If Phoebe Waller-Bridge ever writes and directs a dramedy about the intertwining lives and romances of Gen Z hipsters in their late teens and twenties, she should consider the music of another Phoebe for the soundtrack.
Sunkist-haired, Manchester-based artist Phoebe Green, who turned 23 in November, self-released her first album, 02:00 AM in 2016. She’s been steadily accruing fans and buzz since, for her darkly witty and very danceable indie rock tunes about the cringe-worthy and often cold behavior at play in contemporary relationships.
On Dec. 3, Green’s label, Chess Club Records, released I Can’t Cry For You, an EP of four new songs. The record opens with “Reinvent,” one of the sleeper gems of late summer and fall. The song’s strobe-like beat and the slide-guitar lick that introduces each chorus are pretty impossible to resist, and the knowing lyrics, about the tug-of-war between being one’s self or playing a role to win friends and lovers are just as compelling.
“I often feel sickened by the prospect of flirtation/ But how else am I meant to gain immediate validation,” sings Green, whose vocals range from drily world-weary to genuinely unguarded. “I’d like to think I’m funny, but I’m far too fucked to tell/ I’ve had to repeat my name three times, but I think it’s going well.”
In a phone conversation with Billboard, Green explained that she wanted I Can’t Cry For You “to be quite a personal and complete depiction of my life” over the past year. She also talked about how her songs are mostly self-critiques; her affinity for astrological signs (even though she doesn’t read horoscopes), and Billie Eilish, who included one of two singles that Green released in 2019, “Dreaming Of,” on her In My Room playlist. (That song and another gem, “Easy Peeler” will be included on a limited-edition vinyl edition of the EP that’s due to be released in February.)
How have you been spending lockdown?
I’m staying at my parents’ house, so I haven’t been on my own or anything. It’s not been too bad. It’s just so fucking boring.
So, how does someone as young as you are write such knowing lyrics?
I don’t think it necessarily comes from experience or anything. I’ve just always been quiet and intuitive — a pensive person. I’ve always had quite loud thoughts and a lot of thoughts, and that comes across in the way I write. I did English literature at school, and I’ve always loved writing and expressing myself through poetry, songs, whatever it be.
Who are your favorite poets?
To be honest, I don’t really read anymore. I literally don’t have the concentration span. I used to read a lot of Oscar Wilde at school, and I loved that kind of pastoral. It’s so strange, because you wouldn’t think it with the way I write. I’m not into mushy songs.
That’s for sure.
But that’s what I used to absorb. I’ve always been inspired by stories that start out with idealistic imagery and then get really dark and horrible.
Your songs tend to have two sides to them as well: the narrator seems very self-assured and at the same time is second-guessing herself.
That’s very much the way I am as a person. I am very extroverted and confident when I feel like I’m in control of a situation, but then the second I start to question myself I can’t really fake it anymore. And my way through that is being really self-deprecating — not in a depressing way, but in a way that makes humor of things. It’s a defense mechanism. You joke about your faults in a way that if anyone tries to criticize you, you can say, “Yeah, well I did it first.”
You collaborated with The Big Moon’s Juliette Jackson on “Reinvent.” Did you work with her on any of the other tracks on the EP?
No. I did a couple of demos with her. I wrote “Easy Peeler” and “Reinvent” with Juliette, but it’s more the kind of collaboration where we’ll come together and she’ll have really cool musical ideas. Then I’ll tell her what I’ve been feeling, and about experiences I’ve had that I want to write about. We have built such a nice friendship in that sort of setting that I’ll write lyrics while I’m sitting next to her, and we’ll bring the song to life.
The EP though is mostly things I’ve written completely on my own. I wanted it to be quite personal, and a complete depiction of my life — what I’ve been up to, and the head space I’ve been in this past year or so. I didn’t really want collaboration. If I’ve shown the songs to anyone, it’s my younger sister Lucy, who’s in my band. She plays keys, and she’ll help me with some musical ideas.
What’s your process for writing music?
