The Story Behind Every Song On Phoebe Bridgers’ New Album Punisher
In 2017, Phoebe Bridgers released her debut Stranger In The Alps. With that album alone, she was already greeted as one of the most exciting, assured young songwriters newly on the scene. But in the ensuing years, Bridgers’ stature as a respected musician and generational voice has risen significantly, and quickly. The following year, she formed a trio with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker called boygenius; then, last year, she formed a band with one of her heroes, Conor Oberst, and called it Better Oblivion Community Center. In just a handful of years, she’s released several albums, already building up a diverse and complex body of work.
That makes Punisher a funny proposition: It simultaneously doesn’t feel like a sophomore album at all given Bridgers’ output and how well we’ve come to know her songwriting, but also like a sophomore album that arrives with even more pressure and attention than the usual highly-anticipated second outing. The good news is that Punisher delivers in all the ways one might hope. It follows some of the same structures and approaches as Stranger In The Alps, but refines and expands and deepens them.
While there is a subtle intricacy to Punisher musically — sparse or meditative compositions lightly embellished by orchestration, rare outliers like the catchy “Kyoto” or the climactic “I Know The End” broadening the album’s scope — Bridgers is more of a lyrics-first artist. Across Punisher, her words are biting, hilarious, open-hearted, therapeutic, turning from unflinching honesty one moment to a sardonic punchline the next.
There are ways you can hear broad, generational conditions in her writing. A sense of drift, being young today and seeking to make sense of when you’ll actually feel present in your own life. But Bridgers’ albums are very much rooted in her own personal experience. A few years after Stranger In The Alps, Bridgers’ life has changed a whole lot, and a lot of Punisher grapples with how you go about embracing that when the same old demons still follow you.
We recently caught up with Bridgers, who was calling from home in LA during quarantine. She walked us through each song on Punisher, from inspiration to songwriting decisions to the host of guests that accompanied her. Now that you can hear Punisher for yourself, read along below to get the stories behind the album.
1. “DVD Menu” And 2. “Garden Song”
STEREOGUM: Punisher starts with an instrumental track, and then “Garden Song” is the proper opener and the lead single. Why did that one feel like the introduction to the album in both instances?
PHOEBE BRIDGERS: I think it felt like a bridge from my last record to this record, and also my lead single to the first record was “Smoke Signals,” which is really similar in form and subject matter. This one is sort of the sequel to that. It just felt not too weird, not too different from the music I make, and I was proud of it — it stood out to me. It has the least stuff on it but it’s still very produced. The instruments and the voices, we were very picky about those things. We wanted it to be sparse. I’m never going to release a fucking pop song that goes on the radio so I was like, “Let’s embrace it and release whatever we want first.”
STEREOGUM: Right, I remember it being described as a spiritual cousin to “Smoke Signals.” When you say “sequel,” do you think it literally answers back to that song?
BRIDGERS: I think it’s just another love song. “Smoke Signals” is a love song about waking up to your reality, in a way, finding someone who shares the same interests as you. This song is more about how — at the risk of being corny — manifesting things the more you think about stuff. The more your actions might push towards the things you want happening. It’s a love song, for sure, but it’s also about myself — my own growth.
STEREOGUM: I read something recently about how you work on your albums in order. Does that mean you wrote this early on, and you couldn’t write the others until this was finished or more like, you imagine the album in a certain sequence and have to complete each one in that order?
BRIDGERS: I think it just fell into place like this. I ended up recording and writing sort of in order. I think it’s also because I write the same song over and over and over. It’s the only way I can really write lyrics — if I’m not thinking about the musicality and I worry about it later. So, I would have a new song, and Tony [Berg] and Ethan [Gruska], my producers, would be like, “Maybe we need an uptempo song next” and we would turn whatever song I had into that. But also, “I Know The End” is the first and the last song I wrote. I started it before any other song and I finished it after the whole album was done. So it starts and finishes the album. The Graceland song was second to last. It weirdly lined up like that.
STEREOGUM: I know you’re drawing on your own life often. Are you the sort of person where, you go into the album thinking like “This song is where the story starts, this song is where the story ends?”
