The ultimate guide to Phoebe Bridgers’ musical universe
One beloved synth pop trio, an armful of aching singer-songwriters… and Lorde. Here’s everything you need to know about the musician's ambitious crew.
Over the last three years, Phoebe Bridgers has gone from critically acclaimed niche artist selling out 300-cap rooms to Grammy-nominated, festival-headlining voice of a (very disaffected) generation. But no one ascends to that level of fame in isolation, and Phoebe has done a commendable job of using her exponentially increasing visibility to spotlight the talented musicians in her orbit.
Phoebe launched her label, Saddest Factory, in October 2020, and quickly got to work surrounding herself with first-rate talent. That includes gifted artists she literally grew up with in Pasadena, California, like Sloppy Jane and Charlie Hickey, as well as more established acts she has since found creative kinship with, like MUNA. The label has become a home for some of the most exciting, groundbreaking, ambitious queer musicians across the indie sonic spectrum.
Now a bona fide mainstream star, Phoebe has worked with well-established talents like Lorde (she called singing backup on two Solar Power songs “magical”), Kid Cudi (perhaps brought about through mutual Twitter admiration) and even the namesake of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Taylor Swift Education Center. She’s also served as producer for Christian Lee Hutson, whose own brand of West Coast alt-folk complements her own. That’s all before getting into Phoebe’s own side projects: Better Oblivion Community Center with Conor Oberst and boygenius with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker. The boygenius EP remains one of the high-water marks of Phoebe’s career — its every bar about the loneliness of road life and post-breakup fantasies ruthlessly engineered to make the listener draw ragged breaths.
A relentless touring schedule to promote her latest album Punisher has also given us the chance to know Phoebe’s touring band, which over the years has featured tremendous musicians whose own solo work merits your attention.
These artists are a vital part of what we’ve taken to calling the PBMU: Phoebe Bridgers Musical Universe. Here’s everything you need to know about them.
With two well-regarded albums on a major label, MUNA had already achieved plenty of success before ultimately joining Saddest Factory. Composed of Katie Gavin, Josette Maskin and Naomi McPherson, the trio make soaring synth pop that blends the stadium-packing charisma of HAIM with the rich observations on queer life and love penned by artists like Shura or Arlo Parks.
The band’s self-titled Saddest Factory debut, which i-D has already praised as “restless, massive and undeterred,” might be their strongest work to date. Led by the shimmering reverie of hit single “Silk Chiffon”, the LP features life-affirming electropop in “What I Want” (“I spent way too many years not knowing what / What I wanted, how to get it, how to live it and now / I’m gonna make up for it all at once”); Kacey Musgraves-ian self-reflective country on “Kind of Girl”; and a new wave throwback about the downsides of fetishisation on “Solid.”
MUNA is arguably the flagship act on Phoebe’s label, and their latest batch of tunes more than lives up to that designation. It’s no wonder their songs are used to add a dose of brightness and levity to some of Gen Z’s darker moments on TikTok.
“I just think that the songs that somebody listens to can change their lives,” Katie told i-D. “I just wanna help people if they wanna make better choices, but I also wanna help the girlies that just wanna have fun!”
Charlie Hickey’s tender songwriting makes him the apple that fell closest to the Phoebe tree. The 22-year-old artist’s first Saddest Factory album, Nervous at Night, is filled with self-aware insights on mental health (“Told her I hated my life / I guess that was melodramatic / I don’t like it but it’s not like I would ever stop trying”), clever turns of phrase (“Always been scared of flying / Even more scared of arriving”) and ruminations on the turbulent political moment (“Your parents are asking you what you’re protesting / Don’t let them tell you you don’t understand it / If you want something, you should just demand it”).
But sonically, Charlie differentiates himself with some elegant, experimental flourishes and a crystal clear voice reminiscent of Ben Gibbard. Phoebe once said, “Being able to sign Charlie is one of the reasons I started a label in the first place.” With the potential shown on Nervous At Night’s best moments, it’s easy to see why she felt that driven.
Madison, Sloppy Jane’s first release on Saddest Factory, begins the way not many indie rock records do: with an overture. The tense bursts of strings and horns set the stage for a truly surreal LP, one that spans acoustic folk, chamber pop, nervy ambient sounds and contemporary classical, sometimes within the span of a single song.
