“When I listen to her sing and play guitar, it feels to me like what it feels like when I listen to Bob Dylan.” That’s Ryan Adams writing about Los Angeles songwriter Phoebe Bridgers after producing her three-track 7-inch in 2015. “[She] could probably make a jar of sand sound like Blood On The Tracks.” It’s a cruel amount of pressure to put on someone who hasn’t released an album, but Bridgers has an easy way of defusing the GMF headliner’s compliment.
“I feel like everybody who’s ever been compared to Dylan is like ‘well, no,’” Bridgers, 22, deadpans to CL as she sits on a plane headed for her first tour date with Adams. “Like I am never going to put myself to those standards because I will never write a song again.”
Bridgers better get used to the attention. NPR thinks she could be the best new artist of 2017, and as a smoldering new song (“Smoke Signals”) makes the online rounds, the product of L.A. County’s High School for the Arts is calm, collected and disarmingly hilarious. Attitude and humor shine as she talks about her new favorite band (Pinegrove), Donald Trump (“I strive to have all the chords, all the best chords”) and the time her senior pug seemed to be dying (“he pooped out my underwear and was immediately cured”). The lightheartedness belies her catalog’s seriousness, which explores themes like death, platonic love, and... well, death in an effortlessly pointed and poetic way.
“I assure you there is tons of death on it, it’s like having people reading my diary,” Bridgers said while describing a still-untitled record that’s yet to find a label home. She isn’t a miserable person; she just writes when she’s miserable, and while Bridgers’s snark is always set to stun, she gets serious when questioned about a world that has a ways to go as far talking about women is concerned.
“I’ve been lucky enough to not have to sacrifice too much because I’ve been surrounded by such great people — but a lot of people aren’t and that isn’t always the case” Bridgers said. “Like now I am touring with my best friend, and sometime we’ll get to the venue and the sound guy will look at him and be like ‘so what does she want in her monitors?’ And I’m like standing right there.” For now, Bridgers will keep deflecting it as her profile keeps rising, and as fans see her play GMF’s smallest stage, they should know she won’t be in that position for long.
Thanks for the call. Nice to pin you down. You’re flying, right?
Yup, flying to the first show with Ryan.
I wanna ask you about Pinegrove real quick. You’re into them, huh? Did you just hear of them?
I looove that band. So Conor Oberst was like, "I heard this band on Sirius XM, and I like them, but I’ve only heard one song." So we listened to “Old Friends” which is I guess the one they're pushing. And you know, you never know. Sometimes there’s a great song and you go back into a catalog and it’s slightly less great or whatever. I have not yet heard a song that I don’t like. Like their old record; the combination of EPs or whatever is unreal, and the new record is amazing. I watched their Tiny Desk, and I haven’t found a reason to not like them yet and it’s awesome.
And you can never really pin them down.
Totally. Sometimes they sound like Band of Horses or something, and his voice is so cool and sometimes they’re straight-up bluegrass, sometimes they’re super emo.
Yeah, and the guitar work.
I’ve seen them twice now, once with Julien Baker, whom you toured with.
Oh really? I didn’t even know they toured with Julian.
Yeah, Kevin Devine was on that tour and so was Petal.
Fuck, that’s like the coolest tour ever. I feel like I slept on this band. It’s so exciting to know something now that all of your friends are like, "yeah.”
One of your Twitter friends was surprised that you liked it.
Yeah, that’s one of my friends, he was like, "you like it?" And I was like, "yeah dude, get on board."
Who watches your pug when you’re on tour? Does it really eat your undies?
My mother. Well, that’s a horrifying story. He did indeed eat it. He was sick for a couple days. And he’s really old, so I was like, "oh no, please don’t let this be the time," and he’s normally pretty spry. He normally has lots of energy and then he suddenly got sick and was limping around, and I’m like, "oh no,” and then he pooped out my underwear and was immediately cured. It was horrifying, but it was a relief for me.
The most magical poop in the world.
Exactly, but then I was like... I mean, does stuff ever happen to you and then you’re like, "is this really happening to me? Is this real life? I can’t move backward from this time." It was a landmark, that’s what it was like.
The world kind of can’t figure you out right now. NPR is saying you’re 2017’s best new artist. Some people are saying they hear Elliot Smith and Gillian Welch in there, but the stuff you and Ryan are working on under the Pax-Am banner is trickling out at an agonizing pace. I feel like that’s deliberate.
So I am not actually signed to Pax-Am. They put out that 7-inch. The taking our time is definitely intentional, but right now we’re just figuring out a label situation and talking to some different people.
Are you willing to talk to some of the sounds of the new stuff? I know you like everything from shoegaze to folk, so what can we expect as far as the sound of your new music in 2017 goes? I know you’re into all kinds of stuff.
So I finished the record. That was on purpose. I didn’t really know any label people that I connected with heavily so I just decided to do it myself with a producer and then release a single and see who wanted to sign it for what it was.
