She sounds like a 1-800 telephone psychic, eagerly telling the listener to go to Nevada and Texas and Arizona, while in the background, atmospheric noise — backward-tracking mixed with an orchestra's pre-concert tuning — slowly rises to the surface. Spooky. Two minutes into "Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)," the woman tells the listener to be patient, don't give up hope on yourself, that Cassadaga might just be a premonition of a place you're going to visit.
The listener on the other end of the line is, of course, Conor Oberst.
And for Oberst, Cassadaga could be the one place that provides the answers he's been searching for, seemingly for his entire life. It's where he starts his search before heading to the Paris of the South to a shredded-confetti-covered stage to a Los Angeles detox ward to a rain-soaked battle trench to a series of padded rooms, old hotels and a dozen different daydreams, all the while bringing the listener along for the ride.
Cassadaga, the new album by Bright Eyes slated for release next Tuesday, is Conor Oberst's one-man journey through a thousand doors with nothing but hope on the other side. "In my mind, it's a pilgrimage record to find peace of mind," he said. "I guess that's a lonely process. It's not anything anyone can do for you, and there are no easy answers."
There are, however, plenty of questions, and Oberst was eager to answer them one evening in the middle of February, when he and Bright Eyes bandmate Jake Bellows (also of Neva Dinova) sat across a table in a nearly empty Saddle Creek Bar, only a few blocks from Oberst's midtown home. It was a week before Bright Eyes would hit the road on a brief tour in support of the band's just-released six-song EP, Four Winds — a mere preamble to a year that will be spent supporting Cassadaga, Oberst's most ambitious album in his storied career.
Over beers and a laptop computer, I mention that now, in addition to his army of heartbroken teen worshipers who weep through his concerts, Oberst can expect a sizable contingent of psychic kooks who will view him as a follower, a believer, a messiah. Oberst just laughs and pulls his long, dark hair behind his ears, leans forward in his chair and says that there is no underlying psychic theme to the record.
"But I guess I'll leave that to you and the listener to decide for yourselves," he said before going into a detailed explanation about how he found out about Cassadaga from a friend a couple years ago. The idea of a town populated by spiritual advisors intrigued him.
"I really wanted to go there," he said. "I built it up in my mind. I thought I could find something I was looking for. It was a year after my friend first told me about it before I made my trip down there. It's really amazing."
Cassadaga, he said, is a "super small town" in central Florida surrounded by swampland that pulses with a gothic, Savannah-type vibe "but with white trash magic. It's just got a really intense energy because most of the people that live there are psychics and mediums. There's a chalkboard out front that lists the people who are working that day. You make an appointment and go to their homes — most of them have converted their front rooms into reading parlors. You get your reading and go on your way."
These aren't the same gimmicky psychics you find in places like St. Marks Place in New York's East Village, he said. "These people make it their life. It's a practice that's been going on for thousands of years. People could see the future and interpret dreams. I was attracted to the authenticity of the minds of all these people together. I left with this peaceful feeling."
Yeah, but did he find what he was looking for? "In a way, I did," he said. "It's a personal thing that's hard to articulate. I left there feeling a little more that I was on the right path, working in conjunction with the universe and against the grain."
In other words, traveling on the same path he's been on most of his career.
The CliffsNotes version of Oberst's career begins with a cute, bespectacled Conor playing at a local watering hole called Kilgore's (now the site of the Shelterbelt Theatre) at age 13 with a handful of musicians who, along with him, would become the godfathers of the current Omaha music scene — Ted Stevens, Bill Hoover and Tim Kasher.
Within a couple years, Oberst would front the short-lived emo rock act Commander Venus, the band that gave him his first taste of national exposure. His appetite would grow considerably by 1998, when as Bright Eyes Oberst released Letting Off the Happiness on Saddle Creek Records, a recording that would be his first to break into the College Music Journal charts, at No. 105.
Two years later, Fevers and Mirrors would make it all the way to the CMJ Top-20, while his next record, 2002's Lifted or the Story's in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground would sell more than 100,000 copies and land Bright Eyes on "Late Show with David Letterman," all without the help of Clear Channel and commercial radio.
But that was nothing compared to where he was headed in January 2004, when Bright Eyes released two full-length albums simultaneously — the acoustic-flavored folkie I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, and the rhythm-based rocker Digital Ash in a Digital Urn.
By the end of January '05, Wide Awake was No. 10 on the Billboard charts (forget about CMJ) while Digital Ash was No. 15. The combined first-week sales of both discs exceeded 100,000. Impressive by anyone's standards. By the end of 2006, Wide Awake's total sales would exceed 380,000.