BRIDGERS: I think in the back of my head I’m doing that but I don’t make a concerted effort to do that. Songs like “Moon Song” and “Savior Complex,” when I wrote them, they felt like different versions of each other. I was like, “Oh, shit, ‘Savior Complex’ is the sequel to that song, so it should be right after.” I think about themes when I think about order, but like, I’ve never written a concept album.
STEREOGUM: So the first album catalogued an earlier, younger passage of your life, and this one deals with the last several years of touring and being around the world. You’ve also said the themes of the album are “crying” and “feeling numb.” Does that refer to the stuff that still follows you as your life changes, or were you reckoning with new trials?
BRIDGERS: Kind of the opposite. The first record is about trauma, and this record is about how even though I have the life I asked for, and supportive friends, and everything I want, and I’m very lucky, the tools I used to deal with trauma while it was happening are really holding me back from being able to truly enjoy the things in my life. So that’s what this record feels like, someone who started to go to therapy and work out some of the things you can’t change about yourself no matter your circumstances. You just have to do it.
STEREOGUM: Sort of connected to that, you’ve described “Kyoto” as “living outside your body when cool shit is happening.” Which is, unfortunately, a feeling I can very much relate to. I was wondering how much that idea runs through the rest of the album.
BRIDGERS: I think it runs through pretty much every song except for maybe “Moon Song” or “Graceland Too.” It’s a theme I keep coming back to. The song I wrote for boygenius, “Ketchum, ID,” where it’s like, “I am never anywhere I go.” It’s totally that feeling, and I know a lot of people feel it. But yeah, having a big to-do list of stuff to do in Japan. I had a master list and I spent a lot of time just staring at the ceiling. And also, every time I left the hotel, I felt great. I was so glad that I did, but it was hard to work up the motivation to do anything. If I have too many options, sometimes I get stuck. I need people around me who are strong leaders.
STEREOGUM: There’s a scene in Japan and a scene back home in California. Why was it Japan specifically?
BRIDGERS: Because it was the most stark example. It’s a dream world. It was a perfect place. And still, somehow, I was worried about shit that was happening in fucking California, or that had happened. Just kinda consumed by other bullshit. Then you come home and you’re like, “Well, where do I want to be, because I don’t want to be here either.”
STEREOGUM: I know you said some songs kind of musically develop according to what’s needed. But it’s also this specific set of themes and images placed into the big uptempo indie song on Punisher. There isn’t really another one quite like this on the album. Did this lend itself to that structurally, or was it about emotional catharsis?
BRIDGERS: Both. It reminded me lyrically of Replacements songs, which I’ve always loved. Fucked up lyrics and uptempo… it’s not even necessarily happy orchestration. Something about it makes me sad. Horns always remind me of Sufjan and the Replacements, or the Cure or the Smiths. I’ve always loved that genre, and I always want to lean into it more because I feel like I can write a lot of dirges. They’re so fun to play live. There’s something amazing about being able to scream the words of some kind of trauma while jumping up and down.
STEREOGUM: The title track comes from the concept of a “punisher” in tour life, this archetype of a fan who’s a little too enthusiastic, lingers at the merch table too long, that kinda thing. You were putting yourself in that character here.
BRIDGERS: I think everyone thinks what they have to say is the most interesting. I am not exempt from that. Talking to your heroes, you’re like, “I can’t wait to tell them this, this, and this.” I have an opposite response to it now, but I definitely, for most of my life, was a punisher. I was backstage with Patti Smith a couple months ago, which is wild. She waved to me in a group of people and I ran away because I was so afraid that I would be just another person telling her how inspiring she is, whatever. I did use to do that. I would come up to people and ask for a picture. I hung out at the bottom of the stairs for James Blake at the Troubadour where there is no other exit. I was like, “He’s trapped, but he’ll be glad to talk to me.” And now it’s happened to me.
STEREOGUM: There’s also this Elliott Smith thread, imagining being in that position with him. Why was it this song that felt like the title track?
