Dispatch #8: I feel like I know you
"We'll watch TV while the lights on the street put all the stars to death."
I’ve been home from my writing retreat for ten days now, which is about how much time I need to recover from the shock of re-entering real life after a writing retreat. A lot of the recovery entails frittering away the hours I have to write by stressing about how I could never possibly write with these strict time parameters, within this chaotic, noisy, full life, which includes so much domestic and parenting labor: procuring (whole, organic) milk from Target, making sure Mickey has extra pants for school, wiping asses, checking long division problems, practicing reading, monitoring screentime, answering questios (“Why didn’t you name me Rouge?”) and so on and on and on. The first couple of days back, I always feel a bit like Jeremy Renner in “The Hurt Locker,” overwhelmed at all the supermarket cereal offerings.
(Yes, I realize I am not a bomb defusing soldier struggling with civilian life, please don’t lecture me.)
Anyway. I feel like today I finally got a decent chunk of writing done without feeling guilty about how much I didn’t do, or how deeply I didn’t focus. I liked the dialogue exchange I came up with, and figured out how to suture a tender scenelet into some larger summary, and I did it in public with a cappuccino made by an expert.
And while I did it, Phoebe Bridgers sang into my earbuds. Phoebe is who I want to talk about today.
I’m pretty sure I heard “Motion Sickness” from Bridgers’ first album, Stranger in the Alps, on KCRW and sought out the record because of it. I still love that song—it’s a vicious pop song about having dated an older guy (we now know that it was Ryan Adams, an abusive asshole). The lyrics get me every time:
You gave me 1500 to see your hypnotherapist
I only went one time, you let it slide.
Fell on hard times a year ago
I was hoping you would let it go
and you did.
And the perfect repetition/echo of bored and bored:
You said when you met me you were bored…
and you were in a band when was born.
Oof, it’s so perfect and cutting.
This isn’t even my favorite song on that album. I love the eerie “Smoke Signals” which always reminds me a bit of the Twin Peaks credit music, and “Scott Street” puts me in a mood of pleasant longing every damn time.
I want to write a whole dissertation about summarized dialogue in Phoebe Bridgers’ songs. The simplicity of these recounted snippets of dialogue at once captures everyday speech while also reframing mundane interactions in a poetic light that reveals how much is below the surface, unsaid, buried, but only barely. In “Scott Street” for instance:
I ask you how is your sister
I heard she got her degree
I said that makes me feel old
You said what does that make me
I asked you how is playing drums
You said it’s too much shit to carry
And what about the band?
You said they’re all getting married
The song ends with the trite: “Anyway don’t be a stranger,” which Bridgers repeats twice before amending it to, “Don’t be a stranger” before the music ends. It’s conversational filler, a cliche, and yet underneath it we hear the distance that’s widened between these two people who were once so close.
I listened to Stranger in the Alps probably every day, or every other day, for two years. I listened to it over and over again while I wrote. A few weeks ago I went back to it again. I always listen to music on headphones as I work; it’s a focusing agent (to keep out the sounds of the world), and a way to access the emotive reserves I need in order to write. Phoebe Bridgers does this for me—by now it’s Pavlovian…I hear her voice and I slip into creative mode.
Her new album, Punisher, came out June 2020. I was afraid, honestly, that it wouldn’t be as good as her first record, though I’d already heard and loved all the singles. Like (probably?) everyone else, I loved this album. I ate up the Amanda Petrusich’s profile of her in the New Yorker, and I celebrated when Pitchfork named it the fourth best album of the year, and I was excited she was getting so much exposure and praise: from SNL to the Grammys. My girl Phoebe! She’s only 27 (as of August), and she’s from Pasadena, with a lot of choice LA-centric lyrics (“From the window it’s not a bad show if your favorite thing’s Dianetics or stucco.” I mean isn’t that just wonderful?) I’m a mega-fan…and I feel protective and proud of her, like I’m her older sister or her aunt or her mom. God I wish I were her mom!
I digress. The new album has all the stuff I love from Stranger in the Alps, including more LA lyrics and that painful beautiful summarized dialogue. This is from the poppy hit “Kyoto”:
You called me from a payphone
They still got payphones
It cost a dollar a minute
To tell me you’re getting sober
And you wrote me a letter
But I don’t have to read it.
In “Halloween” it reaches its apogee with the refrain: “Oh come on, man,” which you can imagine a drunken person saying to another person, exasperated, cheeky, and pleading all at once. When she repeats it, I’m dead, she killed me.
I listened to Punisher through the pandemic and into revising my novel for the thousandth time. It’s not lost on me that my love (obsession with?) Phoebe Bridgers is for an album whose title track is about her love for Elliott Smith and his music:
What if I told you I feel like I know you
But we never met?
I assume most of her mega-fans were thinking about this at the Greek Theatre last week. Patrick and I went to Friday’s show and I had been giddy about it for weeks. Me and Phoebe! I want to meet her but I don’t! It’s for the best! Being a mega-fan, I’d already seen her open for The National and play a free show in Downtown LA before that, but this was a real show. Her own show. At the Greek! As her mother/sister/aunt/fan, I was excited for her!
The concert was beautiful. Phoebe sings like an angel in a breathy haunting falsetto but she has a very deep no-nonsense speaking voice, and she has a lovely sway as she plays. Because I know nothing about music, I liked seeing what instruments made what noise. The trumpets sounded terrific. It was special to be tucked away in Griffith Park on a cold LA evening.
This probably isn’t a surprise, but it was weird to see her live, with all her other mega-fans. The guy next to Patrick was drunk and/or high, and dancing HARD to all the songs, including the ballads, and singing along with every lyric. He was into it in a major way. Many people were singing along—sometimes you couldn’t really hear Phoebe because of it. This was what concerts are about, though, right? The collective. The communal experience that is live music.
The thing is, my experience listening to these two albums is so intensely private. I listen to them as I write, and by the time the world experiences what I’ve written, I’m in a different story altogether. When I work, there are only two voices: the one in my head and the one in my headphones, and the latter is often Phoebe Bridgers. It felt wrong to have these songs out in the open. Like, um, what is happening?! This is secret!
Don’t get me wrong, I want everyone to love her music like I do, and for her to have all the glory and success and adoration. I also want the music to be mine. Because it is.
At the end of “Smoke Signals,” that first song on Stranger in the Alps, she sings:
The future’s unwritten
The past is a corridor
I think about it a lot when I’m writing my time travel novel. Maybe, in a way, Phoebe’s writing it with me.
I’m back in the real world again, trying to write and live. It’s hard.
What have you been listening to lately? What art do you feel is just for you?