Finding Their Own Way

Singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers creates story songs that are wise beyond her years; choreographer Brian Sanders questions received wisdom.

AIRED: July 23, 2021 | 0:26:46

- [Announcer] Articulate with Jim Cotter, is made possible

with generous funding from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

- Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores

how art tells all of our stories.

- [Jim] I'm Jim Cotter.

And on this episode, finding their own way.

Phoebe Bridgers is one of the most talked

about singer songwriters of her generation.

She shares her observations

and experiences in songs that are wise

and insightful beyond her years.

- Am just not a great writer of other people's stories.

I've been in bands with people who do that

but I have to kind of insert myself,

even if there are little glimpses

of fiction or summary of a story, rather than every detail.

I think I just need to put myself

in the driver's seat of everything.

- [Jim] And with his iconic classic dance company Junk

Choreographer, Brian Sanders makes provocative work

but often pushes at the edges

of his audience's comfort zones.

- I realized at one point

that there was little to no control.

I had over what people were actually

taking away from my work.

And the best thing I could do was to be true

to my own kind of imagery and ideas

and what I wanted to put together and present

and provide the most ideal and complete experience of that.

- [Jim] That's all I had, on Articulate.

(instrumental music)

(violin playing)

(upbeat music)

♪ I hate you for what you did

♪ And I miss you like a little kid ♪

♪ I faked it every time, but that's alright ♪

♪ I can hardly feel anything I hardly feel anything at all ♪

- [Jim] Phoebe Bridgers wrote "Motion Sickness"

after ending what she's described as an obsessive

and emotionally abusive relationship.

Like much of her music,

the song is unabashedly autobiographical

outlining episodes of anger, sadness, and trauma.

And while she finds release in songwriting,

Bridgers isn't trying to escape

the fraught feelings that fuel her work.

♪ Was hoping you would let it go and you did ♪

- I think it's okay to be angry

as long as you have perspective and you know

that it's not healthy to always live there.

I think that anger serves a great purpose

for kind of deciding your own boundaries

and what makes you upset.

I don't think you should feel ashamed of being angry

but it's just exhausting to live there forever.

♪ 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 ♪

- [Jim] At 26 Bridgers earnest lyrics

and finally home melodies,

have earned her multiple Grammy nominations

and comparisons to prolific singer songwriters

such as Leonard Cohen and John Prine, but Bridgers

isn't trying to be anyone but herself.

- I think I'm just not a great writer

of other people's stories.

I've been advanced with people who do that

but I have to kind of insert myself,

even if there are little glimpses of fiction

or a summary of a story rather than every detail.

I think I just need to put myself

in the driver's seat of everything.

- [Jim] Born and raised in Southern California.

Phoebe Bridgers was already making music

by the time she was 11.

Neither of her parents were musicians

but they primed her musical taste,

through their love of artists such

as Neil Young and Jackson Browne.

Bridgers built on that informal upbringing with study

at a visual and performing arts high school in Los Angeles.

She trained in a range of musical disciplines

including opera and jazz singing

and the concepts behind it all.

- I repeated theory one like the entirety of high school

because I was really bad at school,

but I do think repetition

of especially voice, like vocal jazz really helped me

even though I would never sing in that style.

And I think that there are fewer things as sinful

as a group of people singing like scatting together.

But I do think being able to sing

in a group singing a lot,

I feel the same way about playing shows.

Playing a lot of shows is really important.

You just get better over it with it naturally,

and I think just practice every day.

And I don't know if I would have practiced every day

if I hadn't gone to art school.

- [Jim] But the classroom was only a piece

of Bridgers musical education.

She also learned by playing out in the world.

Her mother was supportive, taking her to open mic nights,

picking her up from late night performances

and encouraging her to play

at a local farmer's market to earn pocket money.

- Busking was really nice for my confidence

because you just practice and practice

and practice and practice.

Sometimes nobody's paying attention to you,

sometimes someone's watching your really intently.

So it was very humbling at the very least

like it actually set me up to be able

to play bars where people are screaming

at each other and not care.

You just kind of have to keep playing.

- [Jim] And Bridgers kept playing live after high school.

She turned down an opportunity

to attend The Berklee School of Music,

instead playing her way onto stages

with prominent indie stars

including Julian Baker and Conor Oberst.

- I didn't have huge expectations.

I really wanted, like at the very least I just

wanted it to be my full-time job, which is a lot to ask.

I had been doing some work that I wasn't super passionate

about when I started really making records.

And when that started to happen, I've just been content.

Like, of course I wanted to do all sorts of stuff

and it's been on an upward trajectory luckily,

but when I sold a hundred tickets

for the first time, I was like, boom! Made it.

