Photo by Frank Ockenfels
Phoebe Bridgers Talks 'Punisher,' Japanese Snacks & Introducing Conor Oberst To Memes
The day before the scheduled release of her sophomore album Punisher, Phoebe Bridgers let the cat out the bag. "I’m not pushing the record until things go back to ‘normal’ because I don’t think they should," she tweeted, along with an album link. "Here it is a little early. Abolish the police. Hope you like it."
The move, while unorthodox by most promotional standards, was a no-brainer for Bridgers. Open about her beliefs, both on social media and in interviews, the musician has already been a strong supporter of Black Lives Matter and The Bail Project, which in early June she helped fundraise for with a hushed version of Bright Eyes' classic "First Day of My Life."
Of course, resiliency and improvisation isn’t a completely unheard of attribute in the mist of the 2020 quagmire. When we spoke in early May, Bridgers is calling from on top of a treadmill in the middle of her house. For the singer/songwriter, the exercise equipment represents the adjustment we’ve all been forced into, and a way to get some exercise now that walking in her Los Angeles Echo Park neighborhood has become too complicated. (Only walking—she confirms, citing "shitty knees.") The sense of movement helps her think, particularly after calling her summer tour off after only one rehearsal with her band.
This pause, both figurative and literal, has been the first Bridgers has had, almost since her 2017 debut, Stranger in the Alps. As if supporting one critically acclaimed album wasn’t enough (see the year-end lists and string of film placements that made singles like "Motion Sickness" shorthand for complicated sadness), in 2018 she hit the road with boygenius, a meeting of minds featuring her, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus. In 2019, she repeated the collaborative trick again hitting the road as Better Oblivion Community Center, a project she shares with Conor Oberst. Fans have been catching on to Bridgers’ ability for narrative storytelling—and not just the social media manager at Men's Health, who seems to be an omnipresent visitor during her live streams. ("I feel like they’re doing something right over there," she cracks of her unnamed admirer.)
Of course, it hasn’t been all stillness. Even recently during lockdown, Bridgers has been making the rounds, including a recent appearance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!," where she gave a pajama-clad, Omnichord-led performance of her single "Kyoto." (An aesthetic, she explains, that was inspired by both acoustics and a similar performance from The Killers.) She also recorded a video for "Kyoto" on green screen—channeling the aesthetics of Japanese Monster films, after a trip back to the country was scrapped. Creativity is still happening—even if she has no clue when fans will get to experience it live.
Ahead of the release of Punisher, Bridgers spoke with GRAMMY.com about Japanese snack food, learning to be grateful and nostalgia for life on the road.
So aside from the treadmill, what has been the most unique purchase you've made during lockdown?
I bought a bunch of cheese cloth so that I could make almond milk at home. I'm not very crafty or homey. So, that was a big purchase. For me, even though super cheap, but like out of the box, I bought a pajama onesie with a skeleton on it, but the crotch has ripped out of it already because it’s really cheap.
Is it true that you were Conor Oberst's gateway to memes?
Yeah! I still think he's pretty outside of the gate. Sometimes they'll genuinely make him laugh, but mostly he's just like, "What the f**k is that?"
You're doing a service to humanity one meme at a time.
Exactly. I'm solving all our conflict that's reported on. Totally taking it upon myself.
Given that you were casually into other bands last year, when did Punisher start coming together?
It started coming together before even my first record was out. I kind of take forever to write music, so I started writing it and then started recording it like, right after I recorded both my other bands. "Garden Song" was one of the first ones. "I See You Too." I remember playing that for everybody on the boygenius tour the recording. So, we were working on it for a really long time and then and then finished it up.
Are you the are you the kind of writer that’s constantly writing?
No, I go through weird phases. Mostly I'm procrastinating.
Hence your amazing Twitter presence. I get it now.
Hey, yeah! You're hearing the only 10 songs I really have. I guess I have like one extra song that I finished after the album was already recorded. I tend to write what is needed for me and I don't really like edit, or use elimination. I just record what I have.
Has the fair amount of collaborating you've done in the last year change how you work with other artists on your solo albums?
