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Phoebe Bridgers on Mercury retrograde, 'Punisher' and needing something to believe in

19 June 2020 | 2:24 pm | Emma Jones

Phoebe Bridgers delivers one of the year's best albums with her second record, 'Punisher''.

This year was meant to be big for Phoebe Bridgers. The culmination of years of hard work resulting in the release of her best album yet, and most of the year accounted for with multiple tours including her own and supporting The National. Instead, she -like everyone else- has been stuck at home, passing the time by walking on her treadmill every day and playing live streams from different locations like the bathtub or her bedroom. But, she's not too fazed about that. Instead, she's used the time to connect with fans and channel her frustration into becoming an even louder advocate for civil rights in the United States and beyond. And now, on June 19th, she finally shares Punisher with a very different world to the one in which she created it.

Having made a name for herself in 2017 with her "emo-folk" debut album Stranger In The AlpsBridgers has become something of an unintentional voice of the millennial generation. She's a chronic over-sharer, extremely witty and hilarious online, dabbles in astrology, and has a diversified skill set to rival any other slashie. But, conversely to often tired cliches about millennials, she is prolific, hard-working and determined to change the world. She knows how to use her platform for good, when she wants to do something she does it incredibly well, and is constantly "keeping it pushing" when it comes to her own creativity. If you are a millennial yourself, you'd probably identify with this duality of how the world sees you and how we see ourselves, and the consequent apathy that sets in among us all in knowing older generations will never get it, and younger ones might even have it worse.

Across not just her own work but her work in Better Oblivion Community Center with Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst, or Boygenius with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker, Bridgers manages to distill the many contradictions and complexities that are involved in being a 20-something year old person trying to figure out this world we've been handed. She is "fully-formed" in her artistic vision, but also working it out as she goes. She's self-destructive, but also a romantic. She's lonely but wants to be left alone, and doesn't have time for bullshit anymore. In songs like 'Kyoto', she notes that she wanted to see the world, but changed her mind once she got there. On 'Chinese Satellite', she ponders if life might just be easier if she had something bigger to believe in. In 'Halloween', she jokes about someone needing to be dead because an ambulance woke her up. She finds beauty, wonder or horror in the mundanity of adult life, grapples with anxiety and existentialism, and yet still maintains a sense of optimism despite it all.

On Punisher, she's more sure of herself than ever, and because of this she's opened up to new challenges and opportunities. She's closely tied with The National, and performed with them many times while on tour. She's on The 1975's new album. She has Nick Zinner from The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Jenny-Lee Lindberg from Warpaint join her on this record, as well as OberstDacusBaker and her band. She maintains her deep love of Elliott Smith while casting her influence net wider, thus allowing her to create more versatile songs. All of this represents someone who isn't afraid to be seen exactly as they are anymore. While she never really hid behind a facade, there is a certain kind of liberation that comes with figuring out who you are, and Punisher is the sonic embodiment of this realisation. While Stranger In The Alps was mostly folk, Punisher is louder, heavier, and bolder. Her lyricism is more biting, more fatalistic and more refined, and each song hits you like a sucker punch to the stomach as it cuts to the core of you. She is just as brutal to herself as she is to everyone around her, and her quick wit is somehow even sharper when buoyed by her vastly developed sonic palette.

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Existential dread, innate sadness and a near-constant sense of doom plagues the millennial generation. How can you have hope for anything when the planet is dying, we're on the brink of civil and economic collapse, and we have people in charge who are completely incapable of doing the job? As she sings in 'I Know The End', the album's final cacophony soundtracking something like the bleak dystopia that lays before us, “Either way, we’re not alone." On PunisherBridgers finds her voice and revels in that fact with a newly liberated sense of self confidence, surrounded by her best friends and two middle fingers raised. She doesn't have the answers and she doesn't pretend to, but she is right there with the rest of us as we try to figure it out together.

How are you going in isolation, and have you washed the 100 gecs sweatshirt yet?

I have, one time actually. But I'm doing okay. My dryer broke, that was unfortunate. But I got a new one and don't leave my house for fucking three weeks at a time only to go to the store. Not even social distancing to see friends. But staying relatively sane and trying to keep my shit together.

I saw you just finished Normal People. Does it feel a bit different to have sadness and horniness compounded in a way that we didn't know was actually possible?

[Laughs] Yes! I feel like I didn't know that it was possible, but I haven't felt it in a long time. It's one of my favourite books, so it was doubly heartbreaking because I knew was going to fucking happen. I did it to myself. But yeah, it's one of my favourite books. I think they did a beautiful fucking job.

Congratulations on Punisher. I've honestly lost count of how many times I've listened to it since I got the stream. I don't want to alarm you though, but did you know that you'll be releasing your album in both Mercury and Venus retrograde?

{Laughs] I actually did know that! My friend just texted me, she's a witch and she was like, "Are we going to do something for Venus retrograde?" And I was like, "Fuck." Forgot I'm releasing music. So maybe I'm inherently fucked? But so is everything. I don't need retrograde with what's going on.

Yeah, true. It's kind of like, throw caution to the wind, retrograde or not, we're doing it. You actively tried to enjoy the process more with this record. Did that approach make everything feel different this time around?

