When we spoke with Phoebe Bridgers a few weeks ago, the pandemic was only just hitting its stride, with self-isolation in full effect, and universal dread and confusion dominating our every waking second. It was a claustrophobic time, and thematically, her second solo record, Punisher, arrives with eerily prophetic imagery of isolation, social anxiety, apocalypse, and social unrest, yet it’s far from a protest record.
Bridgers’ songs elude social commentary, and feel contained to a poetic personal narrative whose focus falls somewhere between observation and confession. While at times mournful, Bridgers’ songs are never overwhelmed by their own gloom. Her isolation is a self-imposed source of comfort, and while she sings from sidelines, they’re well populated by ghosts.
One can’t help but assume Punisher will remain linked in the minds of its listeners to the COVID era surrounding its release. It’s not the first time, however, that Bridgers has had to navigate a record release around troubling external circumstances. Her first album, 2017’s Stranger In The Alps was launched amidst her participation in calling out Ryan Adams, who had used his position as an established musician to control younger women in the industry.
Despite the foreboding conversation the album may unwittingly contribute to, Bridgers’s songs have a distinctly “shit happens” quality to them. The songs are funny, smart, and filled with millennial wisdom and clarity, like a breath of fresh air from the confines of a bedroom.
Amidst the weirdness, we chatted with Bridgers about reluctant yoga, astrology, woke rockers and, oh yeah, her incredible new record.
Read the full Q&A after the jump!
There’s already so much anticipation around this record. Do you like the whole process of promoting a record or do you hate it?
It’s better than doing nothing! It’s just weird. I feel like I’m living in my phone so much more these days, which I hate, but I’m glad I have a job right now, you know?!
Do you mean because of quarantine?
Yeah, because of COVID-19, and like doing press and not being able to see anybody. It’s like my whole life is through my phone right now.
Talking about the pandemic is sort of unavoidable when having these sorts of conversations lately; it almost feels like talking about the weather. Are you finding you’re talking less about your record and more about, like, just being a human being in interviews lately?
I just feel like some of the obligatory questions that normally apply to this kind of thing are taking a backseat, and it’s now more about COVID.
Is it better to talk about normal life stuff in these scenarios or is it weird?
I don’t know. I feel like everybody’s just going through a universal midlife crisis right now. It’s like all our plans for the future are gone and life just isn’t turning out the way that we all thought.
On the new record you sing a lot about being at home, getting back to your house after tour and sounding very relieved about it. It seems like quarantine would suit you perfectly!
Well, I’m a super introvert, but these circumstances make it hard to enjoy. I don’t really go out. I avoid even my closest friends when I’m home. So it started out fine but then the news just got worse and worse, it just feels like a depressive episode that everybody’s going on going through at once.
I’m coping better than some of my friends who go out every night, but I don’t know if coping is the right word for what anybody is doing these days or not!
Now that people are starting to hear the new songs amid this crisis, has your personal relationship to those narratives also changed?|
I think so? I think because I made it so long ago now, you know, the album was finished in October, so weirdly talking to journalists I’m realizing that through the lens of Coronavirus it looks and sounds totally different. It’s just all under this like different lens, which is super interesting.
I do have a song called “ICU” and I changed it to “I See You,” because I don’t want to remind people of the ICU right now, obviously. Other than that, and no tour, it’s all on track.
Like most people promoting records in this weird time, you’ve been doing some Instagram appearances. How’s that going for you?
Well, it makes me super nervous. It’s not comparable to playing live at all, because there’s just no tangible immediate response that you can react to. On the other hand it’s weird because I’ve never played a show to 10,000 people before!
So, it’s cool that like people from everywhere can watch at the same time, but that also makes it hard to do a bunch of them because it’s like the same people are going to log on pretty much every time you do one, so you have to be careful not to do them too often or to really mix it up.
Right! I guess you must have some pretty intense fans that already take your work pretty personally. That intimate, immediate link is pretty exciting for fans, but do you feel super exposed in the process?
Yeah, I feel very exposed. I feel like it’s a metaphor for something, but I don’t know what. I’ve kept my private life predominantly pretty private and I’ve never had a photographer come to my house before or anything, but now I have to literally play shows from my house.
I’ve also done like a bunch of FaceTime photo shoots from my house and it’s like my last boundaries are getting eaten alive.
It’s also very weird to be so separate from people’s reactions, like only having the Internet. When I put my phone down, I’m just by myself and sure that nobody likes my music, but then I pick it up…
You’ve recently been covering (recently deceased folk legend, who died at 73 years of age) John Prine’s song “Summer’s End.” Can you tell me about your relationship to his music or that song in particular?
