Phoebe Bridgers is simply one of those talents that, when heard, refuses to remove itself from your subconscious.
Ryan Adams has already fallen under her spell, Conor Oberst has popped into the recording studio, and debut album ‘Stranger In The Alps’ has been released to a cavalcade of critical adulation even brighter than the skyline in her native Los Angeles.
Speaking to Clash on the phone, she’s clearly dazed by the past 12 months, but she remains a refreshing, engaging presence, one that is continually thirsting for the next challenge.
“Weirdly, I feel like sometimes the restriction of travelling makes me more inclined to write because I have to make time for it,” she reflects. “Whereas when I’m at home I can easily just go hang out with my friends. But on the road you’re like, OK I have this weird two hours between the soundcheck and the show, and I’ll pick up my guitar.”
‘Stranger In The Alps’ is a remarkably confident debut, one rich in lyrical allusion while packing a knockout emotional punch. Despite its cohesive nature, though, it was constructed piecemeal, from countless voice memos and scribbled notes.
She explains: “Usually it’s just little sparks of ideas that I’m writing all the time, and then when I’m sitting down to write it happens really fast because basically I’ve been writing it for months, in my notebook or whatever. I’d be interested to actually write a song top to bottom.”
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Based in Los Angeles, Phoebe benefits from the city’s rich musical lineage, but she doesn’t feel tied to any preconceived notion of what an L.A. should sound like, or how they should operate; her concerns are both highly personal, and intentionally universal.
“I just kind of write my life, and because I’ve lived there my whole life it kind of inherently has a place,” she shrugs. “I bounce ideas off of a lot of friends that I respect creatively. I feel like I kind of have to start for myself, and then if it hits a point where I hit a wall - or I’m getting too in my own head - I’ll reach out and make people listen to my ideas.”
Despite being such a driven, highly individual talent, Phoebe Bridgers is constantly inviting others to enter her artistic realm, whether that is seeking out advice or simply acting as a sounding board. “I speak to my two best friends, mostly,” she says. “But it is always weird bringing these kinds of personal songs to someone who’s older than you, or who doesn’t know very much about your life. It’s basically like opening your diary to them.”
It’s an apt comparison. At times ‘Stranger In The Alps’ is shockingly personal, with the conversational lyrical tone used to explore heartbreak, loss, the grieving process, and the redemptive power of art. It’s an easy album to listen to, but it’s certainly not an easy record to grapple with.
Take the song ‘Funeral’. One of the album’s real high-points, the blissfully pretty acoustic guitar part underpins a savage vocal, with words drawing on the real-life loss of a friend and the dislocation grief can cause. It’s a dichotomy that sears right through the listener.
“There is some Tom Waits quote – I can’t remember it exactly – where he says, I want beautiful melodies telling me terrible things. And that’s kind of how I felt about that song.”
An immediate standout on the record, it has now become a key aspect of Phoebe Bridgers live set, pushing her to continually re-visit uncomfortable and traumatic memories. “Sometimes I’ll be swept up in the moment, and I’ll be transported to when I wrote a song, and I’m singing it,” she observes. “Some of the time you play so many shows in a row, you’re just like… “Should I do laundry after this?” You’re thinking about your life onstage. Sometimes that happens.”
“With ‘Funeral’ specifically I feel like, oh God I’m about to lay this on a crowd of people, and watch people’s expressions to see if they’re uncomfortable. It’s hard to do. But I don’t really think twice about it. It’s either bravery or I just try to leave my own body. It’s either bravery or I just kind of space out.”
Appearing entirely natural onstage, Phoebe Bridgers applies this to all areas of her art. Picking up on the conversational aspect of her wordplay, she insists that this is entirely unforced – it’s simply the way the words fall.
“I don’t think I sit down and think too much about it,” she says, “but I definitely think I try to write as conversationally as possible. There are older songs on the record that don’t sound conversational at all, like ‘Georgia’ or ‘Chelsea’, but the newer songs I’ve been writing are all conversational. Especially since I’ve been writing with my close friends. It’s just how you talk. It’s just my personality.”
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Continually working, continually gathering ideas, the process behind ‘Stranger In The Alps’ saw Phoebe Bridgers draft and re-draft each song several times. “There are songs we recorded at least three different times,” she explains. “And I was touring all throughout making the album, so they would morph and change on tour, so yeah, it grew and changed throughout the recording process.”
“I wouldn’t call it perfectionist, but I would say I’m very deliberate,” Phoebe continues. “But unfortunately for me the way I hear things is like: that’s wrong. It’s like… ahhh I don’t like that! I don’t know why, I don’t know what I’ll replace it with, but I won’t let anything slide that I don’t like, so we basically had to experiment with it until I found something I liked.”
At times, though, things simply fell into place. Take the decision to include a version of Mark Kozelek’s ‘You Missed My Heart’ - a brave move for a young songwriter still establishing her own identity, yet on the album it feels as though it simply couldn’t be anything but a Phoebe Bridgers track.
“I was just so obsessed with that song, and I was playing it all the time, and one day I was singing it in the studio and the producers were like, let’s do it. Let’s use it as a really striking last song on the album. So that’s what we did.”
“A lot of people who don’t read up on it think that I wrote it… which is another reason that I recorded it,” she observes. “It feels like a graduation. Like, I hope to write a song like that someday.”
“I’m not very original,” she says, before starting to laugh down the line. “I just stole it from him. But those are my favourite choices about making the album, it’s the stuff that seems obvious. So much of it was so hard, and it took so much arguing so the easy step was really refreshing.”
Whether it’s easy or hard, each new step from Phoebe Bridgers feels like it’s taking her in the right direction.
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'Stranger In The Alps' is out now. Catch Phoebe Bridgers at London festival MIRRORS tomorrow (October 28th).
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