Phoebe Bridgers’s Frank, Anxious Music
Her new album, “Punisher,” was crafted with foresight and intention, but the absurdity of the world in which it’s being released requires a certain amount of disengagement.
In late February, the singer and songwriter Phoebe Bridgers appeared at Carnegie Hall as part of a benefit for Tibet House U.S., a nonprofit founded by the composer Philip Glass, the actor Richard Gere, and the Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman. New York was not yet fully in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, but a diffuse anxiety was nonetheless in the air. Early in the evening, the artist and musician Laurie Anderson performed several pieces from her album “Songs from the Bardo,” in which she narrates sections of “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” in a gentle, steady voice. The text is intended to coax a consciousness through the foggy space between death and rebirth. Already, it felt resonant.
Bridgers, who is twenty-five, wore a tea-length black dress and high-top Doc Martens. A thin headband pushed her white-blond hair from her face. Backstage, she shared a dressing room with the seventy-four-year-old soul singer Bettye LaVette. “She’s so badass,” Bridgers told me later. “She was talking about a gig she’d played, and she was, like, ‘Oh, what was I doing again? Oh, I was playing Obama’s Inauguration.’ She was flexing and it was amazing.” Bridgers, who will release her second album, “Punisher,” in June, gets a little jittery before she performs. “My least favorite thing is not getting nervous,” she said. “Just being kind of bored and on my phone.”
In 2017, Bridgers released her début album, “Stranger in the Alps.” Her deft lyrics earned her comparisons to Bob Dylan—a worn-out accolade, perhaps, but there was a violent precision to Bridgers’s writing that made the songs feel urgent. Shortly after the release of the single “Funeral,” the singer and guitarist John Mayer tweeted, “This is the arrival of a giant.” The song is about a friend’s suicide. Bridgers strums an acoustic guitar. Her voice is high and feathery:
And last night I blacked out in my car
And I woke up in my childhood bed
Wishing I was someone else, feeling sorry
When I remembered someone’s kid is dead.
At Carnegie Hall, Bridgers opened her set with “Garden Song,” the first single from “Punisher.” I made a bootleg recording of her performance, which I have replayed several dozen times, in part because it feels like a valuable relic from an era in which large groups of people could still assemble to hear music, and in part because it is beautiful. On “Punisher,” “Garden Song” is buoyed by synthesizers; it sounds lush and wet. That night, Bridgers was accompanied by her guitar and a string quartet, which added a tense elegance to a song that alludes, in an oblique way, to murdering a skinhead and burying him in the garden: “Someday I’m gonna live in your house up on the hill / And when your skinhead neighbor goes missing / I’ll plant a garden in the yard then.”
Conor Oberst, of Bright Eyes, was in the audience. He and Bridgers met when she was added to a bill he was part of at the Bootleg Theatre, in Los Angeles, in 2016; two years later, they made an album together, as Better Oblivion Community Center. “Right when I heard her start to sing, I felt like I was reuniting with an old friend,” Oberst said, of their first encounter.
Bridgers was brought up with the music of Laurel Canyon—the nimble but vulnerable folk songs that proliferated on the West Coast in the nineteen-seventies, when writers like Joni Mitchell began exploring parallel ideas of domesticity and unease—but she came of age listening to emo, a subgenre of punk rock focussed on disclosure and catharsis. Oberst is one of its most beloved practitioners. “I went directly into Bright Eyes as a teen-ager,” Bridgers said.
Oberst and Bridgers both write frank and anxious folk songs that are preoccupied with death and spiritual decay. But Bridgers is too interested in the pliability and the beauty of language to be satisfied with mere confession. “Punisher” took Bridgers more than a year to record. “I tweak lyrics a million times,” she said. “I’ll listen back and be, like, ‘Oh, fuck, phonetically I have something else that sounds exactly the same.’ ” Her best writing is both dreamlike and mundane. “The doctor put her hands over my liver / She told me my resentment’s getting smaller,” she sings on “Garden Song.”
In conversation, Bridgers is quick to lampoon her own behavior with a withering quip, or to wisecrack about the gaffes of others, but her music can be almost unbearably tender. “Punisher” was recorded at Sound City, in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Van Nuys, where Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Fleetwood Mac,” and Nirvana’s “Nevermind” were produced. There are vague echoes of all three in her music—Young’s dolor, Fleetwood Mac’s tunefulness, some of Nirvana’s boyish rawness. Though Bridgers often jokes about her inability to behave like a normal person, “Punisher” is a fully realized work, crafted with foresight and intention.
