Conor Oberst, the man behind Bright Eyes, finds a light at the end of the tunnel on Cassadaga.
It's three o'clock on a sunny, warm March afternoon outside the Bowery Ballroom on Manhattan's Lower East Side. In approximately five hours, the club's door will open and Bright Eyes, the alternative folk-band led by 27-year-old Nebraska singer-songwriter Conor Oberst, will play the first of two scheduled sold-out shows. Three female fans, all dressed in black and sporting similar pageboy haircuts, are already lined up on the sidewalk. They let it be known that they've traveled some considerable distance to get to New York today, and that they are undaunted by the prospect of waiting for a chance to worship at the feet of their hero.
The excited trio exemplify Oberst's passionate fans: young impressionable college types who find his unabashedly sensitive songs, with their torrents of poetic verbiage, irresistible. Bright Eyes have bowled over many critics, too. In early 2005, the band's simulataneous album releases—the acoustic I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and electronic-inflected Digital Ash in a Digital Urn—has reviewers grasping for appropriate superlatives.
Now Oberst and his bandmates have issued the follow-up to that venture, Cassadaga (Saddle Creek), which comes on the heels of a recently release EP, Four Winds. Musically speaking, Cassadaga (Saddle Creek) is Bright Eyes' most ambitious effort, loaded with guest stars (including alt-country treasures Gillian Welch and David Rawlings) and featuring a powerful 40-piece orchestra, while still keeping simple folk and country music at its aesthetic core.
With their driving rhythms and anthemic choruses, "Four Winds" and "I Must Belong Somewhere" are nothing less than career highlights. The latter song, with its juxtaposition of grim images of a crumbling society and bizarre voal asides like "Leave the cauliflower in the casserole today," offers evidence that the famously earnest Oberst actually has a sense of humor (something he'll need if he's to live up to all those "new Dylan" tags with which he's been saddled since arriving on the mainstream scene."
Cassadaga is the sixth Bright Eyes album, although the astonishingly prolific Oberst has made far more than that; he put out his first record (a cassette-only demo sold exclusively at an Omaha bookstore) at the tender age of 13. The acoustic guitar has always played an essential role in his music, and it continues to be front and center on this latest work, from the delicately finger-picked patterns of "Lime Tree" to the strummed, overdriven chords of "Hot Knives." So it's no surprise that the guy likes to talk guitar. And at 18 minutes pas three, Oberst, wearing a sheepish, sorry-I'm-late grin, prepares to do just that at the Bowery Ballroom. As he passes his three adoring fans on the street, they bashfully turn their faces and blush.
Guitar World Acoustic: Bright Eyes had a quiet year in 2006—no tours, no albums. What were you doing?
Conor Oberst: Building a recording studio in Omaha. [Bandmate and producer] Mike Mogis and I partnered up on that. Besides working on our records, Mike has another life producing other bands, and I just wanted to help him have the nicest possible studio, and my hope is that he'll never need another one and will make records there for the rest of his life. Obviously, I'll be able to use it when I want to, which is a good deal.
GWA: What was it like, being a builder?
Oberst: It was crazy, man; construction is an insane thing. They always tell you to expect the process to take twice as long as you think it will. I didn't take that seriously, but it's true. We originally thought we were going to build the studio and then make the new record there, but it turns out that the studio was fully completed only about two weeks ago, long after the record was done. [laughs] We did record a few last-minute overdubs htere, and we mixed the record in the B room—the A room wasn't ready. But for the most part, the record was done in a variety of other locales: New York, L.A., Chicago, Portland, Oregon, and at Presto, Mike's old studio in Lincoln, Nebraska.
GWA: Is that the most traveling you've done to make a record?
Oberst: Definitely. We used to make records in Mike's house, and then he built Presto, where we put down the last few albums. But because we were building a new studio this time, Presto was getting dismantled, and that gave us a good excuse to fly around and visit all sorts of recording places. We spent about a month in L.A., and it was really nice to be able to walk out in the sunshine with no shoes on. And when we worked in New York, it was totally the opposite: dead of winter, snow covering the cars. I'm sure all of those different experiences affected the sound of the finished album.