I didn't think very much further.

- [Jim] But further she did go.

Her debut album Stranger In The Alps was released in 2017

to widespread praise or second to 2020s "Punisher"

garnered four Grammy nominations.

Two of those were for her song Kyoto, an exploration

of her strained history with a father,

who she says was an abusive drug user.

♪ Day off in Kyoto I got bored at the temple ♪

♪ Looked around at the 7-11

♪ The band took the speed train went to the arcade ♪

♪ I wanted to go but I didn't

♪ You called me from a payphone ♪

♪ They still got payphones

♪ It cost a dollar a minute

♪ To tell me you're getting sober ♪

♪ And you wrote me a letter

♪ But I don't have to read it

♪ I'm gonna kill you

♪ If you don't beat me to it

♪ Dreaming through Tokyo skies

♪ I wanted to see the world

♪ Then I flew over the ocean

♪ And I changed my mind

♪ Ooh

- [Jim] And Bridger songs are often

both a way to process and move past tough times.

- Up until the last point of making records

I will edit and edit and edit.

Oh, I, you know, I changed words

in the very last minutes of Punisher

but then once it's done, it's just finished

and I never think about it again.

- [Jim] Since the pandemic,

Phoebe Bridgers has begun to reconnect

with her father who split from her mother

when Bridgers was 20.

But as old wounds heal, new ones form.

- That's a whole other genre has appeared where

it's like grappling with the idea

of being a public person and being

on tour all the time and what that means

and grappling with my character

versus my actual personality.

And if they're the same, and there are parts

of my personality that I think I'll protect for safety

for emotional safety.

I think am publicly way closer

to the way I would probably nervously be

at a party or something like I'm actually quite loud

I'm not a shy person.

And then I shut the door to my hotel room

and it's just like blank,


very solitary.

- It's another thing because everybody says

you have to either be an extrovert or an introvert.

Most of us are largely we have

both of those things going on.

- Yeah. I think it's very nuanced.

I think it's the root

of that question is do you feel drained by alone time

or do you feel drained by time with other people?

And I am always like, yes

I feel drained constantly by things.

I need a little bit of both

to be able to survive either thing.

I think that a big thing

about the pandemic has been grappling

with the amount of my own ego that comes

from being applauded every night by a group

of people and having my own little world kind

of just constantly revolve around me.

I do feel energized by that.

And then 10 days in detour, I feel exhausted by it

and don't want to ever be perceived by anybody ever again.

It's like this year

I would love to play the worst show ever.

You know, there was a venue

in Boston that got shut down recently,

but like the dressing room was the bathroom,

I'd play there in a heartbeat.

But when I was on that tour

I would've killed to just go home.

- [Jim] Still. Phoebe Bridgers is confident in who she is

and doesn't feel the need to change

as the stages she plays on grow larger.

If anything she just feels the need

to amplify the desires, beliefs

and feelings that have brought her from the farmer's markets

and open mics of Southern California.

- So I think the only biggest difference to me

is just realizing how lucky I am to have a platform to talk

about the things that I care about

trying to wield it for good.

So I think it's better

to amplify voices of smarter people honestly.

I don't want to take up space

in a world where somebody else should be speaking.

But I also think with the big megaphone, it's like, why not?

Why not kind of stomp your feet

when you see something unfair happening

not on social media just like internally, you know?

I think it's nicer to be able

to be literally just listened to more.

- Did you think the megaphone brings it with it

any sort of any obligation?

- Yes. Definitely.

People who say shut up and saying,

our land is by Woody Guthrie who never shut up ever.

Like, so Bob Dylan never shut up.

I don't know.

It's just that's not what it's for.

Nobody's ever shut up and saying

it's just not, it's not a thing it's fake.

- [Jim] Now in her late twenties

Phoebe Bridgers would seem to have found her own way

exploring and crafting music by embracing discipline as well

as the unrelenting messiness and contradictions of living.

Sometimes weary of what she'll find

but never giving in to the fear of what you've uncovered.

♪ I have emotional motion sickness ♪

♪ I try to stay clean and live without ♪

♪ And I wanna know what would happen ♪

♪ If I surrender to the sound

♪ Surrender to the sound

(upbeat music)

(instrumental music)

(dramatic music)

- [Jim] To step into choreographer.

Brian Sanders world is to step into the world of junk.

A fantastical place of found objects,

where every used and discarded thing

every abandoned idea can be revived and made new again.

- I find a richer experience in going back and saying,

Hey you know, even just with some simple dance move

I could live for just reinventing that.