For Bridgers’s final song at Carnegie Hall, the singer Matt Berninger, of the indie-rock band the National, joined her onstage. In 2019, Berninger released “Walking on a String,” a melancholy track featuring Bridgers on vocals. Bridgers and Berninger both mix humor and dread, but their age difference—Berninger is forty-nine—means that they approach the problem of getting by from different vantages. Bridgers sings worriedly of the future; Berninger sings worriedly of the past. In the end, both points of view take a toll. “I hang my head and feel the oxygen drain,” they sang together. “Phoebe writes so well about boredom and sadness,” Berninger told me. “Sometimes she makes those things exciting and beautiful.”
The next day, Bridgers and I met for lunch at the Grand Central Oyster Bar, a century-old restaurant on the lower level of Grand Central Terminal. The ladies’ rest room features a red couch shaped like a pair of lips; tall cans of aerosol hair spray are arranged by the sinks. On the first season of “Mad Men,” Don Draper and Roger Sterling enjoy a bountiful Martini-and-oyster lunch at the Oyster Bar, and it remains the sort of spot where men in suits and cufflinks congregate to get loose and close deals. “Damn, this place rules,” Bridgers said.
We took a table near the back. Bridgers ordered six Katama Bay oysters and a side of sautéed vegetables. “Anything else for you?” the waiter asked. She shook her head. “Anything else for you?” he asked again.
“Wow, so much fucking judgment,” she said, laughing, after he walked away. When her order arrived, she felt vindicated. Surveying a plate of damp kale and green beans, she grinned and said, “This is exactly what I want! Hot, wet vegetables.” Bridgers is a pescatarian, and she recalled an incident from high school in which she was mocked for her diet: “They were standing around, like, ‘Phoebe’s a vegetarian.’ And I was, like, ‘I’m a pescatarian.’ And this girl goes, ‘Phoebe, that’s a fucking religion.’ ”
Bridgers has spent much of the past three years on tour, but when she’s not travelling she lives alone in Silver Lake, a trendy neighborhood on the east side of Los Angeles. The singer and songwriter Elliott Smith, who died of a presumed suicide in 2003, in nearby Echo Park, is one of Bridgers’s favorite musicians. Like Bridgers, Smith seemed possessed by the kind of melancholy that blossoms rather than shrinks when exposed to too much sunshine. The title track from “Punisher”—the term is a jokey pejorative that musicians use to describe the type of overzealous fan who lingers at the merch table a little too long—addresses Bridgers’s deep devotion to Smith. “I wrote a song about how, if Elliott Smith were alive, I probably wouldn’t have been the most fun person for him to talk to,” she explained. “I’m a superfan, and I know way too much about his music. So I wrote that as if I were the punisher.” The first verse is skewering:
When the speed kicks in
I go to the store for nothing
And walk right by the house where you lived with Snow White
I wonder if she ever thought the storybook tiles on the roof were too much
But from the window, it’s not a bad show
If your favorite thing’s “Dianetics” or stucco.
Bridgers recently started reading Joan Didion, who wrote often about California’s promise and its cruelty. “Weirdly, I slept on Joan Didion until the past two years. I don’t know why—I think maybe too many people mansplained why I needed to read her,” she said. She described Didion as a hazy influence on “Punisher,” which contains “lots of California and lots of fucking ghosts.” Didion, in the essay “Notes from a Native Daughter,” wrote, “All that is constant about the California of my childhood is the rate at which it disappears.” On “Garden Song,” Bridgers sings, “I grew up here, till it all went up in flames.” Her voice is placid but resigned.
Bridgers also recently read “The Last Policeman,” a sci-fi mystery novel by Ben H. Winters. “It’s about a police officer,” she said. “There’s a meteor coming toward Earth, and everybody’s gonna die, and so everybody’s either killing themselves or fucking everyone they ever wanted to fuck and doing drugs. He and all his fellow-cops are kind of mailing it in. There’s a thing that looks like a suicide that he thinks is a murder, and he’s trying to solve the case as the world is ending.” She added, “That’s the way that living life feels right now.” She gestured around the dining room. “We’re just having lunch, you know?”
Bridgers, like many young people, feels as if she is expected to behave normally—to plan for a future, to nurture relationships—as the world around her atomizes. The absurdity of the situation requires a certain amount of disengagement. “If I woke up every morning and thought about the reality of everything, it would totally consume me,” she said. “I have to think about it as if it’s happening in a movie.”
