Phoebe Bridgers is spinning me around her bedroom with her phone camera. Last year, the 27-year-old songwriter swapped her studio apartment for a bigger place, still in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighbourhood. “I’m still a poster-y person instead of a mounting-art person, so it kind of looks like a teenager’s house,” she says, pointing at a gothic floral print tacked to the wall. There’s Tom Waits; her beloved Elliott Smith. Her duvet is illustrated with cute rockets. It’s hard to find that sort of thing for double sheets, I say enviously. “It’s single,” she laughs, with a deadpan, dude-ish joy that’s nothing like her singing voice. “The bedroom situation definitely needs to be grownup, too.”
Just as Bridgers’ home teeters on the brink of adulthood, she is a cult star at the threshold of enormous fame, a reality she is only just encountering now that Covid restrictions have lifted and she is coming eye to eye with a fanbase that ballooned during the pandemic. In June 2020, Bridgers released her second album, Punisher, which minted her signature sound: a sort of lunar, spooky folk. Her lyrics mixed the humdrum (24-hour pharmacies) with the surreal (possible UFOs that turned out to be Elon Musk test flights), as she searched for salvation but mostly came back with wry takes on the void. Even a looming sense of apocalypse couldn’t quiet her comparatively insignificant problems. It couldn’t have chimed more thoroughly with Covid-era perspective.
It’s strange, Bridgers says, settling back into bed for the first of our two conversations. She is just back from yoga, swigging an iced coffee and wearing a T-shirt from a psychics’ convention. “I think about it as if I wrote it in quarantine, which is super weird because I was off tour, left with the weight of my life, and in my house by myself. It was anxiety keeping me inside, instead of a pandemic.”
Some of her favourite feedback on Punisher came from a guy who told her he had no idea how it was helping anyone through lockdown; it was making him “fucking miserable”, she repeats with delight. For Taylor Swift, at any rate, it was Bridgers’ originality that lured her in. “I never once thought: this is who she’s referencing and this is who clearly has inspired her – she is the reference now,” Swift tells me. Bridgers’ uniqueness, Swift says, comes in the way she “juxtaposes conflicting themes like humour and depression, romance and nihilism, a tender vocal delivery with a razor-sharp box-cutter lyric. There’s always a twist.”
That said, it is seldom just great songwriting that makes a star. As sad as Bridgers’ skin-prickling songs are, touching on domestic abuse, death and alienation, she is uneasy with her reputation as a patron saint of sadness; she can be also madly funny. Bridgers has nailed a specific strain of very online humour and performs in what looks like a child’s fancy-dress skeleton outfit, although she has upgraded to a custom look for her forthcoming tour, which includes her Glastonbury debut this weekend. “The Halloween costume was getting a little gross,” she admits.
She has become an outspoken voice about abuse in the music industry, and runs her own record label, Saddest Factory (say it in an American accent), in the image of her inclusive values. She is also appealingly self-aware. “In Praise of Phoebe Bridgers, a Thoroughly Good Celebrity” went one 2020 headline, during a period when so many stars seemed to be blowing it. She declined suggestions that she should move Punisher’s release from June 2020 as Black Lives Matter resurged. To do so, she tweeted, implied holding out “until things go back to ‘normal’ … I don’t think they should”.
And amid a pandemic-induced global dry spell, she gave the world a little vicarious thrill when she traded admiring tweets with Paul Mescal, the much-desired star of the adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. He then appeared in one of her music videos, directed by Fleabag writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Soon Mescal and Bridgers were spotted having breakfast in Ireland. Then they made their relationship Instagram-official. His career also blew up in lockdown (recall the obsession with Connell’s necklace). “It’s so nice to have that in common with somebody, because it just makes no sense,” Bridgers says. They’re rumoured to be engaged. “Fuck the fucking tabloids to hell, that’s what I’ll say about that!” she says with another grin.
The story has a nice circularity – Bridgers has written a song for the new TV adaptation of Rooney’s Conversations With Friends. She writes so slowly that usually she wouldn’t have spare songs, or they would be too “hyperspecific” for a soundtrack. “Who wants to hear about a bisexual from California getting stoned in a parking lot before a TV show?” she says. “It doesn’t really work!” But her drummer, Marshall Vore, had started writing a song called Sidelines in 2020. He suggested they finish it. It’s a love song, about how people having faith in you makes life worth living.
