Phoebe Bridgers, and the whimsical melancholy of Punisher
On her second solo album, Phoebe Bridgers navigates yearning through songs that feel plucked from a fantasy lullaby.
All images by Frank Ockenfels.
Phoebe Bridgers’ debut album Stranger In The Alps was so commanding in its dry wit and angelic melodies that people simply had to sit up and take note.
There was something new to find upon every fresh listen; insight into the world Bridgers had been thrust into whilst growing up in Pasadena, California and beyond that, depictions of loss (Smoke Signals), abusive relationships (Motion Sickness) and even sexting (Demi Moore) - all the usual facets of someone in their twenties, but never explicitly tried to be one thing or another. Stranger In The Alps borrowed from 70s folk-rock traditions and 90s alternative and emo but never felt stale, partly thanks to dynamic production from Bridgers’ with Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska, and partly in the deep-set humour that underlies her work. That awareness and deconstruction of ego gave heart to the album, leading it to not just being one of the best albums of 2017, but a prolific moment on the indie folk-rock spectrum of the ‘10s.
In the few years since her debut, Bridgers has kept busy with side projects: boygenius, a trio with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus; and Better Oblivion Community Centre, a recent collaboration with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst. It wasn’t a conscious choice to sway from her solo material, instead laying the groundwork for a follow-up release, as she gathered experience and inspiration like feathers in a hat. Now Bridgers returns with a solo offering that’s equally, if not more, striking than the first one. The album, titled Punisher, showcases her talents as a sophisticated, clever songwriter whose ability to hit the mark with relatability and timely pop culture references is second to none.
Punisher is a collection of songs that toy with the transformation, decay and rebirth that comes with time. Take Garden Song as an example: the lead single sees Bridgers reappropriate her childhood memories, now wondering how it’s possible for time to pass so quickly between her teenage antics of hopping the fence of Huntington Botanical Gardens – an estate just outside of LA – and current visits that leave her staring into the lake, reflecting. Then there’s Halloween, a meandering track that compares the beloved American holiday traditions to the dark reality of masks we wear well into our adulthood; and Moon Song, where she reimagines a nautical-themed birthday party, but the right words never quite fall out. Each song is full of glimpses into Bridgers’ past but rarely are they explored in-depth, instead opting for vagueness that feels both shyly intimate and universally felt.
The sheer beauty of Punisher outweighs the melancholic nature of nostalgia and yearning - two things the album features heavily. In fact, Punisher is surprisingly light to digest, considering many of the songs grapple with relationship breakdowns, alcoholism and disassociation. A childlike whimsy grounds the record, making tales of ICU wards and abusive relationships seem untouchable, like bad dreams that disappear almost as quickly as they arrived. Snow White, storybook houses, The Wizard of Oz’ click of the heels, sing-song birds sitting outside her window and, hell, even Elvis’ Graceland blur into the same reality.
That’s the thing about Phoebe Bridgers – her words are visceral and cut deeply, but that’s easy to miss if you allow yourself to be swept up in her hypnotic voice. One would never usually assume something as venomous as “stuck your tongue down the throat of somebody who loves you more / So I will wait for the next time you want me / Like a dog with a bird at your door” could come out sounding like a modern-day lullaby but here lies the exception.
If there’s anything that paints a picture of where Bridgers is in her life right now, it’s the final song on Punisher. I Know The End starts slowly and thoughtfully before erupting into shards of horns, demonic screams and a chorus of faces bluntly proclaiming “the end is here.” It’s part apocalyptic, part self-reflective and part tongue-in-cheek (it is the album closer, after all), rounding out with Bridgers’ heavy breathing for the final few seconds. She ushers us through 11 songs, from a soft instrumental opening track titled DVD Menu – which, title alone, makes me wonder why no one thought of this sooner - to a complete cacophony of sound. This constant battle between tenderness, dark humour and emotional dissonance is quintessential Phoebe Bridgers, but on Punisher we see her push that vulnerability, on all sides, further than ever before.
I want to start with a particular side of the album that I found to be really interesting. You've made a career out of these beautiful but devastatingly emotional songs, but I found this album to be really whimsical. There was a lot of these storybook kind of elements, like you mention Snow White and clicking your heels - things like that. Was that intentional?