Bridgers was born in Los Angeles on August 17, 1994, and grew up in Pasadena. Her father built sets for film and television, and her mother, Jamie, held a series of jobs—receptionist, executive assistant—while raising Bridgers and her younger brother, Jackson. “If we’d lived anywhere else, we’d have been very solidly middle class,” Bridgers said. “But in Pasadena all my friends’ parents were directors or actors.” Bridgers started playing guitar seriously around age thirteen, after Jamie tried to get her to learn piano. “I fucking hated being forced to do something. Reading music felt like math homework,” she said. “Guitar was my rebellion.”
Jamie drove her to classes at the Folk Music Center, in Claremont, and her father introduced her to the cerebral, shaggy-haired singer-songwriters who came to inform her sound. “He was pretty sensitive about money, and he didn’t love it when I was taking guitar lessons,” she said. “But, as far as music goes, he’s the one who listened to Tom Waits, he’s the one who listened to Jackson Browne.”
Music became a haven, a break from having to parse her experiences. “It’s intangible, which I love,” she said. “What I find hard about visual art is being in a gallery thinking, Do I like this? Why don’t I like this? Why do my friends like this? Am I supposed to look at this for fifteen more seconds?”
In 2009, Bridgers began attending the music program at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. She started dyeing her hair unnatural colors, and, later, shaving it off. She was not an especially good student—“I just didn’t get far enough in school to where it was interesting,” she said—but remains grateful for the vocal training that she received there. “Having to sing every day is the best thing you can do for your voice. If I’m on tour and I’m singing every single fucking night, I’m fine, weirdly,” she said. “I turn into the Terminator. A zombie who can sing but not function in society.”
At fifteen, Bridgers joined Sloppy Jane, an all-girl punk-rock band led by the artist Haley Dahl. Bridgers played bass and Dahl made shrieking, guttural noises, sometimes while wearing only underpants. It’s worth digging up old videos of the group playing around Los Angeles. (Dahl has since relocated to New York and reimagined Sloppy Jane as an eleven-piece art ensemble.) They sound a little like early Hole, but scrappier and more dangerous; sometimes Dahl filled her mouth with paint and let it slowly dribble out. It could be hard to tell if they were satirizing art-rock clichés or doubling down on them.
After high school, Bridgers was accepted to the Berklee College of Music, in Boston, but the orientation was “heinous”—she stayed in Los Angeles. “I hit the ground running. I started playing a show every week in L.A., just trying to meet people. I think I was delusional,” she said. “I was a little bit more confident than was merited at the time.” One day, a talent scout saw Bridgers performing with Sloppy Jane, and she eventually scored a series of roles, most of them nonspeaking, in ads for Taco Bell, HomeGoods, Apple, and Intuit. In a 2014 iPhone commercial, she sings a rousing cover of the Pixies’ “Gigantic.” In a 2015 commercial for the Apple Watch, she sheepishly dismisses a notification so she can finish kissing her date goodbye. She described the experience as “minorly soul-sucking.”
But the commercials bought her enough time to write and record “Stranger in the Alps.” “I would have had to work at Starbucks full time to make the record that I made, and then I wouldn’t have had time to make it,” she said. “The fact that I was able to work five days in one year and basically gave myself my own trust fund—my rent was paid, and I could go to the studio like it was my job—gave me the freedom to explore. Which makes me think a lot of dark shit about privilege.”
“Stranger in the Alps” was produced by Tony Berg. (The title is taken from the edited-for-TV version of “The Big Lebowski,” in which the line “Do you see what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass?” becomes “Do you see what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps?”) Berg co-produced “Punisher” with Bridgers and Ethan Gruska, who also plays on the album. Bridgers and Berg met through a mutual acquaintance in 2014 and have been close since. “For Christmas last year, she gave me an excruciating recording of myself playing trombone,” he said. “That’s what I call a friend.”
When “Stranger in the Alps” was finished, Bridgers got an offer from Dead Oceans, an independent label based in Bloomington, Indiana: “We forced the head of the label to come to dinner with us, because they wanted me to sign via e-mail. I’m gonna fucking sign my record contract via e-mail?” She laughed. “I printed it out. It felt really good.”
