The songwriter behind 2017 standout 'Stranger in the Alps' talks depression, Tom Waits and singing in the dark
A few years ago, Los Angeles songwriter Phoebe Bridgers was up late at night in her first apartment, writing a song in a whisper so as not to bother neighbors on the other side of the wall. The next day she was scheduled to perform at a funeral.
“I'm singing at a funeral tomorrow for a kid a year older than me/And I've been talking to his dad, it makes me so sad/When I think too much about it I can't breathe,” Bridgers sings over finger-picked acoustic guitar on “Funeral,” which eventually landed on her debut album, 2017's Stranger in the Alps (Dead Oceans).
The song, though, is as much about Bridgers' struggle with depression as it is about death. “I think it's the most depressed I ever was when I wrote that song,” Bridgers said recently by phone. “It was a numb experience. I think that was the craziest part about it.”
“Funeral” is the most private of her songs, which made it all the more strange when people began taking notice of her captivating music. At one point John Mayer tweeted a link to “Funeral” and said, “Listen to this. This is the arrival of a giant.”
“It's weird thinking that the song I wrote at 2 a.m. the night before I was supposed to sing at a funeral, John Mayer listened to and thought to tell his audience about,” Bridgers said. “But because it was literally, actually what was happening and what I was feeling, it doesn't feel exploitative to me. … I just hope I don't fall into some trite sad-girl genre.”
With a debut album as rich, complex and subtly brilliant as Bridgers' debut, she's probably not in danger of being pigeonholed. Stranger in the Alps, which derives its name from a comically ludicrous censored-for-television line out of “The Big Lebowski,” arrived after a three-song EP Bridgers released on Ryan Adams' Pax-Am label in 2015.
“Judging by the 7-inch, people could have easily thought I was about to make a folk record,” she said. “I ended up waiting to sign a record deal until after I was done with it, because I had no idea [what it would sound like]. I just set out and started trying shit. … I wanted to be a band like Bright Eyes that has made deeply folky records and deeply electronic records. Or like Tom Waits. If Tom Waits did a reggae album, it would still come out a Tom Waits album.”
Bridgers, 23, was raised in Pasadena and studied music at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. She dabbled in opera, jazz and music technology, all the while honing her velvety vocal delivery. “I think that singing as much as possible is the best training you could ever get,” she said. “I've seen videos of myself from five years ago, and I'm singing so hard, like I'm [Blink-182's] Tom DeLonge or something. It's absurd.”
To get in the right frame of mind for songs such as “Funeral” and “Motion Sickness,” which Bridgers previously said she wrote about Ryan Adams (“You were in a band when I was born,” she sings), she recorded her vocals in the dark. Onstage, Bridgers tries to conjure the same headspace. “It's a meditative, weird silence, but it's full of this energy,” said Bridgers, who'll bring her band to the Basement on Friday, April 13. “It's a crazy feeling, and I do look for that in a live show. We barely have any lights onstage.”
The more Bridgers performs the songs from Stranger in the Alps on the road, the more the tunes morph into something new. “When I recorded [leadoff track] ‘Smoke Signals,' that was the first time I had ever played it all the way through, so now I feel like I have better melodies and a better feel for it,” she said. “Julien Baker, when I went on tour with her, she changed little things every night, and by the end of tour the songs were even better. She had found little melodies to change. I also did two shows with Bon Iver, and all of his songs are totally reimagined in the coolest way. … That's the best you can hope for — to have a ball while playing and trying new things every night. That sounds really fun to me.”
She also hopes to continue to upend the aforementioned sad-girl genre with doses of humor, but not too much humor. “I don't want to go too far down that road and be insincere. That's a struggle my generation has — just being real with each other and not apologizing for feelings,” she said. “I don't want to put out a Father John Misty album where I'm literally apologizing for myself the whole time. But I do gravitate toward conversational songs — songs that sound like some of it you could just be saying to someone. I don't outwardly try to make anything funny, but I bring my own personality into my heaviest thoughts.”