Phoebe Bridgers Talks SNL Guitar Smash, Punisher, Marilyn Manson, and 2021 Grammys

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Phoebe Bridgers Talks SNL Guitar Smash, Punisher, Marilyn Manson, and 2021 Grammys

Phoebe Bridgers is sitting in an empty room trying to figure out what to do with all her tchotchkes. Save for a floral-printed reading chair and floor lamp in the corner of the frame, nearly every crevice of the singer-songwriter’s Zoom screen is vacant—washed out by sunlight from the windows behind her on a late February afternoon. But she confesses that, just off-screen, every surface is cluttered in random trinkets and tokens of her life. She presents a small, textile figure with a clump of hair hanging from the side of its head as evidence. “It’s an elf, but his beard is off,” she explains.

Bridgers has just moved for the first time since she was eighteen, upgrading from her Silver Lake studio apartment to a house just a few minutes away. Right now it’s just her and her dog, Maxine, whom she is eager to introduce me to, chasing her down out of frame. She Simba-lifts the bug-eyed black pug to the camera, and after Maxine greets me with a few anxious licks, releases her with a loving, “Ew.”

Now eight years, two albums, and four Grammy nominations later, the twenty-six year-old muses about the space she currently inhabits. “There’s supposed to be a kitchen table behind me, but…” she looks back at the designated void as if the table happens to be running late. As she laughs at the image of seeing her “tiny little bed in an adult’s bedroom,” it’s difficult not to imagine her surroundings as … well … a Phoebe Bridgers song. “I don’t know how, but I’m taller,” she sings on the Punisher track “Garden Song,” “It must be something in the water.”

Phoebe Bridgers

The singer’s career is far from an overnight success—even if she did sleep through the announcement of her four nominations for Best Alternative Music Album, Best New Artist, Best Rock Song, and Best Rock Performance in this year’s Grammys. And yet, the past year has certainly been a growth spurt. Just a few of her “notches on the doorframe” have included her sophomore album Punisher being released to critical acclaim, founding her own record label, a guitar smash heard ‘round the world on SNL, and lending her voice to ongoing conversations in politics and the music industry.

As she sits in her yet-to-be-decorated home, awaiting the results of the Grammys, as well as the greenlight to begin touring again (whenever that may be), Bridgers doesn’t seem to mind this state of suspension. After all, when you’re sure of the path you’re on, there’s not much need to cut corners. “I’m not afraid of hard work,” she sings at the close of “Garden Song,” “I get everything I want.”

Perhaps it’s this self-assuredness that leaves Bridgers unshaken by whatever this growing fame might throw at her. On Feb. 6, Bridgers made her debut on Saturday Night Live, during which she smashed her guitar on a monitor at the crescendo of her apocalyptic anthem, “I Know the End.” The stunt fit right into the track’s tongue-in-cheek chaos, with Bridgers leaning into her own melodrama with a visceral scream into the void. But, as evidenced by the viral Twitter debate Bridgers woke up to, some viewers took the guitar smash a bit too seriously. Some called it a desecration of rock music, others thought it was “extra.” And there was the resounding sentiment, “She’s no [insert classic rocker here].”

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“It’s, like, a musical theater move … It’s contrived,” Bridgers says of smashing the guitar. “I asked the studio if I could do it. They built me pyrotechnics. It couldn’t have been more courteous and, like, well thought out.” Bridgers says she’d been joking about a clip of her close friend and collaborator Conor Oberst’s band Bright Eyes demolishing their instruments on The Late Late Show, realized she had never done it, and noticed, coincidentally, that she owned a plethora of Danelectro baritone guitars.

“Is it okay if I smash it?” she recalls emailing the company. The company reps warned her that the guitars were very hard to break, sending a video of Joe Perry “trying and failing to smash one” as proof. But Bridgers wasn’t deterred from the challenge, stepping up to pull the sword from the stone with a blasé, “I got it, no problem.”

The destruction proved to be as hard as it looked. As Bridgers took swings into the monitor, sparking with cartoonish pyrotechnics, the only controversy she feared was the “intrusive thought” of a potential wardrobe malfunction. Between swings, Bridgers says the guitar snagged on her dress—a black Gucci crépone dress with pearls adorning her torso to resemble her iconic skeleton suit. (The onesie has become something like a uniform for Bridgers and her band, sporting it in her Punisher album art and various performances since buying it for a Halloween costume.) The dress stayed intact, but the fragile ego of Classic Rock Dad Twitter… was shattered beyond repair.

“I think I got scared for two seconds that it was the right people arguing with it,” she says. “I thought I was stepping into, like, ‘You’re being wasteful,’ territory.” But she says these concerns were “debunked in my own brain in, like, two seconds”—reminding herself of the time Gibson apparently ran over hundreds of guitars “with a fucking bulldozer.” Not to mention, Bridgers soon realized most of her critics were just “dickhead, goat beard assholes online yelling at me.”

