Conor Oberst: The Ex Boy Wonder of Indie Rock Moves to a Major Label

Photographed by Meredith Jenks on March 26, 2014 at Lafayette House in New York.
Meredith Jenks

At 34, Conor Oberst would still prefer to never grow up. But a major label is okay

Conor Oberst lives with ghosts.

They lurk in the jukebox at the bar near his East Village apartment, and howl on the radio at home in Omaha, Neb. At just 34, the shape-shifting singer-songwriter has been recording music for nearly 20 years, which means there are lots of phantom Obersts out there, winding through the ether.

One Oberst, 15 and adopting the name of Bright Eyes, hisses bitterly into a tape machine in his bedroom and wins the hearts of moody young misanthropes with carefully mussed hair. Another Oberst, 25, sells more than half-a-million copies of I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, is heralded as his generation's Bob Dylan, and is photographed kissing Winona Ryder.

Legs crossed on a blush red sofa in a discrete, handsomely appointed Greenwich Village hotel, the present day Oberst has inhabited these personages and discarded them like reptile skins. He's older now but slight and gaunt as ever, with shoe polish black locks and a boyish smile that creases the soft bags under his eyes. In a light, black bomber jacket, anchor print button-down and grey skinny jeans, he looks more like a freelancer than a rock star.

Photographed by Meredith Jenks on March 26, 2014 at Lafayette House in New York.
Photographed by Meredith Jenks on March 26, 2014 at Lafayette House in New York.
Meredith Jenks

"In some ways it's unfortunate that all my music is out there because I'm kind of embarrassed by some of it," says Oberst, two months before the release of a new solo album, Upside Down Mountain (May 20). Just a year older than Justin Timberlake, he has tried everything from guitar rock to synth ballads, and has basically hewed to the same model for two decades, a mix of '90s emo earnestness with '70s spiritual-seeking. "I never had the problem of the Mickey Mouse [Club] star who suddenly had to reinvent themselves with a hard-rock record. If anyone's interested in my songs, they can follow the trail right back to the beginning."

The beginning, as legend goes, is back in Omaha, where Oberst learned to play guitar at 10 and was recording cassette tapes by 13. He eventually shared stages with local legends like Simon Joyner and David Dondero, each persuaded by his puckishness. Before he started Bright Eyes, Oberst played in bands with goofball names like Norman Bailer and Commander Venus. His brother Justin and some friends from high school founded a label, Lumberjack Records, which they later renamed Saddle Creek, after a street in their neighborhood where everyone hung out.

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Saddle Creek released every Bright Eyes album and imbued Omaha with a musical identity. Years later, when he would go on tour, Oberst would pack his stages with as many hometown faces as possible, presenting a new brand of DIY dynamism to the world. But as his star rose and Bright Eyes albums began to sell in the hundreds of thousands, tensions with the label grew.

In 2003, Oberst left Omaha for the East Village. In 2008, three years after the release of Bright Eyes' I'm Wide Awake (522,000 sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan), and a year after its country-flavored follow-up Cassadaga (231,000), he released an album for Saddle Creek competitor Merge.

"You know that old adage ‘Don't mix business with pleasure' or ‘Don't work with your friends'?" Oberst says. "I can't say I completely agree with that, but it becomes… complex. One day you look up and it's like, we're not stuffing 7-inches in my parents' attic anymore, you know? Money got involved and we were having to make tough decisions to try and keep everyone happy."

For Upside Down Mountain, Oberst has given up yet another ghost. Having once said he could never see himself on a major label, he's signed to Nonesuch, the prestige subsidiary of Warner Music Group known for Wilco and The Black Keys.

"I've wanted to bring Conor onboard since 2002, and I told him as much at the time," says Nonesuch senior vp David Bither. "I'm just glad we're still around to make it happen."

Nonesuch, which has a broad international profile and a powerful radio promotions team thanks to Warner, gives Oberst the kind of professional platform that he's only recently come to appreciate. As an unsigned solo artist he had the means to self-release the new album, but ultimately decided against it.

Photographed by Meredith Jenks on March 26, 2014 at Lafayette House in New York.
Photographed by Meredith Jenks on March 26, 2014 at Lafayette House in New York.
Meredith Jenks

"I kind of come from a prehistoric time I guess because I really want a record label," Oberst says. "I've run record labels or been a part of running record labels before, and honestly none of that stuff interests me in the least anymore."

It's been three years since Oberst last put out a recording (2011's mystic fable The People's Key with Bright Eyes), which is a near epoch by his standards. With an eggshell marble fireplace flickering silently behind him, he attributes the leave of absence to two new loves: one, his wife, whom he met in Mexico and married in 2010; and two, a screenplay.

In 2013, Oberst spent six months writing a sci-fi vehicle for his band Monsters of Folk, the tongue-in-cheek super group that also includes Jim James of My Morning Jacket, M. Ward of She & Him and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes. In the screenplay, our heroes save a dystopic society from pernicious devices called "Everything Machines," which adhere to a user's face and provide an endless stream of pleasure-inducing stimuli. 

The script, which Oberst says drew some interest but will "probably never go anywhere," may be prescient, nonetheless. A day before this conversation took place, Facebook made headlines for its $2 billion purchase of Oculus VR, a buzzy startup that makes a virtual reality headset in the form of blacked out ski goggles.

"What a sad thing that is to me," Oberst says. "Is it happiness if everyday you're riding on a unicorn or a rainbow or whatever it is you imagine yourself doing? Is that really living? Is that worth it? Not that I have the answers to any of that, but it makes me a little uneasy."

If Oberst seems uncomfortable with the Internet and virtual worlds, it's with good reason. He had to contend with a personal nightmare in December, when a commenter on the women's pop culture website XOJane accused him of sexually assaulting her backstage after a concert in 2002, on her 15th birthday. After the woman further detailed her version of events in a lengthy post on Tumblr (which has subsequently been taken down), Oberst sued her for defamation, asking her to recant her statements and pay $1 million in damages to be donated to charity.

Though he declined to discuss the matter owing to the ongoing lawsuit, Oberst's legal representation painted the allegations as "baseless" and attention-driven in a statement released in February. The defamation suit was defended as necessary in order to "promote the truth and repair the distress this has brought upon [Oberst] and his family."

Like his previous solo album and some later Bright Eyes records, Upside Down Mountain has the warmth of country music, though Oberst has gently pushed the pendulum toward a more rootsy folk. Produced by Jonathan Wilson (Dawes, Father John Misty) in Los Angeles, