Digital Ash in a Digital Urn
He flew to Nashville, Tenn., to record songs with Emmylou Harris.
And for a couple of weeks this past fall, he claimed the top two slots on Billboard's Hot 100 Singles Sales chart.
It was an impressive year for 24-year-old Omaha native Conor Oberst of the folk-pop band Bright Eyes.
This year looks just as promising -- and pressure-filled -- for Oberst, a singer-songwriter who has built a devoted fan base for his emotional lyrics and impassioned, often quavering vocal style.
Saturday, Oberst performs on the PBS series "Austin City Limits."
A week later, he starts an international tour with a sold-out concert in Omaha. Two new albums arrive in stores Jan. 25.
In the spring, he'll open concerts abroad for rock supergroup R.E.M.
Until the globe-trotting begins, Oberst has been in Omaha, hanging out at the Homy Inn, doing some shopping and eating dinner with his parents in between press interviews.
"I'm just excited for (the albums) to finally come out and to have people hear them," said Oberst, who owns a home in the Dundee neighborhood and keeps an apartment in New York. "There's always this weird time in between finishing the record and when it's released."
"I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" was completed in 2003. "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn" was finished last fall.
Both will be released by Saddle Creek Records, an Omahabased independent label that Oberst helped start in 1993. The albums were recorded at Presto Recording Studios in Lincoln.
They are his first since 2002's "Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground." That album, which sold about 187,000 copies, prompted Rolling Stone magazine to dub Oberst "rock's boy genius" and the "indie-rock Bob Dylan."
Oberst's first tour this year, in January and February, will feature songs from "I'm Wide Awake."
Six musicians will accompany him, including Lincoln producermusician Mike Mogis, Nick White from Omaha band Tilly and the Wall, Stefanie Drootin of Omaha band the Good Life and Jason Boesel from Los Angeles group Rilo Kiley. Instruments include the harmonica, trumpet, mandolin and pedal steel guitar.
Bright Eyes is an ever-changing cast of musicians that Oberst assembles based on the songs performed and who's available to tour.
"I always try to mix it up to a certain extent and get some more eclectic choices of instruments," he said. "This past summer we did a tour in Europe and we actually had a harpist play. That was really cool."
Another U.S. tour, in May and June, will feature songs from "Digital Ash." Oberst will be backed by Omaha band the Faint.
That album offers a more rock-oriented, electronic-based sound -- atypical for Bright Eyes -- and includes several songs with Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner.
"I'm Wide Awake" is an acoustic, folk-oriented album with a more stripped-down sound.
Guest vocals on three tracks come from Emmylou Harris.
Oberst has said that he had a dream about recording with Harris. He later called her record label; Harris liked his music so much that she agreed to contribute to the album.
On both albums, Oberst touches on love, politics, society, his dreams and his personal demons.
He has talked openly with the music-industry press about his panic attacks and depression.
Antidepressants have helped but were hindered by his drinking, he says in Harp music magazine's current issue. He weaves that struggle into the lyrics of "Hit the Switch" from "Digital Ash."
"I'm thinking of quitting drinking again/ I know I've said that a couple of times/ And I'm always changing my mind."
With success comes a lot of expectation, Oberst said recently. Pressure manifests in different ways, from feeling physically stressed and anxious to being unable to sleep.
"Everyone kind of has their own things they deal with," he said.
With the new albums and tour, Oberst likely will garner more attention from music critics and an ever-growing fan base.
It's not just music publications that have focused on the poetic rocker with the slight frame and floppy black hair.
He's become a pin-up in teen magazines such as Ellegirl, which included him on a recent list of "50 hottest rockers."
And thousands of older, mainstream music fans were exposed to Oberst's songs last fall during the anti-Bush "Vote for Change" concert tour in which Bright Eyes performed with Bruce Springsteen.
Springsteen presented a grinning Oberst with a brown jacket as a parting gift to commemorate the end of Bright Eyes' stint with the tour.
"He and his wife, Patti, picked out a jacket for me at this, like, flea market or whatever. It was really cool," Oberst said. "It was really nice of them."
Despite Bush's re-election to office, Oberst called "Vote for Change" a thrilling experience.
"It was really great in the sense of getting to play with people I've grown up listening to and who I really admire both as people and musicians.
"And also just to be involved in something that transcended entertainment. It was more about communicating ideas and camaraderie. That was special."
Oberst has helped emerging artists over the past year, too. His New York-based record label, Team Love, has released three albums by Omaha indiepop group Tilly and the Wall, Martha's Vineyard folk singersongwriter Willy Mason and Omaha hip-hop artist Mars Black.
This year, the label plans to release a solo album from singer Jenny Lewis of the band Rilo Kiley.
"I just felt like I wanted to keep expanding and putting out new music I thought was great," said Oberst, adding that he and his manager have two criteria in deciding what bands to sign.
"We have to love the music and we have to love the people making the music."
Oberst also will spend 2005 writing songs and possibly working on new material with his other band, Omaha indie-rock group Desaparecidos.
His New Year's resolutions?
"To be happy and healthy and take everything one day at a time.
"I don't have huge aspirations beyond kind of maintaining and continuing to build work on creative things that I feel inspired to do and, hopefully, never stop feeling passion for -- whether it's music or other endeavors."
Saturday: Performs on "Austin City Limits." Jan. 14: Kicks off U.S. tour at Omaha's Sokol Auditorium, performing songs from "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning." Jan. 25: Release of two albums. Feb. 21: Begins European tour in Belgium to promote "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning." March 24: Starts seven-date tour opening for R.E.M. in Australia and New Zealand. May and June: Resumes U.S. tour, performing songs from "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn."
Later this month A review of Oberst's concert at Sokol.
LP / CD / MP3
LP / CD / Deluxe CD / MP3