In late February, the singer and songwriter Phoebe Bridgers appeared at Carnegie Hall as part of a benefit for Tibet House U.S., a nonprofit founded by the composer Philip Glass, the actor Richard Gere, and the Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman. New York was not yet fully in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, but a diffuse anxiety was nonetheless in the air. Early in the evening, the artist and musician Laurie Anderson performed several pieces from her album “Songs from the Bardo,” in which she narrates sections of “” in a gentle, steady voice. The text is intended to coax a consciousness through the foggy space between death and rebirth. Already, it felt resonant.
Bridgers, who is twenty-five, wore a tea-length black dress and high-top Doc Martens. A thin headband pushed her white-blond hair from her face. Backstage, she shared a dressing room with the seventy-four-year-old soul singer Bettye LaVette. “She’s so badass,” Bridgers told me later. “She was talking about a gig she’d played, and she was, like, ‘Oh, what was I doing again? Oh, I was playing Obama’s Inauguration.’ She was flexing and it was amazing.” Bridgers, who will release her second album, “Punisher,” in June, gets a little jittery before she performs. “My least favorite thing is not getting nervous,” she said. “Just being kind of bored and on my phone.”
In 2017, Bridgers released her début album, “Stranger in the Alps.” Her deft lyrics earned her comparisons to Bob Dylan—a worn-out accolade, perhaps, but there was a violent precision to Bridgers’s writing that made the songs feel urgent. Shortly after the release of the single “Funeral,” the singer and guitarist John Mayer日本一本一道经典视频 tweeted, “This is the arrival of a giant.” The song is about someone who overdosed. Bridgers strums an acoustic guitar. Her voice is high and feathery:
At Carnegie Hall, Bridgers opened her set with “Garden Song,” the first single from “Punisher.” I made a bootleg recording of her performance, which I have replayed several dozen times, in part because it feels like a valuable relic from an era in which large groups of people could still assemble to hear music, and in part because it is beautiful. On “Punisher,” “Garden Song” is buoyed by synthesizers; it sounds lush and wet. That night, Bridgers was accompanied by her guitar and a string quartet, which added a tense elegance to a song that alludes, in an oblique way, to murdering a skinhead and burying him in the garden: “Someday I’m gonna live in your house up on the hill / And when your skinhead neighbor goes missing / I’ll plant a garden in the yard then.”
Conor Oberst, of Bright Eyes, was in the audience. He and Bridgers met when she was added to a bill he was part of at the Bootleg Theatre, in Los Angeles, in 2016; two years later, they made an album together, as Better Oblivion Community Center. “Right when I heard her start to sing, I felt like I was reuniting with an old friend,” Oberst said, of their first encounter.
Bridgers was brought up with the music of Laurel Canyon—the nimble but vulnerable folk songs that proliferated on the West Coast in the nineteen-seventies, when writers like Joni Mitchell began exploring parallel ideas of domesticity and unease—but she came of age listening to emo, a subgenre of punk rock focussed on disclosure and catharsis. Oberst is one of its most beloved practitioners. “I went directly into Bright Eyes as a teen-ager,” Bridgers said.
Oberst and Bridgers both write frank and anxious folk songs that are preoccupied with death and spiritual decay. But Bridgers is too interested in the pliability and the beauty of language to be satisfied with mere confession. “Punisher” took Bridgers more than a year to record. “I tweak lyrics a million times,” she said. “I’ll listen back and be, like, ‘Oh, fuck, phonetically I have something else that sounds exactly the same.’ ” Her best writing is both dreamlike and mundane. “The doctor put her hands over my liver / She told me my resentment’s getting smaller,” she sings on “Garden Song.”
In conversation, Bridgers is quick to lampoon her own behavior with a withering quip, or to wisecrack about the gaffes of others, but her music can be almost unbearably tender. “Punisher” was recorded at Sound City, in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Van Nuys, where Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Fleetwood Mac,” and Nirvana’s “Nevermind” were produced. There are vague echoes of all three in her music—Young’s dolor, Fleetwood Mac’s tunefulness, some of Nirvana’s boyish rawness. Though Bridgers often jokes about her inability to behave like a normal person, “Punisher” is a fully realized work, crafted with foresight and intention.
For Bridgers’s final song at Carnegie Hall, the singer Matt Berninger, of the indie-rock band the National日本一本一道经典视频, joined her onstage. In 2019, Berninger released “Walking on a String,” a melancholy track featuring Bridgers on vocals. Bridgers and Berninger both mix humor and dread, but their age difference—Berninger is forty-nine—means that they approach the problem of getting by from different vantages. Bridgers sings worriedly of the future; Berninger sings worriedly of the past. In the end, both points of view take a toll. “I hang my head and feel the oxygen drain,” they sang together. “Phoebe writes so well about boredom and sadness,” Berninger told me. “Sometimes she makes those things exciting and beautiful.”
The next day, Bridgers and I met for lunch at the Grand Central Oyster Bar, a century-old restaurant on the lower level of Grand Central Terminal. The ladies’ rest room features a red couch shaped like a pair of lips; tall cans of aerosol hair spray are arranged by the sinks. On the first season of “Mad Men,” Don Draper and Roger Sterling enjoy a bountiful Martini-and-oyster lunch at the Oyster Bar, and it remains the sort of spot where men in suits and cufflinks congregate to get loose and close deals. “Damn, this place rules,” Bridgers said.
We took a table near the back. Bridgers ordered six Katama Bay oysters and a side of sautéed vegetables. “Anything else for you?” the waiter asked. She shook her head. “Anything else for you?” he asked again.
“Wow, so much fucking judgment,” she said, laughing, after he walked away. When her order arrived, she felt vindicated. Surveying a plate of damp kale and green beans, she grinned and said, “This is exactly what I want! Hot, wet vegetables.” Bridgers is a pescatarian, and she recalled an incident from high school in which she was mocked for her diet: “They were standing around, like, ‘Phoebe’s a vegetarian.’ And I was, like, ‘I’m a pescatarian.’ And this girl goes, ‘Phoebe, that’s a fucking religion.’ ”