Phoebe Bridgers on her watershed year in 2020, speaking her truth and using her platform for good
26-year-old singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers had a watershed year in 2020. While she was no stranger to critical acclaim—her 2017 debut album, Stranger In The Alps, earned her a devoted fanbase, as did her involvement in indie superbands boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center—Bridgers’ sophomore album, Punisher, made her a veritable sad girl icon. Evocative storytelling, multilayered melodies and biting cultural commentary netted the artist mass fan appeal and four Grammy nominations, including Best New Artist.
Phoebe Bridgers and I were digital friends first. We followed each other from afar, orbiting gravitational loops of likes and story views before somehow aligning at the cosmically precise degree to which we still met strangers from the internet. This feels fitting, or almost fated: A lot of the time, Phoebe reminds me of the good parts of cyberspace. She’s goofy, weird, relatable; in person, as in her music, she has a gift for zooming in and out on the world, her insights alternately expansive and deeply intimate. Our conversations rapidly cycle through galaxy brain schemes, trauma bonding and BV jokes, like our friendship is some processing unit trying to convert the endless coded data of existence into something we understand. (The original transcript for this interview was 11,000 words—27 pages—and my transcription software assumed there were four of us speaking at any given time. The software has a sensitive algorithm; it took me over an hour to fill all the gaps where it had removed the word “fuck.”) One of the only decent things about 2020 was watching good things happen to such a generous and generative artist.
Happy Women’s History Month! Women: We’ve been around this whole time.
Woman history: It’s as old as history.
I was thinking today about being a “woman” in “history”—the weirdness of having an audience, or of abstractly having influence over a lot of people. I mean, it feels good; it feels ungrateful to be like, “I didn’t ask for this.” But in some ways, you can’t control the way that your life and behavior affect the way that other people live their lives. What’s your relationship to that? What do you feel like artists owe their audience?
I think there’s one way to see it where you don’t owe anybody anything, as far as coming out or talking about your personal life is concerned. As a white person, though, I feel like you actually do owe a lot. You owe your own perspective on how to change the world, your resources. Even just raising money for things—I don’t think that I realized until recently how power directly correlates to money and attention; doing a song for a charity, for example. That’s literally all I have to do to raise awareness. Sometimes it’s even like, “Oh, I’m preaching to the choir.” But then I’ll post about the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union], and people will be like, “Die bitch.” And I’m like, “Oh, there actually is a responsibility to translate what you care about into the world” because people are not going to take that at face value. I can’t believe that there are people who listen to my music and voted for Donald Trump, but there are.
[Photo By Frank Ockenfels]
If we present in a way that allows us to infiltrate and change minds, maybe that’s our job, too.
At the same time, it seems hard to avoid having success in a way that just recreates oppressive power structures. What’s that been like for you? How do you work around that?
Infiltration is first, unfortunately. Especially for music. You have to participate in these archaic forms of making stuff that can be really exhausting. And now I do wield a certain amount of power—I have hiring capabilities at my label. I have hiring capabilities with my band. I actually have the power to make this system different from what I had to deal with when I was coming up and getting 360 deal offers for $10,000 when I was 18. It was $10,000 for 20 years of my life. That’s what [they] tried to buy me for.
That’s some Scientology contract bullshit. I assume you said no.
Oh yeah. It was a turning point for me, where I was like, “Oh, maybe sometimes you do have to just wait for the right moment.” A couple of years later, I got my Secretly Canadian deal, which of course I liked so much that I started my own label there, and Dead Oceans. But I hate how even at the time, I was gaslit by people around me. My lawyer was like, “I don’t know. It’s a pretty cool opportunity.” And I had to fire her. I was like, “I don’t think you’re right.”
How shitty to just be like, “I think that your entire life is never going to be worth more than $10,000.”
I think you smell those people coming, though. You’re just like, “Oh, this person thinks that this is the end of the road.”
Yeah, they just wanna cut and run. I think that’s probably good advice—to wait for good people?
Totally. Surround yourself with people where you can tell they’re not making it up when they say they like it or people you genuinely like hanging out with. I think it took me a really long time to figure that out. You know the whole introvert/extrovert thing. Like, are you exhausted by or refueled by people? I consider myself an introvert actually, but I’m fueled by people I enjoy. You came to my birthday that year, where I was like, I’m going to write a list of people I feel like I should invite. And I’m going to write a list of people I want to invite. And I’m going to delete the list of people I should invite. It was the best. I could have hung out all night. So yeah, just surrounding yourself with people you like.
[Photo By Frank Ockenfels]
I feel like quarantine has been really helpful for that. I have exactly two frenemies.
