Conor Oberst, Lucy Dacus, and Christian Lee Huston all guest on the singer-songwriter's new record.

By Christian Holub
June 19, 2020 at 02:30 PM EDT
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Kristy Benjamin

Phoebe Bridgers has been keeping busy. Though this summer’s Punisher is only her second solo record, it’s hardly the only project she’s worked on since her 2017 debut, Stranger in the Alps. In 2018, she joined fellow artists Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus to form the supergroup boygenius, then teamed up with Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes fame for the duo Better Oblivion Community Center. Bridgers invited her collaborators — along with singer-songwriter Christian Lee Hutson, whose new album Beginners she produced — to help make her sophomore record, which oscillates between Bridgers’ quietly devastating folk poems and louder rock bangers. The crew gave EW a (brief) look at how Punisher came together.

Phoebe Bridgers: I was writing it since before the first record came out three and a half years ago, and then we started recording in summer of 2018, so it's been a long time.

Christian Lee Hutson: I originally met Phoebe through [a] mutual friend. She ended up coming to see me play a show, and then afterward she asked if I wanted to try to write a song together. One of the first songs we wrote is on her new record. It’s called "Halloween." We wrote that like a week after meeting each other.

Bridgers: I love Halloween decorations. That’s always the kind of stuff I'm striving to make. Even if I don't always seem goth in the way that I dress, which sometimes I do, I definitely love goth culture and Halloween s--t and David Lynch.

Lucy Dacus: Phoebe is willing to go darker than most people. There were a couple of times listening to Punisher where my jaw dropped like, “Are you allowed to say that?” The line on “Moon Song” — “We hate ‘Tears in Heaven,’ but it’s sad that his baby died” — I was like, Girl! But it gets to the point of what she’s saying.

Hutson: "Moon Song" is my favorite from her new record. It’s just a f---ing amazing song. The week after we met, when she came over to my house and we wrote "Halloween," before we started working on that she played all of "Moon Song" and was like, "I don’t know if it’s done yet. This is the only new song I have." But you can imagine the characters in the song, it’s specific and yet you can put yourself in it easily.

Bridgers: [The single] “Kyoto” started out as a ballad, because that’s how I write most music. It mostly sounds like I’ve written the same song a million times and then it’s like, how different can it get? Songs like “Moon Song” are pretty true to form. But then songs like “Kyoto” just take a turn. I don’t feel like my songs are really written until I record them, because I don’t know what’s going to happen to them. So it was definitely a fun surprise to have accidentally written a fun song.

Dacus: Phoebe has become a great producer. She told me that on her first record, she didn’t really have as big a vocabulary for production, it wasn’t as essential to her process. But with boygenius, and being in the studio when she was producing Christian, I saw Phoebe is a very smart producer. I hope people give her credit for the creative decisions she made sonically, not just as a writer.

Hutson: I had made like three or four different versions of my record with other people and was still trying to figure out what songs I wanted to use, because I had a backlog of maybe 50 songs I wrote just through throughout the last few years that I've been making the record. After the third attempt, things were just not sitting exactly right. Phoebe came to me and she was like, "I really want to produce your record because I feel like it should just be simple. It should be just what you do in the room." Honestly, I feel like Phoebe's probably the only person that could give me the confidence to just be myself in a room playing a song that I wrote. 

Conor Oberst: [Punisher] is a more fully realized version of her music. I know she felt more in control. She wasn’t having as many arguments with producers and collaborators. She was the one in charge and I think, because of that, it came out amazing.

Bridgers: The first song I started was also the last I finished, which is the very last song, “I Know the End.” It’s just super f---ing long, and it was challenging to write lyrics for it and have them be effective. I didn’t want it to be corny. The more personal, intimate songs are easier for me.

Oberst: I helped with that one. I was a part of the “screaming choir,” but that was a pretty minor contribution. I helped flesh out some lyrics and explore different word choices [and] imagery.

Bridgers: My favorite albums are ones that aren’t one tone; they’re cohesive. You know like, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, the Bright Eyes album. There’s a song for everybody on it. There are fast songs, folk songs, sad songs. I wanted this to feel almost like a f---ing musical. There’s something about it that’s connected, but it’s not just 10 of the same songs.

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