I knew and breathing new life

into it and looking at it from a different angle.

(country music)

- [Jim] When something simmers

in Brian Sanders creatively chaotic mind,

what can emerge are works that are breathtakingly dangerous

and hauntingly beautiful.

But Brian Sanders lives in a place of high risk

for falls and failures.

For him, both body and brain must go

through heart, stopping mind-boggling gymnastics

to make such extraordinary work.

- And it's always halfway through, why am I doing this?

Why am I here?

Is this really worth it?

It's overwhelming every time.

And I keep saying, "It's gotta get easier."

It never is.

- [Jim] Even with all his exuberant and mischievous

Schwab Vive, Sanders is deeply connected

to the cycle of life, death, and renewal.

He is a man whose own life

and body have been broken mended

and reinvented time and again.

Born in 1966, Sanders grew up in Princeton, New Jersey

in a house with five siblings.

He was the reckless rambunctious one,

gymnastics in classical ballet focused his energy.

But when he was 10 years old

the innovative choreography of Bob Fosse dancing

and Moses Pendleton's Pilobolus captured Sanders

imagination and never really let it go.

After graduating from the university

of The Arts in Philadelphia, Sanders began working

for his child idol, Moses Pendleton.

Pendleton had just launched the dance company Momix

and for Sanders to dance and choreograph

for the legendary director, was a dream come true.

But the dream was shattered by a nightmare.

Sanders friends were dying

and it seemed likely that he might too,

it was the 1980s and HIV AIDS was rampaging.

He tested positive for the deadly virus, but as a young man

in his early twenties, he was unable to face this fact.

And so, because he was asymptomatic

he kept dancing over the next 10 years,

traveled the world with Momix.

in 1992, he was ready to go it alone,

so he returned to Philadelphia to start his own company.

Brian Sanders' Junk.

- One of the first productions I put together

as a whole show was filled with found objects.

And it was, garment racks and, trash cans and stuff.

It was cool stuff.

I don't think it was trash necessarily

but it was cool stuff that I had come by and found.

And someone else had, discarded it and felt it

used up or no good anymore or something like that.

And I was able to kind of,

breathe some sort of new perspective into all these objects.

And so as much as I'm neither here nor there

about found object art, I don't like it to be my motto.

I really feel like I'm much more about

the idea of not discovering anything new.

- [Jim] One of Junks prized

dumpster diving treasures is the Urban Scuba series.

The (indistinct) is bringing new life

to the city's best debris.

The shows are quintessentially Sanders, sensual

erotic, aerial dance.

Comedic, often absurd physical feats

and trailblazing, acrobatic dance fusions.

Working with Brian Sanders means decoding his brain.

It starts with cracking his vernacular,

which redefines the very language of dance.

He doesn't call his performers dancers or his work dance.

Although he will sometimes say the D word.

- It has a sort of I don't know if it's stigma,

dogma, one of the MA's.

And in that I think a lot of people balk at it.

I think I've discovered it of recent

and I might change my mind in the future.

That's my disclaimer.

But for now I'm realizing that what I do most importantly

with my work is I tell a story, within an entire concert.

The entirety of it is much more important to me

than each of the little individual gems strung together.

So inside of that, I feel like I'm defeating a lot

of the people that I could reach by using the D word

because I think that they immediately associate the D word

with the concert form and are not as interested.

- [Jim] And so though his DS aren't Diying,

they are highly trained

and experienced in the disciplines of dance.

They are actors, gymnast, areolas, athletes

and artists of the highest caliber, not to mention

that they're also Brian Sanders, artistic voice

his collaborators and his most excellent Code breakers.

- We literally just invent a new vocabulary every year

for whatever ideas we have,

and study it and practice it.

And that becomes our vernaculars.

- [Jim] Inventing new venues by re-imagining spaces

has also become a common Sanders strategy.

An underground swimming pool

an abandoned power station,

the basement of a warehouse of all been his stages and sets.

And to watch his mind at work can be spellbinding.

- If I'm challenged with it right now, right now I'm pushing

I'm going, Oh, how do I remake, you know, a little vignette

of the Potter Baret,

a new.

And it's a step that's been since time began.

So I right away, I'm like, well

maybe it's not a dance piece

but it's more of a visual installation where

we get to see all the different facilities

sides of Potter Baret even.

And so it's a, glass structure that are not, you know

an audience member is taken into a glass chamber

and then the Potter Baret is performed on top of them.

And so they can see what the actual foot work is

and the marks on the glass that it makes

or something like that.

I'm just this is me going off this is how I create.

- Its a great idea.

- Okay.

(both laughing)

So I just say, "All right right love it."

