A deep dive into one of the most accomplished debut albums of the decade
Cai Trefor
14:45 9th August 2018

Phoebe Bridgers is over on European tour at the moment promoting her remarkable debut album, Stranger in the Alps.

The album is a masterful collection of indie folk songs that are meditations on heartbreak, mortality, and friendship. Drawing on personal stories in a sincere manner, the singer, like a great novelist, completely envelopes you in her world. To match the evocative lyrics that paint a thousand pictures in every song, there’s such dynamic instrumentation; soundscapes, built from myriad instruments and samples, that mushroom and then retract. With such power to the music, it's no wonder the likes of The National and War on Drugs have her on tour.

Alongside her in creating this body of work was a team at the top of their game. Esteemed producer Tony Berg, whose recent credits include the latest Andrew Bird album, played a major role. Based out of Sound City in LA, he started his career at Geffen and then Virgin as an A&R. Ethan Gruska, an acclaimed songwriter, was also involved as a producer. String arrangement came from Rob Moose, and cello by Gabe Noel – both have worked on some of the best albums of the decade so far. There’s backing vocals from Conor Oberst from Bright Eyes on the album, too.

It truly is a remarkable piece of work with all these amazingly talented people – and more too numerous to name – pulling out all the stops to make one of the most fantastic debut albums of recent times.

Given our fondness for the record that we're looking forward ot hearing live with a full band on UK soil for the first time since its release last year, we reached out to her to get to know more.

We talk about the production, the recording sessions, what it’s like on tour with her band, what she’s learned from Ryan Adams – he released her first EP and was in a relationship with her. We conclude with the singer's opinion on what to do when your heroes turn out to be bad people.

Read the Q and A below:

GW: You compose these incredible melodies that resonate really well with top musos. To what extent are you conscious of that process?

PB: I do like my melodies, but only much later. If I’m writing with someone, or playing with someone, and write a little melody part and they say they love it, I always think it sounds like everything else I’ve ever written. I can’t really hear what’s good about it until we record and I’m listening back. I mostly spend my life hearing others and wishing I wrote something like that. I’ve always been really drawn to pretty melodies that say sad stuff.

GW: Some hugely prolific names worked with you on the album. What was it like being in that situation for the first time?

PB: It was hard because everyone else I was recording with had made a ton of records and I hadn’t made any. But I think that was the most rewarding part of it – being able to be really opinionated and put my foot down. Realising that I had a place there. When I go to make my second record, I think that’s going to be a valuable part of my personality.

GW: Do you see areas where, in hindsight, you wish you’d taken more control?

PB: I think I settled into it for sure, but I wish I could have told myself at the beginning: 'I belong here and I can be assertive'.

GW: I’m interested in producer Tony Berg’s role. I’ve just seen him in interview and he talks about cultivating a shared philosophy and good feeling among musicians in his studio. Did he drive a good feeling between everyone?

PB: A lot of the time in the studio can be stale, and no-one really knows what to do. Whereas Tony is one of the most excited guys I ever worked with. His only fault is he’d go down a YouTube rabbit hole for like four-and-a-half-hours because he’d get so excited about like a Beatles reference that you’re making. He gets actually too excited! Which is a really fun environment to be in.

GW: What was his studio like?

PB:We started recording in Tony’s back house – a studio he had since forever. It’s this magical, old place full of instruments. But then he moved to Sound City, and we went to that little room and it was like a disgusting man cave with gross dust balls everywhere. But it’s crazy! The energy in there made it so great. Also he started recording my vocals with all the lights off, which isn’t an old studio trick or anything; he just started doing it randomly. But it weirdly works, because I don’t like being looked at in a fish bowl. We made this gross little garage somehow magical, in a weird way. GW: Given Tony worked for Geffen and Virgin as an A&R. What sort of references did he bring to the table, and did they have a big influences on the record?

PB: Yeah I think we definitely made a lot of references. One of the coolest parts of working with Tony was how many references he could pull up at a moment’s notice. We listened to a lot of people: Replacements, Big Star, Elliott Smith; stuff from all over the place. That was really fun.

GW: One other person on the album who stands out, for me, is Rob Moose. When you’re playing with someone who’s been on that many records (The National, Sufjan Stevens) is it very fluid?

PB: I was terrified to work with Rob, because Tony told me he was like he doesn’t really need a writing session. ‘All we do with Rob,’ he said, ‘is put him in the studio with the material and he’ll come up with something'. I was like: ‘What the fuck! He’s not going to work!? I’ve never played with this guy before’. But I come to find out he makes all these crazy notes that are completely unintelligible to a normal human being and I think we worked for one day on all of the songs with him. He’s truly incredible. He almost speaks a different language.

GW: Given he’s so exceptional at one particular thing, is there some compromise? There’s usually some kind of eccentric oddity with people that good.

PB: Well, I ask him what he wanted for lunch when we were recording and he told me he wanted a ginger shot from Whole Foods. That was really weird. But I’ve fully gotten to understand him; he’s so sweet and funny. We’re on this riff now that he’s my son. I don’t know where it came from. Every time he’s in LA they’re like, ‘your son is in town’. I get to New York, and I’m like, ‘Where’s my son?’ It doesn’t make any sense but I like it.

