Why L.A.’s Phoebe Bridgers Has Everybody Talking
By Mikael Wood
Phoebe Bridgers seriously overpacked the first few times she went on tour.
“Way, way too many clothes — like, stuff from my closet that I’ve literally never put on my body,” she says. “And then I’d only wear the same two T-shirts and pair of jeans.”
Bridgers, the L.A. singer-songwriter behind one of the year’s most acclaimed debuts, learned many lessons on the road.
“Now I know what I need,” she says.
It’s wisdom she’s already demonstrated in her music, which delivers a heavy emotional payload using a limited number of tools. On the startlingly intimate “Stranger in the Alps,” Bridgers, 23, ponders the comforts and frustrations of modern relationships in songs uncluttered by cliché or equivocation.
“I went with you up to the place you grew up / And we spent a week in the cold,” she sings over stark but tender electric guitar in “Smoke Signals,” “Just long enough to Walden it with you / Any longer it would’ve got old.”
In “Georgia” she addresses the mother of a boyfriend who “never lies or picks up his phone.”
And then there’s “Motion Sickness,” a darkly funny breakup tune in which she lays into an older musician with pitch-perfect attitude: “You said when you met me you were bored / And you were in a band when I was born.”
Released in September, the album has landed on numerous best-of-the-year lists; it’s also earned praise from fellow musicians including Alessia Cara and John Mayer, who tweeted that Bridgers’ song “Funeral” — a devastating portrait of depression — marks “the arrival of a giant.”
For Bridgers, set to perform Saturday night at Highland Park’s Lodge Room, the attention has been “really validating,” as she puts it over coffee on a recent afternoon near her home in Silver Lake.
In keeping with her brutally honest style, though, she’s trying to resist the hype about how brilliant she is.
“They’re just, like, conversation-y songs, with no extra words that you wouldn’t say in life,” she says of her music. “Folk songs, basically. No frills, no bells and whistles — just exactly what’s happening.”
Co-produced by Tony Berg, a veteran of the L.A. record business, and Ethan Gruska, who released a strong debut of his own this year, “Stranger in the Alps” does feature some bells and whistles — literally so in the case of “Scott Street,” an acoustic number about a run-in with an old friend punctuated by the jingle of bicycle bells.
Yet the careful production is always working to accentuate Bridgers’ voice, which can sound both haunted and deadpan at the same time.
“Phoebe has something to say,” says Berg, known for his collaborations with songwriters such as Aimee Mann and Michael Penn. “So even in the songs with a conventional rhythm section, we’d start with her solo performance and then build everything around that.”
Bridgers grew up in Pasadena and started playing guitar when she was 12 or 13. Later she studied vocal jazz at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, though the style didn’t really suit her.
“All that shooby-dooby stuff — as an art form, it needs to be exiled,” she says.
Bridgers insists she learned more gigging around town with Sloppy Jane, a punky L.A. band in which she used to play bass, and creating her own songs, which she’d record in videos using her computer’s Photo Booth app so she could remember how to finger certain guitar chords.
A key development in her writing, she says, was coming to understand that she doesn’t need theatrics to make her songs interesting; the specifics of reality are enough to put a listener inside a situation, as indeed happens to her when she listens to Mark Kozelek and Conor Oberst, two songwriters she mentioned as clear influences. (Oberst contributes vocals to a track on “Stranger in the Alps,” and the album includes a cover of Kozelek’s “You Missed My Heart.”)
Another of her convictions is that a song can raise questions without answering them, an idea that puts her music at odds with the neatly resolved melodramas that flourish on Top 40 radio.
“You look at Taylor Swift, and every ‘i’ is dotted, every story is finished,” Bridgers says, adding that she admires Swift’s craft. But her goal is to evoke something more like the randomness of everyday existence.
Rave reviews and A-list tweets aside, that dedication means Bridgers is likelier to make her living next year by staying on the road than by raking in bucks as one of her tunes scales the pop charts.
She’s OK with that, and not just because she’s improved her packing. In February she heads out on a headlining U.S. tour — a definite step up from the opening slots she played over the last couple of years with the likes of the War on Drugs and the Violent Femmes.
The latter trek was especially rough, she admits.
“They were so cool, but I forgot they have a radio hit,” she says, referring to the folk-punk trio’s early-’80s staple “Blister in the Sun.”
“That’s what drunk moms in Montana came to hear, and they don’t care at all about who’s on before — or about any other Violent Femmes songs, for that matter.”
Still, every once in a while, she’d catch a glimpse of someone in the audience listening — and maybe reacting uncomfortably to an especially frank lyric.
“I kind of get off on that,” she says. “I’m like, ‘I know you’re paying attention because you just squirmed when I said that.’”