No, I don't really even think [until I look back] later, which I think is really exciting about making music. I'm clearly thinking about one thing, and it keeps recurring, but it's not on purpose. Does that make sense? You just see it later. Then the second time there's something whimsical on the album, you're like, "Oh! I can say that twice because I'm making the same record." I think that stuff is cool; I like it when people do that.
Yeah, because I find that often when people think about your music, they just think about the emotional heaviness of it, and this one surprised me because so much lightness to it.
Yeah totally, it does feel like there's like this... I don't know, I think I just love stories, and I guess [I was] maybe thinking a lot about childhood and trying to make it encapsulate a bigger piece of my life than just the first album, which is kind of one headspace. I feel like there are different typefaces on this album.
I can see that, with you mentioning childhood, plus Garden Song and a couple of other tracks seem to have a lot to do with time.
Yeah, for sure.
As you were growing up, did you have sort of an obsession with storybook and fairy tales? Were you someone who loves to fantasize?
Totally. I mean, I'm fucking obsessed with Harry Potter and all things related. I actually have a Harry Potter shrine in my room. Narnia before that, I love that contrast.
Even the title song Punisher! It gets into the chorus section that's leading into "what if I told you..." and that tiny melody reminded me so distinctly of Once Upon a Dream from Sleeping Beauty. Have you noticed that?
No, but that's why I like interviews! Yeah, I'll check it out. I didn't realise that - that's awesome.
These whimsical moments are often juxtaposed with situations that seem very real and very raw. What in particular were you thinking about in regard to your childhood, when you were writing these songs?
Just stuff I wish I could go back and do. I'm kind of obsessed with the idea that like, especially now in quarantine, like I live in LA [and] I'll drive by somewhere that I used to go and that I have fond memories of and I'm like, "Oh, I'll do that again one day." And it's like, what one day? I do the same shit every single day. [I'm] trying to have more ecstatic experiences, just add some variation in my life. That's why I started going to the Huntington Gardens more because I used to go when I was a kid. It's closed now but I think probably it'll open soon.
It's kind of funny that you mentioned that because I know that lately with the chaos in the world right now, I've heard so many people talk about how they've started retreating back to like, watching movies that they used to watch when they were in high school and reading books they used to read when they were kids. Do you think there's some kind of connection between everything that's going on in the world and the things you personally are finding comfort in lately?
I've been saying this, but I feel like I accidentally backed up to an old iOS. Last night at like midnight, I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Just shit I haven't done since I was a kid.
I don't know why not! I just would never think to do that. It doesn't even cross my mind. I've been making cups of mac and cheese - and not out of laziness - out of like, this is what I want. I have tonnes of fresh veggies and beautiful food in my fridge, but what I want is like a grilled cheese sandwich or something. So yeah, I think comfort right now is what everybody wants.
Did you often find comfort in writing about certain situations in your life, with this album?
Yeah, I think mostly in retrospect. I mean, of course you do, because it's like, "Look what I made of this pile of shit." It's like you've achieved something by going through something traumatic, which is a dangerous headspace but god knows I have 25 years of shit to write about. I don't seek it out, but it tends to be what I do want to work out.
Does each new release get easier?
It was easier just because I know that people are listening, which I definitely didn't know the first time.
But there must be an added pressure to that.
I've been hearing people ask that and I've heard other people say that, but no. I think there was way more pressure with my first record. There's way more on the line, and also I'm literally shielded from the world right now. There's kind of like no pressure, you know?
It is a wild time to be releasing music. I was reading an interview the other day with an artist from Australia, and she was releasing her debut album and she said it was a bit dampening to have worked so hard to put it all together and now the release is under these circumstances. Do you feel that way about releasing your music during this time?
I'm upset [but] I think I would be more upset if I wasn't releasing music. Like I would feel like no sense of purpose or something right now and just have nameless, shapeless days. Instead, I'm talking about something that I worked really hard on. Although I'm actually really jealous because I just got a text from my drummer and his girlfriend has made a song - I would not have been writing at all, and they just made like the coolest song. So I was like shit, I've got to get myself together!
I want to talk about those moments on the album that are just so tongue in cheek, and the weird, dark humour that kind of underlies some of your music. How do you find the balance between that and still creating really emotive songs?
I think they're the same thing. I just am kind of an oversharer. It doesn't even feel like balance to me. It doesn't feel like I'm having to... I mean, I would never tweet something super emo, unless it was like political, it just doesn't feel like the platform. But I have no issue putting funny shit in songs. I think it adds depth.
