Long-read:

“There’s something so cathartic

about extreme emotion”

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Phoebe Bridgers on being sad, goofball humour, the influence of LA, contemporary emo and the release of her debut album, Stranger in the Alps.

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words and interview by maria sledmere

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In January of this year, Phoebe Bridgers released ‘Smoke Signals’: a brooding, ethereal track that relays the darker parts of 2016: a year which stockpiled celebrity deaths, political disappointments and a general sense of existential defeat. Written in a cabin in Ketchum, Idaho, ‘Smoke Signals’ is both claustrophobic and emotionally probing. It traces a tale of return, living awhile in the backwards reality of a friend’s hometown, painting monochrome landscapes of millennial pain with the narrative nuance of an old country ballad. The first song on Bridgers’ debut record, Stranger in the Alps – which has been announced for a September 22nd release, via Dead Oceans – it’s an ambitious statement of intent, a pared-down incision of focused emotion.

Bridgers coolly adopts her own vocabulary, using Henry David Thoreau’s transcendentalist classic as a verb for drifting in the wild (“just long enough to Walden it with you”), transforming 1980s cultural touchstones, the likes of The Smiths’ ‘How Soon Is Now?’, into poignant evocations of a troubled childhood (“that song will creep you out until you’re dead”). Said reference to ‘How Soon Is Now’ is spookily appropriate for the album as a whole; its invocation of a time slightly out of joint, the question of the present as something to-come, always deferred by a ceaseless obsession with the past. But where those resounding Smiths guitars build their extravagant wall of haunting dejection, Bridgers opts for minimalist production, the quiet tremble of electric strums which drift, vapour-like, beneath the hoar-frost lilt of her silvery voice.

It’s appropriate that the album’s release date is set for late September, because Stranger In The Alps follows those mournful, autumnal trajectories of longing and nostalgia: a revering for the journey over the event itself. The world of its singer is always in process, struggling to distill emotion and memory amidst the vertigo sense of the past in the present. Phoebe Bridgers taps into the existential restlessness of the transcendentalists, the Beats; that thirst for wilderness which manifests in her lonesome ballads and bittersweet reconstructions of folk and emo, her noirish twists on American pastoral. Over the crunchy guitars of ‘Motion Sickness’, Bridgers sings sweetly of these emotional contradictions: “I hate you for what you did / and I miss you like a little kid”. If ‘Smoke Signals’ is the initiating languor, that first taste of a season in the homesick shadows, ‘Motion Sickness’ is the feeling of jumping in someone’s car and just driving onwards, watching the landscape recede like memory after the seventh whisky. It’s a sparky introduction to the record, condensing that numbing heartache that catches on the need for a breath, a word, a vivid sense. Coming to us just in time, mid-July, it’s a glimpse of genuine release among summer’s suffocating glut of saccharine pop.

GoldFlakePaint spoke to Bridgers the day after her last date on a recent European tour, where she played St Pancras Old Church in Camden Town. That intimate, slightly gothic venue seems the perfect match for songs which are both spine-tinglingly personal and warmly empathetic. She posted a clip of her covering Radiohead’s ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ at the gig on her Instagram feed. Something about the incandescent soar of her voice against the stained-glass windows was completely eerie, completely enchanting; time and again Bridgers seems to invoke the sorrowful songs of the past and bring them quite stunningly into the now, in a way that causes all sorts of emotional ruptures. Classics like ‘Fake Plastic Trees’, like Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left or Elliott Smith’s Either/Or linger—they demand endless replay. Stranger In The Alps does something similar, draws us through the deep molten melancholy with a luxurious, endlessly accessible quality.

I asked Bridgers why sad songs are so addictive and her thoughtful response tapped into the cultural obsession with sharing sadness, in addition to its individual significance: “I think being sad can be really solitary and I think recently this whole culture of talking about mental health openly and finding people who are going through the same thing as you is really comforting, I feel like people have been feeling that forever but with the emo revival and everything it’s pretty like, upfront right now—I think that’s really great.” She elaborates on this experience of sharing melancholy through music: “I live in LA and my best friend and I were driving, we were doing fine, we had a great time at this party and we were driving home from Malibu and 2.45am by Elliott Smith came on and we both started like sobbing. And it was one of the most cathartic and amazing experiences ever, looking over the coastline. I think I have a similar thing with happy songs—it’s impossible to listen to Jackson 5 without feeling happy and associating it with happy memories.”

