Phoebe Bridgers: “I definitely feel a lot less apologetic than I did before”

On her fearless, grunge-inspired new album, ‘Punisher’, the singer-songwriter lays old ghosts to rest and celebrates her sense of self – contradictions and all

A black cat is wandering around Los Angeles, and it’s currently right behind Phoebe Bridgers’ computer screen. She’s talking to NME on a video call from her home in lockdown, and her attention wavers for just a second. “Oh no! The kitty is killing something,” she says. “Still so precious, though.”

Superstition is woven throughout Bridgers’ music: dreams, ghosts, the apocalypse and astrology. This black cat is perhaps a sign of luck (or a lack thereof), a symbol of lethal energy. For it to be as physically present as possible over a virtual interview feels like a pretty literal metaphor for Bridgers’ simultaneously belligerent and heartbreaking work and life over the past few years.

Phoebe Bridgers is about to release her second solo album, ‘Punisher’, a record filled with contradictions – violence and tenderness, romance and fear – and with a sound more brazen and forthright than that of her previous work. Where her debut, 2017’s ‘Stranger In The Alps’, offered wise folk songs and gentle melodies, this album favours earthier, often grungier sounds. The drums crash louder and she screams more than she whispers. At one point, on the energetic ‘Kyoto’, she warns one famous target (more on them later): “I’m gonna kill you / I don’t forgive you.

phoebe bridgers nme cover interview
Credit: Frank Ockenfels

There’s stinging honesty throughout the album, which courses with ferocious instrumentation. Even its title is a joke at the expense of “someone who doesn’t know when to stop talking”. This is the sound of an artist entirely in control of her present and future. “I can’t write right when something is happening to me,” Bridgers says. “If I do, it turns out pretty bad. But then sometimes when I write something I think I’m exaggerating, and realise later I wasn’t.”

Yet the fragile quality of her music is in no way eclipsed by a heavier sound. ‘Graceland Too’ is the closest thing to the folk of the first record, a country-flavoured ballad that Bridgers wrote quickly, reflecting her belief in following your gut. “I took MDMA with some friends,” she begins, “and realised that you keep the decisions you make on it for the rest of time. It’s like therapy; a rush of serotonin.”

‘Punisher’ is full of vivid and evocative lyrics. On the aforementioned ‘Kyoto’, the album’s second single and perhaps her most upbeat release to date – a battle cry about the guilt of having a bad time in a perfect place – one specific line prompts a question. Who, exactly, is the person “born under Scorpio skies”? Bridgers is forthright: “I don’t know if this is true, but he told me this himself: Ryan Adams is a triple Scorpio.”

phoebe bridgers nme cover interview
Phoebe Bridgers on the cover of NME

In 2019, Bridgers was one of several women – including his ex-wife, the actor and singer Mandy Moore – to speak out against singer-songwriter and producer Ryan Adams in The New York Times, alleging years of emotional and sexual harassment; it was later reported that he had exchanged “explicit online communications” with a 14-year-old girl.

Adams released Bridgers’ first EP, ‘Killer’, on his record label Pax-Am in 2015, and the two began a romantic relationship. “There was a mythology around him,” Bridgers told the paper, going on to say that he began to flirt with her via text message, and that marriage was mentioned within the first week. But a few weeks later, their “brief, consensual fling”, as Bridgers described it, turned sour. She said Adams became emotionally abusive and, after inviting her on tour after their break-up, pushed things too far: “He asked me to bring him something in his hotel room. I came upstairs and he was completely nude.”

“The Strokes are an industry plant – literally!”

Adams strongly denied all the allegations against him, describing them as “extremely serious and outlandish”, and characterised them as “grousing by disgruntled individuals” who blamed him for “personal or professional disappointments”.

“Once everybody knew, it was great,” Bridgers says today. “The shitty thing was before.” She says a former Adams representative told her the exposé had been canned, only for the New York Times journalist to reassure her it’d make the cut. “When a team of amazing fact-checkers and journalists unafraid of actual lawsuits are on your side… I feel really lucky I met so many people who were willing to go to bat for me.”

She adds an important clarification, though. “There’s a big conversation about privilege to be had. I, a young white female, was able to meet other young white females who had contacts with journalists. So many people do not have that.”

phoebe bridgers nme cover interview
Credit: Olof Grind

When Bridgers was in an early period in her career, commentators often aligned her with male artists – she was praised by Adams, who compared her to Bob Dylan, and rare was an article that didn’t mention Elliott Smith. With a fearless, often experimental second record that leans into her haunting lyricism and inclination for mystical-sounding instruments, hopefully no one will feel the need to legitimise her by praising her influences.

