There are at least a couple generations of music fans now that have Phoebe Bridgers at the top of a list of artists they’d love to be having still more musical conversations with. But especially for a streaming series that has women in their early 20s at the fore, as Hulu’s “Conversations With Friends” does, it makes sense that the first go-to for producers to approach with the idea of doing a theme song would be Bridgers. It’d be a natural ask even if Bridgers hadn’t already established herself for years now as a super-fan of source novelist Sally Rooney.
Ask Bridgers how much time she spent trying to get into the series protagonist’s head with her new song, “Sidelines,” and the answer comes quickly: None. That’s because she considered herself already there, innately. “I feel like I’m more similar to Frances than any character in pop culture, ever,” she says, talking to Variety about the work she did with co-writers Marshall Vore and Ruby Henley in coming up with the song.
As the first original piece of music she’s come up with since breaking through to the wider pop culture with her two-year-old “Punisher” album, “Sidelines” has joined Bridgers’ set list for the shows and festivals she’s doing in the U.S. and Europe this summer. The new song fits in perfectly, except to the extent it doesn’t — she concedes that it’s a bit of an outlier in her catalog, in its uplift. But she wasn’t about to let Frances’ trajectory in “Conversations” go out on a downer, and as it turns out, the woman who wrote “I Know the End” is into writing about new beginnings, too.
Read on for our interview with Bridgers (which has been lightly edited for clarity and space purposes) and to see the two videos for the song, one with footage from the Hulu series and one with tour footage recently shot by her brother, Jackson Bridgers.
The tone of “Sidelines” feels optimistic — not always the first word people use when they’re discussing their favorite songs of yours. Obviously it was written for a project. But how do you think the self-affirmative tone that you strike fits in with what you’ve done and what people expect?
I’m striving to do more stuff like that. I think it’s more challenging to sound smart and write well about happiness than it is about sadness. In the interest of not seeming trite, I lean toward darker subject matter, just out of comfort. And I think a challenge to myself, now, is being articulate about things that are good. [Laughs.]
How long ago had you read the book “Conversations With Friends”?
I read it while I was making “Punisher,” so 2019. I think Sally’s writing is so beautiful and perfect, and “Normal People” affected me deeply, too, in totally different ways.
When you were writing the song, was there a degree of thinking about what would fit the Frances character (played by Alison Oliver) at the end of the series?
None whatsoever. Not to flatter myself, but my similarity to that character has always been really surprising to me. I feel like I’m more similar to Frances than any character in pop culture, ever. There’s so much that Sally nailed about… Frances is so, so confident in her own art —she knows she’s great, and she thinks she’s the smartest person in the room — but she’s also so deeply, deeply self-conscious. And that balance in a person was super jarring to read for the first time. So of any project to write for, this was perfect. I didn’t have to think about the character at all. I think a lot of those experiences, if not universal, then definitely she and I have in common.
How did the writing of the song proceed, as a collaboration?
My drummer Marshall (Vore) and his girlfriend, Ruby (Henley), started the song, and I fell in love with it and was listening to it all the time when it had like a slightly different vibe and different lyrics. And then when I got the opportunity to make music for the show, Marshall was like, “Yo! ‘Sidelines,’ that idea is never going to come out. You should make it your own and take it on.” There wasn’t that much I wanted to redo, and I thought it would be easy. Usually with my songs, even songs that Marshall starts, I’ll rewrite them like 10 times with lots of options. And this was the hardest thing. Everything I put into it felt corny. And what he had already encapsulated was so beautiful that I felt like I was going to ruin it, so it was such a big challenge.
My partner Paul (Mescal) and I were like going through the lyrics, and I was constantly punishing him with: “What about this? And what about this? And what about this? What about this?” And then just one random day, Marshall and I were sitting at the piano and something flooded open, and I wrote some of my favorite lyrics right at the last minute. But it was cool to embark on that. My favorite thing is already loving an idea and not wanting to ruin it, so everything you put into it has to be great — instead of when an idea is still a baby, and there’s not that much compelling about it yet, so you can put anything into it. That’s a challenging way for me to write, because I can’t tell what’s good or not. Whereas if what’s there is already so good, then I don’t want to fuck it up. It just makes the whole thing way better.
Do you remember anything specific about the breakthrough you had, lyrically, when you were sitting at the piano with Marshall, and felt like you were coming up with things that rose to the level you wanted?
Marshall’s whole part was about being like watching the world from the sidelines because you’re not invested in your own life. You like don’t care what happens to you. And I was able to find a way to flip it around and say: You’re now watching the world from the sidelines because you like doing things where, especially as a musician, you aren’t in the spotlight. You don’t have to be in the spotlight to make yourself happy. You don’t have to insert yourself into every situation and constantly be addicted to chaos and overstimulation. You can be at a house party talking to just one person, or watering your plants at home — this whole idea of the things that make just you happy being enough, when you’re happy with somebody. I thought that was cool.
Did you get a chance to see the whole series before you recorded it, to see how it settled into that spot at the end?
No, it’s funny. They only sent me the first couple of episodes. And then when they were synch-ing the song, they sent me the last episodes. I had a very disjointed view of it at first. But I re-read the whole book and was like, “Damn. This is so great.” And now I’ve seen it all and they did such a beautiful job.
