Phoebe Bridgers of Boygenius: ‘I can go wherever I want for an abortion. We’re singing to kids it’s impossible for’

Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker are taking a stand against US attacks on the rights of women and of the LGBTQ community

A few months ago Lucy Dacus discovered she was famous. In late July, Barack Obama, the former US president, released his annual summer playlist, a countdown of his favourite songs. Amid Bob Dylan and Otis Redding picks was Boygenius’s Not Strong Enough, an effervescent indie belter about crumbling self-confidence and twentysomething angst that culminated with a thunderously eerie chorus: “Always an angel/ Never a god”.

In response, Dacus, who founded Boygenius with her fellow singer-songwriters Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker in 2018, tweeted a blunt riposte: “war criminal”.

Those two words, accompanied by a sad face, electrified the internet. Dacus has 170,000 Twitter followers, but the message received 17 million views. The tweet was headline news for Billboard, the New York Post, Euronews and TMZ.

Obama probably didn’t see it coming. Dacus was certainly blindsided. “Honestly, I didn’t know I had that kind of platform until that happened,” she says backstage before the trio’s recent Dublin concert, in front of 15,000 people, at Royal Hospital Kilmainham. “That’s all I’ll say about it now.”


She would prefer not to go any further – whatever thoughts she shares about Obama, whether accusatory or conciliatory, will only put her in the spotlight again. Such are the lessons she has learned as Boygenius have ascended from beloved mid-level indie band to chart-topping alternative supergroup.

The journey started in earnest with the release of their first album, The Record, in March. It went to number one in Ireland, the UK and the Netherlands and reached number four in the United States. The reviews were ecstatic.

Just how huge Boygenius have grown since is confirmed 24 hours after their Dublin date when they join Billie Eilish at a gig in London, contributing backing vocals to When the Party’s Over. A mere 12 months ago Baker played to 300 people at Whelan’s in Dublin. “It’s pretty wild,” says Dacus.

She and Baker are by no means obscure. Baker has been written about at length in the New Yorker magazine – and profiled twice in The Irish Times – while Dacus’s 2021 LP, Home Video, featured in many album-of-the year lists. Still, Boygenius is their first experience of the limelight and of making the cover of Rolling Stone – and the first time in their lives a throwaway tweet has had the potential to go viral.

That’s not quite the case with Bridgers, whose second album, Punisher, blew up during lockdown and earned a Grammy nomination. She also became a person of interest to the tabloids following rumours that she was in a relationship with Paul Mescal, the Irish actor who had lockdown stardom similarly thrust upon him following his starring turn in the TV version of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People.

It was through Normal People that Bridgers and Mescal met; their initial interactions were across the internet, where they bonded over Rooney. They are reportedly no longer an item. Still, Bridgers at least got a song out of it: there is a fan theory that Boygenius’s Revolution O addresses Mescal and their split. Bridgers has said it’s “about falling in love online”. It contains intriguing lyrics such as “If it isn’t love then/ What the f**k is it? I guess/ Just let me pretend.”

Is the relationship over? The Irish Times has been told that the interview must not stray into “tabloid” subject matter. A chaperone is on hand to ensure these conditions are abided by. In the end it is Bridgers who moves the conversation from music to more personal matters when the subject turns to the US and some of its states’ brutal backlash against abortion and trans and gay rights.

“I got an abortion in 2021. And I played a lot of places in 2022 where that’s illegal. [Even] if it’s not illegal in your state, it’s really hard for poor people to gain access,” she says.

Bridgers has a record of speaking out about these subjects. But she does wonder about her privilege, painfully aware that it costs her nothing to enter the conversation. “It is weird to be standing for something I don’t really have to engage with in a real way,” she says. “No matter how you look at it, I’m a rich lady – I can go wherever the f**k I want for an abortion now. The idea that we’re singing to kids who it’s impossible for” or singing for “trans kids in Tennessee where their school is completely oppressing them and dead-naming them, it’s weird.”

Boygenius, who have many gay and trans fans, and themselves identify as queer, have taken a stand in the United States against these attacks on the rights of women and of the LGBTQ community. In June, a month after a federal judge struck down a Tennessee law criminalising drag performances, they went on stage in the state dressed as drag queens.