I picked it because it’s from my favourite John Prine album, The Tree Of Forgiveness, that he only released like two years ago, which is crazy. I listened to it a lot when this whole shit started to feel real and so depressing.
I love him because he seemed so realistic but not pessimistic in his music. He wrote a lot of political songs, and really dark shit, but he seems to always have this positive angle to it, which is so hard. Its hard to write that kind of song and not sound jaded or cynical. I want to focus on his legacy but I feel like the disappointing thing is that he made my favourite record he’s ever made just two years before he died.
Wondering what he could have done next is so fucked up.
There are a lot of similarities in your work, though! You have a distinct ability to balance humour and gravity in your songs, which he did so well. Is that something that you struggle to balance or does it just come naturally to you as a writer?
I think it comes pretty naturally. I think that one dimensional characters are pretty boring. I like when people throw their whole personality at what they make instead of just like playing a character that can only have two feelings or whatever.
So, sometimes I’ll write a song and I’m like, “this is fucking self-serious bullshit,” or I’ll write something too funny and think, “this doesn’t feel genuine.”
Do you feel pressure to write songs that carry these intense, emotional stories for your fans in a way you can’t just be light?
It does feel like a sort of responsibility to my fans who share stories with me about something super heavy that happened to them or whatever. I feel like I’ve opened that door because I write about that stuff, but I don’t want to feel a responsibility to like be brooding all the time. Like when I talk about depression, it should be under the lens of like, yeah, I’m trying to get better.
This is not the costume I want to live in for the rest of my life. Sometimes it can get dangerous when people are like, “Oh my god, I’m so fucking sad” to the point it’s almost romanticized. I think this record is grappling with that lot. Just trying to fucking fix my brain chemistry
That reminds me of the Silver Jews lyrics from “Tennessee” where he decides to just get rich off of writing sad songs and getting “paid by the tear”.
That last record was so intense. I heard about it just after he died, so I was listening to it through that filter of realizing everything that was going on for him, and it was just too dark. I for sure couldn’t listen to it right now.
The press release for Punisher describes your “meteoric rise” with the last record into the public consciousness. Did things feel meteoric to you?
It felt like things happened very slowly, actually! I don’t know. I’m still very solidly a middle class artist and person. I started from a place of nobody knowing who I was and then slowly over the past three years it’s changed.
I remember one of Bright Eyes’ old managers had this joke that they were the “best new band: 15 years running”. Its strange because it’s like every new listener gets to discover all of you all at once. So, it’s just context, I guess.
The release of your previous record was shrouded in all sorts of drama around your relationship with known sexual aggressor Ryan Adams. Does this record feel like a clean slate in terms of not having to shoulder that kind of history or having it haunt the record?
Yeah, it does. Actually a very sweet journalist sent me an apology message when the New York Times article came out, because she had asked me a number of times about working with Ryan Adams. She said “Those questions are dead”. I thought that was a very sweet message and way to handle it.
Of course I didn’t blame that on anybody. Nobody fucking knew shit. So now that those questions are dead, it’s great. It does feel kind of like a clean slate, you know, like it’s been long enough where I don’t talk about it every day anymore.
You must feel good that people are recognizing how strong your songs are based on the work itself.
I’m glad I’m putting something out that I actually like now. If I came off of all that shit and wrote a mediocre record, I think I would feel pretty self-conscious.
Well, I mean it’s very possible, considering the pressure that can result from that type of social-topical scrutiny!
Yeah, lots of people have been asking, “Are you nervous with the second record and people know who you are now?” I don’t. I felt nervous about the first record because I didn’t know if anybody was going to listen to it.
I think this record feels better because I know that people are going to hear it, at the very least.
Do you feel limited by the “folk” genre? On the new album, songs like “Kyoto” and “I See You” are both straight up indie rock bangers, a contrast with the quieter stuff we heard on the first record. Do you feel like you can explore those shifts in genre openly?
I definitely feel like I can explore things openly. I’m still getting used to my sound! Before I made the first record, I was basically like a folk artist. So I think this is just like a sequel where I’m taking elements of that sound and doing it again but like, more!
But who knows: maybe the next record could be a fucking country record or an electronic record. I feel like I could go in either direction!
You mentioned using your songs to work through your own mental health issues. It seems these days conversations around mental health are permeating every day life in a way that even advertising seems to be geared towards capitalising on it. Do you think that’s a good thing?