BRIDGERS: It kinda doesn’t. It just sums up me, or — it sums up a lot about my personality. I was like, “Should this album be self-titled?” and was like, “Nah. I’ll use a descriptor word instead.” When I wrote the song I thought, “Damn that’s kind of a metal album title.” And it’s kind of a hot word.
STEREOGUM: You’ve got a lot of friends on this album, but Conor Oberst sings at the end of this one. I was thinking about the interaction of your songwriting being rather insular, solo, and then on this one you brought in these different friends you’ve accrued over the years, like Conor, and Julien Baker, and Lucy Dacus. Is that sort of normal happenstance, or does it serve any kind of function in terms of summing up these last couple years leading up to the album?
BRIDGERS: It’s just weird to be surrounded by people who have the exact same job as me, where it doesn’t strike Conor as weird to be singing dark shit like that. The song was birthed from, basically, the first time I ever hung out with Christian Lee Hutson, who’s now one of my best friends. We had this idea… it seems like holidays always come at the worst time, but Halloween is a weird one. It’s so nostalgic, childhood and ghosts — it’s my favorite, but I’ve had a lot of weird relationships. We were just talking about dead relationships and how they suck around any holiday.
Then a year and a half later, I was unhappy with some of the lyrics and I was still trying to work out why. It was a straightforward sad love song or something. Conor was like, “Well you always talk about the murders at Dodgers Stadium.” Fans killing each other. It’s always been this obsession of mine — well, I guess, murders in general are such a dark obsession but that one specifically. It’s so dark, that most people just want to have a hot dog and watch a game but people are so worked up that they can kill someone who doesn’t agree with them. About a fucking sport. So he was like, “You should put that in the song,” and I was like, “No way, that’s way too dark. Come on.” Weirdly, all my friends, from day one, were in on the personal nature of the whole record, but especially this song.
STEREOGUM: In terms of the years leading up to this album, and all the collaborations you’ve had, several of them were like the one with Conor, where you formed a new band. But then you also sang on a bunch of songs on the new 1975 album, where it’d seem more like you were jumping into somebody else’s world for a little while. Conor’s obviously an influence of yours, but the 1975 are peers who do something rather different. Have you found yourself bringing anything surprising back into your own world from that kind of experience?
BRIDGERS: The Conor one was weird. It took me a really long time to get comfortable sharing the first draft of my ideas. I always feel like the fifth drafts are the best. It’s embarrassing. I was trying to explain this to somebody recently. I was like, “No, they fucking suck early.” I have some “Motion Sickness” demo where it’s like, “There are no words in the English language I could use to drown their voices out.” [Laughs] Like, what the fuck am I talking about? There are way too many words in that. It doesn’t even make sense. So it was hard to let someone who’s a hero of mine in on that. On the flipside, that was a great exercise and now I do feel comfortable doing that, because everybody’s first draft is a little cringe. Except for maybe Conor, he’s a weird wizard.
But the 1975, they will tell each other jokes and then be like, “That’s a great lyric.” Instead of then being like, “I’ll try to write that,” Matty writes in the studio, like a rapper. There is no thought between “That’s crazy” and “Let’s do it,” it’s like, “Oh my god, we have to do that because I had the compulsion.” It’s a super relaxing environment to be around. I want to get used to do doing more shit like that.
6. “Chinese Satellite”
STEREOGUM: We already talked about the idea of being outside yourself in “Kyoto” and how that runs through the album. “Chinese Satellite” has this line: “I’ve been running around in circles/ Pretending to be myself/ Why would somebody do this on purpose?/ When they can do something else.” I felt like I heard a similar sentiment in the “I’ve been playing dead my whole life” line in “I See You.” I kind of heard the line in “Chinese Satellite” as something of a — it feels a little weird to say “mission statement” in this context but you know what I mean.
BRIDGERS: [Laughs] Yeah it is the overarching idea. I feel like I say it so many times in different words throughout the album. In the first part of “I Know The End” too, “romanticize a quiet life.” I’m constantly trying to shake awake, you know? The pretending to be myself line was about jogging. I was like, “Oh, am I person who jogs?” And I’m not, it turns out.