“I went to sleep, and I woke up and I was just like, ‘Ugh, this is amazing,’” she says, “They don’t even know how fucking stupid they sound.” Rock and roll purists, evidently a brand of gatekeeping as oxymoronic as it sounds, weighed in with unsolicited analyses of the countless musicians who had smashed their instruments before her. Which, to Bridgers, held no real weight. “There’s nothing stupider than being like, ‘Hendrix was a real artist who did it for real,’” she says, “Like, people fucking hated him, too. And you know what? They were old as fuck like you, you fuck.”

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One of those old fucks, was David Crosby—whose music and Twitter presence Bridgers says she has always enjoyed. Crosby had fired out a number of tweets and retweets about how “pathetic” Bridgers’s stunt was, to which Bridgers replied with a deft incision only a true wordsmith could compose on the fly: “Little bitch.”

Bridgers says that she barely thought about her response, considering the exchange to be very playful. “There were people being like, ‘You’re only mad that a powerful young woman is being a rock star,’” she recalls. “And those people were embarrassing, also, so I thought it kind of quieted both sides.”

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If anything, the criticism seemed to frame an important juxtaposition for Bridgers regarding her privilege and purpose. “As a white woman who makes music that’s, like, by no means revolutionary … I think I am really self conscious of my privilege and place in the world,” Bridgers says. “And when people think that me existing is revolutionary, I’m like, ‘Oh, oh, wow, we have a long way to go,’ and, ‘Oh, wow, I can use this fuel to shine light on way more marginalized people.’” In her “darkest heart,” Bridgers says she fears that she might be seen as a poster child for “white mediocrity.” “So, I think when I piss off incels online, I’m like, ‘Oh, maybe there is a reason for me to exist and to care about the things that I care about.’”

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Dan Tuffs / Alamy Stock Photo

One of these reasons, according to Bridgers, was raising over $173,000 for Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight organization through her and Maggie Rogers’s cover of “Iris,” by the Goo Goo Dolls. On November 3rd, while awaiting delayed election results, Bridgers threw down the gauntlet by tweeting, “if trump loses I will cover iris by the goo goo dolls.” Rogers soon upped the ante, tweeting back: “u need some harmonies for that special tune ?” (Bridgers’s boygenius bandmate Lucy Dacus has since raised the wager to promise her own cover if Bridgers wins a Grammy.)

Bridgers and Rogers proved to be women of their word when Trump lost. On November 13, they released the cover for purchase on Bandcamp for one day only, and instantly hit the day’s top charts for digital downloads. “We were like, ‘We tried so hard to make records,’” Bridgers recalls with laughter, “‘And now we’re charting for something that we, like, shit out?’”

In early February, actress, model, and musician Evan Rachel Wood came forward with abuse allegations against her ex, Brian Warner, otherwise known as the shock-rocker Marilyn Manson. Wood’s statement was followed by several other women who shared allegations of abusive behavior by Warner—all of which he denied. In solidarity with his survivors, Bridgers shared her own experience with Manson while visiting his LA home when she was a teenager.

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“I think what’s special about my experience [with Manson] is how un-special it was,” she says. “I literally met him for like three hours. I am not a survivor of him.” Yet, in the short window that she had been inside Manson’s home, she got “an immediate impression of what he thought was funny, and what he thought was cool, and how he wanted to be perceived.”

Bridgers attributes the lack of reckoning with predatory behavior and misuse of power within the music industry, in part, to an overarching culture of silence. “You don’t talk about money, you don’t talk about rights, you don’t talk about backends,” she says, “and I think you don’t talk about abuse.” Without a standard of accountability being upheld as the norm, it’s not uncommon for those who do call out unacceptable behavior to receive backlash—or to be reputationally pigeonholed. Such was the concern of Bridgers when she came forward among several other women in a 2019 New York Times report regarding allegations of emotionally abusive behavior by Ryan Adams. “I just [didn’t] want to be the one person who is defined by their experiences with fucking men who they met really early in their career,” she says. “I don’t want that in my fucking Wikipedia, like, first sentence. And I waited until it was, like, third sentence, you know?”

However, the snowball effect, as Bridgers puts it, of breaking this silence is “invaluable to people coming on the scene…. You realize that you can be powerful and vocal and pissed.”

This focus upon paving a better path for new-comers in the music scene seems to be something of a mission statement for Bridgers. In 2020, she announced that she had founded her own record label, Saddest Factory, as a space to scout and support new talent. And, it seems, as an extra outlet for Bridgers to flex her comedy chops.