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It’s this sudden feeling of rupture that music can bring on, the serotonin shock from the blue, that proves its cathartic effect. All complexity of experience boiled down in that moment to a shared horizon, the safety and warmth of your friend’s company—of Smith’s soothing, wistful voice. I’m reminded of that line from Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel Less than Zero, “people are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles”; a metaphoric reference to eighties individualism and a Generation X cynicism, an apathetic inability to connect with others. The LA of Bridgers’ world, by contrast, is the overlap of lines and lives; she earnestly reaches for the sore points and sweet spots where it’s possible to share experience, to empathise. “There’s something so cathartic about extreme emotion,” she offers, as if justifying the act of sharing this personal story.

It seemed appropriate at this point to ask for her thoughts on the term emo, especially since it’s experiencing a resurgence in the music press. I give the example of Pinegrove being described as ‘country-tinged emo’ and she picks it up with relish. “Actually, there’s a very funny story about Pinegrove and emo,” she begins, telling me how she was in LA with Conor Oberst and somebody presented her and Oberst (Omaha-born Bright Eyes frontman, soloist and long-standing purveyor of country-tinged emo) with a couple of Pinegrove tracks. They were impressed and so showed the tunes to Jonathan Wilson, the LA producer who has worked with Father John Misty, Pink Floyd and indeed on one of Oberst’s solo records. Wilson reacted ecstatically (“What is this, this is amazing”, in Bridgers’ words) and declared it “almost like emo country”, much to Oberst’s bemusement: “I’m right in front of you dude—this is like a new thing? I’ve been making that music for so many years”, Bridgers quotes. The story highlights the weird cultural currency of emo; its taboo status—a negative association with a short-lived and much-derided, blacken-my-eyes MySpace generation—slowly being replaced by contemporary bands who write from the heart with a refreshingly direct sincerity.

As Bridgers puts it, the wave of new emo, from Joyce Manner and Pinegrove to Julien Baker, “feels really fresh, it’s not trite—it’s a completely new sound”. There are “less vocal affectations. Now not everyone’s voice sounds the same like in early emo”. That auto-tuned, nasally and overwhelmingly male whimper has been replaced by the watercolour vocal lushness of Bridgers’ recent tour partner, Julien Baker, the hypnagogic bedroom pop of Jay Som or Pinegrove’s bright and crunchy pop melancholia.

Stranger in the Alps has that precious quality of a debut’s atmospheric consistency, written out of a certain place, a fresh structure of feeling. Where some bands might falter with the odd stab at something radio-friendly, a deliberately commercial winner, Bridgers stays true to her emotional frankness, her shadowy and pensive landscapes. Where previous emo delighted in the vaudeville lavishness of exaggerated emotion, Bridgers depicts a post-adolescent sense of existential free-fall suspended in the stylised fever dreams of a diary, the morose tone distilling every extremity of feeling into something more fluid, exploratory, pure. When asked how she maintained the emotional intensity in the studio, Bridgers admits the songs were all recorded “entirely differently”, but did mention one ritual “where Tony [Berg] the producer would turn off all the lights to make me emote more, so I recorded most of the songs in complete darkness, as far as the vocals.” Perhaps recreating the insomniac confessions of that cabin in Idaho, a place of safety and strangeness, this technique really pulls off on the sound of the album, where the vocals are subtly textured—tantalising with their tender control but always coming up against twinges of heartbreak, dissolution, the slip into a different key. On songs like ‘You Missed My Heart’ and ‘Funeral’, there’s that stripped-back sparsity of folk, allowing the lyrics to really shine through.

‘Funeral’ tells the story of singing at a friend’s funeral, a boy a year older who died tragically too young; a boy whose death marks this realisation of sadness as intrinsic, as something in the blood that you can’t get away from, something you feel and “always will” feel. You can’t cure what’s happened. There’s a mature sense of acceptance, knowing it’s futile to pretend to always be cheerful, healthier to admit your despair to others. Bridgers isn’t looking for meaning exactly, but that moment where you feel yourself breaking apart from reality: “I have this dream where I’m screaming underwater / while my friends are all waving from the shore / I don’t need you to tell me what that means / I don’t believe in that stuff anymore”. It’s important to call up the one person who might not be able to drag you from the deep with advice for life, but will nevertheless float with you there, where you can “both laugh” until the feeling “disappears”. Bridgers carefully balances this heavy subject (“I remember someone’s kid is dead”) with vocal restraint, the swirling accompaniment of eerie strings. In lieu of typical emo hyperbole, there’s a tenderness, a layered quality of feeling that invites us to delve into personal loss.

