By Robert Moran
“As far as musically, I’m never going to be anything but honest,” says Phoebe Bridgers.Credit:Aresna Villanueva
When Phoebe Bridgers last toured Australia in 2019, on the back of her debut album Stranger in the Alps and her first release with Boygenius (her supergroup with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus), the venues were what one might expect of an indie breakthrough: the 500-capacity Oxford Art Factory in Sydney, the 850-capacity Croxton Bandroom in Melbourne.
Just four years later, a quick look at Bridgers’ current itinerary starkly highlights the 28-year-old’s meteoric rise. There’s a sold-out show at Sydney’s 5500-capacity Hordern Pavilion next week. Another sell-out at Melbourne’s 7500-capacity Margaret Court Arena. A headline slot at the Laneway Festival.
Wry, allusive and spanning diverse musical worlds, Bridgers’ work has struck a chord.Credit:Frank Ockenfels
In a recent Rolling Stone cover story, the publication summarised Bridgers’ whirlwind success following her sophomore album Punisher in 2020, by noting: “Bridgers broke through to the music-your-dad-has-heard-of-level during the pandemic.”
“Totally,” Bridgers confirms with a deadpan chuckle, over the phone from Los Angeles, while awaiting a mocha order from her Silver Lake local, Botanica. “I’ve seen proof of that, and it’s amazing.”
Dads. They really love Phoebe Bridgers.
“Well, I love seeing dads at shows, it really warms my heart,” she jokes. “I’ve had some great conversations with dads who’ve come to my shows. It’s a great part of my life now.”
Through her achingly painful songs, sardonic humour and sheer force of personality both online and in live interviews and performances, Bridgers has quickly become a big deal. Punisher, led by its infectious single Kyoto, an eye-roll of a paean to her father (who died just last month), earned the California native four Grammy nominations in 2021, including for best new artist and best rock song for Kyoto.
Collaborations with fans such as Taylor Swift, on Nothing New from the pop star’s Red (Taylor’s Version) re-release, backup vocals on Lorde’s Solar Power, and a feature on SZA’s Ghost in the Machine from the R&B superstar’s recent chart-topping SOS, have further cemented Bridgers’ crossover appeal.
And then there’s the public romance with Normal People actor Paul Mescal – the two were reportedly engaged last November, then suddenly split in December – which made Bridgers a surprise tabloid fixture. She’s now at the status where publicists grant interviews with the addendum that her team “respectfully decline any questions about Phoebe’s dating life”.
Bridgers with ex-fiance actor Paul Mescal in Los Angeles in November 2021.Credit:Rich Fury/Getty Images
Is she cool with it all, or does it feel like a lot?
“I mean, yes to both,” says Bridgers. “Everything has felt like success because all I ever really wanted to do was, like, play the venues by my house. I’m still kind of on this crazy rollercoaster of stuff that I could never have imagined for myself.”
Bridgers’ unlikely story began in 1994 in Pasadena, California, where she was born and raised by a mother who worked desk jobs and a father who built movie sets. “He built a beautiful door for an Iron Man movie when I was a kid, which was pretty cool,” Bridgers recalls. “It was rad to show up to sets before they filmed a movie and see the beginnings of some giant sci-fi world.”
Entering the creative world always felt like a logical path, she says. “I definitely wanted to make music. I’ve always been fascinated by it and loved it since I was a kid.”
In 2009, she began attending LACHSA (Los Angeles County High School for the Arts), a free performing arts school whose alumni includes, among others, the Haim sisters, where she studied vocal jazz, opera and music technology.
In 2014, she released her first EP Killer on Pax AM, the record label founded by one-time alt-country golden boy, Ryan Adams. In 2019, Bridgers was among several women who accused Adams of emotional abuse in a New York Times article. Stranger in the Alps′ probing Motion Sickness – a blistering track about a toxic relationship with an older man, filled with Bridgers’ trademark lacerating wit (“You said when you met me, you were bored/ And you were in a band when I was born”) – became her commercial breakthrough, reaching gold status in the US, with over 500,000 sales.
