Introducing the Funny, Sad Songwriting of Phoebe Bridgers

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Phoebe Bridgers. Photo: Frank Ockenfels

Phoebe Bridgers already knows you think her songs are sad. Not because she gives them titles like “Funeral,” or because she peppers a love song with references to the deaths of musical icons and expresses the desire to “[check] out to hide from life.” No, Bridgers has an inkling her songs are sad because that’s the type of music she connects to in the most true way, so it makes sense it’s the kind of music she would emulate.

But for someone who wrote a chorus that goes, “Jesus christ, I’m so blue all the time,” and recorded a 7-inch for Ryan Adams that leads with a song about serial killers (the Jeffrey Dahmer documentary she stayed up late one night watching “creeped me out so much I started writing a song”) the 23-year-old L.A. native hardly comes off as introverted or morose.

Over the phone, Bridgers prefaces her stories with self-aware disclaimers like “This is kind of fucked up, but …” and “I have this weird thing where …” She pokes fun at herself on Twitter for doing the kinds of things that would make her a sad-sack cliché (watching her ex-boyfriend’s Instagram story while listening to tour mate Conor Oberst play his iconic 2005 weeper “First Day of My Life”), and her banner on the site is a photo of her in which she makes a knowing ugly-cry face with a black hoodie pulled tightly over her head; she holds a record by Bon Iver (the king of sad songs) in each hand. The background on Bridgers’s Facebook page is a grainy photo of the back of a Toyota with a bumper sticker bearing the words “SORTA GOTH.”

It’s that balanced sense of self-awareness and honesty about her own often-angsty feelings that makes Bridgers’s songwriting so magnetic. Her debut album, Stranger in the Alps, is a swirl of folk, Americana, and quiet introspection that often calls to mind Bridgers’s idol, Elliott Smith; her lyrics are a grab bag of images that are devastating in their ordinary specificity:

Walking Scott Street feeling like a stranger / with an open heart, open container / I’ve got a stack of mail and a tall can / It’s a shower beer it’s a payment plan.

Phoebe Bridgers’s reality is never far from the surface of her music, but not in a navel-gazing or self-indulgent way. In the folky “Funeral,” she’s preparing to sing at an acquaintance’s funeral, and she’s quick to point out her own tendency to wallow after her lyrics deliberately diverge from their original theme to flow stream of consciousness through dreams about drowning and blacking out in her car. She then halts what could become a self-pity party to remind herself that “someone’s kid is dead.”

If Bridgers’s lyrics feel lived-in, it’s because she writes exclusively from her own experiences. “It does kind of matter to me that it’s real, or in some form real,” she says. “The most fiction I ever get into is like, I act like something I write about is one experience and then maybe I’ll steal from another experience. So maybe it’s not about only one person.” She uses the Notes app on her iPhone to jot down observations and other ephemera she thinks could work in a song, and when asked if she has an example of some lyrics that started out this way, she has to think for a moment before it dawns on her that the first few lines of album opener, “Smoke Signals,” came from this very method. She had spent a week in Ketchum, Idaho, with her then-boyfriend when she wrote this down:

I went with you up to the place you grew up and we spent a week in the cold / Just long enough to Walden-it with you anymore and it would’ve got old.

Making a verb out of Thoreau’s transcendentalist work isn’t the most common thing, but it emphasizes Bridgers ability to write heavy moments in funny ways. “Some of those lyrics started as a joke, and then I’m like, ‘I’m too lazy to change this, I guess these are the actual lyrics.’” But with songs that mine personal trauma comes the unfortunate reckoning with the people those songs are actually about. Bridgers seems largely unconcerned about this. “The guy who ‘Motion Sickness’ was pretty much entirely about was basically like, ‘fuck you.’ And he blocked me on Instagram,” she says, with neither a hint of self-satisfaction nor a whiff of self-pity in her voice. While Alps’s second single, whose chorus is about a guy giving her “emotional motion sickness” is no Swiftian kiss-off like “Dear John,” the details are specific and bruising — “Hey, why do you sing with an English accent? Guess it’s too late to change it now,” Bridgers sings with a lilt — though it’s easy to miss some of the sharper digs amid the song’s upbeat Americana stomp.

So will reactions like “Motion Sickness” guy’s change her songwriting process? “Weirdly, I never think about it while it’s happening … stuff doesn’t even make it in the songs and then you’re stressed for no reason. You might cut that verse that you’re nervous about,” she says. But that gets her into trouble when she realizes she’s written a song she likes that might piss somebody off. “Up till now, I’ve never put anything out that made anybody uncomfortable, so this is the first time I’m dealing with it,” she says. “I wonder if it will deter me on a second album. But I kinda doubt it.”

Introducing the Funny, Sad Songwriting of Phoebe Bridgers