I feel like it’s more common now for someone like a manager or someone to put their hand on my shoulder on tour and check in to see if I’m okay, which is really great. It doesn’t seem like there’s as much enabling with managers and stuff being like, “Oh, let’s just give them a bunch of alcohol and drugs,” you know, and feed that whole rock star thing.
I feel the rock star thing has been pushed into rap now. Like rappers are the only rock stars, trashing hotel rooms and stuff, which is sick. It feels like indie rock has become really privilege-y and mental healthy, which is cool too, I guess.
I feel rappers are part of that dialogue now, too though! For instance, on the last Mariah album Ty Dolla $ign raps about haters like “fuck all their comments: they be so toxic!” I remember hearing that and being so stoked about it.
I’ve been hearing so much more rap about like “hurt feelings” lately, too. It seems like it’s more likely lately that someone will talk about how hurt they are rather than how mad they are. And I love it.
It’s all really fucked up right now. It’s like country singers are talking like they’re like players and gangsters and their songs are full of beats.
Ugh. I hate it. It’s so bad. Stay in your lane.
Can you tell me about the video for “Garden Song”? If you’re an introvert, it seems like you’re really bad at it, considering the video is a ton of people invading your room and smoking bongs and stuff!
Yeah, it was hilarious. So, my brother is a huge stoner-slash-visual artist and he was coming home from school in January, so I was like, “Yo, do you want to get me stoned and then surprise me and we’ll film it for a music video?! You can make anything happen.”
So, my manager reached out to Tig Notaro, who is one of my favorite comedians I’d never met, and she ended up in the video in the executioner outfit behind me!
Oh my god. This story is already so crazy. I didn’t expect that.
It’s sick. And then, there’s a male stripper at the end, whose name was Prophet I think, but he just like really went for it and he made my guitarist and drummer make out in front of me. I think they were trying make me laugh. and I was just trying to kind of keep a straight face.
I was also terrified cause I never smoke weed. So it was a success! Just me in my brother’s room, which I definitely wanted. I was like, yeah, I want it set in a 22-year-old’s childhood bedroom.
That’s so funny, so that’s literally just one take and he’s just rolling on the song?
I was supposed to do it twice, but I could only handle the one bong rip. We still did it twice in case we needed anything. I’m glad because for the first take I was coughing so hard that I couldn’t even sing, but it was funny because it was actually kind of scarier and funnier the second time, because I was so stoned I forgot what had happened. Yeah, it was amazing.
Did you know that it was Tig Notaro behind you when you were doing the second take?
No, I didn’t know for like another half hour. Even after we were filming I was so freaked out and stoned that I was in the kitchen just eating pizza and staring, then I saw Tig, who I had been looking at for like five minutes and finally was like, “Wait… Are you Tig Notaro?” She just started fucking with me. She was like, “Is this your mom’s house? When is your mother home? Are you stoned?”
Did your brother film that stuff of you realizing?
Yeah, I think they did? I think maybe they’re using it for blackmail.
Your songs are often directed at other people. Do the “yous” in your songs usually know that they’re the “yous”? Have you ever had any awkward moments when someone realized a song was about them?
No. No. I sent my whole record to Ryan Adams when we were still buddies because I actually kind of felt bad. I was like, “Hey, there’s some shit on here, but no hard feelings or whatever” (this is before I found out about all the other fucked up shit he was doing).
He ended up thinking a completely different song was about him. So I think people just don’t want to know, you know?
Or it just goes to show how people reflect on their own actions and how naive they can be to their consequences.
It’s so weird, because they’re like straight up facts in the song that I wrote about him and he totally skipped over it.
On “Garden Song,” there’s a lyric about a doctor telling you your “resentment’s getting smaller” after placing their hands on your stomach. I know this is more therapy talk, but are you into the whole new-agey healing scene?
Yeah, I am totally that bitch. I’m not super deeply into crystals yet, but I have tons of weird supplements and oils and tarot cards and prayer candles and shit. But yes, I went to an herbalist doctor and that is a totally true story.
Like a holistic healer?
A holistic nutritionist, basically. And she was holding her hands over different parts of my body and doing her thing but she was also totally crass and cool. She’s the only person I’ve ever met in that world where I’m like, “Oh my god, I’m talking to a real person,” you know?
She wasn’t living on some different planet. But there was a moment where she put her hands on my stomach and told me my resentment was getting smaller which was… pretty interesting.