Sidelines is about so many stories of love inspiring fearlessness, Bridgers says: she and Vore used to date, and she credits him with showing her the ropes of living and DIY touring when she was 18 and “had been locked up in my apartment, just overwhelmed by adult life”. He wrote it about his current partner, whom Bridgers loves. “It’s fun, renegotiating your relationships with the people in your life and talking about something so genuine,” she says.
It’s also about Mescal, obviously. “Writing about my relationship with only good shit, because that’s all I feel, is hard,” she says with a happy squirm. “But it makes it easy when you’re actually having those feelings.”
A few days before we speak, Bridgers attended her first Met Gala, wearing an intricately beaded dress and flanked by Mescal sporting a superb moustache. Moments before leaving the hotel, she took a deep breath and her gown popped open. “They literally sewed me into it,” she says. “It was terrifying, in a very fun way.” The event itself offered fantastic people-watching (and the couple drew their fair share of eyeballs). “It’s like the weirdest, most elitist prom.”
When Bridgers returned to her hotel to change before the after party, she read the breaking news that the US supreme court had reportedly voted to overturn Roe v Wade, in a move that would end federal constitutional protection of abortion rights. “Which was just so gross and surreal,” Bridgers says. She lets out a disgusted heh. “The atmosphere in the hotel was so dark.”
The next day, she tweeted that she had an abortion on tour in October 2021: “I went to Planned Parenthood where they gave me the abortion pill. It was easy. Everyone deserves that kind of access.” She linked to funds to which people could donate. Her post was retweeted nearly 40,000 times and reported everywhere from the Daily Mail to guitar magazines. It surprised Bridgers, who had hardly given the tweet a second thought beyond checking her spelling. For her, it was an innocuous statement. “I’ve always found comfort in talking to people in passing – when someone’s mom says: ‘I had an abortion when I was a teen.’ It normalised it for me. I was, ‘All right, it’s time to throw my hat into that pool.’” She pauses. “That’s not a phrase, I just made that up. But I didn’t think about it, really, at all.”
The point she was trying to make, she says, is that “as a white, upper-middle-class woman from California, even if it were to be overturned, I will always have access. I have a friend who went to medical school – every time I need a doctor, I say, ‘Do you have someone that you recommend?’ So I would just go: ‘Hey, where do I go for the thing? Wink-wink.’ The people with access will always have access. What pisses me off is that we’re not talking about me. It’s so easy: I played in Texas the same week, and then I went home and was like: oh my God. Made the appointment. It was 12 hours of my life.”
She was also bothered by “people with good intentions saying: ‘Don’t say it was easy for you to make that decision – it was clearly really emotional.’ And I wasn’t fucking emotional at all. Hormonally crazy! But I don’t think you should assign ‘it tore me up’ to me. No! I don’t think about it as a baby, of course not.”
Had Roe v Wade been threatened in, say, 2014, Bridgers says she would have been astonished. Now, she is desensitised to the “slow-drip poison of American politics”, although still resisting it: she is donating a dollar from every ticket of her tour to an organisation that helps undocumented people get abortions. At a recent live event in Texas – where the Republican governor plans to treat gender-affirming care for young people as child abuse – she invited the state’s Transgender Education Network to distribute resources.
“Nobody would give a shit if I just posted a link,” she says of her approach to activism. She mentions hearing US indie band Bright Eyes denouncing George W Bush when she was young. “I was, ‘Ooh, it’s cool to hate the president? Why does he hate the president?’ Then you figure it out. It doesn’t mean you’re forcing everybody to have the same opinions as you. Especially when it comes to human rights issues, I want to show everybody what I believe in.”
Bridgers says she was lucky to have “pretty radicalised parents – the good radicalised”. (Her grandfather is a rodeo cowboy, and they both “came to ‘fuck the government’ from different sides of the circle”.) When Bush was elected a second time, the 10-year-old Bridgers woke up to a weird sound. “I went into the living room and my dad was sobbing. I grew up with the weight of what stuff means, which I think is really important, especially because if I wanted to, I could just close my eyes to it and disappear. That’s what’s so fucked up about this economy – the lucky ones get to flee to the coasts while so much shit is happening to poor people in the centre of the country.”
Regrettably, she says, the old norms have recalcified since Joe Biden was elected. “With middle-left people, it feels like there’s some complacency, but I still feel a lot of daily anger around me,” she says. “Watching all the forward momentum of the summer of 2020 slowly dissipate is so gross and so dark.”