I have no frenemies right now.
Oh, that’s way more powerful. Fewer frenemies is the goal for me. Hey, how did our 2020 New Year’s resolution to not talk shit go for you?
Zero. No good.
There’s this beautiful Hannah Black essay where she talks about how the etymology of the word “gossip” is that in the middle ages, it just meant “friend.” And then because of patriarchy and shittiness, it became weaponized and devalued as a term and turned into this frivolous thing. Used correctly, gossip networks are ways we can say, “Hey, this experience happened to you too? This is a pattern.” It can be really useful. So, I like to think that we’re trying to just gossip for good, maybe.
Yeah. That framing sounds like institutional gaslighting. “You should hang out with your friends less.”
It’s really gaslight-y, like how some jobs don’t want you to talk about your salary to other people.
Oh, like, music?
Oh yes, that’s the one.
I’ve had huge studios be like, “Our budget for owning a song of yours is $500.”
And then if you say no, you’re “difficult.”
Oh, I know that I have a reputation for being difficult. There’s this capitalistic and totally horseshit angle that some people take, where it’s like, “It’s music, man. Why are you letting business or money get in between me and music?” I’m like, “I’m talking to a billion-dollar company that’s trying to fuck me. It’s not art anymore. You’re trying to take it, and you’re telling me that it isn’t of value.”
And then it’s like, “OK, if my work is so special, then value it.” That also feels like gaslighting, all of these weird alternate economies that exist in creative scenes, where you’re told that you’re shady or sharky for wanting to have monetary capital instead of exposure or clout. It’s like, “Well, yeah, we live in a society, my guy. Clout’s cool, but it doesn’t feed me.”
I grew up with no money, and I think growing up, I was like, “Well, it can’t just be that money fixes everything.” And then when I started making it and got a car and an apartment, I was like, “Wait, I’m free. I can write music in the nighttime and not worry about shitty roommates banging on my wall. I can drive to the grocery store.” It literally does free you up. I feel like the only people who say that money doesn’t matter have money. Being able to function in society and make what you’re making is so elusive.
Totally. And just not being constantly fucking tense from financial anxiety. Being able to relax your jaw.
I remember overdrawing my debit card on purpose so that I could fill my car up. I definitely had IBS for years from looking at my fucking bank statements.
It’ll haunt you!
The body keeps the score, and it’s your fucking credit score.
I would also like to point out that girls with hurt tummies are powerful.
Hot girls have IBS. That’s just true.
That idea of having to exist in this problematic system for a while and then not—was there a specific moment where you realized that you were big enough to use your platform in a way that feels different from how most cis straight white dudes throughout history have used a music platform?
I think the whole Ryan Adams situation was the first time. When I was first starting and made the seven-inch with Ryan, and had a really, really bad experience, I gaslit myself about it for a really long time. I was like, “It was probably good. And I’m just the asshole.” There was this situation where he read one of my interviews where I said he was kind of a dick—and I only said he was a dick; I didn’t even say anything about abuse—and he called the blog and told them to take it out. Which they did! He’s that kind of guy—like he reads shit talk about himself on the internet all day.
That to me is like the No. 1 sign of a really deranged narcissist—someone who wants to read their bad press all the time. I think that’s a really crazy impulse.
He would play 3,000-capacity venues, and he would find one person on Twitter who was like, “That was a boring show,” and he would threaten them. I really feel bad for people like that. It’s all-consuming. Like, if I wanted to confirm that the internet hates me, I could, right now. I’m getting death threats as we speak. I could also tell myself, which some people do, that everybody loves me and I’ve never done anything wrong and I’m the center of the world. That’s just how the internet works. You can find any opinion and focus on it.
Totally. Sometimes I think of algorithms as weird manifestation tools—the more that you consume something, the more the algorithm shows you the same kind of thing.
Yeah, he manifested a New York Times article.
Well, I feel like he manifested that by being an abuser.
So that interview happened, where they took it out, and then I was like, “OK, fuck this motherfucker.” But before that, my record wasn’t out yet. I was like, “If I come out and talk about my horrible experience, I will be forever defined as that person who did that.” If I put that before my record, it’ll be like, “Oh, the Ryan Adams girl?” I also wasn’t talking to anybody at the time who’d had bad experiences. So, I felt horrible about it, but I waited. I waited to be confronted with the right time. And I think I’m still sometimes defined as that, and I have to talk about it all the time, but I think that was the first time where I was like, “Oh, I have power, now that I’m in this, to change it.” Whereas before, I think I would have been outside of it. I could have tweeted a long thread about it, but I waited for somebody to give a shit, and I waited to meet other people with a shared experience. I didn’t give my whole story until the right time. That was the first time in my life that I was like, “I’m going to disrupt. It’s time to disrupt.”
