I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning
Conor Oberst and Jack White do stand out. Both are visionary artists who not only have the talent and drive to help set the creative agenda in pop today but also to influence musicians for years to come.
Oberst, an introspective 24-year-old singer-songwriter from Omaha, has an innocence and intelligence that enable him to see the world with fresh and fearless eyes. He weaves his findings into intimate songs whose melodies are as timeless as a hymnal and whose images are hauntingly poetic.
White, a charismatic 29-year-old jack-of-all-trades from Detroit, is driven by the country and blues forces that gave birth to rock. It's as if he was so turned off by most mainstream rock as a teenager that he went back to the music that inspired rock's pioneers. Those earthy strains now run through him like 50,000 watts of electricity. His music can be as sweet as a nursery rhyme or as explosive as a SWAT team.
At the heart of both men's art is exquisite songwriting.
Oberst, raised in a family of musicians, has been making albums since he was 12, and they're arriving now at breakneck speed. He released two acclaimed CDs in 2002, with two more due in January -- and some of the new songs are his most arresting so far. He can command your attention with long narratives that have more words than a pocket dictionary, or stop you cold with a single line.
There have been thousands of traveling songs through the ages, but Oberst's wryly titled "Another Travelin' Song" holds its own with any of them. Against melody lines that salute the galloping rhythm of Paul Simon's "Graceland" and the insistent beat of a Johnny Cash train song, Oberst assumes the role of a songwriter, trying to capture the restlessness that drives him:
And there's a word I can't remember and a feeling that I can't escape.
Oberst operates well under the mainstream pop radar, releasing albums on Saddle Creek, an indie Omaha label. His last two CDs have sold a modest 214,000 copies collectively, but if he were on a major label, the accompanying exposure could boost sales dramatically and make him a star overnight. He's resisted that path so far, though, because he says he wants to maintain total control over his music. And he seems to really mean it.
Part of White's triumph is that he has faced major label pressures and emerged with broad exposure for his uncompromised vision. After three albums on an indie label, White's duo, the White Stripes, signed with Richard Branson's V2 Records in 2001 and the Stripes' latest work, "Elephant," has sold more than 4 million copies worldwide. "Elephant" won a Grammy nomination last year for album of the year.
In the sweet, tuneful "We're Going to Be Friends," White writes about how a disillusioned adult yearns for the innocence of childhood relationships:
Fall is here, hear the yell
Back to school, ring the bell
Brand new shoes, walking blues
Climb the fence, books and pens
I can tell that we are gonna be
For all their shared potential, Oberst and White operate on different musical planes. Where Oberst puts most of his energy into writing the song, White uses the songs as a starting point. He's equally interested in the dynamics and power of the arrangements. In a loose way, think of Oberst's style as the folk-era Dylan, and White, whose guitar is sometimes as powerful as his tunes, as the rock 'n' roller of "Highway 61 Revisited."
They are especially valuable in an age when songwriting isn't particularly prized by the pop establishment. Rather than invest in songwriters with vision, budget-conscious record companies feel safer putting their money on hot producers who can shape recordings that fit radio playlists.
Yet scores of veteran songwriters still do excellent work -- Dylan and Simon, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits -- as do a healthy number of younger artists -- Ryan Adams, Ron Sexsmith and Polly Jean Harvey -- who operate below the Top 40 radar. Rap too has produced some phenomenal young talents, including Eminem and Kanye West.
But Oberst and White are today's most exciting young links with the heart of the songwriting tradition.
In separate interviews, they give almost identical answers to the lingering question: How do you write a song after everything has been said?
"I think we're all writing the same song," says White. "It's the same song for 1,000 years, it's just how you tell it. I have my own style because my experiences, my environment were different and I'm proud of that."
Oberst says, "Sure, it's intimidating to think of all that just Bob Dylan and Paul Simon have written. But life is complex and there's no final answer. They told us how they see it, and there's room for others to see it differently."
'Conveyor belt of life'
Conor Mullen Oberst is famous enough to sell out 1,000-seat halls in the nation's biggest cities, but anonymous enough to walk unnoticed on the streets of his hometown. He likes it that way. This is his creative comfort zone.
