Phoebe Bridgers on Stranger in the Alps and sexism in music
We speak to Phoebe Bridgers about her stunning debut album Stranger in the Alps, her many influences and sexism in music
We have a theory, and our theory is this: everyone got into Phoebe Bridgers’ Stranger in the Alps because of the lyric about David Bowie in Smoke Signals, the one that goes: 'It’s been on my mind since Bowie died / Just checking out to hide from life.' It’s quite innocuous really, written down, but at the same time, it’s a bow and arrow aimed at the heart.
“I consciously try to sound like myself,” Bridgers tells us, speaking on the phone from Southern California during a rare break in what has been a pretty gruelling touring schedule for the past year or so, one which has seen her open for people like Bon Iver and Julien Baker, as well as playing sold out shows off her own name, including an upcoming UK headline tour in May, with a stop off at Saint Luke’s in Glasgow. “I don’t like using a lot of ten dollar words that I wouldn’t use in my own conversation.” It’s this conversational aspect that comes out so precisely in this lyric, a directness that relates very specifically to right now, tapping into a kind of collective grief we’ve all been going through these past few years.
As if making reference to the death of a beloved musical icon – two really, since Lemmy also gets mentioned in Smoke Signals – isn’t enough relatability for one record, on Killer Bridgers explores an almost disturbed fascination with true crime that, to someone whose idea of a romantic-night-in with the girlfriend is watching several episodes of Forensic Files, hits alarmingly close to home.
“I wrote the song basically because I was having a breakdown about my fascination with that stuff,” she says, “when I was watching hours and hours of Dahmer interviews. All the other serial killers sound like fucking assholes who you’d meet at a bar, whereas Dahmer seems like he’s trying to get at it with the person interviewing him. He’s trying to find out, and he’s like, 'I just needed to control people, I was sick of getting hurt by people, being in real relationships,' and it was so disturbingly relatable.”
It’s from this directness and rawness that Bridgers has managed to accrue such a wide fanbase too. “I have genuine singer-songwriter fans who found me through Ryan Adams or whatever, who go to shows all the time similar to me, but then I have tatted up, lesbian couples who only go to pop punk shows. The genre mix is really fun.” Across our conversation, Bridgers mentions Jawbreaker, Joyce Manor, Simon Joyner, McCarthy Trenching, Jason Isbell, Maggie Rogers, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Bright Eyes. Her audience is a reflection of her influences, and how they’ve all fed into her songwriting, something she was hyper-aware of while making the record.
“There was a conscious choice to wait to sign until after I was done, because my music taste is so eclectic – everything from Rage Against the Machine to Joni Mitchell – so I had no idea what type of record I was gonna make. So how would the label know if they liked it? Or maybe they’d sign me off the Ryan Adams 7" and think I was gonna make a folk album, which I didn’t.” The label she did end up on, Dead Oceans, feels like a perfect home for her, given their roster of bands whose only common denominator is just that they’re Very Fucking Good. See: Strand of Oaks, Phosphorescent, Mitski, Julianna Barwick, The Tallest Man On Earth.
Bridgers’ notoriety has not come without its frustrations, mostly stemming from the way she's seen herself compared to other women in music right now, whether or not their music bears any sonic resemblance. “I read shit all the time that’s sheer sexism, comparing me to like, Lucy Dacus, like, insert either one of us: 'The Phoebe record blows the Lucy record out of the water,' or 'Lucy Dacus, a fresh take on the Phoebe Bridgers sound.'” It’s an issue that certainly isn’t specific to singer-songwriters.
Take a recent piece from Noisey US in which Kam Franklin, lead singer of the dynamite soul band The Suffers, spoke about how she struggled to get people to pay attention to her group because of comments like: "There’s already one Alabama Shakes," or "There’s already one Sharon Jones." On the plus side, it feels like these comparisons get starved of oxygen quicker than they would have been in the past. Speaking about not only Lucy Dacus, but also Julien Baker, Waxahatchee and Soccer Mommy, Bridgers says: “We’re a scene because we’re all angry about the same shit, and because we all like each other and talk to each other, and because we all send those insane articles back and forth like: 'Oh my god, can you believe this?' I love those people and I’m honoured to be associated with them, but it’s funny when we read shit like that.”
There is such a quiet confidence in how Bridgers talks, not only about her material, but her place on the scene right now, that you’d be forgiven for forgetting that her debut record is barely six months old. It’s as if she’s been champing at the bit for so long that she’s come out at a canter, and is already looking ahead. “I think about the new record all the time, I think about it every day. I don’t wanna fall into the pattern of releasing an album every three years. Also, a lot of these songs are old to me. It would be amazing to play two albums of music that people have heard. My live set is literally the album. So, it’s like, I don’t have any options.”
Call it a consequence of social media breaking the wall between artist and audience, maybe it’s anxiety over a world in flux, but whereas for a while we wanted our songwriters to sing about a world that wasn’t available to us, now it feels as if the opposite is true – we want some kind of tangible connection with the material, and with the person singing it. We think back to that Bowie line, and countless other wry, sad, intimate, occasionally quite funny lyrics that ebb and flow across Bridgers’ material. There's an immediacy to them, a kind of paradox in that everything feels familiar, but at the same time, it’s something you’ve not heard before. Phoebe Bridgers is writing songs that mean something, and she’s only just started.
Stranger in the Alps is out now via Dead Oceans; Phoebe Bridgers plays Saint Luke's, Glasgow, 20 May