Phoebe Bridgers on Boygenius Plans, Taylor Swift and That Guitar Smash
"At least it's not like I stepped on something that I didn't mean to. I was just like, 'Oh, good.'"
Phoebe Bridgers is not in album mode. She’s not in touring mode or label-leading mode right now, either. “I’m kind of in like, homey, taking-in-art mode,” she says over Zoom. Bridgers is sitting in her sun-filled Los Angeles home, wearing overalls and holding her black pug, Maxine. “Like, walking-around, reading-and-listening-to-records mode — which probably means I’m about to make something, but who knows.”
Bridgers has earned the break. Since the release of her critically acclaimed debut, 2017’s Stranger in the Alps, she has gained a reputation as a quiet storm, capable of stunning sold-out crowds into silence with intimate lyrics sung in a plaintive near-whisper. Acts from Taylor Swift to The 1975 have invited Bridgers to guest on songs that require an added layer of emotional devastation, while her indie-folk side projects — like the supergroup boygenius, with fellow singer-songwriters Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, and Better Oblivion Community Center with her “emo role model,” Conor Oberst — have spotlighted her prowess as a burgeoning rock star with a wry sense of humor and a fearless attitude toward the genre’s patriarchy.
The 27-year-old released her second album, the cathartic Punisher, on Dead Oceans in June 2020 amid the height of the pandemic. But while the world was on pause, Billboard‘s 2022 Women in Music Trailblazer recipient got to work. She replaced full-scale touring with a packed schedule of inventive livestreamed performances — including a prerelease run she dubbed World Tour with stops like “Kitchen,” “Bathroom” and “Bed” — and actively connected with fans on social media with more livestreams, calls for political action, behind-the-scenes photos and candid TikToks.
That October, she also became a CEO, launching Saddest Factory Records under Secretly Group and hand-picking a roster of alt-pop artists and fellow singer-songwriters, including MUNA and her first signee, Claud. And as live performances returned this past year, Bridgers became an even bigger part of the mainstream music conversation, smashing her guitar on Saturday Night Live in February and attending the Grammys in March as a four-time nominee, including for best new artist. Following a brief fall tour, she’ll head out for more dates across the United States and Europe this spring.
If you could go back and give yourself advice before launching your own label, what would it be?
I feel like I followed my own advice. The stuff that has been great to learn and that people have allowed me to learn is more business-related. It’s so nice to have business partners who have owned labels before. I would have had way more advice to give myself if I had gone out and done that by myself. Weirdly, there are older versions of me everywhere at the label to stop me from doing stupid s–t, and I’m glad that I listened to my own advice to only sign stuff that I love because then every decision is kind of easy.
Do you feel like a mentor to the people on your roster?
I’ve had dynamics, especially when I was younger, where older people I’m intimidated by will be all like, finger guns with me and think that we are peers, but actually, I’m coming in with a totally different life experience. So I try not to be too mentor-y, and I try also to be like, “You’re cooler than me, and I trust you. I don’t really know what’s up with TikTok, and you probably know way more about Bandcamp bands from your college than I do.” Having all of us be mentors to one another is a dynamic I would like to keep.
It has been over three years since the boygenius EP. Are you planning anything new with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker?
Since that band started, our plans have been like, “Whenever it’s easy and fun.” I’m sure we will, but none of us have gotten to tour our own solo [albums], so we’re just meeting up whenever we can. Maybe we’ll try to go on a vacation or something. Maybe the next time we hang out will not be for music.
Speaking of your collaborators, Taylor Swift revealed she was a huge fan of yours this past year when she invited you to guest on “Nothing New” from Red (Taylor’s Version). How did that happen?
I got this random text from Aaron Dessner that was really weirdly worded for him. And I was like, “What the f–k is this?” And as I was reading it, I [realized], “Oh, my God, it’s from Taylor Swift.” We started texting about all kinds of stuff. It was just a total high. It felt like when you meet someone at a party and you’re in the corner all night being like, “Me too!” I’m excited for when we hang out for the first time. We’ve only been very [COVID-19], online friends.
Some of the one-off singles you’ve put out, like your cover of Bo Burnham’s “That Funny Feeling,” have raised funds for causes like voter rights and abortion access. Plenty of artists are private about their politics — why do you choose not to be?
I’ve been outspoken about politics definitely, but with stuff like that, it’s kind of a no-brainer. For my generation, politics have never even been that complex. It has always been, like, someone evil [in office]. Music is such a cool way [to get involved] — it’s the only thing people care about about me. That sounds reductive, but if you give people something to share and something that will forever go to that [cause], I find it’s a way easier way to contribute.
Rock can feel humorless sometimes, but you’re quite uninhibited and often hilarious on social media. How important is it for you to show that side of yourself?
It’s weird because it’s all under the umbrella of capital. Some a–hole owns Instagram, and people are making this totally unethical algorithm to torture kids and f–king… I don’t know. Twitter’s evil. It’s all evil. But it has been the only connector for at least two years, more so than ever. So I don’t know. Working under the constraints of the world that we live in, it’s important to me, and I like connecting with fans, and that’s my favorite thing about it by far.
It has been a year since your guitar-smashing moment on Saturday Night Live — and the ensuing Twitterstorm, led by rock’s outraged elder statesmen. What did that reveal to you?
It’s pathetic and funny. No part of me thought it would piss anybody off. I literally went to sleep and woke up and was like, “What the f–k?” It’s just so stupid. I’ve said this before, but at least the right people hate me. At least it’s not like I stepped on something that I didn’t mean to. I was just like, “Oh, good.”
This story originally appeared in Billboard’s 2022 Women in Music issue, dated Feb. 26, 2022.