The lyrics on Phoebe Bridgers’s at-times startlingly candid debut album, “Stranger in the Alps,” can be unsettling — especially considering they’re coming from a 23-year-old. In the chilling piano ballad “Killer,” she sings, “When a machine keeps me alive, and I’m losing all my hair, I hope you kiss my rotten head and pull the plug.” Earlier in the song, which meanders like a twisted lullaby, Bridgers admits she’s frightened by her obsession with the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
“I have this thing in the back of my brain that dares me to think of the most disturbing thing,” the emerging singer-songwriter says in a recent phone call from California. “I thought something was wrong with me. I was going down YouTube wormholes of interviews [with serial killers], and Dahmer was the most disturbing to me, because he didn’t seem insane.”
Although Bridgers vividly details anxieties such as these, she doesn’t sound troubled. She’s affable and forthcoming as she discusses her willingness to reveal fears and document moments of melancholy in her music. She’s a fan of such somber folk practitioners as Mark Kozelek and the late Elliott Smith, both easily detected influences in “Funeral,” the most blatantly sad song on “Strangers in the Alps.” The diaristic dirge starts with haunting feedback that relents before a gently fingerpicked acoustic guitar ushers in the opening line, “I’m singing at a funeral tomorrow for a kid a year older than me.”
By the time Bridgers reaches the chorus, she’s lamenting, “I’m so blue all the time, and that’s just how I feel/ Always have and I always will.”
She’s often this direct, unconcerned about oversharing; being unfiltered is part of her process. “When I’m writing,” she says, “I try to think about what would make a song better before worrying about personal opinions.”
Bridgers’s lyrics may not provide a peaceful, easy feeling, but the delicate, emotive lilt in her soothing voice makes her brutally honest revelations enticing. Her stark, confessional songs are often delivered with a subdued blend of roots reverence, indie edge and emo angst. She would like to be a little more punk rock, but, as she puts it: “I don’t have a great scream.”
Growing up in Pasadena, Calif., Bridgers attended the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, where she received classical voice training and began writing songs. She started busking, playing open mics and cutting her teeth as a singer-songwriter on a variety of stages around Los Angeles, including punk club the Echo and the defunct Room 5 Lounge — places, she says, “that were nice to me.”
Bridgers eventually caught the attention of Ryan Adams, who invited her to record at his studio, which resulted in a three-song, seven-inch vinyl record that contained an earlier version of “Killer,” released on Adams’s Pax-Am Records in 2015.
Since then, Bridgers has continued to pick up endorsements. In recent years she has opened for and performed with fellow wistful tunesmiths Julien Baker and Conor Oberst, who makes an appearance on “Stranger in the Alps.” Bridgers started making her first full-length album without a label, but eventually inked a deal with indie tastemaker Dead Oceans. With help from producers Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska, she shaped the record with a couple of stronger songs from her teen beginnings, some newer material and a Kozelek cover, “You Missed My Heart.”
One of the album’s last additions, “Motion Sickness,” is its most accessible tune. Bridgers uses the song to vent about her confused feelings for a condescending ex, and although it was written in a cabin in Idaho, Bridgers doesn’t sing it with her usual isolated approach. Instead, she levels not-so-subtle jabs at the song’s subject while propelled by a galloping bass line, steady beat and a hint of guitar grit. While recording the song, Berg would turn out the lights during Bridgers’s vocal takes, which she says made her singing uninhibited. It’s a refreshing way to hear her release emotional turmoil — lost in a breezy pop groove.
“That experience set me up to carry songs through live, in a way that I couldn’t before,” she says.
Bridgers will get plenty of chances to play live between now and the end of April on her first headlining tour, which hits dozens of U.S. cities and includes a sold-out show at the Rock & Roll Hotel.
“All the things people hate about touring, I’m excited for, because I’ve never done it before,” she says. “I’m excited to see places I’ve never seen and be in the van and see if I get carsick while reading. I love going on walks and talking to people. Getting out of my own head is the thing I’m looking forward to the most.”
Rock & Roll Hotel, 1353 H St. NE. 202-388-7625. rockandrollhoteldc.com.
Date: Tuesday at 7 p.m.
Tickets: Show is sold out.