The reception to follow-up Punisher, however – whose roll-out included an already iconic performance on Saturday Night Live, where Bridgers drew the ire of David Crosby, of all people, for trashing her guitar and amp onstage – took Bridgers to another level, making her the poster-child for so-called “sad girl music”, a generational movement of emotive female singer-songwriters including Mitski, Clairo and Lana Del Rey, whose influence has extended to pop stars such as Olivia Rodrigo and even the genre’s progenitor, Taylor Swift. Take one look at Spotify’s viral “sad girl starter pack” playlist (lower-case affectation included), and Bridgers is featured on there endlessly.
While few musicians ever get to define such a cultural moment, let alone become the figurehead of a sound that’s spoken so unequivocally to Gen-Z complexity and anxieties, particularly those of female and queer listeners, Bridgers understandably bristles at the “sad girl” label.
“I cringe at it, for sure. It feels like, you know, a fetishisation of female or queer pain – like we all have to be in pain to be interesting, or if we’re too happy then we’re stupid?
“But I don’t know, I also understand the label,” she adds. “I think people are just idiots, and there’s a limited language to describe, like, this way deeper thing.
“But yeah, I strive to break out of that at some point in my life. Like, I’m gonna be 30 pretty soon,” Bridgers laughs. “Can’t be doing the sad girl shit forever.”
Bridgers performing at Glastonbury last June. She’s currently touring Australia as part of the Laneway Festival.Credit:Joel C Ryan / Invision
At this point, the music is one thing, the tabloid fodder another. Even at this early stage, does she feel like she’s still in control of her career and what she wants to do with it?
“Yeah, for sure,” says Bridgers. “I mean, it’s never been that planned anyway. I just kind of follow what I want to be doing. I feel like that’s my main filter of what to do and when.”
Right now, that includes a temporary departure from working solo. From May, she’ll be joining Swift on the pop star’s first US tour in five years. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the most people I can even conceive of playing in front of in the one place,” says Bridgers.
She’ll also appear in a horror flick from taste-making indie A24, titled I Saw the TV Glow, bizarrely and hilariously alongside Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst. “I mean, I was literally in that for, like, 25 seconds,” Bridgers explains. “It’s a beautiful film, but no, I can’t act for shit.”
Her most pressing musical focus is “the music I made with my friends” in Boygenius, whose second album is out in March. In the band’s recent Rolling Stone cover story, Bridgers suggested the intense attention that came with Punisher and the tabloid interest in her private life more or less guided her against a solo album campaign at this point – that she wasn’t sure she’d be able, or willing, to handle any further focus on herself.
“Mainly I just wanted to hang out with my friends, especially because I released Punisher over COVID,” she explains. “It was the idea of, you know, looking forward to hanging out with my buddies and writing some music that we could play together in the future, it just gave me a lot of hope.”
If it’s not exactly a public retreat, few would begrudge Bridgers’ right to some private distance following her post-Punisher whirlwind. In just a couple of years she’s gone from an obscure indie artist to a public figure whose online posts get parsed into Daily Mail clickbait (see the ruckus that ensued last September after Queen Elizabeth II’s death, when Bridgers posted a statement on Instagram likening the UK monarch to a “war criminal”).
Outside her music, Bridgers’ candid and outspoken personality is largely why fans have connected so strongly to the artist. Has she started to second guess the things she can put out there now, or how personal she can be as her profile grows?
“I think, if anything, I was more reticent in the beginning,” she says defiantly. “I mean, of course, I have to, like, protect myself more, but I don’t know – because as far as, like, musically, I’m never going to be anything but honest.
“In terms of the other stuff, I don’t think anybody has a healthy relationship to, like, social media – it’s impossible, unless you just completely don’t engage with it,” she adds. “But, you know, I like that I’m able to talk to fans on there, so I’ll keep doing it.”
Surely, music to the ears of sad girls and dads everywhere.
Phoebe Bridgers will perform at the Laneway Festival in Sydney on February 5 and in Melbourne on February 11. She will also perform at Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion on February 6 and Melbourne’s Margaret Court Arena on February 8.
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