At the end of the workday, people on Harney Street in Omaha are eager to get home as Oberst steps past them to enter the Antiquarium, a dusty old record shop underneath an equally dusty bookstore. For someone whose songs can convey such striking ideas and images, Oberst is ridiculously unassuming and soft-spoken. His hair tends to flop over his right eye, giving him a pixie-like quality reminiscent of Tobey Maguire in "Spider-Man."
Oberst was surrounded by musicians growing up. His father, a computer tech, played guitar in a band on weekends for fun and his mother, an elementary school principal, loved Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel and Neil Young. His two older brothers also played in bands, and turned him on to R.E.M., the Smiths and the Cure.
So songwriting didn't seem all that mysterious. There was an active music scene in town, and from the time he was 12, older songwriters let him sit in at clubs and coffeehouses.
"I didn't have the interest or patience to learn other people's songs," he says. "I wasn't interested in learning how to play a guitar. I was into songwriting from the start. As soon as I learned two chords, I think I wrote a song."
By junior high, cassettes he made of his songs were on sale at the Antiquarium. They're collectors' items now. The only Oberst albums in the shop are on Saddle Creek, and they provide a revealing glimpse of his evolution.
"Patient Hope in New Snow" is a song from "A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997," the earliest of the CDs. You can picture him at 15 in the heart of a Nebraska winter, piecing together images.
The heat comes in distant shifts to fill up my room.
It spills out of these ancient vents, to meet the new cold.
And I lay in my twisted sheets and stare out at the snow.
"That's pretty much what was happening the day I wrote that song," Oberst says, sitting on the side porch of his modest house. "The song's so unbelievably direct. I was on the bed in my parents' house which has these old vents and it was cold outside."
Oberst was obsessed with a girl at the time, so she naturally ended up in the song:
Your bright eyes burn through my exploding heart.
The line may have given him the name for his band, Bright Eyes, but he winces when he thinks back on it.
"No, I wouldn't sing that song today," he says, smiling. "Lines like 'your exploding heart' are what you write when you're 15 and everything seems so dramatic."
By the time he was touring years later with Bright Eyes, an ever-shifting outfit composed of musician friends from Omaha, Oberst had built a name for himself in the alt-rock world. But it wasn't until the 2002 releases, "Read Music/Speak Spanish" and "Lifted," that he really arrived nationally.
They are dramatically different works, the first a near-concept album about the social conformity he sees everywhere in the Omaha suburbs. Oberst wrote the music for "Read Music" with the members of a side group called Desaparecidos, but the lyrics are all his:
So you took your family and joined in the urban sprawl
Now you can't see the stars as well
But you're near the mall.
Oberst has such a laid-back nature that it's hard to imagine him raising his voice in class, much less working up the anger about his hometown in "Read Music." He's unfailingly polite, talking with regulars at the music store or with musician friends who seem to constantly drop by his house.
Still, he shows flashes of that fury when he talks, very softly mind you, about what prompted him to write some of those songs.
"In my mind I think there's a tendency here in the Midwest to go through the conveyer belt of life," he says. "You get your diploma or lock down a good job, you get married in your mid-20s, get that house with the kids and move out to West Omaha.
"The streets are numbered and they go all the way to 200, but once you get past 72nd Street, there's not a single restaurant or store that's not part of a chain in some way. It seems kind of sad to me, so mundane."
The "Lifted" album, which is more personal and essential, is filled with a different kind of unease -- long songs overflowing with unsettling, even apocalyptic images about society. "The Big Picture" shakes a fist at social apathy and defeatism:
So you can try and live in darkness, but you will never shake the light.
It will greet you every morning and make you more aware with its absence at night,
When you are wrapped up in your blanket, baby; that comfortable cocoon.
But I have seen the day of your awakening boy and it's coming soon.
"When I think about things going on these days, I can get pretty down, but music can be salvation," he says. "You can use it to lift your spirits and encourage others to do the same. I felt very anxious about the world when I wrote some of the songs in 'Lifted' and I still do, but that was after 9/11 and the anxiety was intense. I was having a lot of dreams of nuclear war and impending doom, and I just wanted to say you can't give up."
In rare ventures into politics, Oberst takes a slap in "Lifted" at the "cowboy president so loud behind the bullhorn," and he has joined Springsteen on the Vote for Change tour that is urging voters to reject President Bush in November.
