On the album artwork for Phoebe Bridgers' critically acclaimed 2017 debut, Stranger in the Alps, the songwriter stands in a field behind a white sheet, a ghost with two black circles drawn on for eyes.
Its follow-up, Punisher, features a similarly eerie image on its cover; the 25-year-old wearing a skeleton costume in a desert, lit with a neon red glare, her head tilted toward the sky. The ghost and the skeleton feel like appropriate symbols for each album, the first haunted with a sense of spectral melancholy and her follow-up fused with a darker energy for more menacing times.
Punisher still features Bridgers' signature, sad sound, but avoids looking at heartbreak or loneliness in a straightforward way. Instead, it peers into the unexpected wounds that life inflicts upon us: feeling imposter syndrome while on stage in a foreign city, or looking up from your phone screen to realise what your life has become.
Last month, on a Zoom call from her home in Los Angeles where she has been seeing out the Coronavirus crisis, Esquire spoke to Bridgers about releasing a record during a pandemic, the inspirations for her forthcoming release and what it means to feel nihilistic and be online right now.
How are you holding up and what have you been doing?
Pretty good. I’m currently on the treadmill and I walk on it all day like an institutionalised hamster. It’s scary in LA: half the people are in full hazmat suits and half the people are pretending it’s vacation. I’ve been doing press, writing a little bit, trying to teach myself piano and reading more. I was all about the banana bread shit at the beginning then I’ve gotten takeaway the last five nights.
What has it been like preparing to release an album during a pandemic?
Every time I’m in turmoil I’m not super creative so it’s nice to be focusing on something I already did. I talked to someone on the phone the other day whose band was halfway through recording [when coronavirus hit] and I can’t imagine that. We finished mixing and mastering in January and had made videos and finalised the art.
The 'Kyoto' video was filmed in February and the plan was that half of it would be green screen and half of it would be [filmed] in Kyoto but we just edited it all with green screen because we couldn’t go to Japan anymore. I also shot a music video in March for the last song on my record which is about the end of the world and I’m in a skeleton costume. It's going to be interesting but it’s so weird how fast it all happened.
Your first album had such an amazing reception, how do you feel Punisher is different, thematically and musically, and how is it similar?
When I was writing and making [Stranger in the Alps] I was kind of finding myself but I feel like I made this whole record as my fully formed self. A lot of people like their first record more because they had more time to write it, but I only started to realise what I liked about my own music towards the end of writing that record.
Thematically some of the songs kind of mirror each other: there are resentment songs like 'Motion Sickness' and 'Kyoto', love songs like 'Smoke Signals' and 'Garden Song', and folk songs like 'Funeral' and 'Graceland Too'. Then I got to do shit that I didn’t get to do on the first album like a big metal song at the end which is something I've always wanted to do.
You wrote the album between summer 2018 and the following autumn. How much of what you had written about now feels unintentionally relevant for right now?
I have a lot of songs about being home and wanting to be home because my form of depression, which is not manic depression, is just stay-home-all-day depression. Grappling with that and being home after a long tour and not knowing what the meaning of your life is all feel relevant. Then there’s a song at the end about the apocalypse, I guess a natural disaster like a tornado, but it definitely feels very relevant now, especially because the end sequence is about going up to visit my grandpa and we’ve been talking every day because I’m the most worried about him.
What was it like going back to doing solo music having been working on group projects Boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center?
I feel like the difference with my project is that I collaborate but I have the say at the end of the day. I get to take whatever people say to me and say "Oh yeah totally" and then ignore it if I want to. If you do that in band you’re a dick.
Did your songwriting process change between albums at all?
Being in two other projects in the interim literally changed my writing style because Conor Oberst [of Bright Eyes] will write on one page a first draft of lyrics and on the second page will be draft number two. I find myself doing that way more now, finishing the song with one version and then picking away at it instead of going linearly which I think I used to.
Punisher features Conor as well as artists like Julien Baker. How do you decide who to work with?
It’s really casual and because we make the record over such a long period of time we'll say, "We need someone with crazy pedalboard who plays bass", and a name will pop up like Jen [Lee Lindberg] from Warpaint. Most of the time at Sound City [recording studio in Los Angeles] you see someone walk by the door and say, "Hey do you wanna play on this?", so it’s a very weird, creative environment.
What is Punisher about for you, what is the story of the record?
I feel like I don’t really know what records are about until years later but as far as I can tell right now it’s about having a personal life with a background of doom behind it. It’s so weird, especially right now, I’m still in weird little funks with certain friends and it doesn’t matter what’s going on in the world you’ll always have your inner world against the outer world, which feels crazy to me. That’s kind of the theme of the record I guess.
'Kyoto' sounds very rousing but is about feeling imposter syndrome when performing in Japan. Is that line between how you’re expected to feel and how you actually feel something you experience when playing?
