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Phoebe Bridgers’ Path To ‘Punisher’ And 2021

[Pollstar]

By Eric Renner Brown

Phoebe Bridgers was having some trouble with tour routing.

With physical concerts on hold and her spring arena trek supporting The 1975 called off, the indie-rock sensation and her manager, Blue Raincoat Management’s Darin Harmon, had assembled a virtual world tour, cleverly punctuated as “Phoebe Bridgers’ World, Tour,” taking her to three markets – all within her home.

But Bridgers had concerns.

“Wait, this is really poorly routed,” she deadpans as she recalls plotting the dates with Harmon. “I’m going to have to go upstairs, downstairs, outside. Can you route this better so that I only have to move my amp once?”

“Touring” In The Time Of COVIDThe promotional poster for “Phoebe Bridgers’ World, Tour.”

After settling the routing – “Kitchen, bathroom, bed, you know, by overwhelming demand, a second show from the bed,” says Harmon, laughing – they devised promo materials befitting an ‘80s arena-rock tour, including a video with an over-the-top voiceover, crowd shots, and performance footage. With much of the country sheltering in place upon the tour’s mid-May announcement, the shows helped keep Bridgers sane.

“I was too depressed to make decisions when quarantine started,” she says. “Darin was like, ‘We gotta make an admat of, like, a tour from your house.’”

Unusual times call for unusual measures, and it’s unsurprising that the preternaturally gifted Bridgers has met the moment, whether going live from within Minecraft or doing donuts in a parking lot while her dash-cam filmed a performance of “I See You” for a spot on “The Late Late Show With James Corden.”

“There are skills I would rather have learned from this year,” Bridgers quips, “but this is the one I was handed with COVID.”

The 25-year-old Angeleno had plenty in store for 2020: stints opening for The National in Japan, Australia and New Zealand, a prime support slot on The 1975’s North American arena tour and her biggest headlining tour to date. But thanks to her musical strength and digital savvy, Bridgers’ popularity has continued to skyrocket, even with physical touring off the table. She released Punisher, her second album, in June, which followed her 2017 debut, Stranger In The Alps, and collaborative records with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus as boygenius and with Conor Oberst as Better Oblivion Community Center, released in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

“She had a great voice, her vibe, everything about her,” says Liz Garo, senior VP of talent at L.A.’s Spaceland Presents, who began booking Bridgers on support bills at the city’s 350-cap indie haven The Echo around 2014. “She just had a real natural warmth about her that people really liked and connected with. And her voice was great.”

Garo would know: She first saw Bridgers perform in the late ‘00s, when the musician, then 12, started regularly playing the club’s back patio as part of its long-running “Grand Ole Echo” Americana series. Then a student at the public, audition-only Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, those gigs were just part of Bridgers’ adolescent musical diet. She busked on city streets, appeared in an iPhone ad singing the Pixies’ “Gigantic” and even played bass in edgy, all-female punk band Sloppy Jane.

Streamer In The Alps
Streamer In The Alps
Bridgers plays the Kitchen date of her virtual world tour, comprised of stops throughout her house.

“We played this B-squad Burning Man festival out in the desert, where we had to dress all like Mad Max, and they had strippers for all the other bands,” says Bridgers, remembering a 2013 gig at Wasteland Weekend, 90 minutes north of L.A. “We were the only band of all women, so they were like, ‘Well, do you want strippers still?’ We were like, ‘Well, we want male strippers.’ So, there’s video of me playing bass with a male stripper dancing on me, somewhere deep on the internet.”

If that sounds different from the melodic, intimate brand of folk-inflected indie-rock that Bridgers has built her name upon in recent years – well, it is. But ads, busking, oddball desert fests and relentless solo gigging shaped the performer she became.

“Playing bars and stuff, you know how to handle it when people are talking or don’t give a shit about you,” she says. “Those experiences made me feel all the more lucky when people were quiet when I was singing.”

Garo frequently suggests music to the agents in her orbit, and in 2014, she recommended Bridgers’ recently self-released Killer EP to High Road Touring’s Dave Rowan.

“I found myself just going back to it over and over, just being so remarkably floored by the detail,” he says. “It kept resonating with me.”

Garo had also tipped off Bridgers about Rowan, and the two met that October at San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. By early 2015, Rowan was representing Bridgers, and scoring her gigs supporting Baker, Blitzen Trapper, Violent Femmes and more.

With a paltry catalog to her name, Rowan “was getting me amazing tours,” Bridgers says. “He doesn’t make any sense. He’s amazing.”