When Bridgers was twenty, she briefly dated the singer-songwriter Ryan Adams, who is some twenty years her senior. He produced “Killer,” a three-song EP that Bridgers recorded in 2014 and released on his label, Pax Americana. “We’d had this relationship, and then it soured,” she told me. “I don’t think I even thought of it as abuse at all at the time. I had a crush on him, and he wanted to hook up, and I was, like, ‘Oh, my God, this is so cool, I’m, like, living my best adult life right now.’ Then it went bad, and it was just years and years of thinking about it.” In 2019, Bridgers was one of several women who spoke to the Times about Adams’s abusive and controlling behavior, which included sending predatory messages to an underage fan he’d met online. Through his lawyer, Adams has denied the Times’ “extremely serious and outlandish accusations.”
Bridgers has not heard from Adams since the Times story ran. “There are Twitter accounts that pop up that are, like, ‘You fucking bitch, you sold sex for success’ or whatever, and I’m, like, ‘Is this Ryan?’ That’s never been proven, but every once in a while some weird and specific comment will appear, and I’ll think, Are you starting a million burner accounts and bullying me, or are these just your weird men’s-rights fans?”
“Motion Sickness,” a swooning single from “Stranger in the Alps,” is about their relationship: “I hate you for what you did / And I miss you like a little kid.” Bridgers almost never leans on platitudes or generalities, and the specificity of her lyrics (“You gave me fifteen hundred to see your hypnotherapist / I only went one time”) often makes it feel as if we’re getting a brief glimpse into her actual consciousness. Because she is so direct about her feelings—even when they’re unflattering, or at odds with ideas of self-empowerment—her work offers listeners a funny kind of relief. Pop music has always favored aspirational fantasies over more graceless realities. Bridgers pined for a boyfriend who she knew was shitty—it happens.
“Sometimes I’ll write a song, and I’ll be, like, Oh, I don’t actually feel this way, but it’s a good line,” she said. “With ‘Motion Sickness,’ I was, like, I really fucking hate this person, but that’s not interesting, so I should write it as if there’s more nuance to it. But in retrospect that’s exactly how I felt, and how I feel. I had so much to get over, and there was so much heartbreak surrounding that situation. I was telling the truth. I trick myself into doing that all the time: ‘This is just a thought experiment, this isn’t my actual feeling.’ Then it turns out to be real.”
Bridgers’s work schedule makes dating difficult. “I don’t really think about it too much,” she said. “It’s hard to even have friendships.” She describes herself as bisexual. “I think I just started to look really gay in high school,” she said. “Girls who were feeling experimental would gravitate toward the girl with the shaved head, so I was kind of forced into figuring it out. I felt like my parents were trying, but I also don’t think they believed me. I was totally allowed to have girls over, but I was not allowed to have boys over, so I was intimate with girls before guys.” She added, “But I don’t think I really felt comfortable talking about it, because I didn’t feel gay enough. I’ve never experienced hardship because of it, other than Internet bullying—so I felt like I didn’t earn it.”
In 2018, Bridgers, Julien Baker, and Lucy Dacus formed a band called boygenius, and recorded a self-titled EP for Matador Records. Dacus told me, “I had opened for Julien, Phoebe had opened for Julien, and Julien had hyped each of us to the other.” The group’s name was intended as a sendup of boundless male entitlement, and the EP resonated—instantly and thoroughly—with exhausted young women. Dacus believes that Bridgers’s candor is part of what makes her work so potent. “I think that being really blunt is a comfort,” she said.
“Phoebe surprises me,” Baker said. “She has really sound judgment in so many things. She’ll do something outrageous, or antisocial in the most brutal way, but she does it with such conviction and severity that it’s either hilarious or not hilarious at all.”
“Idon’t have a yard, so I have nowhere to garden,” Bridgers said, as we were finishing up lunch in New York. “But I do have a membership to Huntington Gardens, which is beautiful and famous. We should go!”
Yeah. We didn’t go. The idea had been that I would fly out to Los Angeles in early April—we’d roam around Pasadena, check out the Museum of Jurassic Technology, maybe cruise by her high school. I’d watch her record an episode of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” If things went well, I’d get to meet her friends. There’s a lyric in “Garden Song” that describes a lovely and delicate-sounding moment—“See your reflection in the water / Off the bridge at the Huntington / I hopped the fence when I was seventeen”—and I wanted to go with her to see the fence and the bridge and the water, to hear more about what it felt like to be young and trespassing in Pasadena. Instead, Bridgers and I did what everybody was doing: we made do with phone calls, text messages, FaceTime. We both got sick.
