Photographs by Janell Shirtcliff
Phoebe Bridgers rose to indie-rock stardom the traditional way: by performing her incisive and plaintive songs for gradually growing audiences on tour, night after night. But due to the pandemic, she’s grown to achieve mainstream recognition largely from the confines of her home.
“It feels very unreal because my life has actually changed very little,” Bridgers, 26, says with a rueful laugh about the momentous year that has seen her rack up four Grammy nominations, a string of successful live performances, and feverishly positive album reviews. Clad in a decidedly unglamorous baseball cap and hoodie, she’s speaking over Zoom from her new L.A. apartment while she recently adopted a puppy, Maxine, bounds around in the background. “Even though I’m at home, it’s been a very suffocating time. There is something really weird about going through all this stuff alone.”
Indeed, with the exception of cautious jaunts into the world for COVID-safe performances, photo shoots and interviews, she largely experienced her rising stardom from her tiny, recently vacated pad in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake, which she’d called home since she was 18. While much of the world’s population has had to realign the borders of everyday life over the past year, Bridgers has seen hers expand dramatically.
“It would all be more tangible if a tour was happening — I would gradually be playing bigger venues, maybe getting more opportunities to go to lunch with someone cool, and see more fans and more tattoos of my lyrics,” she says. “Instead, every once in a while somebody at the grocery store comes up to me, very respectfully. But yeah, other than that, I’ve just got my same little life going.”
She’s the first to admit that it’s pretty good, as far as little lives go these days. But the impassioned response to her Grammy-nominated second album, “Punisher,” has led to a breakneck schedule of interviews, livestream concerts and other screen-based demands for her attention. On the flip side, the pandemic has also kept some of the harsh realities of her growing celebrity status at phone’s length.
“I’m slightly grateful for that, honestly,” she says. “Because even when I was starting my press cycle for ‘Punisher,’ just before the pandemic, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I forgot how crazy this is.’ Also, a sense of community has grown in a way that it might not have if I was living in my own little world onstage every night. I feel like I’m a part of America living in a pandemic, the same as anybody.”
It’s not hard to understand Bridgers’ appeal: the upper-octave beauty of her voice and the soft delivery of much of her music masks her blunt, intense and often highly personal lyrics. Yet “Punisher” — which takes its name from musician slang for an overly attentive fan — is poised to be her major breakthrough because of the multigenerational appeal of her music. She channels influences ranging from Elliott Smith and emo rock from her own youth, to the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters she was raised on and even splashes of Gen X-era alt-rock favorites like Liz Phair and Belly.
“She is like no one I’ve ever worked with in my 48 years of doing this,” says Tony Berg, co-producer of her two albums, who has helmed albums by Aimee Mann, Michael Penn and others. “Her writing is nonfiction, but it has an allegorical and a metaphorical quality, so she uses incidents from her life but portrays them in ways that sound fictitious. And she can pick out things that will last.”
Berg cites a memorable line from “Garden Song,” a soft-sung anthem of sorts from “Punisher”: “The doctor put her hands over my liver/ She told me my resentment’s getting smaller.” “Who else would put that in a song?” he marvels.
Bridgers’ lyrics reveal so much that a further explanation from her can feel superfluous. The ambivalence she feels about her semi-estranged relationship with her father? It’s captured in “Kyoto,” also from “Punisher.” Her less-ambivalent feelings about early mentor Ryan Adams, the singer-songwriter with whom she and others had an abusive relationship? They’re covered in “Motion Sickness,” from her 2017 debut, “Stranger in the Alps.”
A serial collaborator, Bridgers is a catalyzing member of a cohort of other young indie singer-songwriters. In the three years since releasing “Stranger in the Alps,” she’s dropped an EP as one-third of Boygenius, her harmony-heavy, ironically Crosby, Stills & Nash-styled “supergroup” with fellow female bards Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus; released an album with Bright Eyes founder Conor Oberst; formed her own, playfully titled label, Saddest Factory, which recently released its first album by singer-songwriter Claud; and recorded songs with Fiona Apple, the 1975, Maggie Rogers, members of the National and even one of her key influences, Jackson Browne.