Bridgers announced Saddest Factory with an ultra-corporate photo shoot, along with a website featuring the mock-POV of a label employee being inundated with oat milk latte and “numbers” requests from Bridgers. (Both of these marketing stunts feel very on-brand for Bridgers, who now faces me wearing a black cap that says “Business” in plain white text.) She launched the label under Dead Oceans, which released both of Bridgers’s own records. Her first signee, Claud, just released their debut bedroom pop album Super Monster to instant success. Bridgers recalls the reaction of many Saddest Factory reps, exclaiming, “‘Wow! This is doing better than Punisher week one!’” “I was like, ‘Thanks guys!’” she laughs.

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The positive reception of the album was a relief to Bridgers, who says she spent “a lot of sleepless nights” wondering, “‘What if I fail and have to face this thing and … face this artist, who’s earlier in their career, and be like, ‘I took your art and I fucked it up.’” On the day of Super Monster’s release, Bridgers says she listened to the record top to bottom, comparing the method to “when you have a crush, and you go to your own social media to see how you would look to them.” “I did that with Claud,” she says, “and was like, ‘Fuck. This record’s so good.’”

As for the future of the label, Bridgers says she wants it to be “led by the artists that find it naturally.” If she were to restrict it to a certain genre or vision of her own, Bridgers feels that she would be restricting the label’s potential—and the agency it can offer to up and coming artists.

As we await the results of the Grammys—which were postponed from January to March due to an uptick in COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles, Bridgers tells me she has “no expectations about the actual award show.”

“I feel like this is the highest expectation I ever had for a music career. So it feels nice to be, like, held in suspense,” she says. “I get to be a Grammy nominated artist for longer, you know?”

She carries the success like she’s been here before, all while maintaining a humbled shock at having made it this far.

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Dan Tuffs / Alamy Stock Photo

“I think I was prepared to, you know, have a residency at some great LA venue and just be, like, famous around town,” she says. “Every year has just been such an unexpected gift.” And she’s not interested in looking any gift horses in the mouth—shrugging off her nomination for Best New Artist with a smile, despite performing since her teen years and releasing her debut album Stranger in the Alps in 2017. “I feel like this every year,” Bridgers says, “I’ll be like, ‘Oh, this is what happens when you make music that people like!’ And then it’s like, ‘Oh, no, this is what happens when you make music that people like!’”

She gushes over her fellow Best New Artist nominee Megan Thee Stallion—“I just like the way that she thinks and writes and talks”—as well as her fellow nominees in the first all-women-nominated Rock Performance Category. “I don’t think I really thought about [the nominees being all women] until I started doing interviews about it,” she says, noting that each nomination in the category just struck her as “correct.”

Among them is Bridgers’s fellow Los Angeles County High School for the Arts alumni Haim, whom Bridgers saw “when their parents were still in the band.” She remembers seeing one of their sets while still in high school, and thinking to herself, “Oh, this is accessible to me,” as well as, “Oh, maybe I should get good at my instrument.”

“I’m trying to reclaim being shitty at music,” Bridgers says in a way that feels only half-joking, “I’m trying to focus on being a writer and then just playing the same three chords and, like, not thinking too hard about it.”

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Right now, she’s trying not to think too hard about her Grammys night—unlike her mother, who bought a bottle of champagne “like, two days before” nominees were announced in case she won. (“[She] only was gonna share with me if I was nominated, which is kind of fucked up, honestly.”) She does know that she’ll be bringing her younger brother, Jackson, as her date—and that she’ll likely be donning her skeleton suit for one final victory lap.

If she does take home one, or four, gilded gramophones, Bridgers guesses she’ll, “probably order from a vegan restaurant and, like, I don’t know, open a bottle of natural wine or something.” As is to be expected when your banner year aligns with a global pandemic, Bridgers jokes: “I think I’m just racking up the party punch card, you know?”

It’s hard to imagine what things will look like by the time Bridgers can cash in this party punch card. And it’s hard to tell what Punisher – an album that, for many, has become synonymous with their year in lockdown – will sound like. If all goes as planned, she’ll finally get a chance to tour Punisher to crowds worldwide. “I think the highest hopes I have for [the future of Punisher],” Bridgers says, “would be that it represents last year for people. But that, when I do get to play the songs live, whenever, it feels like the end of a chapter.” What that chapter will mean for each of her listeners when the time comes, of course, will be different. But, as is the great unifier of Bridgers’s songwriting, the artist finds that she often feels like “I’m singing about other people’s experiences that are mirrored.”

Even now, it’s easy to see the songwriter as a reflection of so many of us—sitting in an unfamiliar, empty home, surrounded by scattered bits and pieces of her life to sort through. Perhaps some day she’ll find the words for this moment for all of us. But right now, Bridgers still needs to unpack.

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