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Phoebe Bridgers on Pal Phoebe Waller-Bridge Directing a ‘Very David Lynchian’ Music Video for ‘Savior Complex’

The singer-songwriter also talks about her unique "Tonight Show" performance of the single and her big haul of Grammy nominations.

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GrandstandHQ

An artistic marriage between singer Phoebe Bridgers and actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge sounds like something straight out of a modern pop-culture version of “The Name Game,” but there’s a lot more to their relationship than celebrity assonance. The two Phoebes teamed up for a new music video, “Savior Complex,” based on one of the songs from Bridgers’ “Punisher” album, with Waller-Bridge, of “Fleabag” fame, moving into the director’s chair for a clip that bridges (sorry) both the Atlantic and some shared sensibilities.

A few hours after the surprise release of “Savior Complex” Tuesday, Bridgers got on the phone with Variety to discuss how her collaboration with Waller-Bridge came together, what the video’s dream-state logic may or may not mean and, incidentally, those four Grammy nominations she picked up just a week ago.

Until she flew to London this summer, and ended up at a location in the British isles for the video shoot after some quarantining, Bridgers had known Waller-Bridge only as a penpal, thanks to interviews she’d done prior to releasing “Punisher” that had her extolling her “Fleabag” mania to the press.

“Me and Phoebe had been emailing for a while,” Bridgers says. “One of the first emails that we exchanged over quarantine was, like, mutual fandom and her telling me that she loved the record, which I sent it to her early. We were going to meet up for drinks in New York or London, when the world was normal. After the pandemic had started, Phoebe told me to watch ‘Normal People.’ I was very much avoiding watching ‘Normal People,’ because I thought it might be too sad, because I really loved the book, and it’s very depressing.”

She got over that dread, “and then, long story short, Paul and I became friends online” — that would be the series’ star, Paul Mescal — “and he was like, ‘Well, I’ll be in your music video, if Phoebe makes it.,’ because I told him that we’d been communicating. I was like, ‘No way!’ Then I called her and she was super, super into it. So it was all: right place, right time.”

How much of the concept for the video can each Phoebe claim? Says Bridgers, “I love that I was like ‘Phoebe, Paul wants to be in a music video,’ and she was like: “Got it. We’re going to have a dog that steals from him.’ So I was kind of along for the ride.” (To watch the Facebook-exclusive video, click here.)

Mescal is practically making a whole second quarantine-time career out of carrying music videos almost all by himself. In a clip for the Rolling Stones’ unearthed archival song “Scarlet” that came out in August, the actor is seen trashing a hotel, and more importantly himself, with no other souls in sight. He has just a bit more company in “Savior Complex.” Battered and bloodied on a beach, he comes across a Chihuahua that may be friendly or may have designs on some goods he’s carrying. Wandering down a highway, he’s passed by a tractor-driving Bridgers, in the first of just a few short appearances in the video. After stealing a car and being, well, dogged by the dog, some surreal twists ensue.

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Paul Mescal in Phoebe Bridgers’ “Savior Complex” music video, directed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge Courtesy GrandstandHQ

What does it all mean? Within the first six hours of the video being up in its exclusive Facebook premiere Tuesday, 185,000 people had already watched the video, and many of them had theories about Bridgers’ symbolic or literal part in the triangle. As one viewer confessed, “I 100% do not understand this video, but I also am 100% there for it.” Perhaps speaking for all viewers, another fan wrote: “I love this magical grifter puppy so much.” Others tried to unpack the symbolism: “I though she was the dog?”

“I love that,” laughs Bridgers. “Whatever people want, honestly. It’s like the fox in ‘Fleabag’ — it could mean anything. … It’s very David Lynchian to me. And it doesn’t really matter that it’s not linear; I think it’s super compelling.”

And not so completely ambiguous, after all, if you pay attention to the themes of Bridgers’ song. At first it appears as if the injured Mescal is in need of some saving, before it turns out he has some possibly predatory instincts that may make him more ripe for karma than compassion. “I love music videos that complement the idea of the music in a totally different way,” the singer says. “In the song, basically, I’m just talking about one relationship that kind of grows and changes over time — or, like, projections early in a relationship — so (the video) has a lot to do with it in that way. … I think kind of the only concept I really totally get from (the video)  is just the assumptions that people make about people — and kind of dismantling that is so fun.”

