PHOEBE BRIDGERS’ debut record felt as though it had been a long time coming when it was released in September of last year. Adding layers of melancholy to the classic American songbook, Bridgers updates traditional subjects like heartache and sadness with lyrics that explore depression and modern relationships with astute insight. Buoyed by the support of musicians Ryan Adams and Conor Oberst, who Bridgers has recorded and toured with respectively, Stranger In The Alps was probably one of the most anticipated debuts of last year, but it’s a record that’s deserving of its many accolades in its own right.
A timelessness permeates the record – though Bridgers references 21st Century phenomena (sexting on Demi Moore; hypnotherapy on Motion Sickness), on the whole, the album achieves an agelessness that few artists are capable of realising in the genres of folk and Americana. This timelessness – along with her ability to write a great indie rock heartbreak anthem (case in point, lead single Motion Sickness) gives you the impression that Bridgers – despite the hype surrounding Stranger In The Alps’ release – is going to be around for the long haul. And this can only be a good thing. Catching up with her midway through her first headline tour (which she jokingly named her Farewell tour), Jonny Winship calls her at the Larimer Lounge in Denver, Colorado to chat about Stranger In The Alps, working with her musical heroes and the commodification of mental health.
Are you surprised by the reception your record has had?
Yeh I’m surprised by it, because I don’t think you ever let yourself expect shit, but I couldn’t have hoped for a better response. And I’ve gotten to meet all my favourite musicians.
What’s it been like working with those musicians, people like Conor Oberst and Ryan Adams?
It’s really cool, it’s super surreal. Or it was at first I think, now I know both those people so well that I consider them my friends, and now I have to check myself like, like ‘Holy shit!’ Especially someone like Conor Oberst whose entire catalogue I’ve memorised. Also, the first time I heard myself on in a coffee shop, I was with Conor but I felt like I had to play it really cool, cos he’s probably the king of having his music played in coffee shops, and I was secretly texting my mom under the table.
Have you learnt anything specific from them?
Yeh – from Ryan, when we were recording, I was always planning on making a full-length record, but I didn’t have anything out. I wanted to save my best songs for the [album], and I didn’t want to make a 7-inch where you’re gonna make 500 copies with the songs that are gonna be on the full-length anyway. And he was like “Fuck that! record your three best songs”. I was kinda stressed by it, and he was totally right – you should never put something out that you’re not 100% confident in, you should never be saving your good songs for something else, and I’m really glad I listened to him. From Conor, one of my favourite things that he does is with songs that he’s a little bit bored of, he changes the words accidentally; he’s such a good writer and it’s always super interesting to hear what he does.
When you supported Bon Iver, was that your first time in the UK? And is there anything in particular you like about being over here?
I’ve been a couple of times now, that was one of my favourite trips though. It was a super surreal experience, cos Justin has been my favourite for ever, and he sat in with me on the songs. My first time was with Conor, on his Ruminations tour. I love the UK. This is such a funny one but I love Pret [A Manger]! Also, I love that the crowds are really, really rowdy, but it’s all positive. It’s so much better than the US with rowdy crowds, like if someone gets pissed the whole audience feels like they’re gonna turn on you or something, it’s darker. In the UK it’s more like ‘RIGHTOOOOO’, and you’re like, ‘Why would you yell that?’ It’s a happy aggression, it’s so funny.
A lot of your songs have an emotional depth to them, is that hard to carry around on tour at times?
You know it feels really cool to play to a room full of people, now that the record is out. It was hard earlier when the record wasn’t out, and I was playing support, I felt like I was dragging people down with my vibes. But now I feel people come to hear the record and it’s like there is little community of people who know it and want to hear it, which is really comforting.
Do you find touring the record cathartic, or therapeutic?
Absolutely, there is a lot about touring that is the opposite of therapy, but the record, writing in general, playing in shows, is very, very cathartic.
I’ve seen you talk about depression quite a lot, is being open about mental health something you’re passionate about?
Yeh, I think the most depressed I’ve ever been in my life is when I was a teenager, which I think is common, but there was nothing cooler than resonating with artists that I loved, and revelling in sad songs, just to be understood or have someone put what you’re thinking into words. Music was the most important thing to me, and it still is. I love seeing young girls come up to me, who remind me of me, who are just getting into that world, it’s really cool.
Are you worried about the commodification of depression, not just with you and music, but in general in the next few years, as it becomes more of a hot topic?
As long as people talk about their personal experience or if people are trying to bring humour into it, for themselves, that’s great. But I hate sad girl culture, like ‘sad’ tattoos, or Forever 21 shit, that says ‘sad girls’, or the amount of people that say ‘I’m going to fucking kill myself,’ which, I’m guilty of. People have been monetising it. And with things like ‘emo night’, do you guys have that over there? It’s kind of amazing, but it attracts a lot of bullshit too, it’s like a club night for emo music or pop punk. But yeh, I think it’s cool when people feel like there’s a whole world where they can talk about their mental illness or their depression, that’s great, but it does feel icky when people start monetising it, and try it sell it back to you.
I wanted to ask you about the cover art, is there anything behind that?
There literally is something behind it, and it’s me as a kid, and then this artist that I love Angela Deane, she painted over it. [It’s at] my grandparents’ house, it’s a big ranch in northern California, I spent a lot of time there as a kid, my grandpa now grows pot there, I think he would kill me if he knew I said that in an interview, but he’s impossible to trace, he’s fine. And that’s my dog Bud on the front.
What’s been the coolest thing over the past year, is there anything that stands out?
The Bon Iver shows were a big one, that I talk about all the time. One of the biggest ones for me is being able to bring my favourite bands on tour. Soccer Mommy were with me, in the US. It’s amazing to invite them out and I get to see them play every night. I just like having the power to bring my favourite music with me and feel like I’m contributing to showing them to people.
You were high on a lot of people’s record of the year list for 2017, what’s been your favourite album of the past year?
I had a couple, I loved the Big Thief record Capacity, and Julien Baker’s record, and I have to say Salutations, Conor’s record. I saw it 11 nights in a row, it’s a beautiful album.
Stranger In The Alps in out now via Dead Oceans.