Month-long cleanses, sprawling pieces of property and an album full of grown-up folk songs. Welcome to the new world of BRIGHT EYES, where the music isn’t the only thing that has matured.
Interview: Trevor Kelley
Two years ago, Conor Oberst was seemingly everywhere. If you opened the pages of a music magazine or logged onto nearly any indie-rock news site, there was a pretty good chance that you’d be greeted by a glowing write-up on him. Following the success that Oberst experienced with I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash In A Digital Urn (two discs released simultaneously on January 25, 2005), the Bright Eyes leader was pretty much inescapable.
And then, just like that, he wasn’t. Oberst began to recede from the spotlight following the massive amount of attention the records earned, leaving many of his fiercely dedicated fans wondering what exactly happened to him. As it turned out, the man who had spent much of his early 20s being naively referred to as a “boy genius” was busy growing up.
For Oberst, the maturation process began with his songs. Less than a year after releasing I’m Wide Awake and Digital Ash, Oberst left New York (where he still keeps an apartment and lives part-time), and headed back to Omaha where he began writing material for a new Bright Eyes record. In the months that followed, he traveled to Portland, Oregon, Los Angeles and Chicago to record with a cast of somewhat familiar collaborators.The resultant album, Cassadaga, is a mature and, at times, somber record that seemingly matches the Bright Eyes frontman’s current mindset. Like his songs, Oberst, 27, has done a lot of maturation and after years of being portrayed as a tortured artist who was supposedly swapping spit with everyone from Winona Ryder to Jenny Lewis, Oberst spends most of his time now in Omaha where he-along with his longtime girlfriend, former Azure Ray member Maria Taylor-has just moved into a sprawling new home.
Talking from his new digs in Nebraska, Oberst candidly spoke to AP about getting older, cleansing his system and why, after years of recording with his longtime label Saddle Creek, he has decided to own every note of the music he makes.
Some congratulations are in order. I hear you recently bought a new place.
Yeah, it was maybe in June or something, but so far it’s been pretty good.
There was talk for a while that you and [producer] Mike Mogis were going to buy two pieces of property in Omaha, and then build a studio and record Cassadaga in the middle of them. Did that ever happen?
No, the zoning didn’t work out. We recorded in different studios in, like, New York and California and Chicago, instead. I guess we did one song at his new studio, but mostly just the mixing.
A lot of these songs sound surprisingly mature. It’s seems like this is finally going to be the record where people start saying you’ve “grown up.” Have you begun to hear that already?
I’ve done some interviews and, yeah, I’ve heard that from at least one person. I do feel pretty old. I guess it’s all relative, but some days I feel older than others, I suppose.
What makes you feel old?
Hangovers. [Laughs.] Also, just when you start to see young kids hang out and you’re like, “Wow, I can’t relate to that at all.” Nate Krenkel [Oberst’s manager] just moved right by Washington Square Park [in Manhattan], and there are a lot of college kids around there all the time.
On both I’m Wide Awake and Digital Ash you sang about what it was like when you first moved to New York. Those two records really seemed to be about both the kinder and darker aspects that exist in that city.
Sure, I think that’s fair to say. Digital Ash was very dark in its subject matter and the sound. I can see that.
You actually sang a lot about drugs on Digital Ash-in particular cocaine. Was that something that was around you a lot while writing those songs?
Yeah, I suppose. It seems like… Well, I don’t… [Pauses.] I’m going to knock on wood here because hopefully a lot of the intense abuse amongst my group of friends has lessened a little bit, which I’m happy for. But for me, that was just [another] time in my life.
On Cassadaga, there’s actually a song on the opposite end of the spectrum called “Cleanse Song,” in which you sing about not doing drugs. Are the lyrics to that song autobiographical?
Well, I did go on a month-long cleanse, so some of it’s autobiographical. I think that song covers a lot of subject matter, but the title of the song and some of the lines in it come from this sort of organized cleanse that I did.
For the rest of this Q&A, pick up AP 226.
Click HERE for the official AP review of Cassadaga.