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Oh Holy Fools

Author: Jeff DeRoche
02/22/2001 | The Stranger | | Live Show Preview
Conor Oberst is Not a Liar
by Jeff DeRoche

Bright Eyes
w/Crooked Fingers, Azure Ray,
Suffering & the Hideous Thieves
Paradox Theater, 524-7677, Tues Feb 27.

"It's just the idea of all these strangers... I don't know, I get the feeling that people worry about me or something," 21-year-old Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes tells me. "I mean it's nice in one sense. It's sweet of people. But 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. There's even one about a brother he once had, whom his mother drowned in a bathtub--an event that happened perhaps only in Obert's imagination. Heady stuff, to say the least, and the frightening part is that Oberst's fervor leaves many of his fans believing it's all true.

This 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 puts out 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 and they really love it," 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 artful and insincere. (Oberst is a grand, addled onstage performer, whose entire body trembles as he beats blood into his fingertips against his guitar. His voice fills up venues like a young Tom Waits by way of early Sinead O'Connor.)

I ask him how he would defend himself against accusations of emotional insincerity. "I guess I wouldn't feel the need to defend myself," he responds. "But if I had to, I would just tell them that I definitely feel everything that I sing. I mean, in most cases, the things I sing about are very specifically tied to me, and I guess if it makes everyone feel better to know that, maybe I should just say that. 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 counterintuitive 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 and the physical skills it requires are very much secondary to what I put into them on an emotional level." he says. "I think you're right in saying that's something I have going for me, because I'm not... 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 good, that feels right."

Which is why it's always sad. "I definitely like sad movies and sad books and whatnot. It's really important to me to be honest in whatever I do. But at the same time, sometimes I feel like I'm exploiting my own depression, you know?"

"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. This is something I keep struggling with, but I want to keep doing it, and I want to just keep that same attitude I started with, which is that this is about sharing yourself. That's something I always appreciate when I go to see bands play or view any kind of thing anyone else creates. You know?"

Oh Holy Fools

Oh Holy Fools

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