Writing Alongside Phoebe Bridgers: On Being a Stranger
Mar 09 ● BY Patrick Joseph Caoile
As a Filipino immigrant to the U.S. who grew up in northern New Jersey, I like to think that committing to a graduate program in the South was the biggest decision of my life, especially considering that I did so in the middle of a pandemic. I had just finished my master’s in English at Seton Hall University—spring 2020 being my last semester in the program, yet my first semester in remote teaching and learning. “At least you can put it on your CV,” had been the upside, we were told. The thing was, everyone was going through the same circumstances. When I committed to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where I would pursue a Ph.D. in English with a concentration in creative writing, those circumstances didn’t change. Classes and meetings would still be on Zoom, on-campus functions were a no-go. I knew all this, and yet I still made the move alone; it was the safest thing to do at the time as vaccines hadn’t rolled out yet. I had booked my apartment online a few weeks before I left, packed up my luggage and packaged some books, many books, in boxes to my new address in Louisiana (even though I had yet to step foot in the apartment myself). In early August, I said goodbye to my family and friends, left the comfort of New Jersey which had been home for most of my life, and arrived in Cajun Country—a stranger in the Deep South.
I don’t know exactly when Phoebe Bridgers came into my life, whether she showed up on my Spotify daily mixes or if I had Shazamed one of her songs at a cafe. I will always associate her music, her lyrics, with the late southern summer and its transition into fall. Before my music tastes wavered between Hans Zimmer and Taylor Swift—my life was either an epic heroic journey or a solemn love story. Taylor had just released folklore when I came to Louisiana. Still a series of contemplations about love, Taylor’s foray into indie ballads and folk music was the perfect primer for my discovery of Phoebe.
My first introduction must have been from her 2017 debut studio album Stranger in the Alps. Its album cover—a scribbled-on ghost accompanied by a cuddly white dog in a pastoral backdrop—captures the strangeness and beauty found within. I too felt like a ghost. As I’ve noted, my graduate classes, as well as my teaching duties, were confined to my 13-inch MacBook screen, and within that screen, my interactions as student-instructor were further divided into grids and boxes, some with faces, yet some with grey rectangles. In other words, we were stuck in a virtual gridlock. Disembodied voices, flickering, buffering faces, we might as well have been scribbled-on ghosts on the screen.
The lyrics to Phoebe’s first track on Stranger, “Smoke Signals,” include a literary reference to transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau:
I went with you up to
The place you grew up in
We spent a week in the cold
Just long enough to
Walden it with you
Any longer, it would have got old
Phoebe’s turning of Thoreau’s seminal work on self-reliance into a verb struck a chord with me. Walden is more than just a mere narrative about Thoreau’s retreat into the woods; it described the praxis of living deliberately. I didn’t dorm in undergrad, and I still lived with my family through my master’s program. As lonely as it may have been, my commitment to my life as a graduate student in Lafayette, LA was an act of living deliberately. It was my first time living alone, in a studio apartment where the only real furniture were my bookcases. I had Waldened my way out of New Jersey and into the Deep South. And of course, some days I had no longer wanted to live as Thoreau. Some days, when I was bogged down and overwhelmed by grading students’ assignments or reading heavy theory for a graduate class, I was lazy. Still, that was part of the perks of living on my own—I could let my laundry build up or leave dishes in the sink for a later “me” to deal with. Later on in “Smoke Signals,” Phoebe writes, “I want to live at / The Holiday Inn / Where somebody else makes the bed.” In between Zoom meetings, my studio apartment was a cabin in the woods one day or a Holiday Inn the next.
Outside my four walls, I started to bring my work to local cafes. I needed to see other people, civilization beyond my personal Walden Pond. In Lafayette, the downtown strip was a ten-minute walk. The tallest building in sight belonged to a bank. As opposed to my life in northern New Jersey, I found out that the nearest Starbucks was a drive away (I didn’t have a car) and that America didn’t really run on Dunkin’; their scarcity surprised and even scared me. But it was also convenient. It narrowed down my search to two cafes within reasonable walking distance from my apartment. One was oppressively dark, from its deep brown laminate tables to the statue of a Confederate general outside the window. The other cafe, at the opposite end of downtown, was bigger and brighter with its white walls and large windows that let light in. There was often some crossover between the soundtracks of each cafe—acoustic covers, indie and dream pop, the entirety of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.