But he tends to pass when asked if he wants to talk about the election. "I like ideas," he says, "but I don't like being preached to."
Mood and melody
Asked how he writes a song, Oberst picks up an acoustic guitar.
"The starting point is feeling a strong emotion or mood, whether it's happy or sad or anger about the country going to war," he says, strumming as if trying to take you into his process.
"The mood points me to the direction of the song and the mood can strike you any time. The next step is to find a melody that fits that mood, then try to write words that fit the melody."
Oberst, who studied English at the University of Nebraska branch in Omaha for three semesters, knows within an hour whether a song is taking shape. If it is, he might work on it for days. If it doesn't work, he just moves on.
"I learned a long time ago not to have a set of rules because that tends to limit your options," he says. "I do, however, have tendencies that I may fall back on.
"My favorite rhymes are sort of half-rhymes where you might just get the vowel sound the same, but it's not really a true rhyme. That gives you far more flexibility to capture the feeling you're trying to express. But sometimes it's best not to have any rhyme."
It's telling in the "Lifted" album booklet that the lyrics are printed in story form because the songs are so free-flowing and full of images that they feel at times like stories.
In "Don't Know When but a Day Is Gonna Come," Oberst, who was raised Catholic, wrestles with questions of faith:
Is it true what I heard about the Son of God?
Did he die for us? Did he die at all?
And if I sold my soul for a bag of gold, to you,
Which one of us would be the foolish one?
In an upcoming acoustic album, titled "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning," Oberst's writing is more compact and his themes even more personal.
In "Lua," one of the most evocative tunes on the new album, Oberst speaks about a night in New York with a girl who is moving close to the edge. Oberst tends to sing in an almost conversational style; sometimes with the speed of a beat poet, other times, as on this song, barely above a whisper.
I got a flask inside my pocket
We can share it on the train
And if you promise to stay conscious
I will try and do the same.
We might die from medication
But we sure kill all the pain.
What was normal in the evening
By the morning seems insane.
"I finally realized that anything is OK in writing a song, whatever tricks or cut-and-paste technique you want to try as long as you end up with the right feeling," Oberst says, lighting a cigarette. "Obviously most of what I write is sort of drawn directly out of my life because that's what I have the most access to. But anything else is also fair game, anything that stimulates ideas -- observing people, watching movies, listening to records."
Oberst didn't consciously study writers, but he soaked up the work of scores of them, including Dylan ("It was so stimulating to hear all those words come out, like reading a good book") and Paul Westerberg, whose songs with the Replacements described youthful uncertainty with a ragged eloquence.
"I don't feel real confident expressing myself except when I'm writing," Oberst says. "I feel kind of scatterbrained. I can see everything from both sides and that makes it hard to reach conclusions. Writing enables me to clarify things. I know when a song is finished when I think, 'Yeah, that's what I meant to say.' "
A single spark
If songwriting was a natural way of life for Oberst, it was a life raft for Jack White.
The youngest of 10 children raised in one of Detroit's worst neighborhoods, White felt alienated at every turn. Like Eminem, he attended a mostly black high school, but he didn't embrace the prevailing hip-hop music. That left him with few friends.
"I had too much pride to say, 'OK, I'll just like what everybody else likes so I'll have more fun.' I wish I had," he says, in the Los Angeles office of his manager. "I would have had a happier childhood." All these years later, White celebrates his independence.
On stage, he treats songs as starting points in a musical journey. He plays electric guitar at times with buzz-saw speed that seems to slash notes into fractions, and he frequently cuts one song short to leap to another.
White's writing process is equally freewheeling. Inspiration sometimes comes in a novel riff he decides to explore, or from an intriguing phrase.
"I'm not someone who writes 50 songs a week and then picks the best one," White says. "I don't bother going through the process unless it is good from the get-go. The songs usually arrive by accident, and the idea has to mean something to me."
The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army," the most popular song of 2003 on U.S. "modern rock" radio stations, is one of the tunes that started from a single guitar riff. Combining the gothic imagery of the blues with blistering sonic sparks of Led Zeppelin, it's the feverish account of someone who feels under siege because everyone is talking about him behind his back.
At one point, he declares:
Don't want to hear about it
Every single one's got a story
Everyone knows about it
From the Queen of England
To the hounds of hell.