GWA: Cassadaga sets a record for the most players to appear on a Bright Eyes album, and the arrangements are more elaborate than your past work. It seems like a nice way of upping the ante after your last effort, which saw you release two very stylistically different records at the same time.
Oberst: Both of those albums had a narrow sonic scope, with each specifically designed to be homogenous. This time around I had a looser vision. We basically said, we've got all these songs—30, in fact—so let's go into this believe that every one of them is going to be on the album, and work to bring each one to its fullest potential. Then we'll look back, see the common threads, and let the record find itself. It was exciting to work in that kind of exploratory way, and to hear the record emerge from a gaseous state. [laughs] We ended up with the 13 songs on Cassadaga, the stuff on the Four Winds EP, and 10 or 12 others that haven't seen the light of day yet but probably will, eventually.
GWA: With your huge output, it's hard to believe that you still manage to write even more than you release. Do you ever just throw songs away?
Oberst: If I don't think a song's working during the writing process I don't finish it. But it's pretty hard for me to destroy songs once they're finished. There are some that get recorded and don't get released, but once we've recorded them, I leave the decision as to which are the best ones to others. It seems a little presumptuous of me to judge them too much at that point.
GWA: Cassadaga, a town in Florida predominantly populated by psychics, is not only the title of this new album, but the word itself pops up in a couple of songs. And the opening track, "Clairaudients," features recordings of psychics talking about their work. What's this all about?
Oberst: I've been to Cassadaga a couple of times, and it's a special place. To me, it represents something ranquil and calming, going with the grain of the universe instead of always against it. This is by no means a concept record about the town—I haven't spent enough time there to do something like that—but it's based on the feeling I left there with. And it's a cool-sounding word. [laughs]
GWA: How did you learn about the place?
Oberst: A friend of mine told me about it a couple of years ago, and I was immediately intrigued. I mean, here's this little town in the middle of the Florida swamp, where nearly everyone is either a psychic or a medium—it's incredible. So I decided I needed to make a pilgrimage down there. I didn't know what I was looking for, but I was certainly after something. I guess it was just peace of mind. It's not hokey there, not like what you might get at a psychic shop on St. Mark's Place [in New York] or on the Santa Monica pier. For Cassadaga's residents, this is their life—and they take it very seriously. I had a pretty extensive reading with a woman recommended by my friend, and she basically told me that I was moving in the right direction. I always tend to have this feeling of impending doom, but the long and short of what she said was, "You're going to be all right, even though it doesn't seem like it." And I believed her, which I guess is the important part. [laughs]
GWA: Your reference to your "feeling of impending doom" reminds me of "Clairaudients," which is subtitled "Kill or Be Killed." Both the lyrics and the ominous orchestral arrangement in the song hint strongly at some kind of imminent apocalypse.
Oberst: There's a similar undertone to several songs o the record. There are always gonna be people who feel that the world is right o the brink of collapse. But looking around now, I really do feel that. The human race has an expiration date. We're too greedy, and aren't willing to live with nature in a way that's sustainable. It's going to have to come to a tipping point eventually. I don't know if it's bee in my lifetime, but it doesn't seem too far off.
GWA: Let's switch gears from the apocalypse to acoustic guitars. Another song on the new album, "Hot Knives," starts out with what I think is an acoustic part, but is distorted almost beyond recognition. How did you get that sound?
Oberst: Yes, it is an acoustic guitar—a Martin, and I got that effect by overdriving the API console we had in the studio. I mainly played my own guitars on this record, except for a couple of tracks where I used Gillian Welch's Gibson. I"m not sure what model it is, but it's really nice. Also it's hers, so it was to be better [laughs]
GWA: Welch is a guest on Cassadaga, along with her guitar-playing partner David Rawlings. Is that his tasty acoustic solo on "Make a Plan to Love Me"?