Rowan soon advised Bridgers that she needed a manager, and put her in touch with several, including Harmon, then at Bill Silva Management. An industry vet, Harmon had worked with clients including Coldplay and Rilo Kiley during the 11-year tenure of his own 3D Management, and Bridgers stunned him when he first saw her play, like Rowan, at The Echo.

“There weren’t too many people in the room, but she came on and it was a no-brainer,” Harmon says. “I tend to gravitate toward artists who, the second you hear them sing, you can identify it’s them. She has that.”

Together, Harmon and Rowan deployed the tested strategy of building a following through constant touring, and continued snagging Bridgers coveted support slots, including for future collaborator Oberst and Ryan Adams, whose Pax Americana label had released “Killer” as a three-song 7” in 2015. (Around this time, Bridgers briefly dated Adams; in 2019, she was among the women who accused the musician of misconduct in a New York Times report.)

Bridgers’ burgeoning music career allowed her to self-finance the recording of Alps, and respected indie label Dead Oceans signed her, complete debut in hand, in June 2017.

Initially, “great songwriting” drew Dead Oceans to Bridgers, says label co-founder Phil Waldorf, but the relationship “really blossomed as we got to know Phoebe and understood the world that she was creating, and that it wasn’t just simply the songs, but that she had this 360-degree idea of who she is as an artist. That makes our job much easier, when you work with someone who’s got a real vision and a real plan and a tireless work ethic.”

Until then, like many emerging singer-songwriters constrained by tight budgets, Bridgers had toured solo.

“Early on, we had Phoebe touring literally just her in her car, driving around with an acoustic guitar,” Harmon says.

But with buzz growing and Alps’ September 2017 release, Bridgers’ team decided the time was right for a proper headlining tour. She hit the club circuit in February 2018, with a full band and crew in tow.

“It was primarily door deals,” Harmon says. “There was no assurance that she was going to come out of that tour breaking even.”

She did, in part because she paid her pivotal opening bookings forward, enlisting then-breaking fellow High Road client Soccer Mommy as support.

“It was the first time that anybody had consistently been showing up to see me,” Bridgers says.

“She’s got a real community of musicians and artists who are in her world, and they’re moving forward together,” Rowan says. “That was sort of the genesis for boygenius, too.”

Brain Trust
YouTube
Brain Trust
boygenius, the supergroup Bridgers, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus formed in 2018, performs the second of two sold-out Brooklyn Steel shows on Nov. 6, 2018. Less than six months earlier, Bridgers had headlined two nights at the borough’s Music Hall of Williamsburg – about a third of the size.

Like Bridgers, Baker had released an acclaimed album in fall 2017, and the two artists began to formulate the idea for a co-headlining tour – with Baker’s Matador labelmate Dacus as support – for 2018. Once dates were booked for the fall, the trio convened to record a promotional 7” for the tour, which quickly expanded into the six-song boygenius EP, released that October. An already appealing co-headlining trek became an even hotter ticket, an indie-rock summit where three of the genre’s most promising young talents played their own sets, then united for a closing boygenius performance.

“The nerves and the good stuff were shared,” Bridgers fondly recalls. “We cried a bunch onstage. That was pretty sincere and embarrassing, but also great.”

Bridgers’ nerves were natural – the boygenius shows were by far the biggest hard-ticket gigs she’d played. In April 2018, she’d sold out the Doug Fir Lounge in Portland, Ore., moving 299 tickets and grossing $5,256, according to Pollstar Boxoffice reports. Seven months later, boygenius sold out the city’s McMenamins Crystal Ballroom, moving 1,460 tickets and grossing $36,782. In markets like Nashville and Brooklyn, a similar story played out, with Bridgers playing to audiences three times larger than the ones she’d played to just months earlier.

Community Organizers
FilmMagic
Community Organizers
Bridgers and Conor Oberst perform as Better Oblivion Community Center at San Francisco’s Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival on Aug. 10, 2019. As recently as 2017, Bridgers was opening for the indie-rock legend.

Soon, Bridgers was on to the next project: Her Oberst team-up Better Oblivion Community Center, which surprise-released its self-titled debut in January 2019 and was on the road within weeks.

“Conor just jumps around a lot more onstage, and that was a good experiment for me, because I’m so still,” Bridgers said. “I had to get used to moving around and not messing up the chords.”

Like boygenius, Better Oblivion moved upwards of 3,000 tickets in some markets, including New York, where it played Bowery Ballroom, Music Hall of Williamsburg and Brooklyn Steel.

