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Bright Eyes
an interview with Conor Oberst by Mariko Sakamoto / pictures by Matt Dornan

Bright Eyes by Matt DornanFrom Omaha, Nebraska, come songs of emotional turmoil, isolation and unhappiness, delivered by the uniquely expressive voice of Conor Oberst, aka Bright Eyes. I first came across this music when I listened to last year's debut LP Letting Off The Happiness and was immediately hooked by the power of Conor's songs and unrestrained delivery. Through the lo-fi mess I knew I'd discovered something special. The prolific songwriter has since released another full-length (Fevers and Mirrors, the first to receive a UK release - on Wichita), an EP (Every Day and Every Night) and, post-interview, found time to tour Japan and release another new EP (Don't Be Frightened of Turning the Pages is out now in Japan and is due early next year in the UK). His music used to be notoriously pessimistic and gravely self-indulgent (suicide and self-loathing were frequent topics), but of late it seems there's a silver lining breaking through. As the themes become more universal, the songs become more beautiful and, at 20 years of age, Conor Oberst is looking up from the gutter and beginning to appreciate the stars.

We met up in London during his first trip to the UK.

Fevers and Mirrors, your second album, was released here in July. You've continued to layer noise and space, but you're probably bringing out your voice more than before, you sound more confident.
Yeah it's definitely a much cleaner, more pristine recording without so much of the fuzz, which makes the vocals more predominant. When all you do is go around and sing you'll get a little better at it. I just learned to sing by doing it, I never had lessons or anything. If you do something enough then you'll get a little better at it.

You are very young but already have a long career - six to eight years of recording and you've been working with Mike Mogis of Lullaby For the Working Class. Was he there from the beginning?
I guess not from the very beginning, I played in [Commander Venus] and then I did some four-track recordings and we put out that first Bright Eyes CD, A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997. Mike and I had always been friends and he was playing in Lullaby and he really liked the first CD but his main complaint was how bad it sounded. He approached me one day and said 'if you want I'll record you for free and I think it'd be cool because I like your songs.' I was like 'woah, sure'. It's been gradually getting more produced because Letting Off The Happiness was like just an analog eight track that he brought down and we still recorded in my parents basement and then we recorded part of that at Andy [Lemaster, keyboard player]'s studio in Athens, but then for Every Day and Every Night we did it in his house but kept it really loose, and did it real fast. And then the new record it was much more like two months of solid recording, just concentrating on everything...

Was there a specific plan in mind when you went into the studio to record Fevers?
A lot of times on our older records, if a keyboard part was lagging behind or there was an off-note from a guitar we'd just say 'fuck it' and leave it but with this, anything we left we had decided to leave it that way, you know. But for the most part we just played it again and again until it was as perfect as we could get it, which was a lot different than our other records. As far as the the general sound, like we wanted to sound really good and big and well orchestrated but at the same time maintain some intimate closeness. We didn't want it to sound like a big studio record, but like you were in the room with us. That's what we tried to do. There's boundaries that are hard to overcome with sound equipment. I'm happy with how it came out, it's the best recording we've done.

Lullaby for the Working Class is a much more traditional sounding band than Bright Eyes, do you think Mike's enjoying the different paths?
He's become a new person in probably less than a year! He's real wound up, real tight. He's like a ball of nerves but like if you hang out with me long enough you just relax [laughs]. I've taught him to relax. I take credit for his new chillness about everything. I'm just like 'Mike, don't worry about it...'

You've used a lot of keyboards on this record, more so than before. Were some of the new songs written on the keyboard?
Yeah, I think it's fun. It opens up a new world of what you can do with chords. You get two chords instead of one, you know? Overall it's just a superior instrument than guitar. It's the basis for western music and I wish I was better at it...keep practising.

I heard you record onto a Walkman whenever you get an idea or a melody...
I did that for a long time but it wasn't to capture songs, it was more for recording sounds. I was obsessive about that for a while but I don't carry one now. Mostly a song, a melody or a few lines of lyrics will stick in my head, and the ones that go away fast I don't worry about. It's the ones that stay in my head for a few weeks and just repeat and it gets annoying so I'm like 'fine, I'll fucking write the song!'

Tell me about the music scene in Nebraska, there are so many talented songwriters like yourself, Lullaby, Simon Joyner...
Simon's probably my favourite songwriter in the world.