White was doing a sound check in Australia when he hit on the song's sensuous opening guitar notes -- and a friend asked him what he was playing.
"I played the riff again and it sounded interesting, so the next thing I usually do in a case like that is try to think of the first thing that comes into my head -- how it makes me feel.
"I think I said something like 'I'm gonna back it up,' which suggested I was up against something. OK, now what's going on? Why do you feel that way. I thought of this character whose friends are all gossiping about him and he feels so bad he has to leave town, but you get so lonely you come back."
The song seems drawn from White's experiences, but he says that's rare. Mostly, he says, he writes about what he sees in others.
"I learn a lot about myself through the songs, but I try to avoid talking about my own problems because it's boring. I like to see what's going on with other people and then write about that. It's a much bigger canvas, and I can learn from their experiences."
A personal journey
White's internal engine moves much faster than Oberst's. Where Oberst tends to be relaxed during an interview, White is edgy; not confrontational, but intense as if those 50,000 watts are always sparking. He speaks as fast as he plays guitar, going on at length about the songs and musicians he admires.
When his personal life comes up, he grows quiet, reluctant to spell things out. Stripes fans long thought White and drummer Meg White were brother and sister, though the fans now believe she's his ex-wife. According to those familiar with the music scene in Detroit, White was born John Gillis and adopted the name White after meeting Meg. During his childhood, his mom was a secretary and his dad was a maintenance worker.
In music, clearly, White was looking for self-affirmation.
"At 18, I started playing these coffeehouses, and I remember there was a moment when I sang 'Blue Moon' the way Elvis Presley did it, and I suddenly saw people paying attention," he says. "There were girls in the back that were getting kinda dreamy about it. At that show, I thought that if I wrote my own songs and people still connected, that would be better."
Another turning point was discovering the blues in his late teens when a friend played him Son House's "Grinning in Your Face," a stark, almost venomous tale of alienation that mirrored his feelings better than anything he had ever heard.
"Most of the music they were playing on MTV was so simple and tame, whereas all this music I started hearing was just filled with energy and sprit," White says. "When I started singing some of those songs on stage, I meant it as a sign of respect. I also didn't feel it was fair to go out and pretend I exist in a vacuum. I wanted to join that tradition, that family."
White began performing some of the old blues and country songs and incorporating those root forms in his own music, eventually forming the White Stripes with Meg White.
The Stripes got signed in 1999 by Sympathy for the Record Industry, a Long Beach indie label, and began building a following on the underground rock circuit. Their third album, "White Blood Cells," made Top 10 lists around the world, but "Elephant" was the duo's real breakthrough.
"Ball and Biscuit," from the album, is the song Dylan wanted to sing when he invited White on stage during a concert last year in Detroit. The tune is another example of White's "writing by accident." He was recording in a vintage, lo-fi studio in England, and a microphone with the trade name Ball and Biscuit caught his eye. "Meg was just playing drums one day and I started thinking about the name, and how biscuit means cookie in Britain. So I got the image of sugar, and suddenly the term took on this sexual overtone."
The song includes the teasing lines:
Let's have a ball and a biscuit sugar
And take our sweet time about it ...
And right now you could care less about me
But soon enough you will care by the time I'm done
The song runs seven minutes, but the idea, White says, is to capture what goes through a guy's mind in the 10 seconds it takes a pretty, unapproachable girl to walk by.
While songs like "Ball and Biscuit" are exciting, they are mostly stylish updates of the blues. White's most inspired work may be in the gentler tunes, songs such as "I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother's Heart," that introduce a sweet innocence and occasional heartbreaking yearning into the often macho, cynical world of contemporary hard rock.
"Boy" includes thoughts you'd never expect in a song, such as how far someone would go to get his girlfriend's mother's approval:
I'm inclined to go finish high
Just to make her notice that I'm
"That's another case of just having a line, about a guy wanting to warm a mother's heart, and then figuring out a way to tell the story," White says. "It's something every kid goes through. It's like, 'How do I get your parents to like me -- because they don't seem to like me much.' Again, it's reacting to questions or ideas that come up, not something you sit down and think, 'Now what can I write a song about today.'
"Once I get the idea, I just keep trying to dig deeper into it to find something that is revealing to me. I also only usually write whatever I need to make the song work. If you saw the lyrics, there's almost no cross-outs."