And that pretty much brings us to the present, except for the part about Oberst performing with Springsteen and Michael Stipe as part of 2004's Vote for Change tour. Or the part about Oberst giving President Bush a lyrical flipping of the bird on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." Or the part where Oberst moved to New York City, then back to Omaha just before playing in front of thousands of people in Omaha's Memorial Park. And what about Park Ave. and Desaparecidos? What about creating his own record label — Team Love — which released the hugely successful solo debut by Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis that sold nearly 100,000 copies?
There's no room to recap it all. For those of you reading about Conor Oberst for the first time, all you really need to know is that he may be the most successful singer-songwriter ever to come out of Omaha, and if you've never heard him before, you will. Cassadaga will make sure of that.
Recorded off and on over a year at studios in New York, Los Angeles, Portland, Chicago, Lincoln and Omaha, Cassadaga may be Oberst's most well-conceived and well-executed recording, and certainly the one with the biggest commercial potential. Released on Saddle Creek Records in North America and Polydor everywhere else, the album has enough pop punch to break through the indie-rock glass ceiling to a mainstream world inhabited by bands like Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie and The Shins.
"We recorded almost 30 songs as opposed to going into it with a defined idea," Oberst said. "With Wide Awake and Digital Ash, we were going with a specific aesthetic — one being a purist, '70s folk rock album, the other being based on acoustic rhythms. This time I just wanted to record the songs I had, just to see what happens. And it kind of took its own shape. When we decided which songs to put on it, we found a common thread, and it sort of shaped itself."
Though scatter-shot musically and thematically, Cassadaga is pleasantly overcast with both loneliness and a sense of discovery. Its overall tone rings with resignation, as if Oberst realizes that this is all there is, and that he has to be content with what he has, whether he likes it or not. The theme isn't really about finding your place in the world, it's about realizing that your place is right where you are.
Production-wise, the album is wall-to-wall. The orchestral arrangements — though not exactly Nelson Riddle quality — provide a souring emotional cushion to music that's emotional at its very core.
Oberst walked through the album, discussing some of the highlights, like the provocative lyric in the jangly rocker "Hot Knives," a song that starts with a distorted acoustic guitar and fiddle, then breaks to a piano and Oberst singing "When I do wrong I'm with God, she thought / When I feel lost I'm not lost at all" and punctuated with "I've made love, yeah I've been f**ked, so what?"
"That song is about an average wife, a mother character who realized that her husband has been unfaithful to her," Oberst explained. "She goes through this metamorphosis where she has sex with a lot of people, does drugs, lives the nightlife, and eventually realizes she has to let go of her ego or what was hurting her and start a new life and shed her old existence."
The "I've been f**ked" line speaks from her perspective, Oberst said, not his. "But I think it's a line that applies to a lot of us. It's a different thing, sex and love. Sex without love is one kind of experience, and sex when you're in love with someone is a different experience."
It's easy to assume that the songs are autobiographical, but Oberst always has said that his lyrics are derived from images of what's going on around him, discussions overheard, voyeuristic glimpses into other people's lives.
The album-closer, "Lime Tree," for example — a song that bears the same lonely ache of "Lua" from Wide Awake — opens with the lines, "I keep floating down the river but the ocean never comes / Since the operation I heard you're breathing just for one / Now everything is imaginary, especially what you love / You left another message said it's done / It's done."
Oberst acknowledged that those lines are indeed about an abortion. "Like most songs, it's a composite sketch, a drawing from a lot of different experiences," he said, "some my own and some from people close to me, stories I heard that affected me and entered my subconscious to find a place in a song."
Still, others do draw directly from his personal experiences. The lovely, woodwind-fueled "Cleanse Song" has passages that are clearly auto-biographical, with lyrics, "And if life seems absurd what you need is some laughter / And a season to sleep and a place to get clean / Maybe Los Angeles, somewhere no one is expecting."
"I did a cleanse early in 2006," Oberst said, "with some friends in L.A. where we basically ate raw foods and drank these shakes made out of volcanic ash that suck the poison out of your bloodstream. No sugar, no caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes, any processed anything, and then you do colonics and different things. It's a pretty intense experience. You start to realize that there's a reason you're injecting all these chemicals into your system. When the fog clears you can see 10 miles instead of 10 feet in front of you."
Oberst went on to describe the colonics, which he said "were wild. When they're happening they feel good. But afterward, you get a deep massage and get rid of all that. You're lying on this table and these stones push on different organs, your liver and colon."
So what drove him to have his colon irrigated? "I felt pretty toxic after 2005," he said. "Ten months of touring and everything that goes along with the lifestyle, it was time to clean it out. That's what that portion of the song is about."
The haunting "No One Would Riot for Less" seems like an anti-war song, with the lines, "Little soldier little insect you know war it has no heart / It'll kill you in the sunshine or happily in the dark / Where kindness is a card game or a bent up cigarette / In the trenches, in the hard rain, with a bullet and a bet."
