“I just want everyone to know, which is what everyone already knows: everyone is everything all the time.” —Phoebe Bridgers
The sweeter, stranger side of an artist you might otherwise think was only sad.
By Mish Barber-Way Photographer Molly Matalon Fashion by Ashley Guerzon
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In 2017, a relatively unknown artist named
Phoebe Bridgers released her debut album, Stranger in the Alps. She sings dark folk-rock lullabies about funerals and wanting to die, yet still manages to work in backhanded digs at past romances among the devastation. It’s a deep, well-rounded LP. Still, making a career as a “female-singer-songwriter” is like trying to slice through a wall of rubber with your fists. You need a knife. Fortunately, years of charming her way through the Los Angeles indie music scene grew little blades into Phoebe’s fingers.
“Jesus Christ, I’m so blue all the time / And that’s just how I feel / Always have and I always will,” she sings with an old-soul maturity that can make her seem almost ageless. It’s not that Phoebe is more serious or aching than other 24-year-olds, she’s just relentless in confronting the uncomfortable realities of life. In a culture obsessed with confessional oversharing, Phoebe Bridgers makes sense: one part @sosadtoday, one part Leonard Cohen.
This October, Dead Oceans, the indie label that put out Stranger, will reissue a special edition featuring a Tom Petty cover and a demo version of “Motion Sickness.” On that anthemic first single, Phoebe drills into the aftermath of unbalanced lust: “I hate you for what you did / And I miss you just like a little kid.” But unlike her peers, Phoebe’s romances aren’t with just anyone. “Motion Sickness” is about Ryan Adams, the 43-year-old Grammy-nominated indie star who produced her first EP, Killer, and released it on his label.
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Sometimes Phoebe’s entire path to the limelight sounds like a name-dropping contest. At 13, Carla Azar of Autolux introduced her to the music of Elliott Smith. She learned the banjo from Ben Harper’s mother. Conor Oberst featured on her album and duets at shows. Her lawyer was in The Lemonheads. She appeared in two Apple commercials and helped Jackson Browne figure out his iPhone at an Escape Room party.
Over the past year, as Stranger spread like wildfire, as much as a quiet folk-rock album can, some were suspicious, with one music critic tweeting, “with a raise of your digital hand, who is on team ‘phoebe bridgers is an industry plant.’” This is a common reaction when you are talented, young, hot, and a woman: there must be a catch, because this chick is too good to be true. But there’s no catch with Phoebe Bridgers. Her success story is the original formula: a healthy mix of talent, knowing the right people, and relentless hard work.
In 1995, eight months after Phoebe was born,
her mother, Jamie Bridgers, got a job as the nighttime house manager of the fine arts complex at the University of California, Irvine. The Bridgers lived just across the street — her dad was a scenic carpenter for movies and TV — and Jamie could take her infant daughter with her to work. As she shuffled around the auditorium, placing microphones and organizing chairs, a professional would come in to tune the piano. “Phoebe loved it,” Jamie recalls. “She would just stare at the piano, listening and totally mesmerized.”
Phoebe grew up with her younger brother Jackson, named for Jackson Browne, in a home filled with vinyl records: Joni Mitchell, Hank Williams, the Pretenders, Dar Williams, and Neil Young. As she got older, she would learn her favorite songs on piano and her guitar, a Spartan acoustic gifted by a family friend, “Uncle Dave,” when she was 11. “I don’t remember making a decision about music,” she says now. “I just always knew it was what I was going to do.”
busy cafe in Highland Park, she has just come from a long morning at the courthouse. She had to prove that her car was registered in L.A. County to reduce a fine, and for someone who has been in court all morning, she’s in a good mood, greeting me with a warm smile and her recommendations from the menu: the quinoa salad, a vegan-egg thing.
Phoebe is dressed in all black, which accentuates her pale, ghostly features, and our conversation quickly turns to Elliott Smith, one of her favorite musicians. I’m convinced her song “Scott Street” is an ode to his “St. Ides Heaven,” from 1995. “Walking Scott Street feeling like a stranger / With an open heart, open container,” she sings, evoking his version of the punchdrunk stroll: “Everything is exactly right / When I walk around here drunk every night / With an open container from 7-11.” Better yet, his line “You see me smiling, you think it's a frown turned upside down” is just the sort of thing Phoebe would have written had she thought of it first — even when she seems sad, it’s hardly the whole story.
Phoebe is the first to admit that her career opportunities would look very different had she grown up in Dripping Springs, TX, and not Pasadena, CA. “It obviously informed the way I came into music and who I know, because not everyone has a friend with a dad in a famous band,” she tells me. At the same time: “My songwriting is very personal. The music that influenced me was so impactful that had I grown up somewhere else, I know I would still write the same way I do because of those influences.”
Life in L.A. helped in other ways, too. In 2014, a family friend of the Bridgers who worked for a casting agency came to see Sloppy Jane play. There was an iPhone commercial that needed to be cast ASAP, and the all-girl punk band was just what Apple wanted. Sloppy Jane went in for an audition and was immediately offered the gig, but Haley was hesitant: a commercial was selling out. So Phoebe stood in as the lead singer.
At an open-mic show, she caught the attention of a talent scount for Linda Perry, a multi-hyphenate producer and songwriter who has worked with everyone from Courtney Love to Christina Aguilera. “She was trying to put me in this movie,” Phoebe casually recalls. Jamie called Phoebe in sick for school so she could take a meeting.
“It was myself and another actress," she says. "Then I met with the producer. He had obviously had some minor success because he had boy-genius vibes.” She rolls eyes her eyes and laughs. “He says, ‘The reason you two are so great is that you are both attainable. Like, I’m a kid and I’m watching the movie and know I could sleep with you.'”
Phoebe shakes her head in awe. “I was relieved,” she says. “It was a very viable excuse to not do the movie, because it sounded horrible anyway. It’s very rare that such a cookie-cutter sexist thing happens to me. Had I not been confident, I probably would have gone home and cried.”
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In between bites of her salad, Phoebe gets
pensive when she tries to remember the exact details of how she met Ryan Adams. It was a few years ago, and she had been playing gigs any chance she could: The Grand Ole Echo at the Echoplex, the Bootleg, and local festivals like Echo Park Rising. “I played at Room 5 a lot, which is probably the smallest capacity venue in Los Angeles,” she says. “I begged my friends to come see me.”