All the song itself was missing, maybe, was a savior dog. (Possible interpretation: Maybe not all spirit animals howl.) “Charlotte is a professional,” raves Bridgers of her costar. Maybe there’ll be a run of Chihuahua adoptions as a result of the video? “Oh, I hope so. That would make my life.”

The fact that Bridgers’ appearances in the video are fleeting doesn’t mean that her participation on the set was brief, or that there weren’t demands above and beyond flying to the UK and then quarantining. “I literally had to get tractor training,” she laughs.

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Phoebe Bridgers on the set of her “Savior Complex” video in the British Isles Courtesy GrandstandHQ

How much did Bridgers, as a “Fleabag” superfan, pepper Waller-Bridge for details once they met up in the flesh? “You know, I try not to, basically because it’s embarrassing,” she admits. “But then, it’s fun to talk about art with someone you respect that much. And I really think we have a lot in common, and I love to hear her talk, because she’s so fucking funny.

“But yeah, I’m kind of experiencing this now, where people talked to me like everything was normal after my record came out. They just didn’t mention my record, and then later were like, ‘Well, I actually really loved your record. I just didn’t want to say anything, because probably you’re getting inundated with stuff.’ I’m like, ‘No, I want you to tell me that my stuff is cool!’

“But yeah, I’m sure more than anybody on earth, she gets so overwhelmed with praise. Because… yeah, I cried three times during ‘Fleabag.'”

(As cryptic as the “Savior Complex” video might be, there’s no great mystery as to why it’s premiering on Facebook for a week before landing on YouTube and other sites: “Just funding. It’s a challenge to get music videos paid for. So they very kindly were like, ‘That sounds like an awesome idea. Just put it on our website first.'”)

Bridgers somehow has managed to keep up a steady stream of mini-releases since “Punisher” was released to pre-Grammy acclaim in June, partly via charity one-off singles. The most elaborate of these examples of the album having a long tail is a new EP that came out for streaming just at the end of November, “Copycat Killer,” which has producer/arranger Rob Moose retrofitting four of the summer album’s tracks with strings.

“You know, I miss the way that songs reinvent themselves on tour so much,” she says, as opposed to simply “listening to the same record over and over. Sometimes they change lyrics, and sometimes I re-imagine different” arrangements. “Like, I basically cover myself, so I’ll do a fast song slow, or a slow song fast. So this is, I guess, my way of doing that without being on tour.”

it’s not just herself Bridgers has been covering. She recently remade Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” as a duet with Maggie Rogers for charity. And now, in that same way, she’s had her way with Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through the December,” stripping away some of the Hag’s faux jauntiness to make the holiday chestnut as sad as it wants to be.

“I like recording a Christmas song every year, but that one was especially resonant this year,” she says. “It’s one of my favorite Christmas songs; I grew up on Merle Haggard. But the words mean something different this year to me. I think a lot of people are thinking about how to like make it through this winter. The pandemic has kicked a lot of people when they were down already. And I think the Downtown Women’s Shelter is a good outlet for {the proceeds). It’s so nice that my charitable contributions can be me making music.”

The day that she got the Grammy news last Tuesday, Bridgers was on her way to the Magic Castle in Hollywood to shoot a different version of “Savior Complex” for this week’s Wednesday night edition of “The Tonight Show,” effectively giving fans two different music-video treatments of the tune.

“I’m finding myself missing the weirdest parts of being a human being,” she explains. “I probably go to the Magic Castle once a year, and yeah, it’s just been a long time. It was a fun idea to think about: How can I be alone and make a compelling late-night performance? So I play with Irma, the ghost of the Magic Castle.”

And how is she getting used to having “four-time nominee” appended to her name for a week now, having been put up for best new artist as well as in rock and alternative categories?

“I mean, I think this is the best time, you know, like before I’ve won or lost anything. ‘Four-time nominee’ sounds better than, you know, maybe after the Grammys?” she laughs. “I think it’s great.”