As Bridgers says, however, they are conflicted about taking a stand. They’re middle class, white and increasingly famous. They don’t say as much out loud, but, reading between the lines, it seems they worry about becoming tourists in other people’s oppression.

“To be saddled with the privilege of knowing that you are palatable enough or commodified enough or lucrative for certain industries and people enough to be ... impervious or spared from certain things that just would not happen if I was not white and not known for my music... ” says Baker, explaining the complex emotions she feels about Boygenius’s platform.

Still, they know they’re on the side of right – as do the majority of Americans. “We’re a huge band because most people think that shit” – she means the likes of gay and trans rights – “is fine and are pro that,” says Bridgers. “It’s only these old-ass irrelevant f**ks ... It would stop their f**king heart if they heard 100 Gecs. [They are] making the legislation for these young people. And they don’t f**king matter and they’re going to f**king die soon.”

Boygenius’ brilliant debut EP was released in 2018, but, much like Bridgers’s career, it took lockdown to become a phenomenon. They had no long-term plans for the project: each artist had a busy musical life. Still, journalists kept asking about Boygenius, and it became clear that fans wanted to hear them work together again. So they carved out times in their ever-fuller schedules and, initially working remotely, collaborated on The Record.

“I don’t think there was any anxiety about whether it would be good or not,” says Dacus, who has said she will take the lead in the interview. (Bridgers is initially stooped over a mirror, applying eyeliner, getting ready to go on stage.)

“There was anxiety interpersonally – like, how are the days going to pass? Are the ideas going to come fluently? Are we going to be able speak to each other well? Whatever problems come up, will we solve them in a way that feels good? I always thought that we were going to solve the problems and that it was going to be something we were proud of. I didn’t know how difficult or easy that was going to be. It turns out to be mostly easy.”

They were described as a supergroup from the start; it’s a designation they appear comfortable with. They love the idea of being in a rock band. Their T-shirts are a riot of heavy-metal iconography. If you didn’t know better you might come away from their merch stall thinking they were a death-metal group. In Dublin they walk on stage to The Boys Are Back in Town. They adore the camaraderie, that us-against-the-world quality that is the lifeblood of any great band. They are the rare supergroup that finds being in a group pretty super.

So it’s a surprise to discover they weren’t particularly close before Boygenius. Bridgers contrasts their group with bands such as Radiohead, who grew up together and for whom music was an extension of their friendship. She, Baker and Dacus had run into each other on the road and decided it might be good to tour together. But they needed something to sell at the merchandise stall. They put together the Boygenius EP very quickly. They were a supergroup before they knew one another.

“It’s funny that we have prioritised friendship so much – I was thinking about this the other day. As long as we three have been in a room together we’ve been a band,” says Bridgers. “It’s not like Radiohead were, like, how are we going to stay friends? It’s cool that before we were even putting out music we were thinking about that: how can it stay fun and stuff? I think we’ve been overworked since the beginning too. Remember we had four days to make the EP. We were already communicating about what we didn’t like about our jobs as friends.”

The Record is full of searing moments – $20 Bill delves into themes of addiction (“It’s a bad idea and I’m all about it”), Demon taps into Baker’s evangelical upbringing in Tennessee (“Solomon had a point when he wrote Ecclesiastes/ If nothing can be known, then stupidity is holy”). This is unsurprising: all three artists have a record of baring their souls. In Boygenius, however, there is an added sense of soliditarity when sharing their innermost thoughts.

Dacus feels safer confronting hard themes when it’s in conversations with her bandmates, she says. “I guess that influences the music. The music feels like almost an offshoot of that happening – at night, after a meal.”

As a supergroup they have also thought a lot about ego. Clashing personalities are what usually bring down bands that consist of already successful musicians, from Eric Clapton’s Cream to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. How do they negotiate that? “I have a huge ego,” says Bridgers. They regard ego as another term for a mutual-support network rather than an Achilles’ heel. Bridgers describes it as “fuelling that fire in each other”, adding, to Dacus and Baker, “I don’t feel attacked when I get a lyrical edit, ever, by you guys.”

