How Phoebe Bridgers made one of 2020's best albums

By Mark Savage
BBC music reporter

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Phoebe BridgersImage source, Frank Ockenfels
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Phoebe Bridgers is up for four Grammy Awards next January

If any song captured the spirit of 2020, it was Phoebe Bridgers' I Know The End.

The closing track on her second album, Punisher, it starts out as a subdued break-up ballad but builds to an explosive climax, as the singer stares down Armageddon and unexpectedly accepts it.

"I'm not afraid to disappear," she sings, as the guitars churn and strings swirl - before the song ends with a ragged, throat-shredding scream.

"It's about being at peace with the end of the world," the singer explained in her own breakdown of the record.

"Instead of waking up every day during the apocalypse - like, right now - and being heartbroken, you're just kind of like, 'OK, what can I do today?'. Taking it one day at a time, instead of giving up."

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Like many of the songs on Punisher, I Know The End juxtaposes Bridgers' personal devastations with those of the world crumbling outside her front door.

She rebukes her estranged father (Kyoto), cries crocodile tears in a car (Savior Complex), mourns her lack of faith (Chinese Satellite) and throws in the occasional comic aside. "I swear I'm not angry, that's just my face," she deadpans on the title track.

The emotionally-charged, lyrically astute writing has seen Bridgers nominated for four Grammy Awards, including best new artist; while Savior Complex was recently rewarded with a darkly comedic video, directed by Fleabag's Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

The 26-year-old called up the BBC from her home in LA to discuss the making of the album, learning to drive a tractor and the time she stalked James Blake.

Image source, Getty Images
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The musician has been performing in a skeleton outfit, highlighting the album's themes of death and emotional exposure

Any artist who starts making a new album hopes it will reach a bigger audience than the last one. What's it like when that actually happens?

Um, it's awesome - although I haven't seen very many people, so it's all pretty hypothetical to me.

I guess one of the ways you quantify the audience growing is by seeing them at gigs - which you haven't been able to do.

Definitely. The only real show I played for this record was at the Roundhouse [in London] last year, so I definitely miss it. I feel like songs get better as they go along on the tour. It's weird to be stuck in time.

Punisher is your first solo album since 2017. At what point did you sit down and think, 'OK, these are the 10 songs I want to concentrate on?'

Ah, I don't really do that. When I finished Punisher, those were the only 10 songs that I had written. I don't have extra material at any point, which is pretty weird. I don't know anybody else who works like that.

Do you spend a lot of time refining the songs, then?

Yeah, I can write a song in 20 minutes, but it's gonna be not that good. So I like writing a song in 20 minutes, ignoring it for three months, then working on it for three months. You have to trick your brain into finding the rhymes, or defining what you actually want to say. So yeah, the 15th version of everything is always the best.

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How do you protect the original, emotional spark if you're revising a song 15 times?

Well, here's an example. My producer Tony called me yesterday and he talked about how little I sound on Motion Sickness [from Bridgers' first album, Stranger In The Alps]. That was a song I wrote as a ballad, and then we turned it into a rock song - but I didn't really know how to sing like that yet, so the vocal is really chopped up and I'm so out of breath.

But now, when I sing that song on tour, I can sing it exactly like the record. So I feel like recording is actually part of the writing process. The spark continues to grow, for me, if you're proud of something.

On Chinese Satellite, you sing about your lack of faith. How do you think this year would have been different if you had a belief?

I don't know. Maybe it would be like going to sleep at night knowing that you have a parent who cares about you, instead of just feeling like nothing means anything and good people get sick and die for no reason. That's kind of an exhausting weight.

What rituals did you develop to help you get through lockdown?

I think the best days were when I could go outside, but there were months where going outside was too scary. Even now, it's the worst [infection rate] there has ever been in the US, and people still aren't wearing masks - and I live in Los Angeles, which is supposed to be a liberal bubble.

I bought a treadmill, so I didn't have to leave the house, and I [started] making my house cosy and making my bed every day, which I'm not super great at.

This is my only advice: If you live alone, clean your house the way you do when your crush is coming over.

Is tidying up for your crush a higher standard of cleanliness than when your mum visits?

Oh, a thousand times. My mom is gonna think I don't clean things appropriately, no matter what, so I just kind of don't bother.

Actually, my mom - this is very sweet - her gift to me when I come back from tour is she'll clean my house and get me groceries and flowers. It's the best possible coming home present. It's like someone clean has been living here!

Image source, Olof Grind
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Bridgers' album was recorded at Sound City, LA, where Nirvana's Nevermind and Arctic Monkeys' Suck It And See were produced

I Know The End has become a lockdown anthem. Did it really start out as a metal song?

Well, I had had that whole beginning of the song for a really long time, and it was just too depressing. And then I had the idea to end the record in a super metal way and so I just did both. I was like, 'Oh, maybe the depressing song will be great for this crazy outro'.

