Boredom and fear this year was not what indie singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers had expected. Instead of touring and sharing stages with The National and The 1975, she was at home in Los Angeles. “I tried to bake banana bread,” she told Washington Newsday, “but it got moldy, literally a day later. So I did something wrong.”
The folk-based Bridgers, 26, are still having a great year musically. Punisher, their second album, was released in June this year to critical acclaim. It is the follow-up to their 2017 debut album Stranger in the Alps. Between these two albums, Bridgers also made records as a member of the supergroup boygenius (with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus) and the duo Better Oblivion Community Center (with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst). And as the crowning glory of what has been an amazing 2020 for them, Bridgers was recently nominated for four Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist, Best Alternative Music Album (Punisher), Best Rock Song (“Kyoto”) and Best Rock Performance (“Kyoto”).
On November 20, Bridgers released a new EP Copycat Killer, which recast four of Punisher’s songs using only strings and her vocals. Working with string arranger Rob Moose (whose credits include Taylor Swift, Bon Iver and Alabama Shakes, among others), Bridgers re-recorded their songs for the EP in September, whose vinyl version is available exclusively through the UK record label and Rough Trade distributors.
“I’d just done a few recordings with Rob,” Bridgers recalls, “and he went through my mind because I just love the way he reinvents songs. I called him and asked him to arrange four songs and he did it in no time. Moss’s reinterpretations of the four songs – “Kyoto”, “Savior Complex”, “Punisher” and “Chinese Satellite” – have an increased dramatic and lush feel to them compared to their originals on Punisher. “It makes me like my songs more,” Bridgers says about Moose’s Treatments. “Kyoto”, for example, I initially wrote as a ballad. This version [of the song on Copycat Killer]makes me question every decision I’ve ever made. I thought, “This is my favorite version.”
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After her experience with the copycat, Bridgers says she wants to work with strings again. “I would like to do this live whenever possible. I have never played with a string quartet or an orchestra before,” says Bridgers.
The EP and Punisher both sound like natural sequels to her folkloric debut, 2017’s Stranger in the Alps.
“I have managed to produce more,” says Bridgers. “I did not produce the first album at all. I thought when I made the first record that I was going to make folk music. And then the more up-tempo songs or the stranger sounds – it all surprised me. And with this record I was really looking forward to it.
“The first record was songs from my whole life, and then this record is obviously songs that were written in the same period of three years, so definitely a lot of recurring themes. Inspiration, she says, comes mainly from her own life. “I think mainly about personal experiences… I am very jealous of songwriters who can somehow write from an outside perspective.
Punisher’s delicate and haunting title song, for example, was inspired by the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, who is one of Bridgers’ musical influences along with Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone and Tom Waits. Written from the perspective of a perhaps too enthusiastic fan, it is almost a warning message of “don’t meet your heroes”. “He literally lived half a mile from my apartment,” she says about Smith. “When I first moved, I went for a walk and started noticing things I had heard in his songs. I didn’t know that when I moved I thought, ‘Oh, my God, everything’s okay here.'”
The atmospheric ballad “Chinese Satellite” fuses two unlikely themes: jogging and aliens. “I was jogging around – it took me two days,” she explains, “and the thing with the aliens: I was always pretty jealous of my religious friends. I would love to fall asleep at night thinking that I was in the hands of something bigger, but instead I feel alone in the world. I don’t know why these two ideas are connected – maybe [it]is an attempt to find meaning in something”.
Punisher also helped Bridgers gain more influence in the music business. Recently, she founded her own imprint Saddest Factory in collaboration with the indie record company Dead Oceans, which had released her first two albums and her collaboration with Conor Oberst. On her new label she will present artists she has signed, including the indie act Claud, who Bridgers saw last year in Chicago.
“I was just kind of tired of writing four-page e-mails about why the label should sign my friends. And I thought: ‘You just want to give me the power to sign people? And surprisingly they agreed. It took forever, longer than anything I’ve ever worked on.
Another thing Bridgers has been doing lately was covering the Goo Goo Dolls hit “Iris”, a duet with the acclaimed singer Maggie Rogers. During the presidential election, Bridgers tweeted that she would cover the song if Donald Trump lost. He did, and she kept her word: “As the brutal days of not knowing [who won]passed, it was like a momentary relief,” Bridgers recalls. “And then I thought, ‘Oh my God, now I really have to do Iris. Bridgers posted the song on Bandcamp for a day, with the proceeds from the sale going to the voting organization Fair Fight.
She says she’s looking forward to touring again when the live music and the rest of the world returns to normal. Still, pandemic or not, she has been busy (for this holiday she recently unveiled another cover, a version of Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December”, the proceeds of which went to the Downtown Women’s Center). Bridgers has made a lot of career in three years.
“It’s all amazing,” she says, “I think the financial stability in art was the hardest part, and now it has completely changed my life and changed what I have to do, which is very rare. Before the quarantine, I played at Carnegie Hall [for a benefit at Tibet House]with Patti Smith, Matt Berninger from The National, and Laurie Anderson. It was so cool, and it felt pretty good. Dressing up and playing at Carnegie Hall was probably my favorite thing this year.
Stranger in the Alps
(2017, Dead Oceans)
A melancholic, mainly folkloric album, Stranger in the Alps, the debut album of the Los Angeles-based singer, contains the catchy “Motion Sickness”. The record received excellent reviews. Bridgers said in a press release at the time: “I wanted the album to fully represent who I am, and these songs are representative of what I have set out to do.
boygenius – boy genius – boy genius (2018, Matador)
boygenius is the dream of an indie pop and folklore lover, a supergroup with Bridgers and the equally celebrated singer-songwriters Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker. On this six-song EP, the trio’s voices and heart-rending songs merge together in a wonderful way. Looking forward to a follow-up album, Bridgers said: “I think the idea behind the band is that it has to be fun. And once it feels like pressure, it’s less fun. We are friends first. If we got together and wrote a bunch of songs, we would definitely [make a new record]”.
Better Oblivion Community Center – Better Oblivion Community Center (2019, Dead Oceans)
The pairing of Bridgers and Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst as Better Oblivion Community Center made sense, since Oberst had previously appeared on Bridgers’ first album for their beautiful duet “Would You Rather”. One of the many highlights of the Rootsy album is the appealing rocker “Dylan Thomas” with a guest appearance by Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner.
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