I’ve always been reluctant to admit bending to that whole world as well, but recently started doing COVID yoga. It gives you pause, like this person can maybe actually see that shit…
Yeah, totally! I’m a pessimist Yogi too, but I want that stuff to be real! You know, I want to someday wake up in the morning and be like, I need to meditate before I start my day, cause it’ll make everything better.
I hear you’re a Leo, as am I.
I’m August 17th. Pisces rising Capricorn moon.
Oh my gosh, you’re a late one! That’s the day after Madonna, actually.
Hell yeah it is.
Do you feel like a Leo?
I do. I resonate with all of it. So with Leo, I’m, you know, the boss and I like to show off and I feel very alpha. That’s like my actual self, day to day. But then I present to my friends like a hyper-emotional Pisces rising, and in my private self I’m such a Capricorn.
You know, I’ve made probably 40 gallons of fucking almond butter since this all started.
Can you talk about the ghost as a mascot for the last record, in all the artwork, and your shift to the skeleton look on this album?
I’ve always been obsessed with ghosts and stuff. With the last album, I just found Angela Dean on tumblr. As I kept recording and touring and stuff, her ghost just became this personal mascot and even started informing my songs lyrically.
I read a lot of magical realism. I love Carmen Maria Machado, who is constantly talking about ghosts, so I feel like it became a part of the album, and made way more sense in retrospect.
When listening to your songs I often wonder if you’re actually singing about ghosts or if I just sense a ghost in your songs. Is that something that’s intentional or that this broader theme that you step back and realise is there afterwards?
I think its intentional now, because I realized that in retrospect about the first album. So this time I’ll see what the skeleton means later. I love this skeleton costume. I love like cute and scary at the same time. I feel like that’s my mascot rule.
You mentioned your love of author Carmen Maria Machado who you also asked to write the press release for this record. It’s unconventional in that instead of mentioning recording personnel, you got her to essentially reframe the lyrical themes on the record into a suitably haunting short story. It’s really refreshing and beautiful. Can you tell me how you linked up with her and the role that that letter has with the record?
Yeah! We’re trying to find excuses to use it more than we have because we just asked her to write the bio, but then it was so fucking cool that we were like, we need to put this everywhere. I think we’re making a poster of it and stuff.
I’m just like a huge Carmen nerd and loved her book In The Dreamhouse, from last year. I have a sort of shoot your shot mentality, where if I want something I’ll just ask and the worst they can do is politely decline. I can’t imagine reaching out to somebody and having them being like, “No. Fuck you, you idiot,” so there’s really nothing to lose.
We have a more basic bio in case people don’t know where I came from or whatever, but I love the Carmen piece because it’s closer to what the record means, for me.
“The house is haunted. It should go without saying, but it should be said anyway. The house is haunted, but no one knows anything about the ghost or how it messes with you, except for the fact that every time she goes away (to Texas, to Memphis, to Graceland, to Germany) she always ends up coming home again. It’s the strangest kind of haunting. Everyone calls it, the house, the House of Punishment—more than one mistaken citizen has turned up looking for a similarly-named erotic dungeon on the other side of town—but the name is misleading. It is not a house where someone was punished, or a house where someone might be punished, but a house that replaces punishment; instead of feeling guilt or regret you must play quietly in any corner, and eventually the emotion will resolve itself.”
– excerpt from Carmen Maria Machado’s Yesterday, Tomorrow, aka the album bio for Punisher.
By taking lyrical elements from each song and putting them into the context of one separate story, did she articulate what you already saw in the record or did she present a different world to you that you didn’t see?
Both. For sure both. I always listen to songs in retrospect and I’m like, “Fuck, I guess it did mean this or that.” There are “genius lyrics pages” about my songs that give me way more credit than I deserve. They’ll be like “pelicans are an ancient symbol of death, and clearly she means that!” and I’m like, “No, I didn’t.”
So Carmen made me feel very smart by writing something that I felt was similar to what I made and that I love.
The last song on the record is, appropriately, a riotous song about the world ending. What are you going to do while it does?
I’ll just do what I have been doing, which is hiding. But if it really were ending I’d just be like fuck it and hang out with my friends, because I miss people and we are all going to die anyway.
Yeah but you can’t hug them hello or goodbye.
I know. I tried social distance hangs at the beginning of all this but it fucking sucked. It was like, I can’t hug you, and you can’t come in my house or pee anywhere and it just fucking sucks.
I guess it doesn’t matter how introverted you are, you still need to pee with someone and hug them at some point in time.
— Q&A by Kevin Hegge (@theekevinhegge)
Punisher is available for purchase on Bandcamp and streaming on your favorite platform.