“There’s something so cathartic
about extreme emotion”
Phoebe Bridgers on being sad, goofball humour, the influence of LA, contemporary emo and the release of her debut album, Stranger in the Alps.
words and interview by maria sledmere
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.”
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.