The week I would have been in L.A., I began trying to explain the odd practice of profile writing to undergraduate students at New York University, where I teach. I was, of course, doing this work over Zoom, rather than in the classroom, and the technology added a new level of absurdity to the endeavor. “The idea is to feel how a person displaces the air in a room,” I said. “To learn something about them that they don’t realize they’re telling you.” The students blinked back at me from their childhood bedrooms. My cat blocked the camera with his body. My fever held steady at 99.8.
Bridgers is active on social media, and I found myself sifting through her posts to see if they might contain some useful information, a process that felt both creepy and perfectly contemporary. Perhaps, I thought, if one can discern what sort of persona someone is cultivating online, then it may be possible to extrapolate some broader truth about the person she thinks she is, or the person she wants to be. Yet Bridgers is entirely herself online: funny, blunt, smart. On Twitter, she commiserated about the indignities and the indulgences of self-isolation: “If you put on jeans at any time in the last 14 days, you are the Chief of Police,” she tweeted.
On a Friday in early April, Bridgers played a brief set for Pitchfork’s Instagram Live channel. She sat by a window, in her pajamas, near a rack of guitars. Her hair was wet. The leggy tendrils of a pothos plant dripped from a hanging pot. She strummed an acoustic guitar. Even in a crowded venue, between-song banter can feel stilted or slightly surreal. “Well. Thanks, guys,” Bridgers said. “This has been awesome. O.K. Nice. Thank you. Uh, cool. This one is in the same key. I’m a simple man—I like this key. Bear with me. If I fuck it up, forgive me. I will fuck it up. But thank you guys so much. Thanks, Pitchfork. I’m such a boomer right now. I’m very impressed by this technology.” Tiny hearts drifted across the screen. A small counter in the corner of my phone ticked past nine thousand simultaneous viewers. Bridgers started playing “I Know the End,” the final track on “Punisher.” Her voice was soft:
When I get back I’ll lay around
Then I’ll get up and lay back down
Romanticize a quiet life
There’s no place like my room.
When she finished her set, she struggled to turn the Webcam off. “I’m gonna get roasted so bad for this,” she said, laughing, before the screen went black.
Bridgers has been cooking and doing yoga. She doesn’t normally drink—it makes her tired—but she admitted that she’d been easing up on that rule a bit. Tour dates opening for the 1975 and for the National have been postponed. “I wish I was on the shittiest tour right now,” she said. “Touring in Europe can fucking suck—sometimes you have to pay to go to the bathroom, and it’s fucking nasty when you get in there, and maybe there’s no food besides sausage for days. But I would be in a van in Europe right now in a heartbeat.” She had recently posted to Instagram a photograph of a giant Spotify billboard with her face on it, overlooking an eerily barren Times Square. The caption was “lol.” She had decided not to delay the release of “Punisher,” but still felt weird about putting it out during a global crisis. “Here’s my thing, for your emptiness,” she joked. “It’s very poetic.”
She recorded her “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” performance from her bathtub, securing a toy microphone to a stand with clear packing tape. A bottle of Head & Shoulders was visible in the corner. “Yeah, I thought that was funny,” she said. “I needed something behind me.”
One afternoon in mid-April, Bridgers and I made plans to video chat while she ran a few errands around a mostly empty Los Angeles. We would talk while she drove, and when she came across someplace significant she would park and show it to me on FaceTime. “Dude, right now, people are literally jogging around the reservoir without masks and I’m, like, ‘You fucking idiots,’ ” she said. “It can feel very lonely to be depressed here. I don’t ever feel that way in New York, where it’s totally normal to get wasted by yourself down the street from your house and crawl back to bed.”
First, she gave me a quick tour of her apartment, which featured a framed portrait of her late pug, Max—he died in the winter of 2019, and she has his name tattooed on her arm—and a chalkboard where visitors can leave drawings and notes. (Her brother, Jackson, had contributed an impressive sketch of Squidward Tentacles, from “SpongeBob SquarePants.”) She was wearing a black sweatsuit and a yellow The Paris Review hat. She turned the camera to a corner near the doorway, where the blue scooter she rides in the video for “Motion Sickness” was folded up. “I do genuinely ride it everywhere,” she said.
She drove her Prius toward Old Style Guitar Shop, a small store that sells used and vintage gear. It’s where she bought the rubber-bridge guitar she plays on “Garden Song.” “I have really nice gear, because my five best friends are really into gear,” she said. We rolled past the Bootleg Theatre, where she first met Oberst. She parked. “They literally let me play every day when I was eighteen years old,” she said. “I wasn’t paying attention to the idea that you’re maybe not supposed to play a million times in a row.” For up-and-coming musicians without trust funds, Bridgers said, the scene in Los Angeles can be grim. Before she found the Bootleg, she paid to play the Troubadour and the Whisky a Go Go, two fabled L.A. institutions that, in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, were notorious for their raucous punk and metal shows. (It is difficult to imagine Bridgers on a stage briefly made infamous by Poison and Mötley Crüe, though on her song “Smoke Signals” she writes wistfully of singing Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades” after Lemmy died: “Nothing’s changed, L.A.’s alright.”)