Yeah. I didn't know what kind of music I made when I was making the first record. Or I thought I knew and it was like, folk music. I'm glad that that changed and I'm glad that I went into this record knowing what I wanted and that was a big difference, for sure.

You said you don't care if people hate the record because you love it so much. Do you attribute that love to how much you enjoyed creating it this time round as well?

Yeah, I had a great time. It was really hard, but in a good way where your brain is working hard, not just psychologically taxing. Like right now. It wasn't exhausting to make, draining to make. It was great. So yeah, I think about it like that.

Yeah. I love hearing about how much your believing in the record, and I think that really comes through in how refined and beautiful the songs are. You're obviously involved in it as a producer more as well this time around, and with the other projects of course as well. Do you think that this fact that you're more involved in the nuts and bolts of the record and you know what's gone into it, you're able to believe in it so much?

Yeah, yeah. Every decision was my decision. So I mean, I feel proud of the good stuff, in a way that I haven't really felt connected with something before. Even in my other bands it's like, inherently you're creating with other people and standing on stage with other people. And this is something with my name on it that I felt like I am the most involved in this.

Totally. And you've got some incredible people on this record with you of course still, like Julien and Lucy. But you've also got Nick Zinner, Jenny Lee Lindbergh. There's got to be a certain level of self belief to allow more people into the process with you for something with your own name on it. Was it easy to open up this part and let people in more like this?

Yes, just because they do the same job as me. We live as close to parallel lives as possible. They release very, very sad, very personal music and so do I, so it was easy to connect because we're the most similar to each other.

This can also probably extend further into that incredible recent single with the 1975, and your work with The National. Have you always leaned into this collaborative spirit, or was it an intentional push to start saying yes to things more over the last few years?

Definitely wasn't hard to say yes to either of those things! I think that my saying yes more often is just a reflection of my opportunities with people I really respect. I've definitely said no to shit, and it's becoming easier actually for me to say no to stuff. And I feel like the more often you say no to stuff you don't believe, in the more often you'll get the right things.

You've spoken about also apologising for yourself less and how there's a certain victorious edge with these new songs, even though they're still sad. I wondered if that comes from a place of natural acceptance from being in your fucking awful early twenties, or if you wanted to show a different side to the sadness this time round?

I think it just is literally my feelings. I don't put a lot of thought into what I make before I make it. Every once in a while I'm like, ooh, I should write a song about that. But a lot of the time it doesn't even work. Most of the time it's just like I start writing and whatever comes to mind, then is kind of spur of the moment, is what I write about, and I think just my perspective shifted.

As someone who like opens up to people way too much as well, I get what's called sometimes a vulnerability hangover, and I wanted to know if you've ever experienced that. When you're just like, "Fuuuuck!" But it's already out there and you can't do anything about it.

Yes. Sometimes. Not with music, it hasn't happened with music yet. Sometimes it happens with like a journalist who doesn't fully get my music or something or asks me a shitty question. Like an old white man asking me about my experience with who I date. It's super strange! But other than that, which for every person like that there's someone that I really connect with. So yeah, it can just feel weird to open up your entire self to a huge group of people. But for the most part, I only get like that when I totally overshared with a single person. Get too drunk somewhere and accidentally make someone my best friend, and then I wake up like, "Damn it!"

With Kyoto you said that you got sick of making slow songs and you wanted to make something a bit bigger. It also feels like the most clear statement of this new vision that you've had of owning your shit more than ever before. Does it feel like that on your end?

I just have so much fun playing rock music basically with Better Oblivion and Boygenius. And I was like, "Oh shit, I should have some of this in my own music [Laughs]. Subject matter wise, it just felt, it kind of looked like the exact same territory as I've always trodden, but it feels like I'm a little bit older, I guess. It feels a little less that decidedly hateful than some of my music.

I think my favourite song on the record is Chinese Satellite. It's such a just, I had to keep going back to it because every time I listened to it, I was hearing something different. It was really exciting. Can you tell me a bit about that song and what it means to you to have that on the record?

I am grateful that I feel like my version of reality is accurate. I believe in science and I wasn't really raised religious and I think cults and stuff are really fascinating. But other than it being fascinating I like to steer clear of a lot of dogma. Maybe other than astrology and stuff, which is kind of like a hobby. But there is a part of me that's like, "Damn, I'd be able to relax more if I just believed in God or Hogwarts or aliens." And it's just about that feeling, about the monotony of life and wishing that someone would swoop in be like, "Nope, it's actually going to be fine when you're dead. You're going to have your own planet!"

So kind of a reassurance that it's not all for nothing and that there might be something on the other side?

Yeah. Or just like, not even just that I give a shit about the afterlife. It's about, it's kind of like I wish someone, I wish ... I think that it would add a bit of colour to life, knowing that there was something bigger than you.

Yeah, totally. I think that, and even if you're not subscribing to a particular type of higher power, just maybe thinking that there's a higher power and there's something else at play makes life a little easier to deal with.


Punisher is out now via Dead Oceans. Buy/stream here.

Interview by Emma Jones

Image by Frank Ockenfels