Really? What about Elliott Smith?
Yeah, he was born in Omaha. He's good too, but I think I'd still pick Simon. To me, Simon is a little more... he touches me.

And Josh Rouse?
Yeah, he's a friend. He lives in Nashville now but his parents live in a small town in Nebraska. To me I definitely think Nebraska's a really unique place because of the balance of the seasons. They're all very separate, we have really hot summers, cold winters and really beautiful springs and falls. It's, I guess in parts, a very desolate place. Empty and lonely and a lot of space, but somehow out of that you can strike some optimism or hopefulness.

Space could lead to feelings of isolation as well.
And that comes out in a lot of the music that's made there and the art. It's a really suupportive community too. It's not like San Francisco or New York where there's so much stuff going on all the time. The little bit of music and art we have is treated like a really fragile thing and everyone cares for it tries to make it grow as much as possible and that makes it a really supportive place to be making music. It's not quite as polluted with 'being cool' or being accepted by this and that. It's very comfortable.

It's such a coincidence that so many great songwriters come from there.
It's in the water. You know we have an ocean under the ground in Nebraska? It's the biggest source of underground water in the world. It's miles and miles below the surface but it's just vast. It's mostly in Nebraska but it goes into some other states too. I had this crazy teacher in high school who had this theory that once all the resources of the earth are ruined and you can't get clean water anywhere, that Nebraska will suddenly become the most powerful place in the Universe. Because we have this endless supply of clean water beneath, we'll see maybe it'll happen...the capital of the Universe.

Part of the appeal of your music is your lyrics, very descriptive and detailed so your songs always have a lot of words - too many maybe?!
You think so? You know what's so funny is that I have the worst memory of anyone you've ever met. I can't remember anything but even as a kid I always could remember lyrics and melodies. I could hear a song once and I immediately knew all the words. For some reason I've always been good at memorising songs and it's the one thing I have an endless amount of space for in my head. Whereas you ask for names of people or cities I'd have no idea. I suppose all the drinking and smoking doesn't help but, whatever.

On your records there's a lot of self-loathing and death imagery, and some people would consider your music very depressing. Can you pinpoint the source of your depression?
That's one I really don't know how to answer. It's something I've always struggled with. I guess as a child I was maybe...really overly sensitive... but I was also a little thoughtful, more aware of stuff than other kids I'd play with. And by the time I started writing songs and sort of left the magic of being a kid and started seeing things more from a mature perspective, that's when I got depressed...it's not like I'm unhappy all the time - I have fun and I have some great friends and I have a good time but ever since that point it's been a struggle for me to be happy. I don't know if I'm unusual in that sense or if it's just the way everyone is. I've been through all the medication and all that shit they try to give you to keep you from offing yourself or whatever, but you need something inside yourself to reach that peace and I'm definitely still looking for that.

Perhaps you're still dreaming of a perfect world. On If Winter Ends (from Letting Off The Happiness) you're shouting 'If there is a perfect spring that's waiting somewhere / just take me there'. And you have the song A Perfect Sonnet on Every Day and Every Night. Maybe you're looking for a place that doesn't exist...
Don't say that!

Maybe when you write a great song, that can give you some satisfaction and happiness?
That's what I try to remind myself of sometimes. Sometimes it's just overwhelming, it's easy to slip into that mode of where it becomes more like an illness, it's more physical than what you're doing or thinking...I dunno. I agree, I definitely need to work on finding good more than bad.

Well do you think selling a million records and being recognised in the street would make you happy?
No, I think that would make me a lot more unhappy actually. That's why I'm going to stop right now, this is the last show we're ever gonna play tonight! [Laugh]

For some people success is the motivation for making music.
No, I'm scared of success, I think success has more bad things that come along with it than good things. I don't know that I would be prepared to deal with it. I definitely like putting out records and sharing it with people and playing shows, it's just that there's a lot of shit that goes with it. I try not to be too concerned about those things, you know? I'm just not...a part of it is uncomfortable and not that nice but a part of it is what we've been working for for a long time, touring and putting out records. And for my friends who run the label it's sort of a success for them, maybe even more so than for me. I guess I'm more concerned about being happy with the music we make and not so much people's reaction to it. But it's definitely cool, it allows me to fly to London and hang out.