Unlike most musicians, she’s had a hectic, albeit virtual, gigging and interview schedule, with an impressive string of TV performances and livestreamed concerts — which would make an awesome “Phoebe Bridgers Virtual Tour 2020-2021” T-shirt — that range from a Verizon-sponsored full-band set at an empty 10,000-seat amphitheater to a “Jimmy Kimmel Live” spot where she sang “Kyoto” while wearing pajamas in her bathtub, complete with a shampoo bottle in the background. (In a show of how far livestream concerts have come in just a few months, a far more sophisticated December performance from that same apartment on “James Corden” also found her singing “Kyoto” in pajamas — but this time rising out of bed and walking, via green screen, onto the stage of Carnegie Hall. That performance closed with Bridgers taking comic bows in front of the revealed green screen while a friend threw roses at her.)
But the most controversial of those performances was her February appearance on “Saturday Night Live”: Bridgers bashed her guitar on a loudspeaker at the finish of “I Know the End,” which begins softly and concludes in screaming and chaos. Even though her sturdy Danelectro guitar was more dinged than destroyed — and male musicians have done worse things to their musical instruments on “SNL” — Bridgers encountered an immediate online backlash over her “wastefulness.” It culminated in a hilariously absurd Twitter exchange with 79-year-old folk-rock legend David Crosby, who called the gesture “pathetic.” In response, she called him a “little bitch.” And she’s not about to apologize now.
“I stand by it!” Bridgers laughs. “The fact that it made people so mad is kind of what’s punk rock about it. No thought whatsoever went into what it represented or meant: I’d never done it before, so might as well do it [on ‘SNL’], where it’s gonna be immortalized. It’s hilarious to me that people care so much, but, I mean, there’s a video of a steamroller crushing a bunch of Gibson [guitars] as a tax write-off because they weren’t selling all of their stock — let that piss you off!”
The incident reinforced what Bridgers’ fans on Twitter already know: She is a formidable and seemingly fearless social media presence. Like her fellow Grammy Best New Artist nominee Megan Thee Stallion — who she’s said she’s obsessed with — Bridgers has figured out how to be a lockdown rock star: While polar opposites musically, both are 26 and on the cusp of millennial and Gen Z demographics, they’re both social media natives who either knew innately or figured out how to be big on small screens — a vital asset in an era where we are what we project. And they’re both outspoken alphas who are assertive without being aggressive, unless someone messes with them first.
In addition to Crosby and Adams, Bridgers’ social media targets include Marilyn Manson, who is facing a battery of sexual misconduct allegations that Bridgers says were in line with his behavior during a visit she made to his home when she was a teenager.
“I had a friend whose parents worked on a TV show that he wanted to be a part of, and they knew I was a fan and brought me along to the meeting,” she recalls. “I heard him say racial slurs and rape jokes — and he was on his best behavior! I am not one of his victims, but the fact that I can corroborate the stuff he’s being accused of in some way is really expository to me.” She didn’t hesitate to share the experience when the accusations arose last month. (“These recent claims about me are horrible distortions of reality,” Manson said in response to the allegations.)
“Phoebe says a lot of wild shit on the internet — in and of itself, it’s a commentary,” says Baker, her close friend and sometime bandmate. “She modeled for me how to be less inhibited about the creative process but also about everything else: the way she answers questions, the way she conducts herself on social media and the way she smashes guitars onstage and screams in songs. It’s empowering to see Phoebe say and make and do exactly what she wants.”
“Can’t wait to fuck all my friends when this is over,” Bridgers tweeted a couple of days later.
It is not surprising to learn that Bridgers was a precocious child. “Phoebe was incredibly verbal, very early on,” according to her mother, Jamie Bridgers. “She was speaking very clearly at just over a year old, and other parents in our play group would hear her and be like, ‘What’s wrong with my kid?’”
Born and raised in Pasadena, Phoebe and her younger brother, Jackson, grew up in a house filled with the sounds of Southern California rock that her parents loved. Phoebe showed talent and a predilection for the stage from an early age. “When she was 6, she sang ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ for the school musical, a cappella, and when she got to the key change on the last verse, she totally put her back into it and belted it,” Jamie laughs. “One of the parents was like, ‘Wow, she’s going places!’”
Around that time she joined her first band — “Little kids doing Neil Young and Jimmy Cliff covers,” Jamie says — and followed with a series of bands in junior high and high school (including one with the sons of singer-songwriter Ben Harper, actor Tim Roth and Beck/Beastie Boys producer John King). She also was a regular busker at farmers markets in Pasadena and Hollywood, where she’d earn decent money while attending the L.A. County High School for the Arts. (For photos and more on Phoebe’s early years, see “Phoebe Bridgers’ Early Years: A Photo Gallery Annotated by Her Mom.”)
