Culture / Music

“If anything I wish people knew less”: Phoebe Bridgers on boygenius, sad girl music and staying off her phone

phoebe bridgers

Phoebe Bridgers is dialling in from Los Angeles. As we talk, the musician cuts a lap of her neighbourhood. "I love walking," she tells me. Along with seeing her friends and "not hanging out with anybody I don't like" it's a way for Bridgers to clear her head and fill her cup.

I'm the sixth journalist she's spoken to this morning and it's only 9am. I know this because, and the irony is not lost on me, apparently we've all asked her the same question: do you ever get sick of the 'sad girl music' label?

"It's definitely exhausting," she laughs.

If you've listened to Bridgers' music, you'll know what I'm talking about. At its best it's a fun in-joke; at its worst, a lazy meme that threatens to swallow the music entirely. Tracks like Motion Sickness and Moon Song appear alongside songs from Fiona Apple and Laura Marling on Spotify playlists titled something like "sad girl starter pack". At concerts Bridgers will meet fans who say things like "my depression medication isn't kicking in today so I'm at your show".

Bridgers even got in on the joke herself in 2020 when she launched her record label Saddest Factory. Still, the musician shares that she hopes to explore storytelling that goes beyond heartbreak and melancholia for her next project.

We often see this demand for women to mine their own trauma for art, as if pain is the only valuable thing they can offer. And if they divert from this, their work is seen as autobiographical anyway. I wonder if she feels this pressure. "If anything no, I feel challenged to not do that."

"I used to think about it like that. I used to have something fucked up happen and be like 'it's cool to get a song out of it'. I think there's this misconception that being dark is smart and being happy is stupid. So my next challenge is to write about a more complex human than 'this bad thing happened to me'. Especially because it's perpetuating this myth about pain and women or whatever."

What that next project looks like is anyone's guess. I prod to see what Bridgers might be thinking about. "God knows. I'm sure I'll do something that I care deeply about and it will reduced to some quip or generalised internet term. But I don't care, I'm proud of what I make," she says. "At the end of the day I don't really care what people call it, as long as they find it."

RUSSH has caught Bridgers at a unique time. Out of the blue, she announced her second album with boygenius, a project comprising fellow artists and pals Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker and herself. And she recently added a handful of collaborations to her résumé, including Ghost in the Machine with SZA and two new songs for First Two Pages of Frankenstein, the latest album from The National.

"Getting to make stuff with my best friends... it's fucking awesome. But my solo music is very communal as well. I show everybody in my sphere my songs as I'm working on them. It might seem like I'm a private person and I definitely am to a certain degree, but I love community so boygenius is perfect for me."

I ask her if she's always working, her output certainly seems to paint that image. "Maybe a little bit. But how do you say no to stuff like that, you know? What the hell would I be doing this for if I wasn't saying yes to that stuff. I feel very lucky to be busy with shit that I like that much."

Besides performing at St. Jerome's Laneway Festival, Bridgers doesn't have many plans for her trip to Australia except hopefully some down time. "I think I need it," she says. It's easy to imagine why. We don't talk about the death of her father, Tony, earlier in January at age 60. The two had a complicated relationship that Bridgers touches on in her song Kyoto and it was only during the pandemic that they got back on speaking terms. Nor do we get into the intense public speculation around her romantic life, which in itself must become tiresome. Like a lot of women in the public eye, every detail of her life is dissected and debated. "If anything I wish people knew less" Bridgers says.

Besides, Phoebe Bridgers has just wrapped up her global Punisher tour after 93 shows. Safe to say a little rest is long overdue.

"I actually haven't thought about this trip too hard which will make it uniquely fun to just show up and have a good time," she says. "Especially because it's such a beautiful place. I plan to be hiking and eating mostly." As for Laneway, the musician is excited to see Haim, 100 Gecs and "just hang out with everybody".

While she won't be donning the skeleton outfit that's become a staple of her Punisher tour at the festival, Phoebe Bridgers has other pre-performance rituals. "I really like putting on makeup. I used to not wear makeup on stage; I never wore makeup in my life. For one, I just think it looks cool but two, it provides a second where you're not just staring at your phone. When I'm really anxious I can look at my phone until I walk out on stage and then you feel immediately thrust into your life when you get out there. So I'm trying to not look at my phone so much. That's the advice I have for myself this year."

Like her bandmates, Dacus and Baker, Bridgers is also a habitual reader. When we speak, Bridgers is part way through Liberation Day by George Saunders ("what a treat"). Together all three women have assembled their own informal book club. "I made them go into a bookstore the other day and just get me stuff," she says. Lucy bought her Geek Love by Katherine Dunn and she recalls finishing The Sympathiser by Viet Thanh Nguyen per Dacus' suggestion in 2021 and loving it. Another title she enjoyed was Michelle Zauner's memoir Crying in H Mart. The Japanese Breakfast frontwoman comes up again when we hit the topic of personal style. "I love black for myself. But as far as people go, I think Michelle Zauner dresses so cool."

Like the rest of our generation, Phoebe Bridgers is chronically online and while she may not always be posting on Twitter or TikTok, she's definitely lurking. Given her platform, proximity to fame and the noise that surrounds her, I want to know how she stops herself from becoming jaded or cynical. "There's just so much good. People are – well people aren't good, of course not. But I think there are a lot of good people."

"I think I'm not jaded just because I see what money and resources do for causes," she explains. "I actually see it move the cause along when you put money in the hands of people who know what to do with it," referring to the Goo Goo Dolls cover she did with Maggie Rogers to raise money for abortion care organisation, The Brigid Alliance. "So it's hard to be jaded when I see a small thing like putting out a charity song work."

After a colossal few years, what does Phoebe Bridgers hope lay in store for her in 2023? "I hope it brings me some community and also some hermit time. I need both."

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