Phoebe Bridgers: “If It’s Not Good, I Just Won’t Write It”

If your name is Phoebe Bridgers, then you’ve had a hell of a year.

In June the 26-year-old songwriter released her second LP, Punisher, to wide acclaim and adoration. With highlight numbers like “Garden Song” and “Kyoto,” the album encapsulates Bridgers’ iconic and inimitable writing style, shining a poetic light onto the torments and joys of everyday life.

Furthermore, co-produced by Bridgers herself, Punisher represents a tremendous step forward for the production style and sonic soundscapes of heartfelt, singer-songwriter music. With muted tones, deep atmospheres and guitar samples strung-together from iPad recordings, Punisher is perhaps the most effective record in modern music history so far as saying “something real” goes. 

But, that’s not all! Earlier this month, Bridgers teamed up with her record label, Dead Oceans, and launched her own imprint label, Saddest Factory. Always one for creative extra-curricular ideas, Bridgers is using the new imprint as a hub for her imaginative schemes outside of songwriting — to see what I’m talking about, just check out Saddest Factory’s vibey website.

In that regard, Bridger’s label conveys the wider philosophy of her work ethic. When asked why she wanted to start her own label, she replied without missing a beat: “Because I always wanted one.”

She continued, explaining that she had been dreaming of founding her own label since before her debut record — 2017’s Stranger in the Alps — even came out. “At the time, I didn’t realize how hard that is to do and my very smart manager, Darren, was like ‘Don’t do that, it’s really hard.’ Now that I’ve been on Zoom calls with, like, 25 different people doing different jobs just for one release, I realize that my notion of running an entire label with just myself and a few friends was insane. So, when I signed with Dead Oceans I was like ‘This is so great! I want all my friends to sign with Dead Oceans.’ Better Oblivion signed there and Conor Oberst ended up liking it so much that he signed Bright Eyes to Dead Oceans too. I thought ‘Wow, I want to keep signing people to this label,’ so I did.”

Since Saddest Factory’s conception, Bridgers has enjoyed indulging in the non-musical side of her creative brain — to the extent that she characterized it as her “secret passion.” 

“I like having weird ideas,” she said. “I always do it for myself, but I’d love to apply it to other people. Yesterday, I saw a video of someone eating soup in the rain and I sent it to my manager saying ‘We gotta do this.’ Another thing that comes to mind is the time I sang in a haunted theater for Seth Meyers. Or the time I played in my bathroom for Jimmy Kimmel. With Better Oblivion, we had the idea of putting ads on bus benches and making it look like a cult. Stuff like that is the most fun part. I would love to just hear someone’s record and help come up with weird ideas for them.” And now, the time has finally come for Bridgers to do just that — on October 13, the label put out its first single, “Gold” by Claud. 

Having the label to work on has been valuable for Bridgers — under normal circumstances, she’d be touring right now. “It doesn’t even really feel like Punisher came out because I’m not on tour, but whatever,” she said. “That’s everyone’s year right now.” She went on to say that she’s very happy with the response the album got from fans and she’s enjoyed performing versions of the songs on late-night television, but ultimately she ends with the same bottom line: “It’s just very strange to still be at my house.” 

That kind of restlessness is apparent throughout Bridgers’ discography. It’s alluded to in perhaps one of the most poignant moments on Punisher: the opening lines of “Kyoto.”

Day off in Kyoto, got bored at the temple
Looked around at the 7-11
The band took the speed train, went to the arcade
I wanted to go but I didn’t
You called me from a payphone, they still got payphones
It costs a dollar a minute
To tell me you’re getting sober and you wrote me a letter
But I don’t have to read it

I’m gonna kill you
If you don’t beat me to it
Dreaming through Tokyo skies
I wanted to see the world
Then I flew over the ocean
And I changed my mind

In this moving passage, Bridgers is beginning the heavy work of analyzing her relationship with her father. Yet, at the same time, she’s speaking to the wider phenomenon of disillusionment that’s become a staple of everyday life for many young people around the world. Perhaps this is the perfect illustration of Bridgers’ biggest strength: making something specific feel universally relatable. Hell, even something as simple as the “payphone” comes from a specific memory, but plays into the wider, romanticized imagery of the song. 

“That was weirdly inspired by a This American Life episode where they talk about a payphone in Japan right by where the tsunami happened,” Bridgers explained. “People can come and talk to their deceased loved ones. That stuck in my head. But then, I was doing Japanese phone interviews and someone was like ‘You know, we do have payphones! They’re old and gross, but it’s funny that you noticed that.’ I was like ‘Woah, I guess they do still have them.’”

That’s what it boils down to: it’s incredibly easy to imagine yourself inside of a Phoebe Bridgers song, regardless of what she herself was actually thinking when she wrote it. But, don’t just take my word for it — this past summer, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes spoke with American Songwriter and mentioned Bridgers as the textbook definition of someone who can make highly-relatable art. 

