Music is a funny thing. It has legs, you see. It can travel across borders, across decades, and between people who have never spoken to one another. Elliot Smith’s music is surely an example of the latter because, the first time I listened to Phoebe Bridgers, I became convinced that she’d managed to absorb the music of the cult singer-songwriter.
Whilst the influence of Smith can be felt in a multitude of artists today, Bridgers seems to capture the hopeful melancholia of Smith’s songcraft better than anyone else.
Phoebe Bridgers’ debut album Stranger In The Alps came out when she was just 23. It received modest reviews, but it would be her 2020 album Punisher which would make her name, earning widespread critical acclaim and a Grammy Award nomination for Best Artist. Beyond her solo work, she is known for her collaborations with Boygenius (alongside Lucy Dacus and Julian Baker) and Better Oblivion Community Center with Conor Oberst. Her songwriting blends indie, folk, and emo, and is characterised by lush orchestral and electronic arrangments, which pivot around Bridgers’ core guitar lines.
In a recent interview, she discussed her passion for Elliot Smith, an artist who has evidently played an important part in her own musical development. With its introspective lyrics and minimalist instrumentation, Smith’s brand of proto-emo was the definitive soundtrack for a whole subsection of teenagers in the 1990s. It’s no surprise, then, that Bridgers also discovered Smith’s catalogue in the hormone haven of her 14th year: “I was in eighth grade,” she begins. “My friend Carla Azar showed me ‘Kiwi Mad Dog 20/20,’ which is on Roman Candle. It’s a super weird one to start with because it’s instrumental. Later, another friend showed me ‘Waltz #2,’ which became, and maybe still is, my favourite song of his — I think it just exemplifies his writing. Then I went super deep.”
Bridgers quickly became obsessed with Smith. He tends to have that effect on people. There’s something ever so slightly off-kilter about his music. It’s full of these perfect imperfections, little nuances which give tracks like ‘Waltz #2’ a mesmeric quality. “I went to Amoeba Music in LA and bought [the 2007 rarities compilation] New Moon, weirdly,” Bridgers continues. “Even though it was posthumously released, I just love that record. And there’s a bunch of shit on there that nobody’s heard, still, because they were fans when he was still alive and just kind of didn’t check back in after he died.”
Bridger’s passion for Elliot Smith led to, arguably, one of her most fruitful collaborations: “The first time I met Conor Oberst, I was playing this club in LA. I played ‘Whatever (Folk Song in C),’ and then my song ‘Motion Sickness.’ He was like, ‘Wow, I loved those last two songs.’ I was like, ‘Well, yeah — I played one of mine and then the Elliott Smith song.’ And he was like, ‘No you didn’t. That’s not an Elliott Smith song.’ So yeah, a lot of people didn’t fuck with that record. But that was my first.”
Smith is one of the many tragic figures of alternative music. Because of his struggles with depression and the circumstances surrounding his death, he is often compared to Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain — who committed suicide nearly ten years before Smith. Elliot smith died of two stab wounds to the chest, and whilst the coroner suspected Smith’s death was the result of suicide, some evidence supports the view that it was a homicide. His death may have been tragic, but nearly 30 years later, his songs live on in the public consciousness in a way that few artists achieve.
For Phoebe Bridgers, Smiths discography has been so influential that she can barely walk twenty paces without being compared to her idol. As frustrating as this must be from time to time, it’s wonderful to think that the spirit of Elliot Smith lives on in Bridgers’ music.