[Photo By Frank Ockenfels]
God, yeah. I didn’t “call out” the dude who sexually assaulted me for a couple of months. It was that thing of slowly recognizing that it wasn’t a one-off; it was an intentional pattern of behavior. You don’t want to get into carceral virtue signaling or be wrong. And I really carried that shame about not saying something sooner for years. I think that goes back to your responsibility to people as a public-facing artist—if you are a caring person who wants to do right in the world and you have a platform, it’s really hard to not feel like you’re constantly not doing enough for people or like you’re not doing things fast enough. And in reality, that’s not always true or the whole story. It would not have benefited literally anyone for you to have made that choice any sooner, for you to have not done right by yourself and your career and your creative fulfillment. That would have been horrible.
Totally. I couldn’t have been articulate. I would have been alone. I think that’s definitely a situation where I had to infiltrate the system first. But also, I feel bad because obviously he has such a public-facing platform that the New York Times gave a shit. If you work at Starbucks and your boss feels you up, how do you deal with that? It’s such a different system. I’m dealing with a public system where now I do have power, where if I tweet about something, people take it seriously. But if you’re not public-facing, it’s just... I don’t know what the answer is.
I think that’s something really important to be mindful of. I think visibility and putting a name on stuff like this can be so helpful. And at the same time, we’re not at a place where taking action works for everyone. And also to be clear, even when I say “works,” I don’t mean fun or success. Everything went as “well,” as possible, in my situation, at least, and it still ruined my life for a while.
Totally. I had diarrhea for, like, a year.
The body keeps the score!
The body! Keeps! The score!
We’re getting Bessel van der Kolk for our next interview.
Dude, the Alternative Press interview with Bessel van der Kolk. Yeah, I’m ready.
That’s for Women’s History Month 2022. I think it’s important to realize you have the ability to help someone and to follow through with that. And also, at some point, it’s like, “Do I have the time and the emotional resources, or even the expertise, to deal with this? I can empathize, but am I actually doing anyone a service by walking them through a difficult scenario?” You want to show up, but also at some point, it ruins you.
Yeah. But I love that we’re normalizing, like, Venmoing your fucking friends. I love that. I love it so much. And of course it starts with people in communities who have less money. I’d love to see more of that with my richer friends.
Definitely. There’s that tweet about how we’re all just passing around the same 25 dollars via GoFundMe.
Which, yeah, it could be working a lot better. But there is a strong and solid community of people who do care. I guess I’m just fully a community-oriented anarchist at this point.
I think that groups are helpful—Al-Anon was really helpful for me. Even if it’s just a starting place, finding people with shared experience has been mind-blowing. You know when you hear somebody articulate something that you didn’t even know you should articulate? Like, somebody’s talking about their experience, and they’re like, “Well, obviously we all had the experience of growing up and being forced to hug people” or whatever, and you’re like, “Wait, I didn’t even realize that was trauma.” I love that feeling. I love the “Oh, my God, I didn’t realize that was scarring me.”
The internet is such a good place for that. The internet also is a horrible place where you can find people who want you to die at any given moment during the day. But also, it’s really nice to have this space where there are all these exchanges of experience. The normalization of a lot of human experience is a cool thing, I think, generally.
Totally. I think there’s a community problem in music—performers look so different from people behind the scenes. There are very few queer people, people of color, or women in administrative, boring-ass jobs. When they do enter music, they’re being pushed to the forefront, like, “Be an advocate for this system.” Once I started having hiring capabilities or signing capabilities or whatever… turning the room that you work in or enter into somewhere where you share something with people is invaluable. I think community is what makes you powerful. Just watching people speak up for themselves, or communicate something that you’ve been trying to communicate for a long time, who look like you. We’re all copying everybody all the time.
[Photo By Frank Ockenfels]
It’s really incredible to me that we don’t know how to live without someone showing us how. Humans are just such experiential learners. Is there any media that’s speaking to you in that way right now?
Definitely one of my favorite records from last year was Fiona Apple’s record, but it was so traumatic to listen to. I listened to it, like, twice. I know it was one of my favorite records. But I was like, “I feel like I’m doing EMDR right now. I’m so retraumatized.” It’s such a fucking beautiful record. I love everybody who worked on it. I had to be like, “This is my favorite. And I will not listen to it for three more years.” On the other end of that, I’ve been listening to a lot of pop music. I really love MUNA. I think pop music is having a renaissance right now. It’s being taken seriously in a real way. I mean, I’m late to the game. Honestly, I felt like it wasn’t for me a lot. And again, that’s why bands like MUNA have reshaped my idea of what is smart and good. I love hyperpop. I love SOPHIE. I love 100 gecs. It’s just fucking fun music. It just makes me feel good.
