There’s a complex joy felt in Phoebe Bridgers’ music, like trust-falling into the melancholy to be caught by a distant compassion. It’s a testament to the way heartache expressed by another person can be a magnet for contrasting emotions, making them feel as if they belonged together from the beginning. I hate you for what you did / and I miss you like a little kid, Bridgers sings on “Motion Sickness.” The 23-year-old released her first full-length last year, Stranger in the Alps. It struck a chord for many listeners with songs like that one.
“I think if it has any significance it’s to possibly ameliorate someone else’s struggle by writing my life out,” Bridgers says about the meaning she finds in her work today. “I think Elliott Smith was really good at that: writing deeply personal songs that somehow lifted the weight of feeling alone off your shoulders.”
The raw quality Smith’s writing is known for can be felt in music by Bridgers’ early influences, like Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell, and in work by musicians who’ve sought her out to collaborate.
The L.A. native first caught the attention of Ryan Adams through a mutual friend. Within days of meeting, they were recording at Adams’ studio. The subsequent 7”, Killer, dropped shortly after in April 2015 on Pax Am, Adams’ label. And he wasn’t the only one who took notice of Bridgers’ work early on. Conor Oberst collaborated with her on “Would You Rather,” a folk tune about the telepathic bond siblings share.
“Conor and I are constantly bouncing ideas off of each other, which is really cool because he has a certain voice and way of looking at things that are totally his own,” she says. “I think it’s the dichotomy of positivity and world weariness in his songs that make me really excited and keep me interested as a listener, and to shape a song with him is illuminating for that reason.”
The two have also toured together and maintain a collaborative bond. “I think he’s just somebody who’s down to go to a certain place with respect to writing that makes it easy. That doesn’t happen a lot with co-writing, where two people are committed to going all the way down one path,” she says. “Ryan just texted me a video game related meme. I also consider that creative dialogue.”
Stranger in the Alps is a record that dwells on heartbreak and mortality. In “Funeral,” Bridgers remembers being asked to sing at a funeral of a peer who died of a drug overdose: Jesus Christ, I’m so blue all the time / And that’s just how I feel. Always have and I always will. At times, her lyrics paint a dark and sometimes shocking picture of depression.
Bridgers likes to coin her own language in songs, too, when she can’t find the words. In “Smoke Signals” is a subtle reference to Henry David Thoreau. We spent a week in the cold / just long enough to “Walden” it with you. Bridgers talks about this reference and how books have worked their way into the musician’s writing process.
“With Walden, it is such a well-known work and even those who haven’t read it have a general idea of the statements Thoreau makes about nature and living outside of the context of society. So there’s that element of familiarity, and also with some of my favorite songs or books or whatever, I’ll find myself in a situation where lyrics or ideas will naturally occur to me because they feel directly related to where I’m at.”
“I wrote ‘Chelsea’ while walking in New York City, where I’d never been before,” she says. “I also rarely write without an instrument, so it was definitely a special experience.”
When in Texas, Bridgers keeps at least one ritual. “I always play Daniel Johnston songs,” she says. “There’s nobody I can think of whose songs deserve as much respect and who is also a staple of that place more than Daniel Johnston.”
Phoebe Bridgers plays tonight at Three Links along with opener Soccer Mommy. Doors open at 8pm.