Don’t let the somber tone of her music fool you: the Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers has a sunny disposition. “I’d hate for someone to think I’m sipping an espresso somewhere judging people or feeling sorry for myself. OK, I definitely do that once in a while, but I don’t consider myself an intense person.”
Bridgers grew up in the rose-colored city of Pasadena, attending the prestigious Los Angeles County High School for the Arts to study music. From an early age, she found encouragement from a close-knit artistic community of friends and family to follow her dreams, and at school she forged relationships that would teach her as much about her craft as her classes. “I think most of my musical education had to do with being around a ton of teenagers who listened to music all the time,” she says. “At school I had classical training for my voice, but I think being surrounded by people who were really enthusiastic about art and going to concerts all the time was the real education.”
“I met Carla Azar of Autolux – and she showed me Elliott Smith for the first time, which was my first personal connection to music that one of my parents hadn’t showed me,” she says. “It seemed so different from anything I’d listened to before. It is so personal, so intense.” Bridgers’ work would be heavily influenced by Smith’s sparse lyrics and subdued emotional style, in addition to that of her other favored singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, and Leonard Cohen.
“Los Angeles is interwoven into my music inherently,” she says. “I don’t necessarily try to reference it, but because I’m pulling from experience it just appears. A lot of shit goes down wherever you may grow up.” After graduating from high school, Bridgers spent a year gigging around the city, playing as often as she could, making mistakes and learning while on her feet. “I’ve always been very appreciative of the LA thing,” she says.
But of course the truth is that the unique ingredient at play, the calling card that has drawn all this interest and intrigue, is simply Bridgers’ music itself. Her powerful, lilting voice and her haunting, introspective songs light the torch that shows the way, and are what have inspired artists like Ryan Adams to produce her 2015 single, or Julien Baker to bring her on tour in 2016, as well as John Doe and Conor Oberst to sing with her on her debut album. There is a delicate balance to her work, a dance between veiled narratives and earnest emotions, between whispers and shouts. And according to Bridgers, everything you hear has arrived by feeling; her music is what comes when she is at her most honest, without specific intention, and she aims to be in her songs the person she is in the world.
Stranger in the Alps (2017) opens with the one-two punch of “Smoke Signals” and “Motion Sickness,” a pair of songs that highlight Bridgers’ abilities. The former, a gorgeous, ethereal tune guided by sparse electric guitar and sweeping strings, toes the line between weary and wistful, using specific anecdotes from its singer to tell its tale. The style highlights the strengths of Bridgers’ unique lyric writing perspective: there are overt references to lost idols, canonical pop songs and actual incidents, but her stories unfold through precise, evocative imagery sung in her subtle, confessional style. The latter is perhaps the most upbeat moment on the album and was written on her baritone guitar and discusses a problematic relationship from her past. “I feel like I’m getting more focused when I write,” she says. “My songs are super personal.”