Conor Oberst: ‘I never felt that young to begin with, and now I feel like I’m 150’
The Longitude headliner tells about going it alone for his new album, collaborating with First Aid Kit and writing a sci-fi screenplay for Monsters of Folk
‘I think my work often tends to be a reaction to the last project I did’
Upside Down Mountain is the first ‘solo’ album bearing your own name since 2008…
I know it probably seems like splitting hairs to most people, but I consider Bright Eyes a band – myself, Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott – so when it’s not an equal collaboration between the three of us, I use my own name. Which was the case with this new record. Mystic Valley Band, Monsters of Folk and Desaparecidos are all bands, too, with specific members.
You’re a musician renowned for his lyrics, but this album seems to put an even bigger emphasis than usual on the language.
I think my work often tends to be a reaction to the last project I did. The last record I wrote before this was The People’s Key with Bright Eyes, and the language on that album was very dense, even cryptic. [This time] I was going for something that would unfold slowly with repeated listens and I enjoyed that challenge – but when I started writing this album, I found myself gravitating toward a much more conversational style of lyric-writing. Double Life is a good example – it’s very straightforward and less layered, and sung from just one perspective instead of many.
You’re a prolific collaborator – how much of that feeds into your solo material?
I think every musical experience I have informs the others, even if I’m not aware of it all the time. Monsters of Folk was very educational for me, because I think Jim [James] and M [Ward] are two of the best songwriters alive, and they are both great producers in their own right. It was awesome to have a ringside seat to see how they make records – I learned a great deal from them. Desaparecidos is a whole other animal: it’s very much a band, and is very physically demanding on me as a singer. But it’s a great way for me to cleanse my palette and write in a totally different style.
Swedish sisters First Aid Kit have been vocal about your influence over the years, and they provide backing vocals throughout Upside Down Mountain
Well, we had broken the ice long before the recording of this record. They made their last two records with Mike Mogis in Omaha, and I sang and co-wrote a song on their last record. We also have toured and sang together live many times now, so there was a comfort level there. They are so kind to always say how big of fans they are of mine in the press, but to me, it feels like we’re peers. They are two of the most naturally gifted singers I have ever come across and I’m amazed by how much they have grown as writers – especially considering they sing in a second language. I’m often in awe of their talent, and consider myself a big fan of theirs. So I guess the feeling is mutual.
They’re not your only fans – you’re regularly hailed as one of the greatest songwriters of your generation.
I don’t think about that kind of stuff much. It really exists outside of my day-to-day, so it is pretty easy to ignore it most of the time. Of course, it’s nice when people appreciate what I do, but I have heard people say so many over-the-top things about me, both positively and negatively, my whole life – so it just seems like background noise after a while. I don’t believe any of it.
At 34, do you feel like you’ve finally shaken off the ‘precocious’ label?
I never really thought about it. It is hard to think about how old you are at the time; I always just felt like me. I never felt that young to begin with, and now I feel like I’m 150 – but that can change, too. Life is full of surprises. I want to stay young at heart; I don’t want to be cynical, but maybe it is all part of the deal: constant change and duelling perspectives. Nothing stays the same for long.
Was The People’s Key the final Bright Eyes record? Are you simply Conor Oberst from here on in?
Hard to say. I’m not ruling anything out. I’ve been recording with Desaparecidos, so hopefully we’ll get a full-length out sometime next year.
What about your non-musical projects – such as the sci-fi screenplay that you’ve written?
Yeah, I wrote it to be the next Monsters of Folk record/project. It started as a joke – like everything does with that band – but I spent six months working on it, and it was very gratifying to finish it and have those guys like it. I doubt it will ever get made, but it was really cool to go through the process of writing it. It is such a different thing than songwriting, and was an exciting challenge to take on. I’ve never really thought seriously about [something like] a novel, but maybe someday it could be a fun experiment. But it’s such a different discipline than songwriting, and I have no reason to think I would be any good at it.
You’ve had a storied career to date, but what are you most proud of, professionally?
I guess just longevity. I’ve seen so many talented musician friends come and go for many different reasons, and so I always try and remember to be grateful that 20 years into this, I am able to do what I love for a living. That is a very rare and lucky thing.