It was during the height of the pandemic, when Bridgers would get spotted in a supermarket wearing a mask and baseball cap, that she realised her profile was changing. (The white-blond hair may have been a giveaway.) Although Bridgers inspires fan tattoos and Halloween costumes, celebrity has been good to her. “The people with good boundaries vastly outnumber the people with bad boundaries,” she says.
It has always seemed as though she likes herself, which must help her navigate her new visibility. She half-agrees: “I have the fun combination of self-hatred and a God complex.” She gives an example: as a kid, she would try instruments in guitar shops and sing showy vocal runs “like there’s going to be a talent scout here and he’s going to see that I’m the best thing that’s ever lived,” she says, mortified.
She credits her mother with overestimating her talents. “I didn’t figure out that was embarrassing until I was 14,” she cringes. Undeterred, she used money earned acting in commercials to self-fund her 2017 debut album, Stranger in the Alps, which got her signed to an influential indie label. She knows she was lucky to be able to afford that kind of creative freedom. “I don’t come from money,” she says. “I couldn’t have really taken the time writing and recording if that hadn’t happened.”
Bridgers figured out early that the best way to approach her career was to build her own world and invite people in. She clearly cultivated something good because more and more artists wanted to enter that world: Bridgers has sung with artists including Paul McCartney, the Killers and Lorde. The list grew again last year when she got a weird text from the National’s Aaron Dessner, who co-produced Swift’s lockdown albums. Then she realised it was actually from Swift, inviting her to collaborate on a song called Nothing New. “I remember blacking out reading the text because we’d never met or interacted in any way, so to be asked as our first interaction was crazy.”
Swift had written the song for her 2012 album Red, when she was 22, though it was never released. Swift says she described it to Bridgers as being about “my very first brush with the fear of ageing, irrelevance and replacement. How young women are taught by society that our youth is a rapidly depleting commodity.” She calls Bridgers’ interpretation of it “profound and insightful – she was talking about how not only do older men and culture fetishise a girl’s youth, but we in turn begin to internalise that ideology and genuinely believe it about ourselves”.
For Swift to sing it now, with Bridgers, a younger artist, defied the competitive mindset that the record industry once instilled in women, one that Bridgers’ generation has spurned in favour of community. “Even though the music industry, especially for women or queer people, fetishes young talent, it’s been cool to be like: ‘Oh, it doesn’t affect me at all,’” Bridgers says.
It isn’t that Bridgers hasn’t seen that side of things. When she was 20, she met alt-rock star Ryan Adams, and he invited her to his studio to record a single for his label. They began a relationship that became emotionally abusive, Bridgers told the New York Times in 2019. When she ended it, she said Adams wavered on releasing the single. (Adams said they had a “brief, consensual fling” and that he had never threatened to withhold the music.) Other women told the Times that Adams had promised opportunities while pursuing them sexually; one said their alleged encounter stopped her from wanting to make music. (In 2020, Adams apologised for his “mistreatment” of women.)
How did Bridgers escape drawing the same conclusion? “His world was so exhausting that even when I was really infatuated with him, I was, like, I need a break,” Bridgers says. “I didn’t have the endurance for listening to someone talk about themselves at 100 miles an hour.” She admires the women who stuck around, “which is so dark. That’s one of the most heartbreaking things to me, that you would think that’s what music is. And I totally did for a while.”
The problem, she says, is that the music business relies on secrecy. When shock rocker Marilyn Manson was accused of rape and sexual abuse (which he denies), Bridgers shared a story of going to his house as a teenager and witnessing him joke about rape, in a show of public support for his alleged victims, and to condemn the normalisation of such behaviour. “It’s all so insular,” she says of the culture, “but I think that just leaves more room for people to be like, ‘This is how it is’, and for you to actually feel like that.”
Bridgers admits that it took a while for her to recognise the truth of her experiences. “My bullshit trauma background was like, ‘You just dated someone and it was kind of shitty,’” she says. “I was so invalidating of myself that I was like, ‘It’s not abuse if it happens to me.’”
