Portraits Eleanor Jane
You’d be forgiven for wondering if someone who sings, ‘Jesus Christ I’m so blue all the time’ might not be the most light-hearted interview subject, but Phoebe Bridgers couldn’t be more accommodating – especially given the circumstances. Things are running rather dramatically behind schedule at Bristol’s Thekla, and at a time when most artists would prefer to be relaxing backstage, Bridgers happily sacrifices her downtime to chat with us, right until the moment the venue manager insists that the hundreds of punters outside can’t wait in the muggy summer drizzle any longer.
Bridgers’ debut, Stranger In The Alps, showcases a rare talent blessed with a sharp wit and a knack for insightful lyrical observations far beyond her 24 years. As we chat, it’s easy to understand what’s led the likes of Ryan Adams, Conor Oberst and Julien Baker to collaborate with the Los Angeles native – and why the sky really is the limit for what she can achieve…
Bridgers’ passion for music started early, but it didn’t take long for her to decide what she really wanted. “My mom was a really big music fan, so she forced me to take piano lessons when I was a kid, and I hated it – so I started taking guitar lessons instead!” she chuckles. “But she was still super supportive.”
“Growing up in LA is a very interesting place for a musician. You get a lot of opportunities, and it’s a very privileged position. Because who the fuck gets to a free arts high school that’s like, 40 minutes from their house!?”
That school was the LA County High School For The Arts – a prestigious non-private institution that specialises in music, theatre, dance and the visual arts – that’s fostered the talent of the likes of Josh Groban, Christina Milian, and all three Haim sisters. “It was exactly like Fame,” Phoebe laughs when we query if it bore any similarities to the 1980 musical film. “Except that the kids who sing musical theatre in the hallways are the most annoying ones, and nobody fucking talks to them!”
It’s safe to say that, while Bridgers was there to sing, she wasn’t cracking out showtunes in the corridors… “I wanted to go to the school for voice, but only because I wanted to be a musician,” she affirms. “It was never a classically-trained situation. I just wanted to be around kids who loved music. So I did that, and then my mom let me not go to college, and try to do music! But I was writing songs and playing in bands that whole time.”
It was while gigging around LA that Bridgers was spotted and tapped up to sing on a cover of the Pixies’ Gigantic for Apple’s 2014 iPhone advert, in which she also appeared. You’d assume that being seen and heard by untold millions of people around the world would be a big help to your career, but apparently not in the way you might expect: “It opened doors,” she deadpans. “It opened doors in the sense that I was able to not work at Starbucks… so that was cool!”
While Phoebe always wanted to be a musician, the plan wasn’t always to be a solo artist – she played in bands throughout her teens and ended up playing solo by necessity, as much as anything else.
“My band dropped out of high-school to be in a band that I love, called Kitten – like, all of them!” she exclaims. “They all got to go on tour, and I had to stay home and finish high school – because it scared the shit out of me not to – so I started playing solo shows. I played the same fuckin’ bar/coffee shop called Room 5 every week, and begged my friends to come! And that was what I was doing when I met Ryan Adams.”
Pax It In
Adams is a significant figure in Bridgers’ career to date. The Grammy-nominated guitarist championed Bridgers as an artist when she first emerged – describing her as “a musical unicorn who could make a jar of sand sound like Blood On The Tracks”, recording her first EP, Killer, and releasing it through his record label, Pax-Am.
“Marshall [Vore], who now plays drums with me, was playing with Ryan,” Bridgers explains of how the two first crossed paths. “Marshall had heard me play, and asked me to open for his band, Olin & The Moon, at the Bootleg Theatre in LA. Then later I met Ryan at his studio, through Marshall, and he recorded my seven-inch. I recorded the three songs at Pax-Am [Adams’ studio], it took us about an hour. I played his Harmony Buck Owens guitar.”
When it came to recording her debut long-player, however, Bridgers’ independent streak saw her decide to go it alone – so much so that she didn’t even have a record label until it was finished.