What was it like recording the scream?

It was awesome. Actually, I asked Connor Oberst to teach me how to scream and he was like, 'What do you mean? You just do it'. So I just did it, and my voice was sore for three days but it was so fun. I highly recommend it.

Have you used the scream subsequently?

In a pillow. But that's a little bit more depressing.

In the video you had to scream into an older woman's face. How awkward was that?

Oh my god! I always sing in music videos, because I think it looks really unnatural when you're mouthing the words. You don't breathe at the right time, you don't move your mouth in the right way. But for that one I had to whisper. I was like, 'Sorry, Lily. Ahgghgghgggh!'

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Am I right that Punisher is a jokey term musicians use to describe over-zealous fans?

Kind of, but a little bit sweeter than that. Like, anybody can be punished. It's not specific to being famous or successful.

If your aunt brings a weird friend to the Christmas party, and she talks to you about her hip replacement for, like, 45 minutes, that's being punished. It's someone who's not aware that you don't care what they're talking about.

I love meeting fans who have interesting things to say, or are funny and charming and sweet, or make me a friendship bracelet or whatever. But I've also had dudes come up to me and be like, 'You know, you should sing louder'. That's being punished.

I even have a little "punisher wave" that some of my friends know about, where it's like a signal to come and save me.

Have you ever been the punisher?

Oh, totally. I punished James Blake once when I was a teenager. I waited by the backstage door at the Troubadour and I had the most boring things to say. I was like, 'Are you gonna play Coachella?' And he's like, 'Maybe. I don't know'.

And then I said, 'What are you up to now?', like I was his friend, and not some random girl who was stopping him from going to bed.

What did he do?

Oh, he was super nice. He took a picture with me, it was great.

Image source, Phoebe Bridgers
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Bridgers jokes that she wants to marry Phoebe Waller-Bridge "so we can have the same name"

Speaking of stalking... you wrote a fan letter to Phoebe Waller-Bridge asking her to direct the video for Savior Complex. What was in that email?

It was probably very doting. I deleted a lot of apologies from it... but she's the sweetest, so I shouldn't have been afraid.

What's your favourite memory of making it?

Honestly, just how easy everybody was.

I paid my rent during my first record by appearing in commercials and, at one audition, someone told me he could probably sleep with me 'if he wanted'. So I had this perception that the industry is gross, and everybody famous is gross.

But everyone on this video was so sweet. Like, hanging out with the guy who taught me how to drive the tractor was just a blast. It changed my perspective on fame being a curse.

And now you've got those tractor skills to fall back on if the music career fails.

Exactly.

Image source, Phoebe Bridgers
Image caption,
Pop stars in tractors: Part 432 in an ongoing series

On Punisher, you joke about plagiarising Elliott Smith - I think the line is, 'either I'm careless or I want to get caught'. Is that a genuine fear?

Yes, it's not even plagiarism. It's an even more elusive fear of people saying, 'We realised what your trick is, and that you tricked everybody into liking it, and you'll never make anything good again'.

A bit like imposter syndrome.

It is imposter syndrome. It's funny, I work really hard and I have imposter syndrome. But a very successful lawyer who got an internship at a law firm because of his dad can be like, 'I'm the best at my job and that's why I'm here'. I feel like imposter syndrome is brought upon the worst people.

I think it goes hand in hand with talent, because being creative involves being able to question yourself.

Maybe, but then you look at someone like Jerry Lee Lewis or Morrissey, who's like, 'I'm God!'

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Aside from her solo work, Bridgers has made albums as boygenius (with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus) and Better Oblivion Community Center (with Conor Oberst)

You've just been nominated for best new artist at the Grammys. How does that feel?

This sounds corny and like something someone would say if their PR person gave them media training on how to not sound like a loser - but it's already an achievement for me. When I played to 100 people at St Pancras in London, I cried after the show [because] I was so grateful. So every level has felt amazing and unexpected.

I loved the tweet where you asked if you and Megan Thee Stallion could get swords and fight for the trophy.

I just think that's funny. Like, we are not battling. Not that I want to jinx myself here but Megan Thee Stallion is the best new artist, by far.

Kyoto is also up for best rock performance - and all the nominees in that category are female for the first time. What do you make of that?

It's about time, but it's very cool because I also just agree [with the nominations]. I don't think it's virtue signalling because I can't think of a male rock album this year that really shook me up. So I was like, 'Yes, yes, yes, yes!' It's a total honour to be nominated with all those people.

Apart from the Grammys, what are you looking forward to? Will you get to tour next year?

I hope so. I'm sick of cancelled plans at this point. I think we rescheduled the tour four times before we just stopped. I just hope to record and do random stuff until it's over. In fact, I have a couple of songs written now that I've finished...

Phoebe Bridgers' album Punisher is out now.

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