“I don’t think Phoebe Bridgers ended up being a quasi-voice of a generation because she practiced it,” Goldsmith said. “I think that she’s just an incredible songwriter and people identify with her, people see her and think ‘that’s me’ in whatever respect they relate to.”

For her part, Bridgers feels the same way about Goldsmith. “I think Dawes definitely does that — they say really specific things but they touch a vast amount of people,” she said. “For the most part, I have no idea when I’m making something universal. I heard something in a movie I watched recently that talked about the ‘accidental universal in the specificity’ of something. What it comes down to is: the most influential music, to me, is always what’s most personal to the artist. Something where it’s pretty clear that they weren’t trying to make a hit or connect with people, it’s just a personal experience. That’s always great.”

Now, one could probably write volumes and volumes on the subject of how to capture that “accidental universal in the specificity,” but like Goldsmith said, you don’t get good at it just by practicing. In fact, maybe you could even argue that thinking less about your writing is a good method, at least insofar as ignoring your inner critic. That’s what Bridgers tries to do.

“The way I crack the code of my own writing is to allow myself to write the same song over and over,” she said. “Then, it’s way easier to just go back and change it. If I’m too worried about form or if I’m like ‘Ugh, this is the same exact song that I just wrote,’ it really comes back to: ‘Who cares?’”

Once breaking through that initial layer of self-doubt and getting the first version of something down, Bridgers is able to go back and begin smoothing everything out. “I’m usually pretty revisionist,” she said. “The first version is often unrecognizable, although there have definitely been examples of the opposite. I love when that happens, when a song just comes right out, but that’s pretty rare for me. I like taking forever to make records because sometimes after making the studio recording, even, I’ll look back and think ‘oh, I can change this, this and this’ and it’s that much better for it. I like changing little lyrics. I like speeding something up or making it slow. That keeps things interesting for me.”

Another artist who is known for this revisionist style is Bridgers’ bandmate in Better Oblivion Community Center, Conor Oberst. “Conor will often write a first draft of a song and then will do a series of revisions on different pages,” she explained. “I stole that entire style, it really works for me. Actually, I’ve stolen my writing style from a couple of my friends. With Lucy [Dacus] and Julien [Baker], I steal their instrumentation all the time. I steal little melody lines — sometimes I’ll come up with something and think ‘Ah, that sounds like a little melody that Lucy would write.’ The more I collaborate the more variance there is in my own music, which is something I love.”

In addition to her peers, Bridgers also takes cues from some of the great songwriters that came before her, namely Elliott Smith, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and others. At one point, Bridgers began to talk about marrying humorous imagery with serious imagery and mentioned another one of her inspirations, Leonard Cohen. “I think there’s a lot of humor in his lyrics,” she said. “Obviously, he’s self-serious too, but I think that’s the best part of it. The sad lyrics make the funny lyrics funnier and the funny lyrics make the sad lyrics sadder. If you spend a whole song in just one half, then there’s kinda nothing special about it.”

That humor manifests in a variety of ways for Bridgers. On Punisher, it showed up in little moments, like the line in “Garden Song” where she mentions that a doctor told her that her “resentment was getting smaller.”

“The doctor at the end of ‘Garden Song’ with her hands over my liver is a true story,” Bridgers said. “I went to a nutritionist lady and she told me that and I thought that it was the craziest thing I’d ever heard. So, I had to write it into a song. A lot of lyrics just save in my brain naturally like that. Then, when I pick up a guitar I’m like ‘Wow, that happened.’ I’ll have ‘emo tweets,’ essentially, that I keep for myself as notes on my phone with the sole intention of using them for lyrics later. Sometimes you write that initial lyric out and that’s all you needed to start the process of writing the song.”

While it may not be as easy for others to write a Phoebe Bridgers-quality song just from getting an initial line or two on the page, perhaps the lesson to be learned here lies less in Bridgers’ methods and more in her attitude. Bridgers lives, speaks and writes with a certain quality of gusto. Even when she gets discouraged, Bridgers has methods to overcome her doubts and reignite confidence in herself. “I write all the time, very slowly, every day,” she said. “Sometimes I spend all day doing it. Most days, I put my guitar down the minute I want to kill somebody. That headspace isn’t helpful, but some days it just happens. It’s hard to get past it. I convince myself that I’ve never done it before. But, when it’s all flowing, it’s more productive. If I get frustrated, I’ll go clean something and then come back and usually that’ll have fixed my headspace, just a momentary distraction like that.”

Following up, Bridgers went on to explain that she only holds onto things that truly feel compelling. If she’s not entirely sold on where a song is heading, she just won’t go in that direction. This, she claims, is one of her many secrets to always keeping her songs fresh and with that sense of creative urgency.

Then, closing with perhaps one of the most impactful quotes ever uttered in the entire category of “How do I write a song?” literature, Bridgers concluded: “If it’s not good, I just won’t write it.”

Watch the music video for “I Know the End” by Phoebe Bridgers below:

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