Take it from Phoebe Bridgers: When you approach a musical hero (or anyone you might highly admire), try to have a gameplan.
"Do you know what a 'punisher' is?" the singer/songwriter asked me over the phone one afternoon. "A punisher is someone who talks to you but they really don't let you talk to them -- but they find a way to make you talk to them. It's like your aunt who's like, 'Hey look at these photos of my dog!' That's punishing. It's stuff you can't get out of even though the person is very well-intentioned."
I'd imagine plenty of us are guilty of being punishers now and then. But, of course, it gets ramped up to a whole other level when you're face to face with, say, a musical idol. Here are a couple nifty ground rules to help avoid those awkward moments: 1) Don't tell 'em your life story, 2) don't linger and 3) have an actual question ready. Some people are, unsurprisingly, worse than others.
"I'm mostly talking about older men," she said laughing. "They'll be like 'Wow! you're a girl! That's so cool and you're so young and these songs are so intense!' Like you're supposed to invent a question [for them]. It's like, 'Yea, well, I...like...music.'"
Of course, that's not to say that Bridgers doesn't have her own awkward experiences with heroes ("I've replayed so many embarrassing interactions in my head over and over from years ago, so I definitely sympathize with the punishing") but after shows, apparently the cumbersome moments come in all sorts of different ways.
"Do you know what mansplaining is? There's also fansplaining. It's where someone doesn't really compliment you -- they just tell you what you've done. They'll be like, 'You released a 7-inch on Ryan Adams' label and then I saw you play in San Diego.' And you're like '...thank you?'" [laughs]
It should come as no surprise though that the 23-year-old Bridgers, who performs at the Observatory North Park on Aug. 3 with American Football, inspires that sort of hero worship. Her folk(ish)-pop music (which has also been described as "country-emo") is achingly beautiful, anchored by a deeply personal, poignant and humorous lyricism. I asked her if it's difficult to perform her songs in concert day in and day out -- constantly reliving the moments she's written about.
"Leonard Cohen once said if you don't try to put yourself in the place of feeling your songs, you're just alienating yourself from the audience in a f---ed up way -- and that's definitely not a direct quote. But you'll get bored if you mail it in. It's not half-assed, it's just really easy to do if you play the same songs every night. You actually do actively have to try to put yourself in that place. Even if it sounds like it would be harder to do, it's actually way more rewarding and it's cathartic and therapeutic to do that."
Bridgers' 2017 debut full-length album, "Stranger in the Alps" (yes, a reference to the infamous line in the edited-for-TV version of "The Big Lebowski"), is in a word, breathtaking. It's stark, sad, funny, smart, intimate, dense -- did I mention sad? Months ago, one of my friends (lookin' at you, Rosey Bystrak) wrote on Facebook that Bridgers' song "Funeral" (written about singing at the funeral of a friend) "is quite possibly the saddest song I've ever heard." Of course, that's a subjective thing so I asked Bridgers her take on the saddest song ever written. She didn't skip a beat.
"It's 'I Can't Make You Love Me' by Bonnie Raitt. That one, I literally can't even get through it. [It's] poison oak ... That song needs a f---ing warning label on it."
Truer words have never been spoken. Like the best songwriters, Bridgers has an uncanny knack for storytelling, which has led people like the aforementioned Ryan Adams (who indeed released her 2015 debut EP "Killer" on his Pax Am record label) to rave about her like she's a "musical unicorn" -- a musician who, he said, "could make a jar of sand sound like 'Blood on the Tracks.'" In addition to Adams, she's also worked with Conor Oberst, Julien Baker and Noah Gundersen so I asked if there was anyone else in particular she'd like to collaborate with in the future.
"I feel like my current obsession is Nick Cave," Bridgers said. "Maybe because it'd be like a different world. Most of my collaborations have been tailor-made for whoever I'd want to [work] with. So I'd like to step outside of my comfort zone and, like, he scares the s--- out of me. I'd love to know that person. I'm, like, intimidated living on a planet in which he exists." [laughs]
Dustin Lothspeich is a San Diego Music Award-winning musician, an associate editor at NBC SoundDiego since 2013, talent buyer at The Merrow, and founder of the music equipment-worshipping blog Gear and Loathing in San Diego. Follow his updates on Twitter or contact him directly.