However, the home life was not always harmonious. Jamie describes her marriage to Phoebe’s father as “volatile,” and the couple divorced in 2015. (After the split, Jamie launched a career as a standup comic — currently appearing on Uncabaret’s regular Zoom showcases — with her children’s enthusiastic support.)
As Phoebe grew older, she attracted more attention, both good and suspect, Jamie recalls. “People would say, ‘You should meet my friend the producer.’ And until she was 18, I would go with her and wait in the car or in the lobby,” she says. “Some people would say, ‘Ask your mom if she’d like a cup of coffee,’ but others were disappointed that her mom was right outside — and that was a huge red flag. I got a sense of some people being a little predatory.”
Bridgers first connected with Ryan Adams through a mutual friend when she was 20. He released her first single, “Killer,” in 2015 on his Pax Americana label, becoming a lover as well as a mentor. Despite its unsavory backstory, “Killer” shows that even then, she had attained her own sound: The melody has her trademark peaks and valleys; her voice flips into a higher register on the chorus. Asked about the song, she brings up Adams, albeit with a beat’s hesitation.
“I think that song was the real turning point,” she says. “It’s actually something that … Ryan Adams taught me, kind of. I was like, ‘I don’t wanna record this song because I think it’s my best song and I’m saving it for my album.’ He said, ‘Why? Put out your favorite thing as fast as you can,’ and I’ve taken that into my whole adult life. I learned a lot from him — and then I learned a lot about how not to treat people.” (Adams said in a July 2020 open letter, “There are no words to express how bad I feel about the ways I’ve mistreated people through my life and career.”)
But around the same time, something else happened that changed the course of her career: a brief — and lucrative — stint acting in television commercials, including two Apple ads, one of which featured her fronting an all-female band. The residuals “basically added up to an artist’s grant that allowed her to make the record she wanted to make,” Jamie says, referring to “Stranger in the Alps.” “If she hadn’t gotten that, she probably would have signed a shitty deal.”
Another vital piece fell into place in February 2016, when Bridgers opened a show for Baker, who was riding a wave of praise for her debut album, “Sprained Ankle.” The pair had what Baker describes as “instant-friend chemistry.”
“When I saw her bashing the guitar on ‘SNL,’ I was like, ‘This is a cultural moment,’” Baker says. “We were texting about it — obviously, Phoebe and Lucy and I have a group chat — and it’s so weird to have somebody that you’re close friends with doing things that feel so monumental. She’s wearing this beautiful, ornate Gucci dress that is made to look like a skeleton” — Bridgers’ visual theme for “Punisher” — “and the song starts out so controlled and beautiful and devolves into chaos. It’s challenging ideas of sonic beauty, physical beauty, artistic beauty and what it means to be a female musician.”
While Bridgers could also challenge other traditional ideas by downplaying the significance of four Grammy nominations, she summarizes her feelings by quoting a friend. “One of my favorite people called me and was like, ‘If you hadn’t gotten nominated, the Grammys would be bullshit establishment — but the fact that you are is the best thing to ever happen,’” she laughs. “Of course, it’s a dream, and the most special part to me is to be nominated this year, with so many artists who made the records that got me though the pandemic,” such as Fiona Apple, Big Thief and Megan Thee Stallion.
Once past the Grammys, Bridgers plans to take some downtime — though she rarely holds still for long. She says she’s been writing songs, but her lyrical impressions of the past year of pandemic lockdown, social upheaval and previously unimagined personal success may be elliptical, because she doesn’t really do obvious.
“I think that success is uninteresting [to write about] and my misery is uninteresting, because everybody’s going through it,” she says. “I don’t really see the point in writing about the pandemic, but I also don’t see the point in pretending that’s not what I’m thinking about. Although,” she adds with a laugh, “I wrote a random love song, which is cool, because it’s pretty happy, actually — and it shows how much I dissociate, because I wrote it in April. When everybody else was screaming, I was writing this very pleasant love song.
“It’s been a wild time.”
Styling: Maryam Malakpour/The Only Agency; Makeup: Nicole Maguire using Charlotte Tilbury; Look 1 (Black Velvet Dress); Dress: Vintage Givenchy from Lidow Archive; Boots: Tuk; Ring: Sapphire Studios; Look 2 (Black Velvet with Collar): Dress, harness, gloves, shoes: Gucci by Alessandro Michele; Look 3 (Gold Dress with glasses): Dress: The Vampire’s Wife, Eyewear: Gentle Monster; Look 4 (Tan blazer): Blazer: Redemption; Look 5 (Silk Ivory with bow at neck): Blouse and shirt: Roksanda.