We’re talking about “Smoke Signals,” right?
Exactly, which is like the least single-y song to release, but I don’t have any singles. So we did a lot. It was co-produced by a guy named Ethan Gruska who has an encyclopedic knowledge of synthesizers and stuff, which I don’t have but am so fascinated by it. I love learning about it and love learning new weird pedal things, which of course Julien is really into. So before, because of really just a lack of knowledge of stuff, I was kind of like put into a folk category which of course I still love and am still influenced by, but the record is full of weird stuff. We did some of the weirdest stuff for sound and used super-crazy vintage drum machines. It’s just kind of all over the place production-wise. There is one song that is straight-up folk, but even that one has some crazy backwards cello thing on it. So yeah, I feel like it’s representative of my tastes. There’s one song that’s more emo, with less going on, and then there’s a song like “Smoke Signals,” where we experimented a lot with sound.
Yeah, it’s a longer one, but there seems to be something new around every corner in that one.
Right. And Rob Moose did strings on the record and did strings on “Smoke Signals,” and he’s unreal. Like, you know, sometimes strings can make something sound so square almost, but he came in and I was just so, so impressed with everything he did. I was like, "can we just have him play all the songs instead of me?"
Do you have a name for the record yet? You sound really proud of it.
No name for it yet. We, honestly, some of the names we’re throwing out are kind of funny... there really isn’t a song on the record that I would call the record, so that’s even harder. So we’re throwing stuff out there. I’m really bad at coming up with band names and stuff, so I’m gonna need someone to help with what to call the record.
Julien Baker, whom you’ve toured with, has said that she might not have been so vulnerable lyrically had she known that her LP would take off the way it did. Your stuff is completely transparent and you hold nothing back. Will you continue in that vein?
Oh, well, the record is like having people reading my diary. It’s definitely super-nerve-wracking, but I have this thing where if I think about it at all when I’m writing and I am like, "I think I’m gonna hurt someone’s feelings," I just can’t let myself go there because half the time what I am the most anxious about doesn’t even make it into the song or whatever, so I have to pretend like it’s not happening, but I think I’m still in denial like it's not happening. Sometimes people will ask me about “Smoke Signals” and they’re like, "you must have had a traumatizing experience or something or like why are you so upset all the time?" So I’m like, "I’m fine," we all go there and get dark sometimes. So I am still avoiding thinking about it. I don’t know if I am writing differently because I still have that mechanism where I can be like, "don’t think about it until later."
You’ve also said you’re not a miserable person, you just write when you’re miserable.
Totally, and it’s funny because Julien is actually one of the most positive influences on my life and she’s so well-spoken. I’ve literally never heard her say anything emo or melodramatic in conversation. Sorry, one sec, there’s a seat kerfuffle.
I wanna stay on this “the future is female” theme. That Fox News thing about alpha women unable to love is hilarious, but is the way the world still talks and thinks about women completely fucked up? How do we fix this or even attempt to talk about it in a constructive way?
Oh dude, totally, and I feel like it’s even more complex now. Like people just don’t know that they’re being sexist or whatever. People genuinely don't know and that’s mostly the problem. Sometimes you encounter the agent, like the guy with Dirty Projectors — remember that guy? Most of what you’re dealing with, like right now I am touring with my best friend, and we’ll get to the venue and the sound guy will look at him and be like "so what does she want in her monitors?" And I’m like standing right there. So avoiding talking about it is the dumbest thing in the world because it is so prevalent. Julien and I actually talked about this. Sometimes when we get frustrated we start crying, and that makes it even worse because you are actually angry and you feel like you have something to say but it just adds to the stereotype, like you just get super upset and [cry] instead of screaming at someone or standing your ground. So yeah, it’s totally around and super hard to deal with but I do feel like people are starting to talk about it more, which is great. I’ve been lucky enough to have surrounded myself with people who are aware of it and still want to talk about it. I am so lucky. I think I do it on purpose to a certain extent, but I know a lot of people who can’t. Like if you’re in a certain scene or touring with a certain artist you sometimes have to take it to a certain extent for the greater good, or you have to wait to talk about it so you can reach a wider audience, or whatever it is. I think I’ve been lucky enough to not have to sacrifice too much of that for myself just because I’ve been surrounded by such great people, but that’s literally just luck. Tomorrow I could run into someone who’s awful.
So can you talk about coming up in that saturated L.A. scene as a female songwriter and the perseverance it takes to survive out there in a place where people seem to always want to tell you who to be as far as your art goes?
I feel like everyone once in awhile someone will say something that is slightly offensive, and I’ll say something, but I’ve never been — just because of luck — in a situation where I am fearful because most everyone I am around wants to know and learn which is so special and cool. But I also play in a punk band called Sloppy Jane and, well, they got a new bassist since I’ve been touring a bunch. They are amazing and crazy, they talk about things they encounter. The lead singer plays naked and she runs into stuff all the time of course, and they have good interactions. I feel like the scene I am in, even the Sloppy Jane scene, is a good place to talk about stuff like that, which is amazing.