You’ve had some different connections with the Sally Rooney universe, as it were. With Paul having been in “Normal People,” did that intersection have anything to do with producers saying, “Hey, please do this song for us,” or was that coincidental? [An existing track by Bridgers and friends, “Killer + the Sound,” was also licensed, for the penultimate episode.]
Who knows? I mean, I’ve been a pretty vocal fan. But yeah, it’s cool that they thought of me. I’m glad that it extends now to more than just internet sub-Reddits of the Sally Rooney universe — I was glad to solidify it.
The tone of the song is upbeat, which as you said is maybe unusual for you, but it’s quiet, which is not unusual. Was it always pretty clear that you’d want it to be in this kind of hushed tone, even though it’s kind of celebrative?
Yeah. I had some definitely strong production opinions, but I loved that, like, literally shitty drum machine that Marshall used on the very first demo, and I was pretty attached to that. So I definitely had a vision in mind before we even started. And Mike Mogis mixed it, and I drove him insane because I was so specific. We probably did 30 mixes. I wanted it to be hi-fi in some ways, and beautiful and cinematic, and lo-fi in other ways, and it was really hard to find that balance.
Fans love to analyze the lyrics and find connections that they see as echoes of other songs. In “Sidelines,” you’ve got drowning and fire in the first verse, which they like to point out you also had in an earlier song, “Would You Rather.” And there are some contrasts. In keeping with the hopeful tone, you sing, “Now I know what it feels like to want to go outside,” and, well, that’s quite different from “There’s no place like my room.”
[Laughs.] Yeah, totally.
Do you think about, “Oh, that’s kind of an echo of where I’ve been before,” or “Now I’m going totally the opposite way from something I’ve said?” That’s kind of fun in a way for people who feel like they are following your story, lyrically.
I don’t really think about that stuff until later. And then it’s fun, because you can’t sue yourself. [laughs.] I feel like I’ll be visiting the same themes forever. And if I ever let go of any of them, it’s because I’m bored of them. But yeah, I like revisiting stuff. And I like when my fans… [She seems to catches herself referring to “fans” and recasts the thought.] I’m sorry. When I’m a fan of someone, I like noticing little homages to previous records, or songs on the same record in an album. And just with where my head space is at, always, I feel like I float around the same couple things, and then I move on from them.
Going back to the Sally Rooney universe, is there anything about her writing that you could single out that made you fall in love with her, above and beyond your identification with Frances as a character?
I hate comparing shit as a way to talk about things, but sometimes I have to. I feel like it reminds me of a way less misogynistic J.D. Salinger. Just in the fact that everybody’s internal world is so flushed out, and it lets the reader notice things about a character that the characters not noticing about themselves — but not in a dumb, “Come on, it’s right in front of your face” way. It’s allowing the person reading to be perceptive and watch them fuck up and watch them fall in love. You feel completely inside the person’s head. And I feel like the other person who does that really well is George Saunders, where, story to story, the internal monologue is completely different, depending on who’s thinking.
You said that after you saw the series, or at least parts of the series you were given, it drove you back to read the book again. What is that process like, of reconciling the film version and the literary version, as someone who loved the book so much?
I don’t know — as long as it’s done well, I feel like there’s nothing to reconcile. There are pieces of each thing that I like. There are things in the series that are kind of implied in the book that I didn’t notice before, and the other way around. And I felt the same way about “Normal People.” It is hard to watch a series or a movie of a book you’ve loved, and I think I’m finally starting to relax. “Normal People” is one of the first ones where I was like, “Wow, it’s so, so internal” [a la the novel] — and I feel the same way about “Conversations.” They totally nailed it, and it’s so fun to watch. It’s also fun because I feel like half the time when I’m reading Sally, I forget that it’s in Ireland, completely, and so it’s fun to be reminded of that. The whole series, it’s like, “Oh, yeah!”
Just to ask a couple of things off the “Conversations” track… You don’t have any full-length releases in the offing, but you have releases coming out on your label, Saddest Factory. Muna’s (self-titled) album is finally coming out (on June 24) — you’re so intimately involved with that, that must be rewarding to have on the horizon for people to hear.
Yeah, and Charlie Hickey’s album, which I’ve been listening to on repeat for two years now in demo form. [Hickey’s album, “Nervous at Night,” came out on Saddest Factory in May.] That feels awesome. And the Muna album is one of my favorite albums of the past 10 years. It’s very fun in a nerdy way to have an album mean something to me earlier than other people. Like, I’ll always remember where I was in the world — I think I was in in Northern California listening to it for the first time — and just letting it wash over my life in color, (affecting) every experience I had. It’s cool to be in a completely different place and get to hear it early. So yeah, I just can’t wait, can’t wait.
You did a lot of touring last year, including the great shows we saw in L.A. at the Greek last October. You’re back out on tour now. Does it feel like a complete continuation of what you were doing last year, or there anything about being out now in 2022, that feels a little different than it did last year?
It feels like a continuation musically. And there are places that I haven’t played yet on this album, which is crazy, just because of COVID. But it feels different politically, that’s for sure. It just is weird to have like mass gatherings when there are multiple shootings in gathering places every day. And all the abortion stuff… It’s cool to see (the audiences) in places where the government is especially archaic and heinous. I love, love, love seeing gay, blue-haired teenagers dressed up like skeletons that are going to go vote. It’s very encouraging. So that feels different.