Recently—this is my year of realizing things—I’ve been asking myself, “Who has a vested interest in me not feeling good?”
Therapists hate her!
Therapists do. Julien Baker and I talk about that a lot—what is your responsibility with putting bad thoughts out into the world? And I think it’s just like, as I said, where you copy everybody. Hearing somebody talk about something, at least in my experience with listening to sad music, it’s like, “Oh shit, I didn’t even realize that I resonated with that whole sentence.” I feel like it’s just a different angle. It’s the multiplicity of music. Sometimes you need to wallow to feel affirmed.
I can’t think about what I represent until after I make something, which is really good. You’re a writer, you know. Writing is hard if you spend the entire time being like, “Oh, I can’t. My mom’s gonna read this or whatever.” You won’t make shit. And I write so sporadically. I write really slow. The 10 songs on my album are the 10 songs I wrote. There has been one circumstance, where I wrote about a friend with a drug problem, and then—it wasn’t a very good song, either—I looked back and was like, “I don’t really feel like telling her story for my own benefit. I don’t really feel like I’m solving anything. Maybe I just needed to write it to figure it out.” I sent it to her, and we talked about it and talked about our friendship, and that was healing, but I think putting it out would have been counterproductive. You have to back yourself up with everything, and you have to be comfortable talking about shit. Or not “have to,” but you should be because a fan is going to come up to you and be like, “When my dad died, that song’s all I listened to,” and you want to be like, “Oh, this person in my life died, and that’s why I wrote it.” If you restrict yourself from those kinds of interactions, you’ll isolate yourself and drive yourself crazy.
100%. That’s the point of it all. A line I feel like I’m always toeing is that line between performing and connecting. I want to connect, ideally. And also, as human beings engaged in some heavily parasocial relationships, we need to perform at times to protect ourselves. But at what point are you protecting yourself, and at what point are you building a cage around yourself and what you’re capable of? ’Cause I love community. We’re just simping for community right now. We’re simping our simps. We love you. Within reason.
“I love you within reason.”
I love you. I’m still not going to DM you back.
I have 161 unread texts right now. Every time I think about it, it sends me into a guilt spiral, but it’ll be like a text from a pretty intense family member or something, and then it’ll be somebody saying, “Yo, let’s get a coffee.” And if I ignore it, I can convince myself it didn’t happen. And then it just compounds on itself. I think I need to learn how to make my world smaller, and therefore bigger. Like, not agree to hang out with every single person or talk to every single person on the phone. And just be like, “Who fuels me? Who am I learning from?”
I made a list recently, similar to your birthday list, of people who drain my energy and people who build my energy. Like, just constructive creative friends. I also explain to people that I will not DM or text you back, and it’s not personal. I don’t have casual running texting conversations with people throughout the day. I have carpal tunnel. It hurts my hand at some point.
I’m also trying to separate myself from my phone, which actually has gotten me to be better at responding to people. If I allow myself to be on my phone all day, I won’t fucking text people back. I’ll just be doom scrolling or whatever. And if I limit my phone time, I’m like, “My brother texted me. I better text him the fuck back.” Also, I meant to say earlier, I feel like the AltPress fans would love Sloppy Jane, which is the first band that I was really in in high school. I played bass very horribly, and now they’re really, really cool and hopefully putting out a record soonish. They have sick music online right now. Also, I had an AltPress poster on my wall. I forgot even what band it was, but I cut it out. It might have been Autolux, which is sick.
But Sloppy Jane are dope specifically for you guys. Other recommendations… I just discovered cluttercore. Huge fan.
Yes. Like, nothing brings me joy, so I want everything in my life.
Cluttercore for me is literally just having a teenage wall bedroom until I’m whatever. A lot of music is just stunted adolescence, romanticized. But that’s my stunted adolescence, having all my posters taped to my wall and still being a financially stable and sexually active adult. Though I’m usually sexting with like a top bun and, like, period underwear on or something.
It’s relatability. Messy room nudes are way more intimate.
I will send nudes from like a year ago. No shame. I’ll be like, “Fuck, are my roots kind of the same right now, if I’m FaceTiming this person.”