“My work in nature is very ridiculous, so I feel like most things started as something stupid. I did make a record where I dragged a piano and an orchestra into a cave –something I threatened to do in a melodramatic moment after I got my heart broken–but then I actually did it,” singer Haley Dahl told L’Officiel in a joint interview with Phoebe. “Most of the stuff that I do is like that, where I meant it as a cartoon, but then I actually followed through.”
Headed by the aforementioned vocalist, composer and polymath, Sloppy Jane can be introduced kind of like the indie music equivalent of Stefon describing New York’s hottest club on SNL. The outfit has featured a vast array of instrumentalists and backup vocalists – briefly including Phoebe, herself – and recorded its Saddest Factory debut in a West Virginia cavern. Haley even drew attention several years ago for wearing the same suit every day for a year (including on stage) and announcing she intended to eat it.
The brilliance of Sloppy Jane is most evident on songs like Madison’s “Wilt.” Its opening section is a little Fiona Apple, a little Okkervil River. Its bridge adds in a squirming arpeggiated synth, but its conclusion is grand and theatrical, drums crashing cavernously. It’s a fittingly tumultuous backdrop for Dahl’s lovelorn lyrics, as she sings: “My misery will bury you / And I'm so sorry that I'm scaring you / But what was I supposed to do / As opposed to loving you?”
The first artist signed to Saddest Factory, Claud built a fanbase through charming, earnest love songs like “Wish You Were Gay” and “Do You Need Me?” Continuing the themes from their wittily-titled Sideline Superstar EP, Claud’s Super Monster examined heartache and yearning, but not strictly from the protagonist’s point of view — a welcome change of pace from boilerplate me-centric songwriting. Though there’s a sombreness to songs like “Soft Spot”, Claud’s music is never maudlin, always giving the listener a sweet melody to latch onto.
“I am an optimist, almost too much sometimes. I’m always like, ‘Oh, it’ll be ok!’ Even when it’s definitely not going to be ok,” Claud told i-D in February 2021.
Their post-Super Monster output has been selective, but November 2021 single “Tommy”, with its Say Anything-style artwork, features some of Claud’s most vivid songwriting to date. It’s a tender song about knowing someone is settling for you, and being acutely aware of the shadow of someone else looming over your relationship. “There was the time you wore the jacket / I asked if it was new / You tried to lie and hide / Who gave it to you,” Claud sings. “Go Home”, their June 2022 single, is positively buzzy.
Beyond their solo output, Claud is also part of Shelly, a promising band that features their Syracuse classmates Clairo, Josh Mehling and Noa Frances Getzug.
Christian Lee Hutson
A pensive singer-songwriter with an old soul, Christian Lee Hutson is a close friend of Phoebe’s, and she’s helped produce two of his LPs, including 2022’s Quitters. Christian is an acolyte of Elliott Smith’s, and he has the kind of incisive pen and penchant for gossamer guitar parts that the legendary late musician showed in his influential career.
The best moments on Quitters, like “Sitting up with a Sick Friend”, are masterclasses in storytelling, as Christian processes anxiety around a loved one’s health seemingly in real time, first fixating on a “Dogs Playing Poker” style painting that he’s been sleeping beneath, before later zooming out to reflect on how small town ennui and fear of mortality actually share a street corner with each other.
Christian, another LA native, spent years cutting his teeth in the city’s indie folk scene, developing a voice that thrives right on the edge between caustic pessimism and earnest optimism. It helps that he has a biting sense of humour and a way with words that recalls the great David Berman of Silver Jews. “We've got rubberneckers, broken records / Why-don't-you-get-back-togethers / Never run to catch a bus / There'll be another one,” he sings on “Rubberneckers.”
“I feel like my primary goal when I'm writing a song is: How do I get my friends to laugh?” he told Columbus Monthly. “It's funny when you miss three buses and your plane is delayed and then a bird shits on your head… I feel like that is the closest to my world perspective. Everything is so [messed] up, but it's hilarious at the same time.”
Z Berg achieved meaningful musical success as a teen with her LA-based band The Like, and has since branched into a solo career. Inspired by Nico’s Chelsea Girl, Berg’s Get Z to a Nunnery is an eerie but beguiling folk record, headlined by “The Bad List”, a Christmas song about a relationship combustible enough to fill the chimney with smoke.
Phoebe sings backup on three tracks from Get Z – “Calm Before the Storm,” “Little Colonel” and “Charades” – and her voice intertwines elegantly with Berg’s. But compared to Phoebe, Berg has an upfront theatricality, a natural way of finding the spotlight that seems to contrast Phoebe’s own demeanor. No matter its musical context, Berg’s voice always cuts through – it’s perhaps why more than one review likened her to the great French pop singers of yesteryear.