Yet Bridgers herself never fails to compliment those who inspire her music. When we first speak and swap notes on lockdown hobbies, she’s only just started the BBC’s Normal People after loving the Sally Rooney novel from which the TV series is adapted. She says that “the cute boy”, star Paul Mescal, follows her on Instagram and adds: “I got a little pitter-patter in my heart when I saw.” A week later, she shares on social media that she has finished the show, sent Mescal her new album and is interviewing him on Instagram for his own first cover feature with a fashion magazine. Time is elastic in lockdown.

“Once everybody knew about Ryan Adams, it was great. The shitty thing was before”

In this quieter time she has also been devouring Fiona Apple’s latest album ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters’. “It’s an exhilarating and terrifying listen,” she says. “The attentiveness with which I listen to it is an attentiveness I haven’t had since I was a teenager.”

Apple is another artist who has been wresting free from the judgement and control of male artists, executives and partners throughout her career. On social media Bridgers has been called ‘an industry plant’, an accusation also levelled at Billie Eilish. Why are successful young female musicians targeted in this way?

“People can’t handle it,” Bridgers says. She brings up The Strokes, whose independent wealth and industry connections are well-documented: “The Strokes are an industry plant – literally! Everybody knows that, at least in music, but it’s never made anyone like them less. It’s such an insane fucking double standard. If you have wealthy parents, you’re not allowed to make music as a woman, but you’re rewarded for it as a man. Every white boy who is mediocre is an industry plant by that standard.”

phoebe bridgers nme cover interview
Credit: Olof Grind

Bridgers returns to the example of Eilish, whom she considers a friend, and explains that despite being a pop star signed to a major label (Bridgers is on the indie imprint Dead Oceans), Eilish is far from an industry plant, maintaining control of her sound and her vision. “It’s her fucking art,” she stresses.

And yet, even with the invigorating presence of such forthright artists as Bridgers, Eilish, Apple and more, it still feels like women in music are subject to two lanes of attack from both the keyboard warriors and those behind the scenes proving that the industry is lagging in terms of progress. Why, for example, does Bridgers think there hasn’t been a proper #MeToo moment in music, as there has been in the film industry?

She keeps her answer to the business side of things: “I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault – with movies, a lot of people know what someone pays a screenwriter, or how involved a production manager is. With music, every group is much more isolated. It can happen with power dynamics and #MeToo shit, but also with a manager who’s just fucking every single person over. Or labels that sign you and flirt with you and then don’t release your shit. And why can they do it to 10 bands in a row? Because people don’t talk to each other.”

This silence affected her for years. It took most of her early 20s (she’s now 25) for Bridgers to be able to push through and beyond Adams’ influence. “When I met Ryan, I didn’t know anybody in music for the most part,” she says. “But then I would then meet tons of people who were like, ‘Oh my God – he is a trash person’. I didn’t have that when I was 20, and a lot of people still don’t.”

phoebe bridgers nme cover interview
Credit: FilmMagic/FilmMagic

Phoebe Bridgers has taken things into her own hands on ‘Punisher’, both emotionally and practically – she co-produced the record, for instance. She once told an interviewer that she had “successfully weeded out any man in my life that has been gross”, referencing the support she gains from female musicians such as Snail Mail, Soccer Mommy and Japanese Breakfast, whom she called “the best dudes”. How did she go about that?

“I think I managed to do it pretty early,” she explains. “And by weeding out I just mean ghosting people you don’t connect with. Ryan and I totally didn’t connect creatively. I’ve not yet had a conundrum of working with someone amazing while finding them horrible, so I’m lucky in that way.”

Over the years, Bridgers has spoken of her tendency to over-apologise for herself and shrink to the size of the men telling her what she’s worth. “I definitely feel a lot less apologetic now,” she says today. “But it’s also not just about me being self-conscious – I think my music is better now.”

“When a relationship ends, you want to dance with the corpse, not admit it’s dead”

‘Stranger In The Alps’ was a tall beast to move beyond. The album saw Bridgers usher in a new wave of emo-folk: here was a female artist who didn’t have a box to tick, wasn’t a two-dimensional pop star or rock star and who made sense precisely because of all the inconsistencies. She could write about death and make it sound like a lullaby: “We talk until we think we might just kill ourselves,” she sang on the delicate ‘Funeral’. ‘Punisher’ furthers these paradoxes. The wistful acoustic song ‘Savior Complex’ sees her taunt: “All the skeletons you hide / Show me yours I’ll show you mine”. It’s a monsoon of grief and love and delusion and wisdom.