STEREOGUM: Is that something you feel got better for you over time, in the years these songs took place, or in the process of writing and recording these? Or even now you don’t feel as if you’ve really arrived.
BRIDGERS: I don’t feel like you ever really arrive. I think I’m getting better at — I mean, Jesus, COVID and this whole year has set me back. I feel like I’ve abandoned years and years of therapy and getting better. I don’t know, maybe it’s the best immersion therapy ever. “OK, try to get yourself mentally out of this one.” But, yeah, I feel like I’m slowly getting better but I’m not out.
STEREOGUM: It brings me back to “Kyoto” again, like you got the thing you were trying to get–
BRIDGERS: And now what.
7. “Moon Song”
STEREOGUM: This has the memorable “Tears In Heaven”/John Lennon lyric. I was actually thinking about this when “I See You” came out: At the same time I feel like people appreciate the humor in your music, it’s still often mentioned in this almost reductive way like, “The albums are sad and moving but her Twitter’s hilarious.” The same way people say that about like, Jason Isbell or somebody.
But this line in “Moon Song,” it’s a trick, this blend of poignant and sad and mundane and funny. Like you said, if your fifth draft is the best, how much of this is part of the editing process, making sure there’s these more cutting lines or a bit of sardonic stuff to mix it all up?
BRIDGERS: I actually feel like sometimes those are the ones that come first. It’s almost thinking of a tweet but you’re like, “Wait this is not a tweet.” I actually tweeted “pretending to be myself” and deleted it, I thought it was pretty sick. If it’s a tweet that sounds lyrical, I’ll put it in my notes and pick it up later. Sometimes writing songs is just telling myself jokes.
I have such an apathetic-sounding voice, and nobody would read my Twitter like that. If you listen to my voice saying something I think is funny it’s not going to be — you know what I mean? I have a stone cold stare of a voice. A sociopath voice. Which is very different than my speaking voice. I don’t blame people for not really getting it, because it’s in this bed of weird heartbreaking orchestration — especially on this song. And then it’s like, I really do hate Eric Clapton and I just wanted to dig at him.
8. “Savior Complex”
STEREOGUM: You wrote this one in a dream.
BRIDGERS: [Laughs] Yeah, I wrote the melody in a dream, and it sounds so romantic but in reality the voice memo is like [makes ghostly wheezing sound]. Like the most disturbing deep-sleep-rollover-turn-on-your-phone voice. It’s so creepy.
STEREOGUM: Does that happen to you a lot?
BRIDGERS: No, it had never happened to me before. I’m so jealous. One of my favorite Bright Eyes songs of all time is “Lime Tree.” I guess Conor, in his dream, heard Nick White — my keyboardist who used to be in Bright Eyes — sing, which he doesn’t do, the first verse and chorus of that song in an angelic voice. I was so jealous. I guess Townes Van Zandt wrote “If I Needed You” in his sleep. I’m like, how? I keep having recurring dreams about having all my guitar strings being broken.
STEREOGUM: Is that supposed to be symbolic or the more banal aspects of musician life?
BRIDGERS: I have nightmares all the time now where, say, I’m onstage and I’m supposed to be in Bright Eyes and I don’t know any of the songs. Or it’ll be a boygenius tour and I’ll be onstage and I am Julien except I don’t know any of Julien’s songs and can’t play guitar like her. I have the recurring dream of, you get onstage and you’re really late and then every instrument you touch is broken. I’ll wake up in COVID reality, and I’m like, “I would kill to have my nightmares be real.” [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: [Laughs] Are these common recurring dreams for musicians?
BRIDGERS: I know Julien has one where she was just fucking up a guitar solo really bad and everyone in the audience was staring blankly at her. My friend Harrison, who plays guitar with me, he had one that Tom Petty told him from the side stage like, “Play one of your songs.” And Harrison starts playing and looks back and Tom Petty is shaking his head in disapproval. [Laughs] So, I think so.
STEREOGUM: Well, these all sound very stressful. I’m glad you finally got to dream a song instead. You were saying earlier that this is a sequel to “Moon Song.”