I do feel it, although it’s made so much better by the people I surround myself with. I think if I was flailing in the world without friends who make music I would feel so much more guilty. You can have a bad day and still have to play a show and it’s weird how you can be affecting people but they do not pick up on your bad mood. I’ll be thinking about laundry and singing some of my most fucked up music.
Do you have to zone out emotionally from what the song is about in order to be able to perform it over and over again?
I think subconsciously, but I also sometimes play a show, especially in bands because you’re held accountable for the people on stage, when I’m surrounded by my friends singing the same thing and we can't make eye contact because we’d cry. So I think it is a tool to perform and not be feeling everything but also have moments of accidentally feeling stuff on stage.
One track on the album, ‘Saviour complex', has this lullaby-like haunted house feeling to it, what is it about for you?
It’s kind of the sequel to [previous track] 'Moon Song' I think. This is the craziest tangent I could go on right now but I was watching a live tarot stream the other day and and she was saying how you shouldn’t fuck with charm magic or wish for something really hard without thinking about the reality of it. Like when you think "Oh my god my life would be perfect if I could just have this one thing" and you don’t think about the details or the reality, you’re just thinking about some weird fantasy plan. She said "Stop dancing with the corpse of your dreams," and I feel like that fucking song is like dancing with the corpse of your dream.
Your music has this sense of processing grief and sadness, do you hope that’s what you can do for people at the moment?
I hope so, I am gravitating towards really sad and melancholic music right now. I saw in Rolling Stone the other day they said "People want happy songs" and I was like, "Who are those people?"
I hope to affect someone half as much as [Fiona Apple's album] Fetch the Bolt Cutters has affected me. I just want to push the album out, I feel like putting a pause on it feels weird and I have an opportunity to not do that. I was so relieved that Fiona put a record out in this time and I hope to have a similar effect on somebody.
How do you feel about people calling your music sad?
I don’t really mind it, the only times I ever feel weird about it is if it’s romanticised in a weird way, like people saying, "I’m so fucking sad all the time all I do is sit in my house and cry and listen to Phoebe Bridgers". That makes me feel kind of bad but I also feel the same about some music. I just hope I’m not making anybody feel worse.
Your Twitter is very funny and light-hearted compared to your music, do you feel people don’t expect that?
I know some people don’t expect it which I get but also I feel like they’re the same thing. It’s oversharing and honesty with both: being gross and weird on twitter and super emo in my music I feel is a similar thought process.
That half-joking nihilism thing feels like how a lot of young people use the internet at the moment?
Totally. It’s funny because with my friendship group there’s been such a blowback of sincerity and I've been getting texts from my seemingly nihilist friends saying, “I had a really good conversation with my therapist today I wanted to share this with you”. I think nihilist humour is funny but I also like the sincere resolution that’s happening in response to it.
The author Carmen Maria Machado wrote the bio for Punisher, how did that collaboration come about?
I’m such a huge Carmen nerd and I’ve read everything she’s ever written. I think that she inspired the record a lot; that liminal space between dreams and life which I’ve always thought was cool. We had a really long phone conversation about how we’re both obsessed with the home. I think about home as a much more ethereal thing than a place and that’s what I love about her book [In the Dream House] it really destroyed me.
She asked what kind of car I drove and I said a Prius and she said, "What the fuck I thought you would drive some beat up old Cadillac that’s all-black". She was so normal talking about what she’s cooking at home, it’s crazy that we both have these artistic personas of ghosts.
You’ve spoken about how 'Motion Sickness' was inspired by your troubling relationship with Ryan Adams. Was it hard to reveal that?
I’d worked up the courage to talk about it on stage and would say, "This song is about someone who likes video games more than he likes women!", and then slowly the weird nihilist 'fuck everything' attitude turned into me realising this is about someone who really hurt my feelings. By the time everybody knew I didn't really even have an emotional response to it anymore, it felt like I was talking to a bunch of people who already knew me.
You’ve spoken before about influence of people like Elliott Smith and Joni Mitchell, have you found new ways into the people that inspire you on Punisher?
There’s tonnes of new inspirations on this record like Blake Mills, who I listened to so much when I was making my first album and who played on Punisher which is sick. I love things like Grouper and listened to a lot of spooky music like that. The new Bright Eyes stuff definitely was an influence, maybe a little too much because I know I stole a drum tone or too from that.
You mentioned that you’d been writing. Is the next Phoebe Bridgers album in the pipeline or would you like to do another group project?
You know, I kind of like the idea of just seeing whatever comes up because that’s what happened last time. The two bands were totally accidentally started and if anyone from either band said, "Let’s do something", I’d be so into it. I feel like I could go in any direction and it’s a nice feeling, being creatively free and physically trapped.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity
Punisher is released 19 June
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