Her screen intermittently goes black as we talk: it’s her mother trying to call. “Again?!” Bridgers says the second time it happens. “My last text from her was: ‘Are you mad at me?’ Because I didn’t pick up. I’m going to tell her I’m not mad.” Jamie Bridgers lives eight minutes down the road. She still makes her daughter’s dental appointments and drives her car when she is away touring. “Which I like,” says Bridgers, who has a younger brother, Jackson. “Something creeps me out about a stagnant car.”
Bridgers’ parents divorced when she was 20. She has said that she grew up witnessing “textbook” domestic abuse. It’s important to talk about, she says, but still weird. “Sometimes I’ll do an interview and then my mom and I will be on the phone and she’ll say, ‘I didn’t know that you knew that.’ And then we end up really talking about it.” Her earliest memory is of “something violent happening”. Later, in one of those chats with her mother, she learned that someone said in that moment: “She’s too little. She won’t remember this.” Bridgers says she has complex PTSD because these experiences weren’t constant. “It can delegitimise it: it’s not the real one where you’re scared every day; it’s the fake one where sometimes it happens, you know?”
After her divorce, Jamie, an estate agent, started doing standup. Humour was a useful tool at home, Bridgers says. “My mom’s always been very funny. But also for both of us, someone will say, ‘You look beautiful!’, and we’ll be like, ‘Oh fuck you, bitch!’” She laughs loudly. “Deflecting every single thing that could possibly be taken as sincere.” She suspects herself of doing it in her music: “I can be self-deprecating at the same time as saying something really sweet about someone.”
That mistrust in her own experiences is fading. “Romantically or in friendships, I was always looking for the bad thing or the thread to pull at,” Bridgers says. “It’s been super hard. But actually working on it and seeing the fruits of my labour is so cool and unexpected.”
Last year, Bridgers’ cherished black pug, Max, died, so she got a new rescue black pug, Maxine. Snorting at her owner’s feet, she declines a lift up on to the bed. Bridgers is due to leave for a summer-long tour soon; Maxine will come along, too. “She has a little service dog uniform, which isn’t fooling anybody. She is the most useless dog ever,” Bridgers says lovingly.
When Bridgers finally started touring Punisher last autumn, she noticed that her gigs felt different from those pre-pandemic. The crowds were younger: feral, costumed and screaming like she was Justin Bieber. “It feels like The Rocky Horror Picture Show or something,” she deadpans. They had had time to get to know the album, as had Bridgers. “Talking about it so much and taking it seriously has brought me back into my own body a little bit.” That said, she jokes, it feels as though it has been out for “10 years, at least. Creatively I’m ready to let my brain think about something else, but as far as the show experience, I’m totally spoilt.”
She is thinking about what’s next. Bridgers’ style has become so well known that it has inspired loving parodies from the comedian Bowen Yang (“we rollerbladed to the liquor store/I didn’t know he was a Scientologist”) and the musician Jensen McRae, who went viral by imagining how Bridgers would write about getting vaccinated (“I think the nurse that gave us our shots is judging us”). “I love being imitated,” says Bridgers. “And it does challenge me: what if I made something that doesn’t sound like something I’ve done, but it’s still me?”
But she does want to escape the perception that she is just a sad girl: it minimises her work, and she is bothered by the fetishisation of depression. Fans even greeted the rumours of her engagement by jokily tweeting that she had betrayed them with her happiness. “The internet’s just weird,” she says. “I try not to pay attention to it any more.” To me she seems quite joyfully committed to finding happiness, to validating her past and trying to write a new story. That’s what she hopes, she says. “Everybody needs you to be in pain or something.” The challenge now is “not only to feel better and break old patterns in myself, but also in writing, to try to be articulate about the good stuff in a way that doesn’t feel trite, and real.” She laughs. “It’s way harder!”
That futile search for salvation that she sang about on Punisher is bearing fruit. Sometimes she walks at Big Sur at night. “It just feels really big, and I like now knowing what it is,” she says. Days ago, she was at the beach. Water always takes her out of her head, even crappy hotel pools. Although it was hot in California, the sea was freezing. Bridgers dunked anyway.
“I feel like any life advice that I could ever give anybody is, like” – she puts on a hesitant voice to pose the question – “‘Should I get all the way in?’” No question, she says decisively: “Yes.”
• Phoebe Bridgers plays the Glastonbury John Peel stage at 7.30pm tonight (24 June), and supports the Rolling Stones at BST Hyde Park on 25 June, with dates in Birmingham, Manchester and London to follow; phoebefuckingbridgers.com