BRIDGERS: Yeah, so “Moon Song” is you’re romanticizing this person who hates themselves, and you love them. “You” as in “me.” [Laughs] It all seems like, if you could just get to them you could help them and fix them if they just see how much you care. Everybody has had this experience: You really love someone so you have to pretend like you’re cool with every shitty thing that they do, because you want to seem like the cool one. “Oh, all those other people are crazy for telling you not to behave like that.” “So you wait a couple hours before texting back” — just the idea of like, “Please step on me, I don’t care.” Then “Savior Complex” is you get there, you’re with the person, and you realize that every other person they’ve been with before has gone through the exact same thing of trying to break down walls. Being with somebody who hates themselves is hard.
9. “I See You”
STEREOGUM: This was renamed from “ICU” because of the pandemic. It originally has this sort of bleak pun of a title, this hospital imagery literally appearing in a song about your breakup with your drummer, Marshall Vore. And there are some real brutal lines in it: The “work of art” one is pretty withering, but then there’s the “I hate your mom” part. And… he’s still in your band?
BRIDGERS: I mean, he fucking wrote the song with me. We have a very… every time I meet someone new, whether I’m dating them or it’s platonic, the Marshall anomaly in my life is very hard for people to understand. He’s a weird guy, too. He’s super quiet and fucking hilarious. We write tons of shit together. I don’t really feel like a song is done unless I send it to him.
But yeah he was always in my band, never has not been in my band. He started writing for other people and producing people and there were conversations of like, “Can we tour with Marshall anymore?” And it ended with, “We kind of have to.” Marshall doesn’t like tours, except my tours — which is awesome. But yeah, I don’t know, I literally wrote [“I See You”] on tour during soundchecks and stuff. The fact that I could play something like that in front of all my friends… it kind of describes my friends.
STEREOGUM: So they’re able to step back and laugh at some of these lines?
BRIDGERS: Totally. It’s also one of the older ones. It’s been three years since writing that, and it was definitely kind of raw when we started it but now it’s funny in retrospect. So then we put it out and everyone was like “Holy shit, it’s about Marshall, what the fuck.” And it’s old news to us.
STEREOGUM: The timespan you’ve referenced a couple times now — some of Punisher goes back to around the same time as the last album?
BRIDGERS: Before it came out, for sure.
STEREOGUM: And along the way you had boygenius and Better Oblivion. These are a couple years where you were doing a million interviews and tours. Did this material go through a lot of iterations, like responding to that in real time?
BRIDGERS: Yeah… The “Me & My Dog” song from boygenius was kind of an anomaly. It was my favorite thing that I’d written for this album, but I was like, “I think it would be sick with this three part harmony.” Other than that we wrote — like “Ketchum, ID” was my idea but we finished it together, and Better Oblivion we sat across from each other and worked on every single song from beginning to end together.
I feel like the way the [songs on Punisher] changed the most because of my other bands was just the fact that I was like, “Oh, it’s fun to play bigger songs live.” For my own mental health. If I sing eight of my slow jams in a row, I’m kind of hallucinating. It’s just fun to mix it up. I can’t wait for tour so I can play. [Before] I would have to write the same set over and over because I only had one record, and now I have so many to pull from and I’m so excited about that.
10. “Graceland Too”
STEREOGUM: You got back together with Lucy and Julien here. Why was this the one you wanted them to guest on?
BRIDGERS: I wrote it around them. I was in Nashville writing it and listening to the recording, and Julien lives there. It felt right. There is something kind of magical about us coming together. I had gone on a trip just to visit, and then was writing that song, and then I came home and I was finishing the album and I was like, “Hey, do you guys wanna sing on this song? I finished it, do you want to sing on it remotely?” And then I was like, “Well, I can just buy a fucking ticket to Nashville.”
So they agreed to come to the studio, everyone was in town again, and when I landed I had this text from Julien like, “Yo, I ran into Hayley Williams, do you want to sing on her record too?” And I was like, “Yeah!” Every time we meet up some crazy shit like that happens. It felt awesome. When I’m very excited while recording I do this very theatre kid thing of jumping up and down. I did that to that extent where they were laughing at me when we were recording that song.