I must have discovered Phoebe in either one of these cafes; I distinctly remember hearing “Motion Sickness” in one of them. Splitting my time between them—one cafe in the morning and the other at night—I did, in fact, develop a sense of motion sickness. Phoebe writes, “I have emotional motion sickness / Somebody roll the windows down / There are no words in the English language / I could scream to drown you out.” I too wanted to scream, to escape my own thoughts, to silence them. As I walked through downtown, listening to Phoebe’s melancholic melodies, I put myself into her lyrics, the only words in the English language that captured my sense of wandering, wondering, Waldening. In “Scott Street,” Phoebe opens with the lyrics, “Walking Scott Street, feeling like a stranger / With an open heart, open container.” In “Funeral,” she writes, “Jesus Christ, I’m so blue all the time / And that’s just how I feel / Always have and I always will.” The outro to “Funeral” sets another relatable scene, “And it’s 4 A.M., again / And I’m doing nothing / Again.” And in “Demi Moore,” Phoebe echoes, “I don’t wanna be alone / I don’t wanna be alone anymore.” To live deliberately, it seems, is to live with loneliness, to walk through these liminal spaces in solitary contemplation. As a Northern transplant in the South, I couldn’t help but feel like a stranger.
I don’t think anyone or anything prepares you for such an experience of isolation (just take a look at the all-encompassing unprecedented times we are living in). I had learned in my master’s program that, in between teaching in the morning and taking grad classes at night, there’s a lot of time spent by and with yourself. My peers from my cohort at Seton Hall can vouch for the many times I nearly lost my mind in the offices, which were all concrete with no windows to the outside world. My moving to Louisiana was a different beast entirely. As an introvert, I had the hardest time adjusting to a new environment, and it took a while for me to find a sense of community. It’s cliche, as a writer and English graduate student, to find such an affinity for cafes, but living up to the cliche helped me to find other graduate students at the cafes I frequented. They too found a way to escape the digital gridlock. We became the regulars.
But as someone who still feels the pull of home up north, as someone who’s always had to navigate these spaces and places from a point of view of liminality, I consider Phoebe Bridgers a kind of muse. The characters I write, as extensions of myself, inhabit states of unbelonging, of feeling lost and losing oneself. Take, for instance, my recent story in the spring 2021 issue of storySouth, “A State of,” which follows a Filipino graduate student who moves to Lafayette and is invited to a Filipino neighbor’s house blessing. The plot and narrative is, of course, fictional—yet the protagonist’s circumstances are very much modeled after my own. The story begins during a storm: “[Jaime] spoke none but hummed a tune to himself and God, whom he assumed, if there was one, was there in the middle of it all. The gusts that swung against him, the dust-confetti in their swing. The flash of white against the dark horizon, the clamor in translation from sight to sound.” This scene had begun as a flash fiction piece, which I drafted—you guessed it—during a hurricane, my first Louisiana hurricane. From the safety of my third-floor apartment, I watched as the city eventually went dark. The scene was apocalyptic. And so I wrote it down.
In Phoebe’s 2020 follow-up studio album, Punisher, her song “I Know the End” speaks to the narrator’s longing for home and its eventual destruction. “Close my eyes, fantasize / Three clicks, and I’m home,” she describes her nostalgia, “Romanticize a quiet life / There’s no place like my room.” Later on, she notes a storm’s arrival, “When the sirens sound, you’ll hide under the floor / But I’m not gonna go down with my hometown in a tornado.” These lyrics informed my experience of a personal apocalypse—on top of the global pandemic, I was losing my home by leaving New Jersey. And just when I arrived in my new apartment in Louisiana, a hurricane threatened my welcome. “The end is here,” Phoebe’s speaker concludes. But for me, that storm was merely the beginning. I felt a desire, a jolt, to write about my first Louisiana hurricane. And in that story, the hurricane became the catalyst that brings my protagonist out of his solitary confinement. He meets his new neighbors, a Filipino girl and her mother who’ve moved into the building after their house was affected by the hurricane. That didn’t actually happen in my life, but that’s one of the benefits of fiction—to allow ourselves to rewrite our circumstances anew, to give resolution to our otherwise unresolved feelings of homesickness.
I can go on and on about Phoebe’s music, but her songs can speak for themselves. I hope that, if you’ve ever found yourself lost in a new setting, you’ll give her a listen. All her songs and lyrics speak to my own strange wanderings—as a Filipino turned Fil-Am, as a Yankee in the South. I’ll end with one more set of lyrics. In her album’s title track, “Punisher,” Phoebe echoes the ghostliness of being a stranger from her first album: “The drugstores are open all night / The only real reason I moved to the east side / I love a good place to hide in plain sight.” I think that’s why most writers like the cafe setting, where they can disappear into the background while observing people’s interactions and eavesdropping on conversations. As writers, we become ghosts, strangers, outside observers to the scenes that surround us. But as writers, we also disappear into our work—a very good place to hide in plain sight. Our thoughts become text, text into pages, pages into stories and poems and works of art. And afterward, when it seems as if we’ve disappeared entirely, we might end up finding ourselves again in retrospect. Alternatively, as I’ve learned by writing alongside Phoebe, someone else might find us, might find themselves in us, and together we simultaneously realize that we are not alone.