Phoebe Bridgers openly admits she’s living the dream. She’ll also openly admit that “the dream” is specific entirely to her.
“It’s specifically my dream life,” she says. “It’s not random. It’s exactly what 16-year-old me would die to do. Which is so fucking cool.”
Included in that dream might be her recent appearance at Wisconsin music festival Eaux Claires, which entailed playing a set of her own material and singing as part of the Eaux Claire Women’s Choir — a hastily-but-lovingly-arranged one-off supergroup featuring Bridgers, Julien Baker, Anais Mitchell, Polica’s Channy Leaneagh, Gordi, and Kristín Anna Valtysdóttir.
Oh — and that’s not to mention the night she joined The National and sang on stage with frontman Matt Beninger during “Sorrow.”
“I was shaking,” she recalls. “He’s like Sad God. He’s like Disappointed God.”
It was a lot to take in over the course of one weekend.
It’s all somewhat new to Bridgers, the 23-year-old graduate of L.A. County School for the Arts barely one year removed her breakthrough record Stranger in the Alps. But by no means was Bridgers an overnight sensation. She escaped obligatory childhood piano lessons relatively unscathed, learned guitar, and began writing songs while still in her teens.
She ended up playing bass in L.A. art-punk band Sloppy Jane, recruited on account of being close friends with frontwoman Haley Dahl, who was desperate for a temporary replacement. Bridgers stayed on two years.
“I just played bass in the background and barely moved when Haley was spitting paint all over herself in the nude. One time she pantsed me,” Bridgers says. “That’s the most punk rock thing I ever did.”
All the while Bridgers was making her own music, a contemplative brand of folk and indie rock indebted to Elliott Smith — a lifelong favorite of Bridgers introduced to her as a little girl by Autolux drummer Carla Azar. Since the beginning — read: 2015’s Killer, a seven-inch released on Ryan Adams’ PAX AM label — Bridgers’ songs came loaded with a startling emotional heft and melodic simplicity that belies the subtle intricacies of her guitar work. Sonically, she and Julien Baker are soul sisters. They just so happen to be extremely close in real life.
Bridgers and Baker met in early 2016 when Bridgers was booked as Baker’s opening act. (“Immediate-best-friends kind of shit,” she recalls.) Now the pair are not only co-members of Eaux Claires Women’s Choir but close confidantes navigating the odd experience of being the faces of rising emotional indie folk.
It’s not hard to see why. Stranger in the Alps has its fair share of gut-wrenching moments of vulnerability, despair, and trauma. “Funeral” is among the most gorgeously devastating, Bridgers moving through the experience of singing at a funeral “for a kid a year older than me” while entrenched in the soul-sucking stasis of her own depression: “And last night I blacked out in my car / And I woke up in my childhood bed / Wishing I was someone else, feeling sorry for myself / When I remembered someone’s kid is dead.”
She’s speaking from experience, having spent the long stretches of the writing process in a depression. She barely wrote for years, occupying herself with “bullshit errands” or just laying in bed scrolling through her phone.
“A song like ‘Funeral’ — I started and then I finished six months later after not looking at it again,” she says. “I think a lot of the avoidance behavior was like, ‘Oh, the last thing I wrote was the last good thing I will ever write.’”
Years in the making, Bridgers managed to finish Stranger in the Alps, an album she made mainly for herself.
“I just got to make this record. I had no idea if anyone was ever going to hear it,” she says. “And then I remember when I finished my record, my mom was like, ‘Are you OK? Jesus.’ By the time I figured out that maybe people were going to listen to my record I was basically already done.”
What followed was an upswing in her mental health — “I don’t feel that way anymore, I can say that honestly” — and, in a word, listeners. The latter presented a new challenge. Put another way: It’s easy to write about your most vulnerable and emotional moments when you don’t have an audience with certain expectations. Her new trick for writing with the openness that made her music stand out? Self-deception.
“I’m like, ‘OK, I don’t have to show this to anyone. Worst case scenario, if it’s too intense, I don’t have to show it to anybody,’” she says. “But I think I’ll end up convincing myself that I want to.”
Phoebe Bridgers, Wednesday, July 18, 8 p.m., at Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell St., $18-$20, slimspresents.com