Bridgers’ two favourite ‘Punisher’ tracks reflect this dichotomy. ‘Moon Song’ is an achingly stark heartbreaker, spotlighting Bridgers’ vocals against bare piano chords. “I will wait for the next time you want me / Like a dog with a bird at your door,” she sings to the person “holding me like water in your hands”. These are perhaps her most striking lyrics to date. “I think it’s more challenging to write simple songs,” she says.

phoebe bridgers nme cover interview
Credit: FilmMagic/FilmMagic

The album’s closer, ‘I Know The End’, which she calls “the apocalypse song”, might be Bridgers’ masterpiece. It’s a five-minute swirling cacophony that climaxes with an orchestra of screams – both Bridgers’ and those of so many friends and collaborators. Wailing horns collide with crashing drums, a grunge-infused guitar leads us all the way out. We’re light years from the gentle folk that defined much of her first album.

The song offers the most overt narration of Bridgers’ thoughts on death and oblivion. The subject could often be read between the lines in previous releases, but here it’s searing and upfront. “It’s fictitious, where I’m the last person to believe in the apocalypse,” she explains, “but it’s also about a [failing] relationship. You want to fucking dance with the corpse instead of admitting that it’s dead.”

There is certainly a real sense of solitude to the introspective ‘Punisher’, which makes it an even more striking listen in the midst of lockdown. “On the album I’m grappling a lot with my inability to be grateful for the moment, and this is definitely forcing us to live in the moment,” she says. “There is no future to speak of – even though there is, we won’t know what that looks like yet.”

“I basically tweet out of my ass”

Bridgers seems precision-engineered for self-isolation, as she has always thrived online – scroll through her Twitter feed and you’ll find memes, off-the-cuff memories and current feelings. A quintessential Phoebe Bridgers missive from last month: “showing a boy elliott smith makes me sexually attracted to myself.”

“I basically tweet out of my ass,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve barely finished a thought and I’ll tweet it.” Social media has been part of Bridgers’ fame since her teenage years, though early in her career music executives attempted to curtail her voice. “I still cringe at some of my earlier internet choices,” she says. “At the time I didn’t think it was ridiculous, but I was talking to two men over 40 and then thought, ‘Wait – I’m the one who knows about the internet’. I realised there’s nothing worse than someone who seems like they’re not being themselves.”

phoebe bridgers nme cover interview
Credit: FilmMagic/FilmMagic

Bridgers’ Instagram stories are filled with reposts from fans who ask Alexa bizarre questions about her (What is a Phoebe Bridgers?) and cry when she releases a new song. “I feel very connected to lots of them,” she says. “Some of them are fucking insane – one girl decided to start a rumour I eat dog meat, as a joke. She’s this crazy super-fan who tweets explicit sexual shit about me all day, and dog meat. And like… I love it.”

Is she afraid of what might come back at her once other people hear ‘Punisher’? “It’s a big fat invitation to ask me about my personal life, which scares me a bit,” she admits. “It’s therapy – I do this for myself, but the best feeling is when people get your music. It can be damaging to open a fragile conversation with someone who isn’t on the same page. I’m afraid of getting my feelings hurt, or of people being callous.”

In typical Bridgers style, she swiftly undercuts the sincerity with a gag: “I can take it, but I’ll have my therapist on speed-dial for sure!”

phoebe bridgers nme cover interview
Credit: Frank Ockenfels

A few weeks before ‘Punisher’ comes out, Bridgers releases the album’s third single, ‘I See You’ (previously styled as ‘ICU’ and swiftly changed in light of the pandemic). Along with previous single ‘Kyoto’, it’s as close Bridgers will come to a straightforward bop, the track thrumming with nervous energy and a spectral mellotron melody as she sings, “I’ve been playing dead my whole life / And I get this feeling whenever I feel good it will be the last time.”

‘I See You’ is a smart choice as a final single: It’s a conflicted but confident love song that also nods to the hospital Bridgers lives next to, the one that keeps her awake and swims into so many of her lyrics. “The sirens go all night,” she sings on the desperately gentle ‘Halloween’.

Asked what’s changed since she found the strength to pull herself through the hurdles she came up against in the few years, Phoebe Bridgers explains that she has learnt to lean into the chaos, to embrace the oddities of her immediate world. This goes for the small stuff as well as the big – take today’s sudden appearance of the black cat, and the haunting nightly sounds of the hospital. “There have been more sirens,” she says. “But it’s nice to know that the world is working.”

Phoebe Bridgers’ ‘Punisher’ is out June 19 via Dead Oceans.

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