“I think ego gets a bad rap,” Dacus agrees. “When you say ‘ego’ you think of someone who’s stubborn and self-centred, making demands that are too much and nonsensical at the expense of others. If you think of ego as self-assuredness, self-confidence, having self-worth – defining something in a way that isn’t antagonistic, defending something that is worth defending – then ego is important. We all have that. But we’re all flexible to each other.”

I don’t think Ryan Adams thought it would really go anywhere if he was horrible to me. Or that I had anybody to really talk about it to

—  Phoebe Bridgers on her treatment by the singer

Boygenius represent an important pushback against the machismo long entrenched in rock music. Their audiences are full of young people who, in many instances, have never been to a rock show before; the band aim to create a mutually supportive, safe space. That’s certainly the vibe after our conversation, when they go out to perform in Dublin (a city they have an obvious affinity with: a week later I spot Dacus and Baker at Arlo Parks’s 3Olympia Theatre concert).

They’ve all done their part. But Bridgers was one of the first to speak out about the treatment of women in the music industry when, in 2019, she contributed to a New York Times exposé headlined “Ryan Adams Dangled Success. Women Say They Paid a Price”. When I spoke to her in 2020 she brought up the subject unprompted; I’d asked if she felt that people treated her differently since she had become famous, and she thought back to her early encounters with Adams.

“I’ve had people get called out for inappropriate behaviour around me,” she said. “And I’m, like, ‘Oh shit ... I’m at a level where it’s probably not advantageous for people to f**k with me. Whereas, when I was 20, Ryan Adams ... I was just a kid playing in Pasadena. He came to one of my shows once, and I was literally playing for five people – and one was my mom. I don’t think he thought it would really go anywhere if he was horrible to me. Or that I had anybody to really talk about it to.”

She knew back then that those sorts of people were still out there. But her newfound status meant they’d no longer cross her. “I’m, like, ‘Damn ... I won’t be able to spot [them] as easily, because people are putting their best faces on for me now.’”

When they were promoting The Record, the trio created a sprawling playlist of songs that inspired them. It included two by Sinéad O’Connor: Black Boys on Mopeds and All Apologies, her chilling 1994 Nirvana cover

“I remember encountering her for the first time maybe 10 years ago, in high school or college, and just being, like, ‘Oh yeah – that’s it.’ This authentic purity of thought – taking no shit, not trying to fit into something for anyone else’s benefit,” says Dacus. “I’ve benefited from being young enough to encounter her that I accept that as a norm, instead of that being outside of the norm for a lot of people when she was making music.”

O’Connor is a “good example of how performance doesn’t have to be fake”, Dacus continues. “Performance is not innately something that is pretended. Just because you’re a performer it doesn’t mean you don’t have the opportunity to be truthful.”

Baker credits O’Connor with helping make her aware of belief systems beyond the type of Christianity that permeated her childhood. “I was a kid and I saw the whole thing of her ripping up the pope. And I was like, ‘What’s the pope?’ to my parents. Because I was raised evangelical Christian ... In novelty and ideology it was so sick.”

Time is running out. Mindful that The Irish Times has been asked to keep the focus on music, I have one final question, this time for Bridgers. Last year, during a show in Dublin, she welcomed the Co Clare fiddle player Martin Hayes on to the stage. They made for a rather odd couple.

“I love The Gloaming,” she says, referring to Hayes’s Choice Music Prize-winning group. “I’ve been a fan for a while. And that entire scene – Lankum are amazing.” They also have Ye Vagabonds, the acclaimed trad outfit, on the bill for their Dublin show. “I loved that interpolation of Irish traditional music. Martin’s a genius. I had him play on Graceland Too, which is a bluegrassy-sounding song, which makes total sense. Then I had him really shred and lay into I Know the End, the last song on the set, which is really loud. He was, like, ‘I have never heard music that loud!’ Poor Martin.”

She grins. Through the door you can hear the sound of the crowd outside, already giddy at the promise of encountering Boygenius in the flesh. Her smile widens. “But it was a great night.”

The Record is released by Interscope