In the era of social distancing and self-isolation, our relationships with artists have never felt more vital, or more personal. That’s why the release of Bridgers’s new album this past week felt prescient in a way the 25-year-old musician couldn’t possibly have planned. “It feels weird to promote yourself right now, but it also feels weird to be like, I’m not going to put out music. Is it selfish to release music, or is it selfish to withhold it?” Bridgers wondered aloud in late March, three weeks into the full-fledged worldwide response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Bridgers’s 2017 debut album Stranger in the Alps is at once an ode to loneliness and the antidote to it; her songwriting ably captures the torment of modern disconnection, yet Bridgers has amassed almost 200,000 followers on Spotify and—in pre-pandemic times—regularly played sold-out shows at venues around the world. Her ardent fans gather online to create community out of her plaintive, razor-sharp lyrics and following her collaborations—her Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus-backed supergroup boygenius, as well as her indie folk duo with Conor Oberst, Better Oblivion Community Center.
Bridgers's career, like those of so many other musicians, is imperiled to some degree by the pandemic. COVID-19 hit the indie music industry particularly hard, with many artists forced to delay album releases and cancel the tours that often provide the majority of their income. “Life will eventually go back to some level of normalcy but it's unnerving to think about what that will look like for the independent music community,” said Jessi Frick, co-founder of the San Francisco-based indie label Father/Daughter Records, which represents Diet Cig, Shamir, Vagabon, and others. Bridgers acknowledges that she's relatively lucky in comparison to many of her lesser-known industry peers: “Selfishly, I’m glad this is not two or three years ago for me, but I feel so fucking bad for people who are releasing their first record into this environment.”
“I think it’s going to affect working-class musicians more than anybody else,” she continues. “There’s a disappearing middle class of musicians, because artists who can afford to stick around and change all their tours to 2021 are going to do that, and then people who work at Starbucks and have their punk band aren’t going to be able to afford to tour because so many of the venues we rely on will be out of business.”
In the early days of self-quarantine, Bridgers—a homebody by nature who doesn’t drink and rhapsodizes about canceling social plans— found her daily routine “hilariously undisrupted, other than the soul-crushing anxiety.” Stuck alone at her home in Echo Park, Los Angeles, Bridgers kept up a routine of Zooming her bandmates, reading the 1872 lesbian vampire novel Carmilla, and exchanging gushing DMs with Billie Eilish about their mutual admiration society (as one does). Her Spotify playlist, “Catch Me Inside,” got an update with work from Liz Harris’s ambient solo project Grouper—“the saddest, most atmospheric stuff informing the end-of-the world environment—and upbeat dance artist Claud. “I’m craving stuff from my childhood, food-wise and entertainment-wise,” said Bridgers, lovingly describing meals of cereal and PB&J eaten and takeout cake from Sweet Laurel Bakery in the Pacific Palisades while watching The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.
“I wrote the last song for this album at least eight months ago, it’s about being kind of self-absorbed and writing about yourself at the end of the world,” said Bridgers. (Sample lyric from “Garden Song”: “When I grow up / I'm gonna look up from my phone and see my life.”) Bridgers is alternately hopeful and anxious about the world she’s released her new album into: “This is the only time I’ve wished I could see the future.”