I’m reminded of an early Bright Eyes track, ‘Something Vague’, where Oberst sings climactically in his best raw warble: “There’s a dream in my brain that just won’t go away / It’s been stuck there since it came a few nights ago / And I’m standing on a bridge in the town where I lived / As a kid with my mom and my brothers / And then the bridge disappears and I’m standing on air / With nothing holding me.” And while he hangs—“like a star, fucking glow in the dark”—in that suspension, that lonesome homesick oblivion, he can only ask, “do these dreams have any meaning?” But like Bridgers, it isn’t meaning exactly he’s chasing, “more like a ghost that’s been following us both / Something vague that we’re not seeing”. This haunted, dreamlike quality of chasing the phantoms of love and childhood innocence marks the natural affinity between the two songwriters. The girl on Stranger in the Alps’ album cover is a ghost, standing in a country field, flanked by a dog and a rainbow. It feels like an ironic Wizard of Oz reference, Dorothy in Kansas waiting to vanish, to be swept away to another place.

Regarding the record’s geographical home, Bridgers suggests the “most obvious choice is LA,” but then there’s also “this weird little trip” to Idaho, “the solitary cabin”. The LA she conjures has a touch of that jaded, Bret Easton Ellis ennui, but the moral free-fall and misanthropy is replaced with an earnest emphasis on human connection, the need to reach out when times are hard. Between lonesome canyons and suburban sprawl, the road and the cabin in Idaho, Stranger in the Alps has that restless sense of the struggle for belonging, for reconciling one’s childhood home with the wayfaring trajectories of adulthood. ‘Scott Street’ feels like an elegy to a particular time and place, as a conversation with a friend reminds her of how everything changes and grows; even the fantasy stasis of suburban languor eventually crumbles with time. Musically, Bridgers describes LA as “a very mixed bag, like you can kind of be in whichever scene you want. You can drive for literally an hour and be in the forest in LA but also in the heart of the city. I was probably influenced by all of the music.”

She’s been described elsewhere as having a Twin Peaks vibe, and in our interview admits she’d happily play a gig to the demons of the Black Lodge, but maybe not the sleazier venues that populate David Lynch’s famously dark and surreal tv show. While there’s definitely that uncanny sense of rural mysticism at work in her music, it’s important to recall the big screen, LA influence when grasping the cinematic scope of her album—its interest in narrative, in rendering personal experience against the backdrop of more expansive landscapes. You can hear the night-planes taking off on ‘Smoke Signals’, the cultural paranoia mingled with personal desire on ‘Killer’, the doomed love affair of ‘Chelsea’ (surely a reference to Leonard Cohen’s notorious heartbreaker, ’Chelsea Hotel No. 2’) set against talk of millennial lassitude, of absent revolutions and lost causes. There’s a noctambulous quality to the album, a soporific sense of sinking into the dark molasses of emotional abyss, where everything is glassy-eyed, coloured by the palest fissures of new dawn light. There’s that balance of hope and despair, sadness and spirit. ‘Motion Sickness’ explores therapy and falling “on hard times”, but builds from its bridge into a moment of release, admitting that sometimes all you can do is “try to stay clean” and resist fully surrendering to the sound of your own inner sickness. On the brink of collapse, there’s a rollicking, country-esque sense of endurance. You pick up a guitar, you hit the road. Ryan Adams has compared her to Bob Dylan and maybe it’s here the similarities strike, this ability to “keep on keeping on”, to make best of the sadness.

I ask Bridgers about death and its significance to music, whether writing songs is a process of emotional catharsis or a tool for memorialisation. She agrees with both, saying, “I think if anything it’s just weird listening to songs, remembering the place and time they were written or recorded. It’s a weird little monument to whatever you want it to be. There are definitely songs that memorialise people more than others, which are more ethereal and nostalgic rather than a specific thing.” This ethereal quality is the atmosphere that surrounds Bridgers’ wistful lyrics, an atmosphere that is nevertheless warmly haloed by the glow of human connection. In a desolate landscape, the twenty-first century’s post-internet, information-overload blues, it’s the moments of genuine empathy that matter. Crying to Elliott Smith in a car with your best pal, talking to bereaved family members, encountering past lovers and friends. Like many of her folk contemporaries, Kevin Morby being one, Bridgers shies away from technology in her songs—other than a wistful reference to a sent “dirty picture” on ‘Demi Moore’. This version of sleepless text communication, a concatenation of snap-shots, can never quite cure loneliness or satisfy desire. On ‘Would You Rather’, there’s a return to the primitive, as Oberst duets with the line “I’m a can on a string, you’re on the end”; the childhood game of talking through makeshift telephones offers a “way out” of this “suicide pact” of solitude. In that imaginary crackle, a voice breaks through and even though it’s all a clumsy game, there’s something purer, endearing, more true.