(upbeat music)

- [Jim] As his reputation has grown

and the Sanders' has matured

Junk has evolved to include works that are not only

about used objects, but also about commonplace ideas.

"Funny Bone" was about the stupid things

that make him laugh,

"Skiing Of Heart" about love and loss,

"Second Sanctuary" a Halloween pop-up to exercise demons.

Most recently Sanders teamed up

with the Philadelphia orchestra to recreate

Rodion Shchedrin "Carmen Suite", a ballet based on themes

from the BSA opera, and though junk in the orchestra

worked together in 2019 for an area of interpretation

of surrogate per capias, ballet, Romeo, and Juliet.

This was new territory for all.

Participants were required to be socially distanced

and wear masks, in the original novella,

a mask is actually a plot point in the story.

So Sanders incorporated

character period masks is part of the costumes.

As Brian Sanders has aged.

He has found peace with living with HIV.

Lifesaving drugs developed in the early nineties, ensured

that he could expect to live a full, healthy lifespan.

And today he is part of a support group,

for people who have survived 30 years or more with HIV.

In 2016, Sanders revisited the HIV epidemic

of the 1980s through the lens of Junk.

He created "Carried Away"

a semi-autobiographical account

of gay culture during that time.

True to form the show was provocative,

beautiful, absurd and risque.

Nudity and sexual content are often part

of a Sanders show, but it has never gret shooters.

And as one critic says

Sanders has the artistic goods and humor to back it up.

Unsurprisingly reactions from the audience are often mixed

but when Sanders hears from unhappy patrons,

he's philosophical about it.

- I've evolved.

Definitely. And I used to be fairly concerned

with what people were taking away from my work.

Then I realized at one point

that there was little to no control.

I had over what people were actually

taking away from my work.

And the best thing I could be do was to be true

to my own kind of imagery and ideas

and when I wanted to put together

and present and provide the most ideal

and completist experience of that

I could, and then from there, it's really out

of my hands and it's really in the eyes of the beholder.


(upbeat music)


- [Jim] In his late forties,

Brian Sanders faced another life

altering change as a dancing choreographer,

he had always lived inside a fit young athletic body.

He reveled in executing the acrobatic

stunts, jumps and movement he required of his performers.

I never asked them to do anything

that he would not ask of himself.

But after enduring three years of pain,

Sanders was forced to consult a doctor.

He landed in surgery and came out with a hip replacement.

He thought the procedure would amount

to just a tune-up instead,

it would end his career as an active performer.

- Remorse and loss.

And yeah, it was really, I became very depressed actually.

And it's been a slow climb and it's not been back,

it's been like next door.

So I had to kind of move in next door.

So I kind of happy not to do it anymore.

I've gotten to that point where

I do miss it, but I'm just like

it's better off done by others at this point.

- [Jim] But as long as there are

welders architects, physicists

and plenty of padding and rigging around to keep them safe

there are a few, his juncture is unable to accomplish.

And while Sanders had to give up performing

there are many things that he can still do today.

- Where I used to feel like it was

a place of suffering a little bit,

I think as young artists do, you know,

suffering, struggling artists, but rather

and it's really become like a joyful kind of,

I've accepted it where I am

and not that it's gonna be a struggle,

but that there's a beauty

and a joy inside of this lifestyle.

- Do you ever experience joy in sitting

in the audience and watching your own work.

- Overwhelming, overwhelming, and it's, wonderfully twisted

and combined with, gosh, I wish I should have.

Oh I, oh!


Oh yeah.

- [Jim] Brian Sanders work is globally influenced

and culturally diverse in a technologically advancing world.

When audiences see his shows,

they are seeing performances that challenge conventions

and stern, new ways of thinking.

But Sanders is not convinced

that everything he does is quite so novel.

- Even with the idea of Junk

and that I believe that there is nothing new

and all we're really doing is re-exploring

and rediscovering the past in a way,

it doesn't get any more traditional than that.

It doesn't get any more classical than that.

I mean...

- Will it be to a point where you know

that you shouldn't be doing this anymore.

- Well, I would say, absolutely,

but I'm certainly going to bow out gracefully,

but that...


There's so many inspirational artists.

I know that I haven't.

So I don't think we have a choice again,

you know, there's part of me that has to do and asked to do

and it's probably gonna get ugly and messy.

Like old people get.

- Thinking about disgrace.

- Yes, absolutely.

(indian music)


- For more Articulate, find us on social media

or on our website,

(soft music)

- [Announcer] Articulate with Jim Cotter,

is made possible with generous funding

from the Neubauer Family foundation.

(bright music)


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