GW: Another collaborator with an incredible history is cellist Gabriel Noel (Father John Misty, Kamasi Washington). Was that similar to working with Rob? Or different?

PB: I have the same amount of trust. Everything he did was my favourite thing. We put a lot of effects on him. Strings can sound very grand, but we wanted to sound distorted and like something else altogether.

GW: That leads me to think another collaborator, Mike Mogis, who’s from very much a cult indie background. Was he hired to intentionally bring some of his own character, or a hired gun who’d do what you wanted?

PB: No, that was on purpose. Tony had never worked with Mike before. I really felt like we’d recorded a lot of stuff, and it was sounding polished. I brought him on to take it down to where it should be. On the end of the song ‘Scott Street’, for instance, there was a million bells and whistles we thought we needed but he took it back to a more basic level. So Mike helped it feel really gritty, in a way that I wanted it to.

GW: ‘Scott Street’ really stands out on the album for me. Do you feel the same about it?

PB: Yeah totally. It was also one of the most fun tunes to record because we would all sit around the microphone and play weird instruments and sing backup vocals. And it was towards the end of making the record so it was an emotional experience in general. It was a blast

GW: Was preparing the live show more or less daunting than recording in the studio?

PB: I think it should have been more daunting to me. We had two rehearsals before we went on tour, and it was kind of sloppy in the beginning and it’s really fallen together in an interesting way, although I actually feel I should listen to the record a little more. I’ll hear something in coffee shop and think, oh, we play this too fast live.

GW: How did you take the samples and textures from the studio to the stage? Were you banking them, as you went along, with the stage show in mind?

PB: Tony sent us all the stems, but we didn’t think about it until way later. But we don’t have that many samples we do a lot of recreating on stage which makes it fun. And every once in a while we’ll hear something in the recording that we haven’t been bringing to the live show and then we’ll make that happen.

GW: I was looking on Twitter and found your drummer Marshall Vore; he seems fun. He has a really self-deprecating sense of humour, says things like I’m too busy to talk about Trump because I’m trying to get ahold of Ableton for free. What’s it like travelling with him?

PB: Very… interesting. He’s late for everything. He’s really funny and great, and also late to literally everything but I love him.

GW: As for guitarist Harrison Whitford, he was one of the only guys I could find who hadn’t worked with the big names. How did you come across him?

PB: We met five years ago and just liked each other’s songs. He was in Nashville, I was In LA, and we’d travel to meet each other, first to hang out, then later making music. Eventually he moved to LA, then we met Marshall and the band fell together that way. They’re all like my best friends which is so fun. Nicky, the keyboardist, I stole from Conor Oberst because he used to play In Bright Eyes for years. It’s all like friends, and it’s very sweet to be on tour with your friends.

GW: Are you thinking about making another LA record?

PB: I think about destination of studios a lot, because some are so beautiful. But also I’m home so little it would actually be nice to make another LA record. I think that’s where my brain is right now.

GW: Are you going to be playing any new songs on the upcoming UK dates?

PB: Yeah, I think I will play new songs. I never fully plan it, but I also do covers of songs by bands that are from wherever I’m playing. GW: You’ve recently been on stage with Mumford and Sons, who were slated in the press for being picture with Jordan Paterson, who isn’t looked upon fondly for his political views. Does that represent a change for you as an artist? You’ve got someone you connect with musically but may not necessarily agree with ethically?

PB: It does. There’s not many people I agree with 100 percent. I’m a big Morrissey fan. It's hard. I didn’t know that about Mumford and Sons, and that sucks. Also, there’s so many arseholes and those guys were very sweet to me – most the people I surround myself with are very sweet to me. But sometimes you meet your heroes and they’re so different to how you imagined and that can be really difficult.

GW: As a consumer do you ever boycott the art?

PB: I don’t boycott the art, but I think there's a fine line between apologists and... Well, I don’t agree with apologists who say things that are like ‘oh they’re mentally ill’. People who argue Bukowski was a tortured artist and crazy, as opposed to just acknowledging he was abusive and horrible. There’s so much art we made in those circumstances that we can’t discount all of it. But it’s definitely fucking time to start listening to more women and people who aren’t fucking shitty to everybody. Elvis Presley met Pricilla when she was a full-on child. Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin. Let’s acknowledge the art, accept it, move on. And start supporting people who aren’t horrible in real life.

GW: That’s a good way for change in the future. One of our albums of the year was Prisoner by Ryan Adams. Was there ever point that that record was impacted by his relationship with you?

PB: I don’t think so. I think he’d recorded 80 songs for Prisoner by the time I met him. A lot was pre written. A lot will never get heard.

GW: Are you similar artists, do you think?

PB I like to be more concise. It’s funny because Ryan gave me some advice, and was like ‘you’ve got to put what’s fresh in your mind and put out the best shit’ and I definitely respect people who are really prolific – but I’m not. I write one song every like 3 months. It’s forced me because I don’t write that fast. I try to put out whatever’s fresh

GW: We can’t wait to see what you put out next. All the best.

Phoebe Bridgers plays:
16-18 Aug Green Man Festival
Sun 19 Aug Gorilla, Manchester
Mon 20 Aug Thekla, Bristol
Tue 21 Aug Scala, London

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Photo: Press