You were encouraged to play music early, and you’re a product of L.A.’s County High School for the Arts. Today some news is circling about Trump wanting to slash national arts budgets as well as Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Have you felt the urge to speak up for the arts and be political? I mean you do have all the chords, all the best chords?
It’s terrifying. It’s scary, but honestly there’s so much stuff that he’s doing that arts stuff feels like [it's on the] back burner when up against some of the transgender rights issue. I mean I’m privileged enough; everyone was trying to get me to play music. It was like, "oh, you like painting, here are paint brushes."
That was your mom, right?
Totally. I just feel so fortunate, that’s just how I grew up. But what’s really scary for me is thinking about the kid whose parents aren’t super into the arts or who don’t get it and send him to school where there’s no arts program and he’ll never know that he digs it. That would be a total tragedy, and that’s the scary part about it. It’s awful. It’s the worst thing in the world. But I do strive to have the best chords, but I feel like with confidence I will have the best chords.
Are your hands big enough to play all the best chords though?
You know, I try. There are a couple that are really a reach for me. They aren’t as small as Julien’s, but she shreds. It’s not the size that matters.
As far as this tour and festival appearance goes, will Ryan appear in your set? Vice versa?
Yeah, I think we’re gonna sing together on his set. I hope he invites me up at the festival.
Ryan is kind of a nutty guy…
...and Ryan said you could “make a jar of sand sound like Blood On The Tracks.” You’ve said it’s flattering, but that you have to take Dylan’s entire canon into play. What’s that pressure like? Is Ryan fucking crazy or can you just kind of just turn that pressure off like you said so you can do your art and then go be Pheobe?
You know, I don’t really feel pressure, because I feel like everybody who’s ever been compared to Dylan is like, "well, no." Like, I am never going to put myself to those standards because I will never write a song again. But it is an amazing compliment, and I hope that I can live up to maybe even half. I am not mad at him for saying it, but it is definitely like, "incorrect, but very flattering."
Will you tell us your birthday?
August 19, 1994.
Will you release “I’m the Only Bird Flying the Other Way”?
Oh my gosh, I think I was ten years old, maybe.
It is a deep cut at this point.
Dude, such a deep cut. There might not even be a record of that song existing. Maybe in a diary or something.
So far, you’ve got a little theme of death running through you stuff. I know you’ve said that you’re not obsessed with it. Can you talk about that? Do you feel like that’s an unfair assumption consider you don’t have a ton of music out?
I assure you there is tons of death on the record.
But how beautiful is Sufjan Stevens’ “John Wayne Gacy Jr.”?
Well you know, I wrote “Killer” before I even got into that record. As soon as I wrote it my friend Jeremy, kind of, like, messing around on the piano, was like, "have you heard 'John Wayne Gacy Jr.'?"
There’s a carny cemetery in Tampa — you gonna visit? I saw the Masonic Hall video for “Smoke Signals" ...Is two drinks really your limit, by the way? You know you’re playing down the street from a very iconic dive…
Well, that is true. And you should definitely Tweet the cemetery to me because that would be the most goth tweet ever and I would definitely go.
Is John Strohm (Lemonheads) still your lawyer? And Ryan’s doctor plays pedal steel? That’s so L.A.
Yes, but guess what, he lives in Nashville. I did just see him in L.A. One of his clients just won a Grammy, so he was out there.
I was gonna ask you if you like the new Sun Kil Moon, but I got over that one already.
Wait, has he put out a single for it?
He put out the whole thing and it’s really weird.
Conor let me hear it. He is all over the map with the songs that he rights. Every once in awhile, I feel like, some of the early stuff shines through. Someone tweeted one time, "Sun Kil Moon is like a podcast, but with fingerpicking." I feel like that’s totally what it is. But it's awesome. I feel like every record he puts out always has something that sticks with me always. I love him although he is controversial.
He is kind of weird and rubs people a certain way.
Certain people and women.
He’s a cringeworthy kind of guy.
Dude, totally. I feel like that’s his goal, he’s like the Kanye West of folk music.
Are you gonna sing with Liz Phair now that you’re a little closer related as far as the six degrees of separation go? Have you done any singing with her or been in the studio with her?
Well I’ve never met her, but of course I’m a huge fan. I was super jealous because one night Ryan was like, "yeah, just come by later because I am in a session." So I pulled up and I saw somebody leave, and he was like, "oh yeah, that was Liz.” I was like, "what? Are you kidding, you’re not even gonna introduce me, man?" So yeah, I love her. She’s great.
Well, I hope you have a safe flight. Thanks for taking your time with these and being patient with the questions.
Dude, of course.
Congratulations to you, excited to see you in Tampa.
Thanks man, I’m stoked. See you later, bye.