"That second verse is obviously about a soldier," Oberst said. "The song itself is sort of a love song that takes place in the not-so-distant future, when the peak of the oil crisis comes to its full tilt and the basic needs of people — food and fresh water and those things — become scarce. That's really a much more plausible Armageddon than anything else in my mind. I think there will still be love, even then."
Those looking for overt political themes in Cassadaga likely will be disappointed. Oberst said while he's still interested in politics, political issues are secondary in his life.
"I still try to follow it as closely as I can and I'm really excited about 2008 and having actual leadership," he said. "But it was never my intention to make it a full-time job, to be an activist. I want to be a musician. I will help people and causes I believe in, but it's hard. If you wanted to, you could spend every day of the year working on it, but there's just not enough hours in the day to do that and do what I want to do."
Oberst said there are some political themes woven into the songs on Cassadaga, "But nothing as overt as '[When the] President Talks to God,'" he said. "That's not a song as much as a commercial. I don't really premeditate what I write about. It just comes out. I'm not going to go out of my way to write about something that doesn't come naturally, and I won't shy away from it, either, if another song comes along. After I wrote that song and played it on television, a lot of people rallied around it and wanted me to keep doing it."
To spice up the message even further during a live performance on "The Tonight Show," Oberst concluded the song with the Arabic phrase "Fil mish-mish."
"I thought it was cool to spout some Arabic on national television in a cowboy hat," he said, explaining that "fil mish-mish" sort of means "when pigs fly." The phrase came after the final line, "I wonder if he smells his own bullshit, I doubt it, I doubt it."
"Someone like that [Bush] is so far gone he will never understand what he's done to this world," Oberst said. "He's so detached from reality, now more than ever, doing his John Wayne thing."
Surprisingly, there was little fallout from the Leno show, unlike what happened after the Dixie Chicks lambasted Bush from a London stage, a situation central to the documentary Shut Up and Sing, which Oberst has yet to see.
"[The Dixie Chicks] had so much on the line and could have turned away from their own beliefs. It cost them millions of dollars," Oberst said, adding that the folks at Saddle Creek Records got most of the brunt from the Leno show in the form of some nasty emails.
"It didn't really affect me since my career doesn't depend on commercial radio or MTV or any those things," he said. "It certainly doesn't depend on CMT or the Nashville elite like theirs did."
The only negative reaction, Oberst said, could have been a coincidence. The Leno show was filmed on the West Coast, during Bright Eyes' tour with The Faint. "We had both Letterman and Conan booked," Oberst said. "Somehow by the time it took to drive back to the East Coast, both of those shows were mysteriously cancelled due to scheduling conflicts. I don't know if it was truly a mistake or if someone somewhere was worried. I'm not a conspiracy person, so I tend to take it at face value, but still, it was a little odd to have two confirmed TV appearances cancelled."
The Conan O'Brien show provided the funniest excuse. "They said, 'Oh, sorry, but we already promised that day to Billy Idol.'"
Perhaps the best song on Cassadaga (or at least, my favorite) also is Oberst's most personal. The upbeat, rural-flavored "I Must Belong Somewhere" gives a clear glimpse of a tired, fearful but self-reliant Oberst as he recites a checklist of his surroundings underscored by the line, "Everything must belong somewhere / I know that now that's why I'm staying here."
"That song was written at the height of an intense panic attack," Oberst explained. "I was in this sort of creepy German hotel room freaking out and I couldn't get my heart to slow down, I couldn't catch my breath. I calmed down by listing everything I could think of and its place in the world — not where I designed it to be, but where it is. 'Why don't you leave me here?' is the idea that sometimes you have to sit still and be where you are regardless of any expectations or plans you might have made or things people want you to do for any reason. It's about being content in your own skin."
It's a theme that sums up the entire record — a search for peace of mind, something that Oberst says he needs. "It's a search for contentment, which is what I'm always looking for," he said, "until I get it, then I want out, I want chaos."
* * *
Nearly every song on Cassadaga has unique instrumentation. While there are the usual country rockers that recall Bob Dylan and The Band, more often there are woodwinds and strings, sometimes provided by a trio of players, other times by a full orchestra.
Oberst said the idea of using orchestration on the recording was a joint decision by himself and the other two full-time members of Bright Eyes — producer/multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis and arranger/multi-instrumentalist Nate Walcott.
"We've approximated the sound of an orchestra before with multi-tracking and string quartets," Oberst said. "This time we decided not to cut corners and hired an orchestra. Nate did an amazing job with the arrangements. There's nothing like hearing your music performed by 50 people in a room."