I’ve done that before where the nail polish is two different colors in two photos that I’m pretending are the same situation. And I’m like, “OK, well, I hope they’re not focusing on my nails.” My favorite thing is when you send nudes to guys and they say something about what’s in the background. There’s the type of dude that’s going to be like, “You’re hot,” and there’s the dude that’s like, “Haha. I love that book on your nightstand.”
That’s me. I’m that guy. But also, I feel like a lot of guy nudes are pretty fucking funny and, like, architectural. Like, they’re holding the phone with two hands or something weird.
The two-hand phone is so funny to me! Why do they do that? Why do you need to steady yourself? It’s not a good angle. It’s always like...
Maybe we think about nudes differently just because of body image stuff and romanticizing women’s bodies in such a toxic way through culture. Or it could just be that being gay makes you sexualize yourself in a different way, where you know what’s hot about your body.
[Photo By Frank Ockenfels]
Yeah, that’s true. I also think that queerness lends you a certain forgiveness to yourself about your body in a lot of ways. I’m like, “Well, I find all of these other women beautiful, and they have qualities that I really punish myself for. I can be horny for this person. Why can’t I be horny for myself?”
Oh, totally. Again, we’re all copying people. If the hot girl at your high school forgets to shave her legs, you’re like, “I can forget to shave my legs.” Fashion is like that, too, where you see a hot person in low-rise jeans or high-rise jeans, and you’re just like, “Oh, they’re doing it.”
The hot person to me doing it pipeline.
The hot person to me wearing a beret pipeline.
That’s such a nice thing to remember. That taste is so ever-changing and arbitrary, so you can do whatever you want.
I have the opposite fear, though. I need to wait until being a cowboy isn’t cool again and then be a cowboy. Wilco did that. Conor [Oberst] did that. Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings did that, where they were like, “There’s nothing less cool than folk music, and we’re going to make folk music. And now it’s so cool.”
Are you teasing your country album? Is this an AltPress exclusive?
I feel like this past year, you really blew up in a big, public way—but that all happened dissociatively and through screens. What is that experience like, to not play shows, to not see that play out in real life?
It’s been so fucking weird. I don’t know what the world looks like. My world has changed so much since hiding in my house a year ago, but it hasn’t changed in the physical world at all. And like I said about the internet, the internet makes you feel like you’re the center of the world anyway. So I feel no different. The volume of people hasn’t really made a big difference because it’s just a number on a screen. I’ve always had simps because that’s how people like music. So it’s very strange. I can’t wait to play a show, but also, I feel like I’ve really been protected emotionally. I’m realizing how unprepared I was to go on tour and how I needed to go back and do some real inventory of my brain. I started going to therapy for real. I can’t believe I was about to go on tour and be a fucking hot mess for a year. Caleb Hearon tweeted something like, “Deadly pandemic: killing Black and Brown people at a disproportionate rate. All rich people: It’s been great to take some space and time for myself.” Like, I don’t mean that. I just mean [that] I think I didn’t know how to say no to things before. I’m still having a hard time, but I think this year is teaching me that it might actually be healthy to go on tour for three weeks and then have one week for myself. You can live unhealthy patterns, and it’s often rewarded, and you can blow your voice out and have to take steroids—it’s not good for you. So, I think in a weird way, I’m more grateful for tour now, and I can’t wait to start again. But I’m also realizing that I have the power to say that I need some space, or I need it to work like this, or I need this many hours of sleep, and you can’t schedule something at 7 a.m. if we got home at 2 a.m.
It’s funny: I was driving, and the poppies have started blooming in the highway medians, and that made me cry in my car because it’s so regenerative. When we talk about living through a year of this, it’s incredibly devastating, disappointing and horrific. But seeing the poppies was like, “OK, it’s a cycle in this natural, regenerative way as well.” We actually have an opportunity to come out of this a little bit more compassionate and a little bit more aware of what kind of person we want to be at the end of the world. What a privilege to have been able to do that work, at least, which is not saying that this was a good scenario. But at least we can come out of that and be like, “I want to operate in the world in this new way.”
Totally. It feels more intentional.
We have the same amount of time and attention, but we can say no to shit. You gotta say no to life, sometimes.
Say no to life! Otherwise, you’re wearing yourself thin. You’re not making yourself available emotionally to fans or people. You’re not offering anybody the right amount of attention or the right version of yourself. You need space, and to emotionally recharge, to enter the world. I think that’s what I’m realizing: I will not give a good show if I’ve been on tour for a fucking year-and-a-half. I will not give a good interview if I’ve had eight that day and the first person pissed me off. You need to give yourself space to metabolize the information in your life to be the best version of yourself. It’s not our fault. I think it’s capitalism that says that working as hard as you fucking can is the most valuable thing. It’s not.