We drove past Café Tropical, her local coffee spot—it was selling groceries and other provisions through a small window—and toward a compound called Bedrock.LA, where she once rented a lockout, a rehearsal space where she and her band could store their equipment. She parked again. “It’s so fucking gross,” she said. “There are cockroaches, they got in trouble for having beer in the vending machines. We called it Poop Studios. But it’s run by, like, the sweetest, most ‘Beavis and Butt-Head’ dudes—they just hang out all day and jam. So it’s very pure, even though the actual owners are slumlords.”
Eventually, she headed toward her mom’s house, in Pasadena, to pick up some matzo-ball soup. When Bridgers was twenty, her parents divorced. The year before, their house had caught fire. “The metaphor is insane,” she said, laughing. “Their breakup was horrible. Really, really vindictive and shitty. I think everybody who has had parents separate knows the feeling of watching people who used to care about each other just fucking hate each other. But it was so nice that it was happening. My brother and I were just so relieved.”
She has a complex, seesawing relationship with her father, and recently wrote a song, “Kyoto,” about it. The instrumentation is almost giddy—Mellotron, synthesizers, horns, Autoharp, a twelve-string guitar or two—but the lyrics are mournful. “You called me from a pay phone, they still got pay phones,” she sings. “It cost a dollar a minute / To tell me you’re getting sober, and you wrote me a letter / But I don’t have to read it.”
“I feel so much fucking empathy and so much fucking anger toward him,” she said. Their dynamic continues to evolve—“It’ll always be day to day: Are we talking, are we not talking? What’s the vibe?”—but she remains close to her mother, Jamie. “Since they got divorced, she’s started doing standup comedy,” Bridgers said. “Which is incredible. Her brand is very ‘divorced.’ She also just got her real-estate license.”
We pulled up in front of the house, which has an enormous oak tree on the front lawn. Jamie popped outside and set down a tote bag full of food, including some eggs from a neighbor’s chickens. “You want to come inside?” she asked Bridgers.
“I can’t come inside! No coming inside!”
“You want me to put the gloves on and walk her through the house?” Jamie asked, pointing to the phone.
“Sure,” Bridgers said.
“Let me get the gloves!”
Bridgers stayed outside, swinging on a rope that hung from the oak tree. Jamie showed me Bridgers’s childhood guitars and some old family photos. As a young man, Jamie’s father was a rodeo cowboy, and in the living room there’s a framed picture of him straddling a bucking bull. We wandered into Bridgers’s old room, which Jamie occasionally rents to college students. “It’s very messy,” she said. She turned the camera toward a high bookshelf. “You can see all of Phoebe’s ‘Harry Potter’ books are still up there.” Jackson was home from college—he’s finishing his last semester at Carnegie Mellon—and asleep in his room.
“I always knew she was going to be successful,” Jamie said. “But I didn’t realize she would get to check all the boxes, in terms of having a successful music career. I took her to see shows, when she was thirteen or fourteen, of people who are now playing on her records.” I told Jamie it was hard for me to imagine my mother accompanying me to a punk show. “I’m all about the aesthetic and the idea of punk rock, but, I’ll tell you, some of those shows were kind of hard to sit through,” she said, laughing. “Or, actually, to stand through, because you never get to sit down at a punk show. They were loud, and they would always be on a bill with other bands that were super scream-o, and sometimes it would be a stinky venue that smelled like pee. But, in a way, I was proud, because I was never cool enough to hang out with those kids in high school.”
Bridgers collected her groceries, said goodbye to her mom, and climbed back into her Prius. The lack of traffic meant that the drive back to Silver Lake would take less than twenty minutes. I asked Bridgers if she thought “Punisher” told a story about who she is right now. “It definitely captures a period in my life, but I think I’ll know way more in five years,” she said. “It’s like reading your subconscious.” I couldn’t tell what Los Angeles looked like just then—empty, quiet, blurring outside her car window. One day, we might get a song about it. ♦
Published in the print edition of the May 25, 2020, issue, with the headline “California Ghosts.”