Phoebe Bridgers, who released one of the year’s best albums, the exquisite Punisher, back in June, was the guest on a recent episode of our Rolling Stone Music Now podcast. She talked about her songwriting methods, the making of the album, and much more. Some highlights follow; to hear the entire interview, press play below, or download and subscribe on iTunes or Spotify.
She whisper-sings all of her song sketches into her phone’s voice memos app. “One time, my neighbor shouted through my open window, ‘shut the fuck up!’ So it gets kind of weird because I’ll write a song and then it’ll be in a completely different key than something I can sing because I whispered the entire time when I was writing it.”
She handwrites all of her lyrics. “I have a hard time typing them on a computer,” she says. “Maybe it just doesn’t make me feel cool. But also, one of my friends told me my cursive is like I’m writing letters home from the war in, like, the 1800s. And I write faster in cursive. When I print, it looks like a eight-year-old.” She also learned some new revision methods from her collaborator Conor Oberst: “I started writing with him and then adopted the way that he writes entirely. Literally, he has one page of lyrics, next to the new page of lyrics. So as he’s making changes, he’ll write completely different lyrics on the next page. And I did that for this whole record.”
She believes there’s a timelessness to writing songs on guitar. “There’s just some sort of longevity with making guitar-based music. Especially if you don’t stick to a specific genre, and you always write good songs. You have the chance to be, like, a John Prine character, where his last record was one of his best-selling records. I think there will always be a place for it. Someone like Jackson Browne, a lot of his music sounds dated. You can say the exact year that something came out because of a drum sound. But because he’s a great songwriter, he transcends that.”
It’s been hard not touring behind Punisher. “A true ego death is putting out an album and not being on tour. I didn’t realize how much I relied on people screaming at me every night. It’s just super-weird. I feel like I don’t exist. Which is the best problem possible to have in 2020. And I’m also super-grateful that I did anything, that I released this album. Late-stage capitalism at its best. I feel like I don’t exist unless I make stuff and get to talk about it.”
She has a whole lexicon of indie-rock slang. As Bridgers has been discussing all year, the title Punisher refers to a class of fan who “doesn’t know that they’re being perceived as exhausting.” (In the title track, she suggests she would’ve become a punisher herself if she’d ever gotten to meet Elliott Smith). But there’s also “rockognized,” which refers to getting spotted in public as a niche-famous artist, and “fan-splaining”: “It’s like, you’re playing in Florida. And they come up to you, and they’re like, ‘I was gonna buy tickets for Kalamazoo, because I was going to be there. But then I bought tickets for here. And I actually saw you last night on the TV when you played Seth Meyers. And now I’m at this show. And the sound wasn’t that great. But it makes me wonder if I should have gone to Kalamazoo.’ They’re kind of insulting you the whole time.”
She has a secret soft spot for Van Halen, who share her Pasadena origins. “I kind of was a hesh-ian tween. So I definitely learned a lot of Van Halen on guitar. Van Halen is super, super-seminal. But also, they were one the ones who invented the rider trick of [no brown] M&Ms, right? Absolutely love that. There’s nothing better than when you forget to change your rider from the United States to Europe, and you have guacamole on your rider in the States. And then you get to Germany, and it’s in a can and it’s called avocado sauce.”
She wants to make more music with Better Oblivion Community Club (her project with Conor Oberst) and with Boygenius (her group with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus.) “I hope so. The ethos of both of those bands is really fun… I hope that our stars align at some point, because yeah, I love both those bands so much. And I feel like it makes my solo music better.”
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