“An album of such intimate experience, Phoebe Bridgers’ Stranger in the Alps is in equal parts characterised by deathly contemplation, foreboding metaphor and trembling affection.”
It’s the Saturday before Halloween and a bright autumnal day in East London. I walk through the Gothic Revival Church of St. John at Hackney on my way to interview Phoebe Bridgers. The season and setting feels apt for an artist whose debut album is so vividly rich in dark lyricism and themes of death.
Given the bold melancholy of the album, and partially down to a Halloween party hangover, I half-expect a somewhat solemn and complex interview. But chatting over a vanilla tea, Phoebe is infectiously easy-going and engaging from the start.
“This period is the first time in my life I’ve had a room full of people who’ve paid money to see me and my songs specifically” she says, brimming with appreciation. “That is the coolest thing. I’m still pinching myself”.
An album of such intimate experience, Stranger in the Alps is in equal parts characterised by deathly contemplation, foreboding metaphor and trembling affection. I ask her what the album meant to her at the time of writing it, and what it means to her now. “Writing is therapy for me” she replies, “a lot of stuff comes to the surface when I write. Stuff I didn’t even realise I’ve felt. But it’s a really retrospective feeling now. People are connecting with something I felt over a year ago.”
Acting as a window into her relationships, thought processes and anxieties at specific periods in her life, the record is sometimes powerfully jarring in its honest admissions. To solely label her songs ‘dark’ can be to overlook the entwinement with expressions of deep affection, but it’s true that she isn’t afraid to let her lyrical subject matter slip into the ominous.
“I think there needs to be a more open dialogue about mental health. As soon as you talk openly about dark feelings, they don’t have as much power.”
Perhaps the most notable examples are the references to murderers and serial killers in “Chelsea” and “Killer”. In the latter of which, Phoebe draws parallels between an emotional attachment to a previous partner and Jeffrey Dahmer’s desire to have complete control over his victims. I’m somewhat reluctant to ask her about this given how well covered it’s been in other interviews. But I’m relieved to find that her interest in the topic hasn’t totally faded.
“There are a lot of serial killers who are just idiots” she says bluntly, “but what was so disturbing to me about Dahmer is that he was so open about what happened inside his brain – how he felt simultaneously in control and out of control. That made me question everything. I just thought, ‘if someone can talk about that so openly, where can the human brain go? Where can my brain go?’”
“At the time I was feeling really out of control in my relationship. I was going out with this beautiful person who could leave me at any minute, hook up with my friends, whatever. Dahmer talked about his desire to turn people into fucking zombies. Even if he was in a consensual relationship, he didn’t like that they had free will. That blew my fucking mind because I found myself relating to this feeling of needing to control someone. It made me want to throw up because I obviously connected it to Dahmer”.
Borne of a YouTube wormhole session, Phoebe convinced herself that her serial killer obsession was worse than it was. Eventually snowballing into a chasm of dark thoughts, it was the transference of these thoughts into song that helped her regain control. “I think there needs to be a more open dialogue about mental health” she says, “as soon as you talk openly about dark feelings, they don’t have as much power. That’s why it’s so comforting to get them out there”.
Playing to a packed Oslo later today, her performance is one of the most compelling I’ve seen all year. Transfixing a crowd of inebriated festival goers with songs of imposing fragility and maturity, I have to remind myself that Phoebe is still only twenty-three.
Already finding herself in many of the end of year album lists, and continually receiving praise from some of her heroes, I wonder if she feels able to fully appreciate her achievements. “It’s really hard in music not to compare yourself to other artists” she responds. “Sid Vicious never got to be my age. James Dean died at my age. Everything The Beatles did was over five years. Then being friends with amazing artists like Julien Baker, it’s really hard not to compare yourself to them.”
Navigating your early-mid-twenties can be daunting. For many including myself, it’s a period of whirlwind change wherein everything suddenly seems to speed up. With us being just a year apart in age, I ask her if her experience is similar to my own. “Dude… Yes” she says, suddenly inflamed with consternation, “when I was twenty I dated a twenty-seven-year-old dude and I would always give him shit for being so old. I did that because he hated it, but now I’m like ‘oh my god, I’m nearly there myself’”. Would she go as far as to refer to this period as a mid-midlife crisis? She laughs, before her expression switches to serious, “that is exactly what it is”.
