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Q&A: Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes

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Q&A: Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes

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The prolific, cultish singer/songwriter talks to Kelly Marages about his new album, acting ambitions, and the trouble with being compared to Dylan.

MC: You started your career as a teenage wunderkind. But now that you’re 27 and on your seventh studio album, how do you find undiscovered territory to write about?
CO: Well, life is always surprising to me. When you think it’s going to get dull, it never really does. Even when it seems to settle down for a bit, it can be inspiring. I find that if I try to premeditate anything too much, it ends up not coming out that great. You have to experience the whatever, the magic, along with everyone else.

MC: On your simultaneously released previous efforts, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, you display different musical sides: the classic-folk side and the more modern, plugged-in one. On your new album, Cassadaga, they seem to come together. Was that a conscious effort?
CO: It kind of just happened. With the other two records, there was more of an effort to make a homogeneous-sounding, old folk record, then a more trippy rock record. For this one, we recorded about 30 different songs, took the ones we liked, and tried not to pay too much attention to whether they’d make a whole lot of sense together.

MC: How do you make sense of your genre? I’ve heard your music described as folk, avant folk, alt-country, indie rock—and, of course, there’s that whole emo thing . . .
CO: Honestly, I answer that question differently every time. Sometimes I say folk music; sometimes I say rock music. All those categories seem to change so quickly, and I can’t keep track of what’s what. I guess I usually say I’m rock ’n’ roll. I don’t really know what that means, but it seems close to what we do. There’s loud drums.

MC: Do you have a favorite track on Cassadaga?
CO: Probably “Lime Tree.” I’m really proud of how that one came out, especially the string sections. Nate [Walcott] and I talked through a lot of those parts. We wanted it to be soothing in places and uncomfortable and nauseating in other places, and really accentuate what the words were about. We used a 20-piece string section. I just think it really came together.

MC: How about “Make a Plan to Love Me”—it sounds so different from everything else. How did you come up with that arrangement?
CO: I was really interested in having a girl choir in that call-and-response phrasing—that and the harmonies were the basis—and Nate did a great job with the orchestral arrangements. We wanted something that sounded classic, just like the coolest kind of soul music that we could get. Which isn’t that close [laugh]. But we gave it our best shot.

MC: "Hot Knives" will probably be one that people will talk about, especially the line where you say, "I’ve made love/Yeah, I’ve been fucked/So what."
CO: Well, people love the curse words.

MC: Yeah?
CO: [laugh] Yeah, people love, love the F word.

MC: Which doesn’t appear in “I Must Belong Somewhere.” That song pairs up all kinds of seemingly incongruous situations, making them sound as if they go together. Was it difficult to write?
CO: That song was actually written pretty quickly. The sentiment isn’t, I’m exactly where I should be, in the sense that I’m content and everything’s great. It’s more like, I’m right where I belong, but not in an ideal sense. Obviously, you look around and see a lot of things that seem wrong or that you’d want to change, and you can’t. That’s just the realization that everyone comes to at some point. When I was younger, I was somewhat of an idealist. I guess I’m a little bit more of a realist now. I think there’s a lot that can be done to make the world a better place, but it’s more about choosing your battles.

MC: Is that why there are no blatant protest songs on this album?
CO: I think it’s in there inside the layers of some of those songs. There’s that undercurrent of what’s happening with our country, which I think is just crazy—a lot crazier than ever. I guess I’m just getting a little bit desensitized to it. It still affects me. I still think about it. But maybe some of those more visceral songs I wrote a few years ago—a little bit of that has died away, because how long can you stay that freaked out? It’s definitely not anything I’m afraid to explore more, but I wasn’t going to force myself to carry some torch.

MC: It keeps your songs fresher, I’d imagine.
CO: Yeah, I think my job is to write what I’m inspired by.

MC: Do you look at songwriting as a job?
CO: When I fill out my landing cards at airports, I have to write something down. I was writing “entertainer” for awhile, which I thought was funny. Now I write “musician”—which is also not that true, 'cause I’m not that good of a musician, either. But “songwriter” seems a little weird on a landing card.

MC: I read somewhere that you were having scripts sent to you. Would you consider acting or, on a slightly different topic, writing?
CO: Yeah, I’m very interested in writing—it just takes so much discipline, whether it’s short stories or novels. I’ve tried really half-assed things in the past, and it’s all kind of fallen apart. As for the acting thing, I was reading scripts for awhile. People sent them to us, which I thought was sort of strange, since I don’t know how to act at all. But it was fun to think about for a minute, and I actually read some and considered them. I really like movies, and they would be cool to work on and know more about, but I don’t think it’s my calling.

MC: You’re often compared to Bob Dylan. First off, does he influence you? And second, do you get tired of that question?
CO: [laugh] The answer is yes, he has influenced me, and I like his music a lot. Dylan is one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived, no doubt about it. Obviously anytime it comes up, it’s flattering, but I don’t think it makes a lot of sense as a comparison. And it’s not necessarily been such a great thing, 'cause immediately, when people read that, they assume you’re saying that about yourself. And it’s frustrating, because people feel like they need to attack me. Like, “You’re shit compared to him” and all this. And, well, I tend to agree with them. So it’s kind of an unfair position to be in. But, you know, whatever—there are a lot bigger problems to have in your life.
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