“I made my record, and sold it to whoever liked it the most, which I’m so glad I did,” she enthuses. “Because I had no idea what my music was going to sound like. And I still kinda work like that – my songs don’t really flesh out until I record them.
“I consider myself a producer, really. What sells a song to me is the way that it’s portrayed. So like, tonight, for the first time ever I’m going to play this song that I recorded with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker [aka indie-rock supergroup Boygenius – Ed]. I’ve had it forever, but I couldn’t really play it live until we recorded it, because the elements come together, and then I sort of teach it to my band. Even if they recorded on it, which they did, we don’t figure it out until we’re recording. We’re not the sort of band that will break out a new song when we’re on tour, because it has to be arranged properly.
“So I didn’t want to sign with a label that was trying to ‘develop’ me or anything – I wanted them to like what I was doing and not be disappointed with the final product. I love my label. I feel like the boss of my thing, and I don’t have stressful label conversations – it’s the dream!”
Listening to Stranger In The Alps the delicate, reverb-drenched guitar work produced by Bridgers and her superb sideman, Harrison Whitford, leaps out as something altogether more interesting and exciting than the standard singer-songwriter fare, yet Bridgers is modest to a fault about her guitar- playing abilities.
“I’m still getting comfortable with it,” she says of playing guitar. “At first it was just a vehicle for writing songs. I knew about nine chords, probably, for the first five years of playing!
I have this really horrible habit of writing the same song 15 times – like if I discover a new tuning or a new chord, I’ll write a song and then realise it’s the exact same format as the past 10 I was writing! So I’m still finding my style, but I love – love – open-tuned baritone guitar. It’s perfect for how I write – it makes everything sound so sad! But it takes it out of the singer-songwriter world.”
The aforementioned baritone – specifically a black-sparkle Danelectro 56 – is a huge part of Stranger In The Alps’ remarkable sonic brew, and has become something of a calling card for Bridgers ever since, but her discovery of the charms of longer-scale instruments was a happy accident.
“I was recording a song called Chelsea on the album with Tony Berg, who’s a producer I trust with my whole soul,” Bridgers recalls. “The best thing about his tiny little fuckin’ studio is that it has this really specific sound… because you’re not suppose to have 80 fuckin’ thousand instruments on the wall in your vocal room, resonating! But I love it, and it brings character.
“So we’re recording and he just pulls one of those instruments off the wall and hands it to me – and it’s a baritone. Because up until this point, I think because the way that my voice is and the chord shapes that I like, I’d been tuning a fuckin’ acoustic guitar to C#! It was brutal! But he handed me this baritone and the sound was just amazing.
“When we finished recording, I bought the exact same guitar that I’d recorded with. It was like, $300, but I paid $500 because they had one that was sparkly and I wanted it so bad! But I’m so glad I did, because it’s paid itself off like 10 trillion times! Although when you rattle it, it’s like… yeah that’s old!”
Service With A Smile
That Dano was clearly money well spent, then, but Phoebe reveals that it almost didn’t happen, thanks to some startlingly poor customer service on the part of some LA guitar store employees…
“This sounds like a made up story, but it’s true,” Bridgers says animatedly. “I drove to a guitar store – like the nearest one I could find in Venice – to get this guitar. So I walked into the store, and there’s one guy on one side of the store, and one guy on the other. So I go over, pick up the guitar, I knew exactly what I wanted, I didn’t have any questions… but I’d also been looking for this 60s small-bodied Gibson. They only made a few of them made in black, but for a vintage guitar they’re cheap – like $2,500.
“So I was just talking to the sales guys, asking them about this Gibson acoustic I was looking for, and they were trying to tell me that you should only pay 1,500 bucks for one, and that I didn’t know what I was talking about, and that they only come in sunburst… all this stuff. But I have this lifehack that I use in these situations. I have this friend, Chris Nelson, who sells vintage instruments, so I was just texting him while this was going on so I could tell them like the year, the model, how much the last one had sold for… all that sort of thing! I just loved flexing on them because they were being super fucking condescending!