I really learned how to collaborate with first record, and then just every project I've done since it's like involves more and more people. Just because my friend group and the people I can like, call upon has become very big. I've always wanted his work like that. But this is the first time I've had the opportunity to.
Are there any names you wish you could add to that creative Rolodex?
It's so funny because like, honestly, not really. I think I will discover more people that become collaborators of mine, but for right now, my group is so solid, and it works.
Punisher seems like a very evocative title.
Well, I was gonna do like a self-titled album, which I might do to the next one. But then I wrote a song called "Punisher" and I was like, that's actually a sicker album title. A Punisher is someone who doesn't know when to stop talking. So, I think of like, older relatives who are talking about, like their hip replacement or something. They just don't know when you're disinterested. And I think we've all been that, like, to our heroes. So, in this context, I'm like punishing someone. You know, like, you get cornered at the bar by the friend that the person you were hitting on. That's a punisher.
I wish you could see the spit take I just did.
Yeah, I think it's a little too relatable for everybody.
I feel like at some point everyone has been a punisher--and everyone who's been to Japan claims Kyoto as their favorite place. What's your relationship to the city?
It was like my favorite place I've ever been. Still is. I just had such a good time when I was there and wanted to go back. Yeah, I just made like a really big impression on me.
How do you handle that sense of displacement when you're discovering these amazing things so far from home?
Right now, I would kill to be on tour. But when I'm on tour, I save cute Pinterest home ideas. And I like look on Google maps [of] hikes by my house. I think it's pretty common, like wanting to be where you're not, but it's especially prevalent and weird when you're, like, living out something you've always wanted to and you're thinking about the next thing.
Yeah, I think anyone who lives in fast motion like that can identify with that as well. When those moments strike, and you realize that your brain is somewhere else like you described in the song "Kyoto," how do you bring yourself back?
It's hard. I'm still working on it every day. I'm trying to write like three things I'm grateful for every day now. I think it's pretty common and Pinterest-y again. But it seems to be working because at first you really have to wrack your brain and then after a while, it just gets easy and they become like tiny little details. But I've been talking to a couple friends it's like, when we forget about all the fear of being alive right now, it's going to be tempting in 10 years to be like, remember that crazy time when we were all just like finding ourselves or whatever? Like, I know there's gonna be like op-eds that are, like, romanticizing right now. And it's easy to think of the past that way. Because it's really hard to romanticize your present. Especially when everything's so uncertain and literally dangerous and life-threatening. But yeah, I just want to romanticize my life a little bit more while I'm living in it instead of in the future or past.
So, what has been on your list for the three things you're grateful for?
I should go look at it. But some days are really bad where it's like, I didn't eat until I got sick. But that is a special skill. I feel like an anxiety mechanism is like, I ate five toaster waffles in a row in the middle of the night a couple nights ago and I felt ill. So, the next day was a victory to not do that. I learned how to not do that. Sometimes I'll turn on a yoga class on my computer and then lay on my yoga mat and stare at the ceiling. And since I've been writing stuff down, I realized that when I finish the class I will write it down. Or like if I make something, or if I get enough sleep, or just like, you know, made a really good pot of coffee today, and it kind of sets the whole day instead of reheating yesterday's coffee.
I like that you're giving yourself credit for the little victories we're all having right now.
That's all there is.
Since it played a role in the song "Kyoto," what is the best thing about Japanese convenience stores?
Snacks. Just like, the triangle rice onigiri at convenience stores are so good, which is funny because I think they're for kids. Oh my god.
If you had to place yourself in the chaotic good chaotic evil sort of square, where would you rank?
I'm like all over the place. Sometimes chaotic good. And sometimes I'm neutral evil. I'm all at different times in my life.
What are you looking forward to most once we get back to the era of live music?
I'm finding myself looking forward to the weirdest smallest things, like being at a truck stop in the middle of the night. Going to diners after shows. Looking out the window if the bus in Montana. Seeing other bands. I'm remembering all the extra stuff, but mostly I'm just looking forward to playing these songs. We had one rehearsal before shit the fan with the band and it sounded so good. And I was kind of scared that it wasn't gonna translate. But it did immediately and it was so fun to play the songs. I can't wait.