It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that at a time like this, Phoebe Bridgers is still thinking of others.
On the cusp of her sophomore album release, the 25-year-old singer-songwriter is quarantining alone in her Los Angeles home. The timing of the country’s bracing for COVID-19 ran parallel to the three-month lead-up to her full-length album, “Punisher,” out Friday.
“I’ve been more shut in than a lot of the people I know,” she said over the phone last week as California’s restrictions began to lift. “I broke quarantine to go to a protest, but I am pretending that things are still closed because coronavirus is super real and I don’t want to contribute to the spreading of it at all.”
Bridgers’s acute self-awareness made her 2017 debut, “Stranger in the Alps,” an album fellow empaths could hold on to for good days and bad. For “Punisher,” a more unapologetic, raw version of Bridgers emerges — and she’s not alone. The anxious, brassy trademarks of Better Oblivion Community Center collaborator Conor Oberst punctuate her West Coast twang and Bridgers’s boygenius bandmates Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus layer vocals on “Graceland Too” and “I Know The End,” like a warm hello to fans.
But the result is just as repeatable and relatable as her first, with signs of growth that embrace uneasiness with intention and melancholy with introspection. While still #SUPERSAD, there’s longing and strength in Bridgers’s words.
Q. Now that you’re deep into quarantine and releasing a new album, I guess a good place to start is: How are you?
A. I’m super overwhelmed and heartbroken every day, but I’m not personally suffering so I’m having to work through a lot of [expletive]. It forced me to take therapy seriously and treat myself well. Sometimes I feel like I’m not the best version of myself unless I’m performing for someone or for people. “I don’t deserve to feel good every day so might as well not sleep” or whatever. Opposed to if I’m going to see people it’s like, “I better get some sleep so I can be myself.” Trying to learn to still be me has been hard, but maybe it’ll come in handy in the future.
Q. Did those virtual at-home performances help scratch any sort of itch?
A. Yeah, a little bit, but nothing is comparable.
Q. Was there any point during preparing for the release that you were like, “OK, time for a new game plan”?
A. Tons of times. The last music video we did for the record was on March 10 or something, so it was like, we really finished just in time for it to get real. We didn’t know how long it was going to be or how real it was going to be but we just pushed forward anyway.
Q. What period does “Punisher” encapsulate?
A. It’s the past couple years of my life — a wildly different time than where we are now. It was music being my job for the first time and going on tour.
Q. The single “Kyoto” is such a beautiful, bouncy track, but it has some very heavy lyrics. I was interested to hear one of its themes is dissociation, which is a mental health topic I don’t hear about very often. Can you speak to how it made its way in the song?
A. It’s a form of depression I’ve grappled with for a while. I didn’t know about it my whole life until I started therapy and becoming friends with adults who are in therapy. Did you read [Sally Rooney’s] “Normal People”?
A. There’s this part where Connell’s like, “I don’t really know what’s happening until later.” Like, I don’t know how I feel in the moment, and then later I might have a thought about how I felt. Whether it’s good or bad. I look back on the boygenius tour and I feel like it was the best time of my life, but I didn’t really know that when it was happening. And when bad things happen it can be a useful tool. But when good things happen, I’m like, “When will I arrive at the present?” It’s something I struggle with, making my emotions catch up to the way it’s happening.
Q. I want to read back some lyrics from “Punisher,” and can we walk through them with what inspired them or what they mean?
Q. Let’s start with the opening track, “DVD Menu,” which is just an instrumental. So not a lyric.
A. I think since quarantine I’ve listened to a lot of Grouper, and lyrics are overwhelming to me. And I think being friends with Conor [Oberst] has romanticized the “album intro.” It’s like every record is saying, “Take me on a road trip.” When you start with an instrumental, it puts it into a different category, like “Buckle up.” I like that feeling.
Q. From “Kyoto” the lines: “I’m gonna kill you/ If you don’t beat me to it, and I don’t forgive you/ But please don’t hold me to it.”
A. Yeah. [Laughs] I think it’s tongue-in-cheek. I say “I’m gonna kill you” all the time, and I like using phrases in songs that I say every day. I love hearing songs that say a word like “whatever,” because it’s humanizing and modern. You can relate to it a little more.
The line “I don’t forgive you/ But please don’t hold me to it,” you get lazy and accidentally forgive people and it may be good or bad. I have a habit of cutting people out of my life completely because I’m afraid if we talk at all they’ll manipulate me into some [expletive]. I’m a big ghoster. But it’s because I feel pretty empathetic toward people who I shouldn’t, if that makes sense.
Q. I was going to try to give you a happier one . . . but this is not a happier one. I’m sorry! In “Chinese Satellite”: “Instead I look at the sky/ And I feel nothing.”
A. That kind of sums up the whole song. I so badly want to believe in God. I wasn’t raised religious, and I’m not religious, but going to sleep knowing someone is taking care of you at all sounds nice.
Also, in the sense of conspiracy theories and [expletive]. I wish I thought I knew what was happening in the world and I have no [expletive] clue.
Q. There’s the line in “Moon Song” that’s “We hate ‘Tears in Heaven’/ But it’s sad his baby died/ And we fought about John Lennon/ Until I cried.” It makes me think it’s good timing for a period when we’re calling people out again for bad behavior that society has brushed off.
A. There was no real thesis to including it, but I want people to know that I don’t like both of those people as people. They’re weirdly opposites, because they’re both really problematic. John Lennon beat the [expletive] out of his first wife, and nobody really talks about it. And he was the most fake activism guy ever. And Eric Clapton went on a whole racist rant about how “England is a white country and kick all the Black people out.”
So it’s not true that only people who make [expletive] music like Eric Clapton are problematic. Daniel Johnston wouldn’t have made the music that he did if it weren’t for John Lennon, and he’s definitely the best Beatle. But you can’t deny someone is a bad person because you love their art. And you can’t conveniently be like, “I hate Eric Clapton anyway, so of course he’s bad.” Sometimes they’re the same person.
Q. Right now, your “Punisher” tour is on a somewhat permanent hiatus. Do you think once restrictions lift, you’ll head out on the road?
A. I don’t know if I’d be comfortable until there’s a vaccine. Unless it’s the case where everyone is in a bubble, like the Flaming Lips did for “Colbert.” Then maybe. I’m open to some creative weird idea, but I don’t think it’ll get back to normal until there’s a vaccine. I keep relaxing and saying, “Indie rock is not going to be the first nor fifth thing that has an idea that changes everyone’s mind.” [Laughs] Let’s sit back and watch sports [expletive] up and then recalibrate our ideas.
Interview was edited and condensed. Rachel Raczka can be reached at email@example.com.