Still, Bridgers remained herself. Garo says Bridgers “would always do really great cover songs” – “How do you even know who they are?” she remembers thinking when Bridgers covered Guided By Voices at The Echo – and at Better Oblivion’s Brooklyn Steel show on April Fools’ Day, the band busted out Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s award-winning hit “Shallow.”

National Heroes
Ilya S. Savenok / Getty Images / Tibet House
National Heroes
On Feb. 26, weeks before the pandemic arrived in America, Bridgers performed with The National’s Matt Berninger during the Tibet House’s annual benefit at New York’s Carnegie Hall. She was set to tour Japan and Oceania with the band in March and April.

“Conor kind of put his dick into it, but he failed,” Bridgers says with a hearty laugh. “I won. He was trying to do, like, Bradley Cooper voice. I was like, ‘Dude, it’s already funny. You don’t need to do the Bradley Cooper voice.’”

All this time, Punisher’s songs had been gestating, but Bridgers’ detours following her debut influenced the end product’s grandiosity.

“I love ballads, but I think I’m getting out of writing only ballads,” she says. “There’s something beautiful about looking at a room full of people screaming something really dark, as opposed to just everybody being quiet while you sing dark things.”

Plus, in boygenius and Better Oblivion, Waldorf says, “Phoebe got to not just play the role of songwriter, but editor for other people, and get a real view into the work habits of some of her peers,” impacting how she approached Punisher.

As Bridgers wrapped the Punisher sessions in late 2019, her mammoth 2020 took shape. “There are arena tours that she probably would’ve said ‘no’ to,” Waldorf says, but supporting The 1975 in arenas made sense, because it would’ve exposed Bridgers to a slightly different audience and meshed with her promotional calendar. (Emerging British rocker beabadoobee was set to open the bill.)

“The record was going to come out right after that tour, so actually it felt like the perfect thing, where I wasn’t sacrificing my headline shows,” says Bridgers, who sings on The 1975’s 2020 album. “There was no thought process other than, ‘I can’t wait to hang out with these people every night.’”

Of course, the pandemic got in the way. But Bridgers’ ardent social media following, which she’s amassed with a combination of irreverence and intimacy, helped her pivot.

“People aren’t being marketed to, she isn’t feeding them bullshit,” Rowan says of her online presence. “A generation of people who grew up with social media can read through bullshit in an instant; she’s anti-bullshit.”

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FilmMagic
“The Voice Of Her Generation”
Cutting lyricism, polished indie-rock melodies and digital savvy have helped Bridgers become one of her generation’s foremost singer-songwriters in just a few short years.

Bridgers had a readymade virtual audience, and with plenty of time at home, she could go all-in. “She likes to take these things and turn them on their head a little bit,” Harmon explains, and Rowan recalls that, when the possibility of livestreaming arose, Bridgers asked him, “How do we do this without doing the same thing?” Thus, her “World, Tour.”

“A livestream is not a substitute for being in a club and seeing a show,” says Waldorf, but “having a sense of humor about it and not taking yourself too seriously is a really great way to push ahead in the absence of live shows.”

Even so, it presented a learning curve.

“How do I turn on this ding-dang thing!” Bridgers says, mimicking a technophobe as she reenacts her early streams. “It’s forced me to get better at the internet. When COVID is over, I’ll be amazing.”

When she’s not on the road, that is. Bridgers’ team expects her to hit the ground running when physical touring resumes; Waldorf thinks she might even skip some of the smaller rooms she would’ve played when first touring Punisher, immediately leveling up to the ones she would’ve hit on her second pass in certain markets. But it might take a while: Rowan says Bridgers’ team had fall 2020 dates lined up “primarily in the 2,500-capacity ballrooms of the world” that they’ve already moved to the spring, and that they’re “in the process currently of moving things again” due to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Bridgers has kept cultivating a sprawling fanbase, from Gen Z Instagram followers to Boomers who might’ve given Punisher a shot because it featured legendary session drummer Jim Keltner, who played with John Lennon, Bob Dylan and scores of others.

“She could open up a Neil Young tour or a Billie Eilish tour,” Waldorf says. “It comes down to just how authentic Phoebe is with this stuff. She’s not focused on a scene or a genre.”

It’s Bridgers’ “genreless” quality, Rowan says, that’s helped her forge such deep connections with audiences so quickly.

“She’s emerging as the voice of her generation,” Rowan continues. “In 50 years, she’s gonna be Patti Smith or PJ Harvey or Nick Cave or something. She’s going to be one of those artists that everyone looks back on, like, this person charted her own path and was so meaningful to so many people.”