It’s not easy to reach out of the solipsistic bubble. In our interview, Bridgers talked about how when collaborating she’d always have to qualify her ideas with a hundred apologies before offering them to other musicians or producers. “But then,” she says, “I started realising if I do feel confident about something and someone’s like oh yeah you’re right, maybe you should move on and not do that, then I’m like wait, what?” There’s no way of fully protecting yourself from the arduous and sensitive process of baring your soul through shared ideas, but coming to terms with that involves letting go of the constant self-deprecation: “I feel like I’ve been getting a lot better at that. Actually, Julien Baker and I talked about doing that: I sent her my album with a ton of apologies and she sent me demos for her record with a ton of apologies and we were like why are we doing this? We really like each other’s music so what the fuck!”

Perhaps it’s a millennial struggle, the need to cloak your emotions and ideas in irony and performative self-deprecation to avoid appearing vulnerable. Bridgers’ personality online and in real life is lively, upbeat and sparkles with wisecracks and comedy. I asked if the craziness of the times, this constant onslaught of information we’re subjected to, was why we need that mental balance of humour and sadness. She agreed that we have “this weird culture of being insanely self-deprecating. Everyone’s pretty open about mental health. You see memes about stuff like when you’re having an anxiety attack but you want everybody to think you’re normal. It’s in popular culture. Like I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it but I think probably it’s positive in the end as long as it’s not romanticised, as long as people are validating it in a good way. I think the only problem with that is that my generation has a really hard time being genuine and not apologising for itself. Me and one of my best friends, who’s in a band called Sloppy Jane, it’s like we can’t touch each other – every time we’re feeling emotions we have to qualify it, like I know this is weird but… But I think humour is absolutely a coping mechanism.”

When performing, Bridgers’ mesmerising delivery evokes genuine emotion; there’s a sense that music is one of the few places where we’re allowed to experience pure connection, a direct conveyance of human feeling outside the irony games of internet culture. She brings up fellow LA-mythologiser Father John Misty as an example of someone totally “emo but also self-deprecating”, and Josh Tillman’s self-fashioned New Age millennial preacher seems an important reference point. The earnest tenderness of Misty’s vocal delivery is often wrapped up in irony and humour, and the oscillation between these affective poles is what so accurately captures a generation’s soured reality but residue hope. When asked about touring with Conor Oberst, Bridgers was quick to point out his humour: “it was fun because they let me ride on the bus so it was like only me and his entire squad. He talked in a fake British accent the entire time we were in London and then when we went to Edinburgh he was like looking up different bands that were there and made really ridiculous anthems for every place that we went with very specific things, very goofy but amazing.” I first encountered Phoebe Bridgers supporting Oberst on his Edinburgh date back in February and not only did she charm the crowd with her solo material, but later returned to the stage alongside Oberst to perform a breathtaking duet of Bright Eyes classic ‘Lua’. It makes sense that what channels that electric chemistry is emotional intensity at both extremes: the goofball, time-killing tour humour alongside a mutual sensitivity; this self-aware, melancholic disposition that comes out onstage as its own unique and devastating art-form. Although used to solo shows alongside her “best friend Harrison” and his “ethereal guitar”, Bridgers plans to play some full band shows when touring the new album. The collective dynamic may well expose even clearer that synthesis of humour and sadness, collaboration and unique personality.

Perhaps this is the direction for the American lyric in the twenty-first century: the return to an earlier folk project of sincerity, the endless quest for human connection and hope; a return nonetheless swaddled in the translucent blanket of millennial irony, the circulating spirals of meme-culture which recontextualise not to the point of meaninglessness but instead offer proliferating ways of engaging with previously unacceptable or denigrated feelings. It’s okay to be sad, it’s okay to be honest. Stranger in the Alps effortlessly bridges those different hues of genre and emotion. While lacking that explicit sense of Father John Misty’s often salacious or wicked humour, the album’s title gives the game away—the meaning, as Bridgers puts it, is right there when you google it: “it’s the goofiest ever album title […] the dumbest, nerdiest possible.” It’s not emotional censorship exactly, more a lighthearted invitation to an otherwise dark and serious structure of feeling; a sense of giving listeners permission to join the party, share the joke, enjoy things on the same level. When the feelings cut too deep, you’ve got to find that comic placeholder to frame them, and maybe that’s okay too.

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‘Stranger in the Alps’ will be released on September 22nd, via Dead Oceans

Phoebe Bridgers supports Conor Oberst this fall. Check out the dates here:

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