Her last release, November 2021’s Covers and Love Letters: Screaming into the Void, includes a scintillating duet with Shamir that features banjos, searing violins and thumping saloon drums.
A true utility player in the PBMU, Marshall Vore has been a longtime studio collaborator and drummer for Phoebe's live shows. The pair once dated, and it’s widely believed that his mother is the subject of some Punisher’s most cutting lyrics on “I See You” (“I hate your mom / I hate it when she opens her mouth / It's amazing to me how much you can say / When you don't know what you're talking about”).
Marshall’s live percussion can be key to the sonic diversity in Phoebe’s set. He kicks off the cacophonous conclusion of “I Know the End,” but can also play the toms quite tenderly on songs like “Halloween”. The well-honed chemistry of Phoebe’s touring band is part of what has consistently elevated her live shows throughout her career, and Marshall is crucial to that.
In addition to his drumming, Marshall also has a burgeoning career as a producer, working with talented indie artists like Ada Lea, Kississippi and Girlpuppy, one of the most promising young artists loosely within the Phoebe phylum.
If you’ve ever seen Phoebe perform, chances are you’ve also been privy to the elegant fretwork of Harrison Whitford. He’s also a close associate and collaborator of The National’s Matt Berninger, in addition to playing on records by Lucy Dacus and Johanna Samuels.
Though the guitarist’s solo music hasn’t gotten the widespread attention of some of his peers, it’s no less enchanting. He’s originally from Boston, but since relocating to LA he’s found a perfect niche for himself in the city’s scene of witty, candid singer-songwriters.
Harrison’s 2021 album Afraid of Nothing is filled with dusky alt-folk punctuated by lilting flecks of acoustic guitar and gently cresting melodies that accentuate his reedlike vocals. Its best track, “Linoleum”, captures the vulnerability of a private early morning kitchen conversation, in which Harrison reckons with his own power to affect the relationships in his life. “Did not know I was imperfect / Didn’t know I was no saint / Didn’t know my hands could destroy as much as they create,” he sings.
Anna Butterss performed regularly with Phoebe supporting Stranger in the Alps, and has perhaps the most unique musical background of anyone featured here. A prodigious jazz bassist, Anna plays both upright and electric, and studied the instrument as an undergrad in her native Australia and as a masters student in the US.
On the studio side, Anna played on Punisher, boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center, and has worked with everyone from boundary-pushing jazz auteurs like Makaya McCraven, to indie stalwarts like SASAMI and Grammy-winning singer-songwriters including Aimee Mann.
This summer, she’s making a foray into solo artistry with Activities, her debut album due out in July. Its lead single, “Super Lucrative”, thrillingly blends the artificial and organic into new musical shapes, akin to the work of acclaimed composers like Anna Meredith.
Another gifted Australian bass player in the Phoebe family, Emily Retsas has also played with Kim Gordon, one of rock’s truly legendary bassists, and Fiona Apple. She played on Punisher too, and has been involved with practically every permutation of Phoebe’s music, including boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center.
Beyond her instrumental skills, Retsas also spent much of the early Covid-19 lockdown working on Sound Travels, an online tool for musicians to find work remotely.
Many of the best moments from Phoebe’s Punisher tours have centred around the incorporation of strings, and violinist Odessa Jorgensen is essential to that. Odessa, who also makes mononymous solo music, performed at Carnegie Hall as a teenager and has released several albums, most recently the affectionate Lullabies for Adults & Children in February. As an artist, she rose to prominence with 2014’s “I Will Be There”, a warm pledge of devotion that became a favourite of TV and film music supervisors.
Her 2019 LP, All Things, further showcases her songwriting breadth, from the beachy love song “Paradise” to the plaintive piano ballad “Tipton”.
Another long-time member of the Phoebe Family Band, Nick White has been playing keys with her for years. Before he began working with Phoebe, he racked up a myriad of credits on seminal Bright Eyes records like I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning and the subsequent live album Motion Sickness.
He added an elegant base of keys to some of the highlight moments of Phoebe’s 2022 Coachella set, including “Moon Song” and “I Know The End”, and frequently gets his moment to shine during the band’s elegant live performance of “Punisher”.
- Phoebe Bridgers