Obest: Yeah. He's also on "Classic Car" and "I Must Belong Somewhere." We recorded a lot of stuff with them, but only one song with Gillian's singing actually made it on the record. She and David have this amazing, identifiable thing about them. It's hard not to slip into their world when playing with them—it's a great world to be in, but...
GWA: Not necessarily what you want on your album.
Oberst: Right. But I loved collaborating with them, and I hope we make more records together.
GWA: Do you write your songs on acoustic guitar?
Oberst: Usually. I often start with a vocal melody, singing to myself in the shower or wherever, and then eventually pick up a guitar and figure out the key I'm singing in and the chords that sound good with it. To me, the essence of a song is the vocal melody, and everything else, including the lyrics, is just mean to complement that. If you feel good about the tune you're singing, you've got a song.
GWA: How old were you when you first picked up the guitar?
Oberst: Probably eight or nine. I was real fortunate because my dad and my oldest brother are musicians, so there were always guitars around the house. I didn't have to scrimp and save or give up something else to get a guitar—I could just picked up my dad's. It was too big for me to play, but I tried anyway. Eventually I got a smaller one. I had no real formal education, although both my dad and my brother showed me some chords. It was a pretty easy thing to start doing.
GWA: And the songwriting came quickly after that?
Oberst: It did. I wasn't really interested in the technical aspects of music then; that came later on as I learned more. But from the moment I knew two chords. I started trying to put melodies and words to them. That's what I found exciting.
GWA: What are your main acoustic guitars?
Oberst: I have two 1973 Martin 000-18s that I play pretty exclusively. My Number One sounds beautiful, and I love it, though Number Two—same year, same model—somehow just doesn't have as much soul. Apparently, in the early seventies there was a lot of variance in the trees harvested for guitars, so identical models coming down the same assembly line at the same time could differ greatly from each other. I just got another great acoustic guitar, built by this guy named John Hargiss, whose guitar shop, Hargiss Stringed Instruments, is in Omaha. He's the only person I ever let work on my acoustics. He also builds these little backpacker guitars called Minstrels. I got one of those, and it's amazing, so I might start playing that out.
GWA: Do you ever plug your acoustics into an amp?
Oberst: No. When I play live, I use an Avalon U5 DI, which has a great, very tube-like sound, and that's really the magic key. From there it's straight to the board. Word to the wise: I do find that putting a slight analog delay on everything—guitars, vocals, whatever—always make sit sound a little better onstage.
GWA: Do you prefer any particular brand of strings or picks?
Oberst: Not really. I normally go for medium-light gauge strings—delicate fingers, you know? And I didn't use a pick for years, though I'm going back to it a little bit now. Because I have weak nails, what I usually do is put acrylic ones on my right hand, which is okay when I'm finger-picking but can be a problem for down-strumming. Sierra Cassidy, a guitar player with CocoRose, a very cool band I toured with a while back, taught me a trick that solved the problem. I got to a salon and have the nails put on professionally, and then I file them down real short. What I end up with is basically like having a pick on every finger, enabling me to move quickly between finger-picking and strumming. Classical players have been doing the same kind of thing for a long time. What makes it even nicer is that you can paint a little design on the nails if you want to—like perhaps some Japanese or Chinese letters.
GWA: As someone who began his career before you were even a teenager, you're far more used to the everyday life of a professional singer-songwriter than most artists your age. Do you, as a result, have a different attitude about what you do than other musicians you've encountered?
Oberst: Maybe. I mean, I don't know everyone's attitudes. But I have realized that anything you think is such a big deal really isn't, and the most important thing you can do is remain true to yourself and your muse, whoever or whatever that may be. Just do what comes naturally, and don't worry about all the stuff that's happening outside you because that's going to keep changing. The same people that tear you down one minute are going to build you back up the next. You can't please everyone, so please yourself.
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