“But then out of nowhere, the two dudes start getting in a screaming fight over who gets the commission for my guitar – right in front of me! I let them scream at each other for three minutes and then I said, ‘Shut the fuck up! No!’ And I made them go away and went and bought it from the owner of the store, but I’m sure they still got paid.
“I really wanted to prove a point and walk out of the store so that neither of them got it, but it had been so hard to find the exact thing I wanted that day, and I really wanted to go home and play it, so I fucking bought it… but I still hate them!”
Women calling out sexism and discrimination in creative industries is something that has dominated the headlines over the last year or so, and listening to her recount her eyebrow-raising retail experience, we wonder if the guitar world has a fair bit of work to do in that regard, too. Phoebe is unequivocal in her response.
“Dude, it’s insane,” she insists, rolling her eyes. “My favourite one used to be with my Epiphone Frontier. I used to play that guitar all the time, because Ryan gave to me, and it’s a very nice guitar. But dudes would be coming up to me at shows like, [disdainful] ‘Wow… an Epiphone…’
“My favourite thing is to troll dudes like that. I used to play in this band called Sloppy Jane, and we had the worst amp ever – it was a Peavey from the early 2000s that had beer spilled all over it. But we would insist it was a tube amp, just to watch dudes get hot and bothered and like, SO upset! We’d be like, [deadpan] ‘No, no… it’s tubes…’ [laughs] It was great.
“I feel like if people know my music now, and are a little bit more afraid of me, they wouldn’t do that! But I’ve definitely walked into guitar stores and had people talk directly to my guitar player instead of me when I ask a fuckin’ question… but whatever! I don’t know much about gear, but I know when I love something, and I know what I’m talking about when I get the balls to talk about something!”
As a case in point, when discussions turn to the other key element of her live guitar sound – a stunning sunburst Collings 01 model – she is quick to extol its virtues.
“I love Collings guitars. I feel like they’re the perfect tour guitar – because you can beat the shit out of them, and they’re comparable to a vintage guitar in sound and feel,” she enthuses. “You shouldn’t take vintage guitars on tour… but I did. I took the Epiphone Frontier that Ryan gave me on tour… and it snapped! I fixed it, but I was like, ‘Never again!’”
Since releasing Stranger In The Alps last year, Bridgers has been touring relentlessly, both in the US and Europe. And no sooner has she finished her latest European jaunt, she’ll hit the road again with Boygenius at the start of November. It’s a schedule that doesn’t leave much time for writing or recording, but the experience has made her rethink a few things…
“I write on a hundred-dollar classical acoustic – like a child’s classical acoustic! Because you can just thrash it, and it’s fucking so quiet that nobody can hear me in my tiny apartment. But I love building a thing,” she says of her heavily layered, experimental approach to recording. “Maybe I’ll explore doing it differently in the future, because I’ve definitely played these songs long enough now that they’re better than they were when I recorded them.
“You can’t fuckin’ tour an album for a year and then record it, but I think for the next record I’ll try to find a blend of playing in the room, and finding an arrangement. My favourite thing ever is still to build and find these sounds in the studio. When I played Eaux Claires festival, I went to April Base, which is Bon Iver’s studio. He had a piano with all these pedals attached to it, and it made me write a song in like, C, G, D again – which I’d never do on a guitar!
Pushing the boundaries is clearly something that fascinates Bridgers about making music, and has in turn fuelled her passion for unusual guitars and esoteric effects.
“I like gear because it gets you out of your head and out of your comfort zone,” she says as we round up our chat. “Everyone’s tastes are different, and my favourite thing would be to be able to plug into everyone’s pedalboard ever… and then just explore and write songs.”
Phoebe Bridgers’ Stranger In The Alps is out now on Dead Oceans. Boygenius’ self-titled debut EP is out 9 November via Matador.