You mean dealing with press and stuff I guess... because certainly you've had criticism for being self-indulgent and even narcissistic in the States. You've admitted in print to being guilty of both self-loathing and vanity. Do you think you're projecting an honest picture of yourself?
Um, yeah. I think definitely...It's always about trying to strike a balance between caring about yourself enough to stay healthy and stay happy but then, you know, caring about other people is as important. That's my problem, I have trouble caring about myself without having it be somehow to do with someone else. It's easy to say 'I'm gonna take care of myself because I have this person to look out for' but it's hard to just take care of yourself for yourself. I always have trouble doing that. It's definitely a see-saw, I go overboard either way. Like on the days I feel confident it becomes like gross arrogance, when on the days when I feel unsure it becomes complete hatred for yourself.

Would non-autobiographical songs not be less painful?
Sometimes it's better to dress things up and make it vague and easier to swallow and I think I do that a lot, you mix up the first and third person and keep it at an arms length away. Sometimes things slip out that are a little too obvious. In general I like it to be less about me and more about some universal idea that everyone can relate to. I think it's better to convey some kind of truth because I don't see why people should be interested with what's going on with me...it's just hard to have strangers think about you like that. I have friends or loved ones who are worried about me and concerned with how I'm doing and I'm very thankful for that. But when you get into a bunch of other people that don't really know you and start guessing what you're about from your songs, it gets aggravating. Because, although the songs are a lot to do with me, it's a song not an autobiography.

What motivates you most to write?
It's something that's necessary and I think that's why I've been more nervous and freaked out than I normally am. Just because in the last six months I've been travelling so constantly that I barely have any privacy to write songs or anything. So there's too many crammed up there right now and they're piled on top of each other and I gotta write some of them fast here or I'm gonna lose them.

Could you describe the perfect world for you?
It's in my mind. It kinda looks like...you know before they got really good at colour television. It's like Technicolor...it's like that. It almost looks like it's painted in instead of actually nice colour film. I tend to dwell on the past a lot. There are places and memories I have that all I want to do is go back to those times. There's definitely some stuff from being a child, just brief moments of happiness and days where everything was just fine. I like Christmastime in Nebraska a lot. My parents street is all these beautiful brick houses and those black street posts and they're always burning really dim...I can pretty much dream up lots of perfect places.

The last line of your new song, No Lies, Just Love is 'I want to be pure.' Do you know Jim Carroll's book The Basketball Diaries? The last line is 'I will be pure' and when I heard the song I was immediately reminded of it...
I didn't realise that...I read that a long time ago but I didn't know that was the last line. That's great, I didn't know it when I was writing it but that's great...

There are many literary references in your work, Valley of the Dolls and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, for example. And I suspect you watch a lot of films too, since your lyrics are always so vivid and rich in narrative, do you get inspiration from other mediums?
I think it's best to be like a sponge and let everything seep into you, like everything you watch or hear or dream about. Just soak it all in and when it comes time to push it back out that's what comes out, what you soaked up.

But you'd soak up other, less desirable things too, are you sure you want to be a sponge?
I wanna be a sponge.

You worked with Jeremy Burns from Of Montreal, and Kevin (no relation) Burns from Neutral Milk Hotel on your first album. Why did you decide to work with them?
I just fell into it you know. Andy (Lemaster) lives in Athens and I go there a lot. Itís one of the places I feel totally comfortable, just like Nebraska. Athens is maybe a little more hip than Omaha. Too much hippness makes me weirded out but the thing about Athens is that everyone there is so genuine and supportive, itís a good place to make music.

Their music is far less emotional, more directly Ďpop.í
All the art of any medium that affects me tends to have an emotional content. I mean, I guess I like Devo [laughs] but most of the stuff I like is very emotional...

Some might say you express yourself too intensely.
Too much? Should I stop?

No! It's just rare these days. Especially the way you express yourself during the show...it is like watching an emotional explosion, it's certainly cathartic but somehow makes the audience uncomfortable, like they're seeing and hearing too much. What's been the reaction to the new album at home in the States?
I think it's been good. I know that people know about it and people are buying it more so than our previous records were ever bought and radio plays it a lot. We did really good on the college charts and, I mean, it's all...I don't know. I can't complain about things too much because if I wanted to make it all stop I could. I could just go home and lock my door and not play shows any more.

But you'd definitely want some interaction from people?
I'm just one big contradiction.

Do you think that's because you're young? Maybe when you're thirty...
I'm not going to be thirty. I'm not gonna grow old anymore, I'll be twenty forever!

CWAS #6 - Autumn 2000

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