Oh Holy Fools
Conor Oberst is Not a Liar
by Jeff DeRoche
"I get the feeling that people worry about me," 21-year-old Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes tells me. "It's nice in one sense. It's sweet of people. I just wish they didn't." But they do, and there's a reason for it. Oberst radiates tragedy. His voice is wide open and reckless, always on the verge of ascending an octave and opening into a full-throated howl above thick layers of instrumental grandeur. His songs are wrought with suicidal impulse, and the frightening part is that Oberst's fervor leaves many of his fans believing it's true.
Which would be impossible, or Oberst would probably be dead by now. But there's a certain integrity, a foundational bedrock of sadness in all that Bright Eyes releases that makes any fiction he parlays part of a larger process: The creation of a body of work from a songwriter traversing the experience of pain to find meaning in it.
"I think that, with the kind of music we make, if people get it, they make it a part of their life," Oberst tells me. "But I think just as many people reject it because they think it's over the top." I suggest that perhaps the reason some would reject his music is that it is so embellished, and could easily come across as insincere. (Oberst is a grand, addled onstage performer, whose entire body trembles as he beats his fingertips against his guitar.)
I ask him how he would defend himself against accusations of emotional insincerity. "I guess I wouldn't feel the need to defend myself. But if I had to, I would just say that I definitely feel everything that I sing. But since I just feel like it's not anyone's business a lot of the time, I'm constantly bringing up the fact that it's only writing, you know? So maybe in interviews I try to create more of an idea that it's someone besides me, just to kind of put a little shield up."
I don't blame Oberst. But I do believe it would be counter-intuitive for him to write from a vantage point that isn't introspective and personal, because, as anyone who has seen and heard him perform knows, the process is obviously very emotional. He's the kind of singer who needs a state of ecstatic tragedy in order to truly deliver.
"My musicianship is very much secondary to what I put into [songs] on an emotional level. I'm a very sub-par fucking guitar player and piano player, and my voice is far from perfect. It's just more important for me to do something that feels right. But at the same time, sometimes I feel like I'm exploiting my own depression."
"Well, it's yours to exploit," I tell him.
"Yeah, I guess. I never felt like that just from the act of writing songs, which is something I would do regardless of whether anyone heard them or not. It was just until, playing for like 500 people, you start to think maybe this is wrong. It becomes more twisted. It's something I keep struggling with, but I want to keep doing it, and I want to just keep that same attitude that I started with, which is that it's about sharing yourself. That's something that I always appreciate when I go to see bands play or view any kind of thing that anyone else creates. You know?"
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