STEREOGUM: I guess fittingly since you were writing about Nashville, but this one has a specific sense of place. And there are explicit or oblique settings throughout. I was thinking about how this might interact with that sense of being outside yourself, the disassociation from life — when you dig into an actual location, does it help you feel more present or grounded at all?
BRIDGERS: I love a setting for a song. It’s just I have a hard time visualizing things. I think in weird, grey clouds. In songs, I try to put someone somewhere. And I’m not that great at it, actually. I think I’m better at capturing feelings. So it’s sort of a cheap shot to say a place and a couple descriptors and then just talk about my feelings. [Laughs] So yeah it’s a great cheap shot.
11. “I Know The End”
STEREOGUM: Some of my favorite lyrics are at the end of the album, like “I’m not afraid to disappear/ The billboard said ‘The End Is Near.’” You’ve said this song was about the end of the world, and that it was both the first and the last song written for the album.
BRIDGERS: So, Marshall and I started it around the same time we started “I See You.” The lyrics were totally different, it was kind of just about depression. Then as I went on tour and my depression changed to be tour-related, it just took forever to feel right. I started writing an outro and was like, “What song should I tack this on the end of?” I took “I Know” and changed a bunch of the lyrics to make it make sense. There was this whole Wizard Of Oz analogy that kind of died, it’s still a bit in there. But yeah, it’s a song reworked so many times that it was the first and last song that I wrote.
The drive [depicted in the song] is up to northern California where my grandparents used to live. I feel like I’ve done that drive so many fucking times in my life. California’s huge: You go into the middle of it, through the middle of the state, and it’s so different than LA. Kind of like a Wizard Of Oz situation, it’s the idea that you just keep driving and there would be some sort of magical place at the end of it. Some sort of alternate reality.
I was driving up one time with my friends in high school, to go to Outside Lands I think, and there was a Space X launch — one of the first ones that I ever saw, that nobody knew about, and it looked like a weird fucking spaceship in the air floating. And everybody on the internet was like, “What the fuck is this?” There were at least 20 minutes where we were all like, “There’s aliens here.” I happened to be driving on the coast so I saw it over the beach, which was pretty surreal.
STEREOGUM: This is also a song that features most of the guests and collaborators from the album, including Tomberlin and Nick Zinner as well. It’s like you get this doomsday chorus together, and the arrangement is obviously quite different than the rest of the album, with that epic swell at the end. How long did it take to piece all this together?
BRIDGERS: It kind of came together naturally. I was basically like, “I want a huge outro” and Conor was like, “You know who plays crazy guitar for shit like that is Nick Zinner.” I knew that already, because he was on Better Oblivion. Sound City is such a weird environment. It’s not like any other place I’ve ever recorded. It’s like, Jackson Browne is randomly there one day. Then it’s Tomberlin, Jim Keltner. Jim played on the fucking album basically just because he was around and I asked him if he wanted to play on this. It’s just kind of a magical place.
It was easy to build an outro like that. The group vocal happened on a day where there were enough people. “Oh, it’d be a good day to do a group vocal today.” I’m sure it took forever, but I didn’t think twice about putting a million things on it. It was hard, actually, to take stuff off and pare down because we got too excited. It’s compressed sounding still, but it was worse, because the beginning of the song is sparse and it sounds loud and nice and as more things get put in you have to turn them down and it’s all the sudden this weird wash of nothing. We got a little bit ahead of ourselves.
STEREOGUM: It’s definitely one of the bigger songs you’ve recorded, and there’s something cleansing about it arriving at the end of Punisher even despite that apocalyptic energy. Do you get any kind of resolution out of it?
BRIDGERS: For sure. It’s just, you’re not really talking about it. You’re recording the song. The first time I sang it, everyone commented on the lyrics. Then the fifteenth time you’re recording something on it you’re just goofing around, which is sort of a form of therapy — you sing it so many times you forget. I’m looking forward to someday having people sing it back to me in a crowd. I think that would be so fucking fun. It happens with the “Scott Street” outro. There’s something so victorious about singing fucked up lyrics with a bunch of people.
Punisher is out now via Dead Oceans.