The People's Key
Author: John Jurgensen
2/5/11 | Wall Street Journal | www.wsj.com | Feature
Conor Oberst said he has learned to be "a good thief."He commandeers bits of conversation, such as the remark by a friend that "there's nothing the road cannot heal." He recalled, "I didn't even have the phone down" before a chorus was taking shape. From Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel "The Year of the Flood," Mr. Oberst borrowed a single phrase?"fallow state"?and the threat of spiritual drought that runs through his new song "Triple Spiral."A leader of Omaha, Neb.'s tight-knit music scene, Mr. Oberst, 30, is considered one of his generation's greatest songwriters. He first broke out about 10 years ago as the prodigy of a new style of folk that combined a raw acoustic sound with lyrics that led some music critics to draw comparisons to Bob Dylan. Later this month Mr. Oberst releases "The People's Key," the first album he's done with his band Bright Eyes in four years, and his tour is selling out in many venues, including New York's Radio City Music Hall and London's Royal Albert Hall.To supplement his imagination, Mr. Oberst always carries a silver Olympus digital recorder about the size of a pack of chewing gum. There's nothing special about the device itself; over the years he's kept a series of recorders close at hand, including a cellphone, a mini-disc machine and various cassette players, to capture snatches of potential inspiration.Sitting on a couch in the recording studio he co-owns, he stabbed the recorder's buttons, landing on a file at random. Over fast strumming on an acoustic guitar, his muffled voice could be heard, half humming, half singing. Here and there recognizable phrases emerge, such as "can't get back."In their earliest form, a song's vocals serve only to fix a musical idea in place. He said putting words on paper first tends to backfire, with songs that are "less musical and overstuffed with syllables."Mr. Oberst also captures everyday dialogue with his recorder. He used outtakes from a night of "uninhibited socializing" in New York on a song called "Approximate Sunlight." The giggly voice of a female friend sounds ominous against lyrics about a girl's dress "unstitched with bullets." The song's slow beat and trancelike vocals had called out for another layer, he recalled.Before work could begin on "The People's Key," he endured a writing drought of about four months, made somewhat more daunting by slowly mounting pressure from his business team for a new Bright Eyes album. The artistic dam broke after he took off for Los Angeles?not that he gives the California sun any special credit.Motion can help jar things loose, he said?there's a reason so many hit songs mention tour buses and airplanes. But the ultimate goal, whether he's walking in the park or hopping into a van with friends passing through on tour, is to derail the everyday routines and distractions that can blot out fleeting moments of inspiration.Once the flash does come, he can exert more control. Last winter, he holed up in his Omaha home for more than 12 hours, chasing the noirish mood created by a spidery guitar riff that he repeated through the night. He'd been using a smallish Collins acoustic guitar. But that night he was under the spell of a cheap Danelectro model. The baritone electric guitar, of a type used in spaghetti-western soundtracks, lent the music an eerie feel.Mr. Oberst's house, not far from his recording studio (and the home of Omaha native Warren Buffett), was constructed in the 1950s. He sprawled on the floor of his living room with a piano built into the wall. He imagined "a gray macaw named Jules Verne" and how a man could go mad talking to a bird that knew only words he'd taught it. A string of surrealistic images followed, including an elusive woman with "veins full of flat cherry cola."The resulting song, "Firewall," helped Mr. Oberst first unlock some of the prevailing themes of the album, which uses science-fiction imagery to explore more earthly feelings of alienation and unity. He said, "That was a turning point. I knew right away that should be the first song.""The People's Key" was the first of Mr. Oberst's albums to be recorded start to finish in the studio he built with producer and longtime Bright Eyes bandmate Mike Mogis. The building, situated behind Mr. Mogis's home, had been intended as a guest house by its previous owner. Inside, musical gear in crates surrounds an empty swimming pool.The studio itself is a cocoon of warm wood and humming electronics, featuring a broad mixing board and a glossy black piano. Despite having instant access to a studio outfitted using "all the money we ever made," Mr. Oberst said he's careful not to let technology interfere with creativity.Last fall, the singer's Omaha community lost an old friend to suicide. Stricken, he wrote "The Ladder Song" in two days. He recorded the track with his own outdated keyboard, passing over the studio's grand piano to preserve the feeling of his first takes at home. Amidst the dreamy imagery and alien references elsewhere on the album, the spare, melancholy song provided a human touch. "It seemed like the missing piece," he said, "but I didn't know there was a piece missing."Liner Notes* One of the biggest obstacles to Conor Oberst's creative flow: the telephone. Turning off his BlackBerry isn't always sufficient; he deposits it in a different room while he's working. He said part of his strategy has been to train friends to expect that his reply to a text message won't come immediately, or even until the following day.* The coming Bright Eyes album was recorded gradually as the songs were written, a reflection of Mr. Oberst's increasingly methodical songwriting process. This came with a degree of self-doubt. Band member Mike Mogis said, "He joked a lot on this record about putting in applications for other jobs."* The living room where Mr. Oberst does much of his songwriting is lined with albums, but he avoids listening to them while working. In the studio, however, he and his band mates use others' music as an aural "shorthand" to convey the sound they're striving for, such as the psychedelic production flourishes of the Oklahoma indie-rock act Evangelicals.