Phoebe Bridgers’s Haunted House With a Picket Fence
With several musical endeavors and Grammy nominations now under her belt, indie rock artist Phoebe Bridgers (and her beautifully tragic music) is finally getting the recognition she deserves.
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The world has slept on Phoebe Bridgers, but not anymore.
Not to be confused with Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who has been active in the film industry for some time, Bridgers is a recent musical sensation and icon in her own right. While 2020 was a letdown in many ways, this year was a renaissance in terms of musical releases, from singles to EPs to LPs. If you’re Bridgers, you’ve released all three.
Her sophomore album “Punisher” (2020) was preceded by singles “Garden Song,” “Kyoto,” and “I See You,” all of which are indicators of the album’s complex, otherworldly sound. Meticulously fingerpicked guitar riffs supplement Bridger’s delicate, wistful voice. The confessional lyrics pour out in slow rivulets, with certain syllables dragged on in the midst of the background harmonizing before trickling into the next verse. A steady pulse made by the unassuming drums always cements itself in the songs before rising, becoming dramatically loud in certain ones such as “I Know The End,” the final track on “Punisher.” Apparently, she’s a sucker for a good outro.
The light, graceful tone of the 25-year-old California native belies the album’s darker sentiments. On “Chinese Satellite,” she laments her inability to find her place on Earth. “Savior Complex” embodies the stony tone her dark songwriting can take on: “I’m a bad liar / With a savior complex / All the skeletons you hide / Show me yours, and I’ll show you mine.” The topics are wide-ranging but threaded by Bridgers’s ability to juxtapose the beautiful, the sad, and the deadpan. The product is a mesmerizing balance of candid emotions.
Bridgers’s has honed this ability since the very beginning of her career. In an effort to investigate what makes a “sad song,” she began building her name through the production of her 2017 album, “Stranger in the Alps.” Through songs like “Motion Sickness” and “Funeral,” she experiments with how melody engages with lyrics and how the two communicate to create spaces for introspection and maintain the sharpness of her unique perspective.
Bridgers was inspired by some of her favorite artists to pose such a pointed question. In her interview with BandCamp, she cites Mark Kozelek and Elliott Smith as inspirations. The effects of these artists—known for their poignant and desperate lyrics, songs that spotlight the mundane, and emotionally resonant moments—are clearly seen in the delicate tempo and somber lyrics of songs like “Smoke Signals” or “Georgia” that showcase her strengths as an artist.
Her abilities have certainly grown since she first started playing music in her hometown of Pasadena and deepened her love for music through the sounds of bluegrass and folk. She began as a busker at the Pasadena Farmers Market but quickly worked to legitimize her craft, attending the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. It was no surprise when she started playing guitar and singing lead vocals in Einstein’s Dirty Secret and went on to play bass in Sloppy Jane soon after, though neither band reached dramatic success.
At least not to the degree that Bridgers would, especially in 2020; she has picked up four Grammy nominations this year: Best New Artist, Best Alternative Album, Best Rock Song, and Best Rock Performance for “Kyoto.” While her previous bands were not fruitful, she found success in current groups such as Better Oblivion Community Center and Boygenius. Most recently, she collaborated with Kid Cudi on his album “Man on the Moon III: The Chosen” and was featured on the track “Lovin’ Me.”
But that’s not to understate her success as a solo artist, which is undeniably warranted. She’s had a profound impact on the rock genre, introducing a haunted gentleness that’s been sorely lacking for the past two decades. Bridgers refuses to rely on crashing snares or heavy beats: she whispers her melodies and gently strums her guitar, forcing the listener to lean in and pay more attention to what is being said.
It’s difficult to characterize Bridgers with just one sound. Though she holds contempt for the phrase “experimental,” there’s no doubt that her departure from whatever her perceived sound may be is quite characteristic. You never know what you’re going to get, and that resonates as one of her main appeals—her willingness to try out different sounds.
In an interview with Guitar.com, she affirms, “I think of myself more as a producer than a musician.” She admits to writing “15 versions of the same song,” messing them up over and over again. Courage is one of her many defining characteristics and one of the aspects that makes Bridgers stand out as an artist. But, while the sounds may oscillate—from the deeply colorful and synthy sounds of “Kyoto” to the timid minimalism of “Smoke Signals (Reprise)”—her poignancy remains.
“And when I grow up / I’m gonna look up from my phone and see my life,” she reflects in her most recent hit, “Garden Song.” The quivering of her voice, the muffled sound of the electric guitar, and the modest beat of the drums leave us hanging on every word, every breath, every note. And we’re thankful, though it may take her a while to make sense of her life, that we’re able to so vividly remember and witness it with her.