Phoebe Bridgers – Interview 2017

Phoebe BridgersHer debut album Stranger in the Alps is one of the debuts of the year. A brilliant collection of deeply personal, and highly literate songs written by this young LA-based singer/songwriter. Heavily influenced by Elliot Smith and Conor Oberst (who appears on the album), her songs are emotive, brave and confident, and beautifully written. Ryan Adams was a big early fan, and produced her first single ‘Killer’, but she went on to make an album prior to signing a deal, there seemed so much confidence in her talent. Dead Oceans showed the most interest and their faith has already been rewarded, with Stranger in the Alps winning universal plaudits.

Is this your first tour of the UK?
First proper tour, I was supporting for someone, and this summer I was here for a very small trip. This tour is my first proper solo tour. I’ll have my best friend Harrison with me, playing guitar and lap steel. Essentially it’s very stripped down. And I’ve never been to Brighton.

Everything is new and exciting for you?
I was touring before on nothing. Maybe three songs I had on the internet before releasing this album. So, this feels awesome. I have something to show everyone. Basically it feels more of the same, but cooler. The ball is in my court now.

Your only release prior to the album was a seven inch on Ryan Adams’ label.
We met through mutual friends and word of mouth. I had listened to his records before. It was different than being in any producer’s studio. It’s cool recording with other songwriters.

How did you hook up with Conor Oberst?
He’s been a hero of mine, for what I feel has been my whole life. I think everyone knew that. There was a promoter in LA who texted me very dramatically, ‘Do you want to open for a Conor Oberst secret show?’ last summer. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me. Of course I do’. We met there. I ended up, through a different avenue, mixing my album in Omaha with Mike Mogis, who is in Bright Eyes with Conor. We ended up all hanging out in Omaha. We then emailed each other back’n’forth about his album Ruminations before it was released.

How did you end up on the Dead Oceans label?
I decided to record my album before signing a deal. Just because I wanted to record on my own terms. The only thing I had recorded before was the Ryan seven inch, which was essentially just a demo – it’s just me and a guitar. I had no idea what this was going to sound like, so any offers from labels or interest was based on a twangy demo. So, I decided to record my record and see who liked it. And that’s how I met Dead Oceans. They heard about it and were the most excited about it. They basically bought the album from me as it was.

The album has a full production sound…
The producers Tony (Berg) and Ethan (Gruska) had a lot of faith in me. We spent so much time on it and so much energy. So many musicians went unpaid until I got signed. It was so cool to be surrounded by people who thought someone would want it (the album).

Can you tell me about the track ‘Funeral’, is about someone you know who died, and you got asked to sing at his funeral?
It was actually about a stranger. I didn’t know the kid. His parents asked me to sing. It was very surreal, being brought into the timeline of someone’s life after they died. The song is basically about putting my own depression into perspective. Which I don’t think is fair, it’s something I would only ever do to myself. I think depression can be valid no matter what is going on around you, no matter how spoiled you feel.

Can you talk us through ‘Scott Street’?
I wrote it with my ex-boyfriend, when we were still together, which is very strange. It’s mostly about this one street where he used to live in LA; it’s so unobtrusive. The least exciting street ever. There’s one drugstore, the rest just houses, right by the freeway. To me it’s about the very universal feeling of seeing someone you used to feel a lot for, and then way later when there is almost none of that left, and you’re exploring your relationship with a kind of curiosity. Like a surgical curiosity, rather than real emotions.

And ‘Chelsea’, which is about Nancy Spungen and Sid Vicious?
That is the only song that isn’t autobiographical at all. It’s pretty much only about that story. I saw a picture of Sid Vicious in Rolling Stone, covered in blood. And it got me thinking about how romanticised he is, and Nancy Spungen’s mental health, and how they were put on the weird pillar. They’re super romanticised, which I think is super fucked-up, because he stabbed his girlfriend to death. I think you’re then disqualified from being cool for ever, when you do that.

And I like the way there are references to music and musicians dispersed through ‘Smoke Signals’…
To me, it’s a post-apocalyptic love song. It’s about loving someone when you feel the whole universe is crashing around you.

A lot of musicians don’t seem to like talking, their lyrics much, but you don’t seem to have a problem with that!?
It’s confusing to me when people don’t want to talk about their songs, especially songs that are as personal as mine. They are laying it out on the table, anyway. It’s been my only issue with answering questions before; there isn’t a lot to ask. I’m very literal. I think it’s weird that people don’t want to talk about something they have literally showed everyone.

I can’t for the life of me work out what the title of the album, Strangers in the Alps, refers to. Haver you ever been to the Alps?
No, never. I encourage you to Google it. (I subsequently did – it’s taken from The Big Lebowski, where ‘fight a stranger in the alps’ was dubbed over ‘fuck a stranger in the ass’ when broadcast for TV!) You’re giving me entirely too much credit for coming up with something, because it’s pretty ridiculous. I liked the fact it didn’t relate to the album. All the other titles I came up with were self-serious. My music is serious, but I don’t feel like a very serious person.

And is the image on the cover random as well?
I fell in love with this artist, Angela Deane, who takes found photos, and paints over them. I sent her a tonne of childhood photos of myself, and we chose that one.

You were always keen to write songs from a very young age?
Yeah, absolutely. I honestly have no clue where that impetus came from. I don’t remember wanting to do anything else, but I think I consumed a lot of music as a kid.

You’ve said you have an affinity with emo and goth music…
Yeah! I think that term is very loose. I look for the more emotive, or personal songs, even in bands that aren’t in those genres. I seem to pick out the softer songs. For example, my favourite song on the new Jay Som record is ‘Bedhead’, which is an emo song in the midst of this very indie-rock album. I like personal songs.

Jeff Hemmings