The road ahead
From the time the Stripes started generating buzz on the club circuit in the fall of 2001, White seemed so absorbed by what he was doing on stage that someone could have hit him on the head with a 2-by-4 and he wouldn't have changed his musical direction. The Stripes can now headline festivals here and in England and he hasn't softened.
Oberst has the same determination. He has the confidence and talent to hold the crowd with the power of his words alone at times -- offering no more musical embellishment on some numbers than he'd bring to a coffeehouse performance.
As Oberst and White look forward to new albums in 2005, the expectations surrounding them are enormous. Despite that pressure and acclaim, they seem centered. Neither seems to have lost his innocence or drive.
Oberst seems, in fact, like someone who is starting his creative journey. He talks a lot in his songs about heading home, but in truth he's reaching beyond the borders of Omaha. He has an apartment in New York City and looks forward to spending more time there.
"I love this place, friends and family, but it has become a little too much to be here all the time," he says. "Everyone knows when you're in town and they come over and it's hard to just be on your own. Plus, there's a reason people keep writing traveling songs because there's something exciting in moving along, in opening new doors. The worst thing you can do as an artist is to repeat yourself."
White too still seems filled with wonder about a life in music.
"I think I learned a lot as an upholstery helper," he says near the end of the interview. "It's such a perfectionist trade. Someone pays $1,000 for a patch and if there's a pucker in the fabric, that's all they're going to see.
"What I loved about music was there were no rules. Instead of trying to please someone else, I wanted to please myself. It was like someone brought their couch to the shop and I said, 'Don't tell me what you want. I'm going to do it the way I want and you are going to pay me for it.' That's the way it is in music. And the goal is to keep feeling that freedom."
5 Jack White songs for the ages
Here's a look at the best of White's many sides, from the innocent to the incendiary.
1."We're Going to Be Friends" (2002). White can play words as nimbly as he can guitar strings, but his forte is injecting innocence into a hard-rock format. Here, he's longing for a relationship as free of subplots as a true schoolyard friendship.
2."Seven Nation Army" (2003). This tune is an alt-rock classic -- a feverish tale of paranoia built around a menacing rock beat as infectious as Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" riff in the Cadillac TV commercial.
3."Hotel Yorba" (2002). In this lilting, country-tinged song, White daydreams about better times and places. The backdrop this time is a run-down hotel. "Well, it's 1, 2, 3, 4/ Take the elevator/ At the Hotel Yorba/ I'll be glad to see you later/ All they got inside is vacancy."
4."I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother's Heart" (2003). Think of this sweet, tuneful song as the adult version of "We're Going to Be Friends." Again, there's a remarkable sweetness as someone wants so badly to be part of a girl's world that he'll do anything to win her mother's approval.
5."Ball and Biscuit" (2003). The Stripes have included vintage blues gems by Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell and Son House, but this slice of teasing sexual bravado ranks right with them, with its taunting vocal and guitar lines that scream like a siren.
5 Conor Oberst songs for the ages
Here are glimpses of the world as seen through a songwriter's young and questioning eyes.
1."Lua" (2005). From Oberst's upcoming acoustic album, this feels as sacred as a confession booth; a brilliant portrait of a young couple battling destructive ways.
2."Another Travelin' Song" (2005). Oberst isn't the first songwriter to explain the reasons behind all our restlessness, but he may just do it better
than anyone. The rhythm of the road and the rails gloriously punctuates every second of this song, which too is due in the January
3."The Big Picture" (2002). There's not much melody to back the freewheelin' imagery and Oberst's earnest vocal, but there's triumph in the way the song presents the voice of youth demanding to be heard.
4."Don't Know When but a Day Is Gonna Come" (2002). The folk backing again is minimal, but the power of Oberst's vision is engulfing as he touches on questions of faith, love and salvation. "I could do good with some explaining," he sings. "You know I want to understand."
5."To Love and to Be Loved" (2002). There's a tambourine man lightness to the arrangement at the start, but things get darker quickly as Oberst struggles to find reasons to believe in a world that sometimes denies those reasons exist. One key line: "Meanwhile a coroner kneels beneath a great, wooden crucifix. / He knows that there are worse things than being alone."
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