I say that I learned how to play guitar at school, but I used my lessons to just chat shit with my teacher. So, I kind of play guitar. I’m good enough that I can accompany myself, but I don’t write songs on guitar anymore because my skills are so limited that it would mean all my songs would sound exactly the same. I write lyrics first anyway, and I now do my demos by finding a beat, finding a bassline, recording over that and then collaborating with Lucy because she’s a classically trained pianist. She’s going to be 20 in February and she’s so good it’s ridiculous.
Who do you like to listen to or see in concert?
At the minute, all I’ve been listening to is Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher. That album killed me off — and it came out at such a perfect time.
In 2019, Billie Eilish put “Dreaming Of” on her In My Room playlist. Have you ever talked or traded messages?
No. I think she is incredible, but I view her as being untouchable. She’s so massive. I’m just like, “Oh my god, she would never respond to me.”
What is your life like when we’re not in the middle of a pandemic?
I’m one of those people who likes to be occupied all of the time. I find it really hard not having anything to do and not having anything to focus my energies on. So, I tend to be out and about all the time, seeing whoever I can.
I understand that you are really into horoscopes and use people’s star signs to essentially classify them. How does that work?
I’ve always been pretty into it. I never would judge a person based on their astrological sign — I say that, but I probably do. I think it gives me peace of mind to put people into categories. That’s probably quite a negative, weird trait, but it makes me feel like I’ve got it figured out.
Do you read horoscopes and have a favorite astrologer?
No. I think things that predict the future are always going to be bullshit. But when it comes to describing a person I think astrology is quite interesting. I just look up traits associated with star signs and line them up to experiences that I’ve had with people. As soon as I see something that’s true, I’m like, “Yep, perfect. Everything I thought about them is completely confirmed.” There has to be some accuracy in there, if it’s all to do with stars and where you’re born. It sounds all science-y so I’m just going to believe it.
Do you ask people you meet, “What is your sign?”
The name of your EP comes from a line in the song “Golden Girl.” The first few times I heard it, I thought, I feel sorry for the person you are addressing in it. Would you agree that it’s a pretty cold song?
I was thinking about this the other day. A lot of my songs on first listen probably sound like I am being such a b—h about a specific person. But actually, they’re all about me criticizing the way I am within relationships or the way I’ve dealt with a situation. “Golden Girl” is very much me listing my faults in response to someone else’s actions. It’s about a relationship where I became emotionally unavailable, and the song is saying, there’s no point in expecting anything of me because I’m not going to deliver.
How much of your work is autobiographical?
Probably all of it. I can’t really write about something if I haven’t experienced it. In my head, I’m just like, ‘There’s no point.” You’re going to be able to see through it.
In the song “A World I Forgot,” you sing about “the amount of time I spent watching daytime TV from a hospital bed.” Is that based on an actual experience?
Yeah, I had a long hospital admission recently. It’s so weird because I wrote it before the pandemic, and now it really is kind of Corona[virus] friendly. The song is relatable for basically everyone, which is so strange because my experience was so unique. I initially felt like it wasn’t something I could write or talk about because it was a very rare situation to find myself in. But now I think the lyrics really resonate with people because they’re about feeling isolated and a world going on outside the window that you’re not part of now. It’s so strange how that worked out.
How did you end up in the hospital?
I haven’t spoken about it at all.
Your Twitter feed bills you as the “Shirley Temple of the North.” What does that mean?
When I was a toddler I was the spitting image of Shirley Temple, and growing up, I used to sit with my Nan and watch Shirley Temple DVDs nonstop. I was this small little thing with ringlets dancing all the time. My nan still calls me “Shirley.”
Is your orange hair a reference to Temple?
More like Annie. [Laughs.]
Imagining squeaky-clean Shirley Temple singing your songs is kind of mind-blowing.
That’s a good music video idea.
It’s all yours. Will you tour once live shows resume?
Oh my god, I hope so. It’s the one thing I am begging for. I just want to connect with people again. I’ve never performed any of the songs on the EP live. They are different from what I’ve released previously, so I really want to gauge people’s reactions. You can’t fake it if you’re in a crowd, but on Instagram you can message me and be like yeah, it’s so good when secretly you absolutely f–king hate it. Face to face I can see through that.