I opened up the album stream and the first thing I saw was DVD Menu, for example. Why has no one thought of that before?
Yeah, that's awesome. I was like, oh we should call it DVD Menu, and then it was so close to when we were finishing that. It just ended up being called that and I was kind of like "Woah, woah, wait!" But it was actually fine.
It was so confusing, and it was so beautiful. It was this incredibly crafted song, but it was called DVD Menu. It's so silly, I love it. How do you determine what makes the cut to be on a Phoebe Bridgers album?
Just how many songs I have [laughs]. I actually am writing until the last minute and I don't ever eliminate songs. I eliminate songs before they're even done if I don't like them so the only things I finish are ones I like, so yeah, little to no eliminating.
I mean, does that make it easier?
I don't know. I have nothing to compare it to. 10 songs is a pretty short record; I would totally release a 15 song record if I had [enough songs] but I don't.
You released Stranger In The Alps a few years ago, then you basically took time off the solo project, and went and made music under boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Centre, and even recently with The 1975. Was that a conscious decision to stop making your own music while you're working with other artists or was that just the way things happened?
In retrospect, it was great because I didn't have enough songs, and it gave me kind of some breathing room. Also, the two projects definitely affected the way that the record sounds, I think positively, but no, it's totally an accident. It was just like, Connor [Oberst] and I went on tour and he asked me if I wanted to have a band, then we started writing songs, and then the only time they lined up to record it was June 2018. The first five days of boygenius was like... we didn't know we were a band. We were like, let's get together and try to make shit and we did so, totally an accident.
Was Punisher a planned return back to the Phoebe Bridgers solo project or did that sort of just fall into place as well?
I think I was delusional about when that would happen. I was like, oh, I'll have two bands for a year and then I'll... I've been wanting to put out solo music for a long time. It just took this long.
Is there a certain way you feel like your musical style has evolved over the years?
Yeah, I think I'm getting a little less folk-oriented, which is good. I still write folk songs but I'm more excited by production and my songwriting is a little better; I think it's a little bit more human-sounding, which is cool.
Yeah, it's hard to be able to achieve the kind of intimacy that your music has, I feel.
Yeah, for sure. Maybe it's because I write with either myself or my closest friends. I kind of dare myself to be like, I don't have to show this to anybody, but by the time I'm done, if it's good, I just do.
You never have any direct names or pronouns or anything like that. It's always just either very vague and ambiguous or specifically you. Is that something that you do for a reason?
I don't think so. I think I just naturally do it. Maybe I am trying to shield people a little bit, I've done that a little bit, but I don't think the music has suffered yet from that. It's never been like, "Oh no, if only I could creatively use someone's name!" I haven't struggled with that yet.
Is there any particular moment on the album that you really love or are most proud of?
Yeah, I mean, the end of the record is very fun and cathartic to me. It was just really fun to make, and everybody was involved. I'm proud of that because it's gonna be fun to play live, whenever we do.
That last song was by far my favourite thing on the album. It started so slowly and softly and then it builds up to this explosion of sound towards the end where you have all these gang vocals and horns, and it's just like these huge uprising. And it's the final song. It feels like it builds up to this huge climax and then you're like see ya! What was the recording process for I Know The End like?
I mean, it took forever. Like it really was recorded as two separate songs. It was very fun to play that song for the first time for the producers, Tony [Berg] and Ethan [Gruska], and my band because it was like, I play this really sad song and everybody thinks they know what's happening, then I just drift off into the outro. It was so fun and we just kept piling on shit, like we had group vocals. It was a very casual and very exciting studio environment. It's like oh, shit, so and so dropped by, let's have a longer song.
It really felt like that because of the way that it meandered and then went into that big ending. It almost felt as if you were all just jamming it out.
Totally, I think that's accurate.
Is there anything that you would like the people who listen to Punisher to know about the record?
I don't know, I hope the people that like it find it. Weirdly, the label asked me a similar question before my first album came out and it's kind of like "Fuck if I know." I learn way more about my music when I release it to people. I'm just excited to see what happens.
Phoebe Bridgers' new album, Punisher, is out now via Dead Oceans / Inertia Music.
Follow Phoebe Bridgers: FACEBOOK