The orchestra recordings took place at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles. Walcott wrote and revised the arrangements and then demoed them prior to the session. "He worked himself sick," Oberst said. "It all came down to one long, very expensive day. We were lucky to have Suzy Katayama to look at Nate's arrangements and double-check his work to make sure everything was in the right place. She's an arranger, conductor and composer who's worked with people from Prince to Justin Timberlake to Elliot Smith. It came off without a hitch."
It's another example of Oberst surrounding himself with whatever he needs to breathe life into his music. Over the years, there have been questions as to who is more responsible for Bright Eyes' sound — Oberst or Mogis (and now Walcott). Oberst is quick to credit both.
"It is true that we've developed this incredible way of communicating where I can speak in abstractions and Mike can find a way of making the sound that I'm envisioning," Oberst said. "But it's a case-by-case business. I come in with specific melodies and things I want to hear. It's an open book and they help fill it in."
Oberst pointed out how the band's current press release stresses that Bright Eyes is more than just him these days. "It's the three of us," he said. "But that's stating the obvious to anyone who's familiar with how we worked in the last several years — Mike starting with Letting off the Happiness and Nate when he joined the band after the recording of Lifted. Nate filled that role of arranging instruments in a way that accomplished what we wanted to in a live setting and in future recordings."
The three are an odd match, Oberst said, each with a distinct personality, each with unique quirks.
"Mike is a brilliant person and talented musician, but he's also unbelievably scatterbrained and won't admit to knowing anything," Oberst said. "If a question is posed to him by a new player, he'll wrap around the question until it's pointless. Whereas Nate is so thorough and so prepared. Anyone in the band can ask him what the melody is supposed to be doing and he can show them. They're so funny to watch talk to each other. Mike will never stop talking and not say anything, and Nate says so few words but they're so precise."
Oberst said he first met Walcott when Walcott was touring with Lullaby for the Working Class, one of the first bands on Saddle Creek Records. "He moved to New York and for a long time I'd have him on these tours, starting with Lifted," Oberst said. "I figured he did it because it was a good-paying gig and because we're friends. I didn't know what he thought of the music."
Finally, after years of touring, Oberst began to realize that Walcott wasn't going anywhere. "He said, 'I actually love playing your songs and love what you're doing.' All this time I thought he was buying time before going back to his jazz band or his composition work, but for some reason, he likes what I do and finds it challenging."
He's not alone. Oberst once again has surrounded himself with some of the most talented musicians both from Omaha and elsewhere as he hits the road for another year of touring. For the first wave of road work, in support of Four Winds, Bright Eyes consisted of the core trio along with Bellows on bass and guitar, violinist Anton Patzner and drummer Rachel Blumberg, who's played with M. Ward and Norfolk & Western.
At the time of this interview, Oberst said he was still figuring out who would be Bright Eyes for the Cassadaga tour. "It's going to be in the 10- to 12-person range — a string quartet, woodwinds, a couple percussionists and a drummer," he said.
The tour already is booked through September, including a show at The Holland Performing Arts Center April 26. "We're going to try to space it out with more breaks," Oberst said of the tour. "I don't want to ever repeat 2005. It was too much. We didn't plan right, we didn't have enough time off, and I think it was taxing on everyone, mentally and physically."
Bright Eyes' performance history has been controversial, at times involving onstage implosions. But those days seem to be behind Oberst, who now has a reputation for putting on solid live shows without incident, much to the chagrin of those who go to Bright Eyes concerts to see a train wreck.
"Early on, I was completely freaked out when I got on stage," Oberst explained of his early touring years. "I was totally terrified and a lot of the times the way you deal with that isn't the most healthy of things. I still get nervous and still feel some amount of stage fright before going on stage, but I've done it so much at this point that it's not the same visceral fear that I had before.
"I have a higher opinion of musicians who are 'entertainers.' I used to hate that word. People think it's degrading in some way, but who doesn't want to be entertained? People want to see the band finish their set. We used to go around the country being wasted or in a bad mood or with equipment that didn't work or variables that made for a bad show. Now I want to sound really f**king good. You can have so much more of an impact by putting on a good show."
* * *
The interview ends keeping with Cassadaga's psychic themes. The writer offered three predictions for 2007:
1. Cassadaga will be Bright Eyes' first gold record.
2. Bright Eyes will make the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, and
3. Bright Eyes finally will be a featured musical guest on "Saturday Night Live."
Oberst cautiously disagrees with all three, scoffing at going gold before the end of the year. He says that making the cover of Rolling Stone involves deep record-label politics, while it's almost impossible to fit into the tight scheduling window of "SNL", especially in the middle of a national tour that has been booked for months.
Still, more unpredictable things have happened during his career, like Omaha becoming the center of the indie music world — a world that these days seems to revolve around Bright Eyes.
Cassadega drops Tuesday, April 10. For more visit saddle-creek.com.
LP / CD / MP3
LP / CD / Deluxe CD / MP3