Phoebe Bridgers’ favourite Elliott Smith song: “What if I told you I feel like I know you”

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If you ask Phoebe Bridgers who her favourite artist is, the answer comes back fast and clear; Elliott Smith. From the start of her career, the singer has mentioned the late musician as a vital influence, utterly shaping the artist she is today.

In fact, Bridgers loves Smith so much that her second album, Punisher, was titled after a track dedicated to his memory. In the song ‘Punisher’, she routinely points towards his legacy. It’s there in indirect references like the nod to his album Either/Or in the lyrics, “Either I’m careless or I wanna get caught.” Or in the outright statements of loyalty and adoration as she sings, “What if I told you I feel like I know you / But we never met?”

In both her music and in interviews, she jumps at every chance to bring up her idol. In one conversation with NPR, she attempted to sum up his insurmountable impact on her as she said, “It’s like The Beatles to me, and I mean that in every way.” Referencing the gargantuan impact the Fab Four have had on generations of artists, she sees Smith as a giant alongside them, as impactful as the Liverpudlians were.

It was an instant obsession; after first hearing ‘Waltz #2’, she said, “I went super deep.” She remembers buying her first record of his, recalling, “I went to Amoeba Music in LA and bought [the 2007 rarities compilation] New Moon, weirdly. Even though it was posthumously released, I just love that record. And there’s a bunch of shit on there that nobody’s heard.” It was a niche entry to a well-known artist, but this side-entrance to a unique figure in music introduced Bridgers to her favourite song by the artist; ‘Whatever (Folk Song in C)’, which she admits is “kind of a weird choice”.

The track was written and recorded around the sessions for his 1995 self-titled album but was shelved. It didn’t see the light of day and get released until that 2007 compilation came around, landing in Bridgers’ lap. But despite being a lesser-known cut, she sees it as a quintessential Smith song and a perfect example of his genius.

“It totally encapsulates everything that I love about him and his songwriting,” she said of the track. As the lyrics veer between the richly sentimental and the utterly specific or casual, she’s right. It has all of Smith’s signatures, and in that way, has Bridgers’ signatures too as she replicated the things she loved from her biggest inspiration.

Just as she sings about in ‘Punisher’, there does seem to be a distinct, cosmic thread between the two musicians. When she first heard Smith, it seemed to give Bridgers her own lyrical language. That would then lead her to meet one of the key players in her own career: Conor Obsert, the Bright Eyes singer whom she was in Better Oblivion Community Center.

“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’”, she remembered. So influenced by the artist, it seems the two were indistinguishable as she continued, “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.’”

But it is an Elliott Smith song, just the deepest of deep cuts. “A lot of people didn’t fuck with that record,” Bridgers admits, “But that was my first.” They say that you never truly forget your first love, and when it comes to her enduring favourite Smith number, and the impact he had and continues to have on her music, that seems to be true.

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