dots when you’re just looking at a screen. The apocalypse is long and boring, but this was a fun part of it.

So you see emojis and comments in lieu of applause?

Yeah, I’ll finish a song and then they all come at once. I played a Twitch show with Zack Fox a couple of weeks ago. It was kind of, like, legit — it was in a studio and we had monitors with the Twitch comments, but it felt so weird. I’d laugh at a joke that someone [commented] and realize that nobody knows which thing I’m laughing at, and  instead of someone in the audience yelling “Show us your tits!” and being able to have an amazing f–k-you response that everybody knows is happening. With this, the heckling is just for me privately (laughing), because nobody knows which thing I’m seeing. It’s not as much of a shared experience.


Is there a lot of heckling at your online shows?

No, everyone’s so nice, I think because it’s more curated and actual fans — like, who the f— watches a livestream except for people who actually want to see it? I don’t know anyone who’s been dragged along to a livestream show. (Laughter)

How did you have the idea to karaoke to your own song on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert”?

I saw Father John Misty do it for some Spotify event, I think it was. He brought a karaoke machine and played his own songs and very genuinely sang to people, and I always thought that was cool. I was thinking, “What’s something ridiculous that people do by themselves, hmm… I think I need a karaoke machine.” That thing rules, it lights up, and me and my drummer and his girlfriend have been using it a lot. So yeah, money well spent, it’s already paid itself off.

You should have done a split when you jumped off the table toward the end of the song.

There were many takes of that where I f— it up, it’s great.


What are your favorite karaoke songs to sing?

I’m actually really bad at picking karaoke songs, I like good songs and I forget what’s conductive to the karaoke vibe. But I feel like I’m getting a little better at it. Kate Bush is always good, [Bonnie Tyler’s] “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” my best one is probably [My Chemical Romance’s] “Welcome to the Black Parade,” because you don’t even have to sing it — at least if you’re with millennials, the entire bar is going to scream it, and I love that.

Didn’t MCR have a skeleton theme for that album too?

[Frontman Gerard Way] looks like a skeleton a lot, but that’s more marching-band themed and very ghosty, definitely lots of inspiration there. In high school I wanted to look like Gerard Way, I cut my hair short, dyed it grey and would put grey, sickly makeup on my cheekbones to make me look, like, gaunt. Definitely style inspo.

How many skeleton costumes do you have?

I have five in my possession. They’re so cheap — it’s the best idea ever, to make my “look” the cheapest Halloween costume. They don’t hold up very well, when you sweat in them they’re disgusting, but I have different one for each day and mass-wash them.

Is that why you chose it?

No, that was secondary. I love things that are innocently creepy. I was mixing my first record [2018’s “Stranger in the Alps”] around Halloween time in Omaha and I went to Target for three hours. I buy all my dishes around that time, I just love corny, creepy stuff, which is why my first record’s [visual theme] is a ghost and the second one is a skeleton.

Are you a big Tim Burton fan?

Oh yeah, definitely. He did a really cool LACMA show forever ago that I went to, Guillermo Del Toro did one too. I love stuff like that, people who kind of make it their entire life to be creepy.

You tweeted the other day, “Society has progressed past the need for dudes in bands,” and some people got kind of ridiculously offended. What was that about?

It’s just funny, there’s a couple of people who took it seriously and it’s such a catch-22: If you take it personally, it is for you, and if you don’t, it’s not about you. But all these people were called out around the Burger Records scene

Oh, I know.

Yeah… which has been really creepy — not good-creepy. It was a serial-abuser apologist scene forever, under the guise of “We’re DIY and punk!” — there’s nothing punk about hooking up with teenagers. It’s funny reading the comments [on her tweet], people actually think reverse sexism exists, it’s amazing. Obviously, there will always be dudes in bands! Except for me and my bassist, my band is all guys! Anybody who knows that knows it’s just a funny tweet, but people who feel self-conscious about their own behavior are like, “Why are you attacking me?”

It’s incredible that the Burger Records abuse went on for so long without more people knowing about it, and suddenly the floodgates opened.

I think music is so insular and isolated that you can exist in your own scene, where everybody says, “Don’t go near Ryan Adams, he’s a creep,” but then two years later someone moves from Ohio to make music, and they’ve never heard that. No musician knows what the other musician pays their manager, nobody knows what’s normal, and when you learn the scene for a while, it’s totally a Harvey Weinstein thing — “Wink-wink, don’t take a meeting with this guy” — but nobody talks to each other. So when someone gets called out online, you’re like, “Oh my f—ing god, that happened to somebody else too?” It’s nice to see it all come crumbling down — love it when it burns.

It’s also odd that so much reckoning is happening in indie-rock and hardly anywhere else — you’re not seeing it in country or hip-hop or even much in pop.

Right, like Pwr Bttm [whose cofounder Ben Hopkins was accused of sexual assault by an anonymous female fan in 2017] is taken off of all streaming services because of its target market, which is quote-unquote “woke” teenagers, and Chris Brown is on major radio. If the fanbase is too big, a majority of the fans don’t care, whereas Pwr Bttm represented marginalized people and their entire market disappeared when you realized they were abusing fans.

But yeah, I feel lucky to be in a [part of the] industry where if I did something f—ed, people would hold me accountable. People sometimes think that [accusers] just make stuff up or “It doesn’t happen as much as you think,” but with Burger Records, it’s clearly the exact same experience like eight times over — and nobody gives a sh– unless somebody’s getting in trouble. Burger Records’ apology was like “Oh, we’re super sorry we got caught.”

Your songs are so personal and based in real life — doesn’t that invite punishers into your life? Do you get strangers asking questions about things like your relationship with your father?

(Laughing) Definitely, but I feel like the good outweighs the bad, and the times that I have a real, actual connection with someone outweighs the times where someone is insensitive or sh–ty. There’s a middle ground where people are really way too intense and I feel like I’m being tested, like “My boyfriend died last week and that’s why I’m at this show.” You feel like you need to take care of somebody and it’s just a lot of pressure — not necessarily bad, but, “Oh my god, I’m not a therapist, what do I do?” But I love my fans, truly, and I feel like people who wait outside the bus or chase you are a really small representation of the people who like your music. And every musician I know gets their fair share of punishers. I had a guy come at me like, “Hey can I give you some advice?” “No.” “You should introduce yourself onstage,” and I’m like, “What? it’s my f—ing show!”

Nick Cave does these remarkable “Conversations With Nick Cave” shows where he plays songs solo and then takes audience questions, and so many of the questions are prefaced with the fan telling him what the song is about.

Yes, “fansplaining,” that’s my favorite: they’re explaining you to you. I saw that Nick Cave documentary a couple of years ago [One More Time With Feeling,” which addresses Cave’s teenaged son’s death from a fall while under the influence in 2015]. There was a Q&A after, and he’s such a gentleman: This lady was like, “Do you blame yourself for your son’s death?,” and he was like, “No — teenagers are teenagers, and we don’t go there.” He was so polite about the sh–tiest, craziest question, and that’s how I’m trying to be.