For an artist who draws such rich inspiration from the darker corners of life, the current global social climate is a pretty strong-but-grim canvas from which to paint from. “What tortures me most is the apocalyptic vibe permeating everything at the moment”, she laughs, almost in disbelief. “That’s probably what influences my music most right now. What’s the fucking point? Nuclear war, global warming, our president is insane…”
With the impending apocalypse as a great starting point, I ask where else she’s finding inspiration for new material. “I’m actually trying to write a song at the moment that captures the weird abstract nature of dreams. You know what I mean? Like how in a dream I’d be talking to you, but then all of a sudden it’s not you anymore and you’re a blob of space or something. Then when you try to explain it to someone it’s sort of impossible and they’re like, ‘what are you talking about?’.”
“Sometimes I’ll have dreams that are unreal cool. I’ll spend my night flying… or even better, I’ll go to Hogwarts or something.”
We discuss with equal enthusiasm the strange quirks of dreams, including how they often seem to quickly fade from memory. I go on to describe a recent work anxiety nightmare I had. I tell her how it felt real for a while after waking up. “That has one thousand percent happened to me before” she says, bursting into life across the table. “I’ve dreamt before that someone broke up with me and thought, ‘oh man…my relationship is over’ – there is no better feeling than realising it isn’t real!”
But, as she tells me herself, it can work both ways. “Sometimes I’ll have dreams that are unreal cool. I’ll spend my night flying… or even better, I’ll go to Hogwarts or something. But then I’ll wake up, come to terms with reality and think ‘FUCK’. I honestly haven’t let go of the Hogwarts dream”. She’s not kidding. A quick look on her socials and you’ll see all sorts of Harry Potter references and memes. She even excitedly informs me she’s planning to go to the Harry Potter exhibition at the British Library tomorrow. At the point of writing this interview up, I really regret not asking her what house she thinks the Sorting Hat would place her in. Too nice for Slytherin? Too emo for Gryffindor?
Phoebe writes sad songs very well, but today in person she couldn’t come across any less solemn. We finish by talking about the fun she had making the “Motion Sickness” video. Requesting a scooter from her label is surely one of the most rock and roll demands of 2017. “I just wanted to ride a scooter” she admits, “I also wanted to wear a super androgynous, unsexy suit. I wanted it to be like, ‘this is a sad person dressing up for karaoke’.”
But is it possible to be sad whilst riding a scooter? “No” she says, responding instantly, “it’s really not. I kept the scooter and I often ride that scooter around my neighbourhood. I recently rode one owned by a doctor who knows my manager. It was really sleek with handbrakes instead of footbrakes. It made me want to invest in a better scooter. I love it. I want to take one on tour.”
The “Motion Sickness” video ends with a depressing karaoke scene. I had to ask what her go-to song would be. “Recently I’ve been singing Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’, she smiles, “I was playing the same night as Conor Oberst in New York, so we joined forced and went to karaoke. He emotionally told me it’s his favourite Cyndi Lauper song, so I sprung it on him.”
You would assume being a talent singer and touring musician helps with karaoke, but she tells me otherwise. “I saw a video of my Cyndi Lauper performance that made me want to vomit. It felt like I was nailing it, but I was so fucking flat the whole time. I also did ‘I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing’. That got filmed too.”
Once Phoebe finishes her show today, she’ll have a few days off before returning to the US for another tour. I ask her what’s next. “I’m definitely working on Record Two early” she replies, “I’m seeing a shape form in that my voice memos are getting bigger. I have an iCloud folder called ‘The Greatest Hits’ for all of them, but I don’t know when I’m going to record them or when it’ll come out.”
Later that evening, as I leave the festival, I overhear a few separate groups of people talking about Phoebe’s set. Every few days, whether it be Grimes, Ryan Adams or Hayley Williams, she seems to receive praise from a new supremely talented artist. Things are undoubtedly and deservedly moving fast for her. But despite all of that, Phoebe Bridgers remains the same scooting, Harry Potter loving, serial killer obsessive who’s rubbish at karaoke.
Phoebe Bridgers will return for a UK headline tour in May 2018.
You can (and should) listen to Phoebe Bridgers’ debut album Stranger in the Alps on any decent streaming service.
You can (and should) buy it from any good record store.