Phoebe Bridgers may seem like a household name in the indie rock world, but her debut album Stranger in the Alps only arrived three years ago. Since, she’s teamed up with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus as boygenius for a 2018 EP; collaborated with Conor Oberst as Better Oblivion Community Center in 2019; and, most recently, provided vocals on The 1975’s new album Notes on a Conditional Forum, with plans to open for the band on its stadium tour (which has been postponed due to the coronavirus).
All the while, she’s been working on her follow-up album, Punisher, ever since her first one arrived. In fact, she says, “I think I started writing [the album] even before my first record came out. And then as I went on tour, I was just slowly finishing songs.”
Bridgers recorded Punisher at Sound City Studios in Los Angeles’ Van Nuys neighborhood; since it opened in 1969, the studio has served as the production home for iconic albums including Fleetwood Mac’s Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes and Nirvana’s Nevermind (Bridgers also recorded the boygenius record at Sound City in 2018 with Baker and Dacus).
For Punisher, Bridgers recorded with Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska, both of whom she worked with on her debut, too. “[Sound City] is the best because of Tony Berg,” she says. “He’s been there for so many years, making some of my favorite records.”
Now, ahead of Punisher’s release on June 19 on Dead Oceans, Bridgers spoke with Billboard about what she geeked out on while writing and recording her latest project.
Growing up, Bridgers listened to a lot of country and bluegrass music. “I learned a lot of Carter Family songs and lots of John Prine,” she says, adding that she attended the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival every year into her teens. Those bluegrass influences, along with Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, influenced “Graceland Too,” the banjo standout that features accompanying vocals from Baker and Dacus. Of the late folk icon Prine, who died in April of complications from the COVID-19 virus, Bridgers says she was also influenced by his final album The Tree of Forgiveness, particularly its track “Summer’s End.”
While writing and recording Punisher, Bridgers says she was drawn to the singer/songwriter/composer’s recognizable aesthetic. “I love the way that his records sound and I am constantly trying to recreate that in my own music,” she says. Coincidentally, Mills holds a residency at Sound City, which led to collaboration opportunities between the two. Mills plays on Bridgers’ “Halloween,” “Savior Complex” and “I Know The End.” She says: “It was very weird to be, like, referencing music that was being made across the hallway.”
My Favorite Murder
On the debut single from Punisher, “Garden Song,” the track’s opening verse alludes to murdering a skinhead and burying them in the garden. The inspiration for the song likely stems from the true crime podcast My Favorite Murder, which Bridgers says she listened to while touring Strangers in the Alps — and continued listening to while touring with boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center. “I think it probably snuck in (to the album),” she says.
Riding the Faders
Bridgers used a new recording technique on Punisher that she learned from engineer Joseph Lorge. The trick is to play various sounds and then “ride the faders as you’re recording so it all shines in different moments.” Bridgers used that style on title track “Punisher,” saying: “We made all these samples of bird sounds and backwards voice and Mellotron noises and rode the faders, and as the song went, we would turn them up and down to highlight different sections.” Ethan Gruska, who co-produced the album, recorded many of the sounds they used as samples, which also included Bridgers own voice from previous records.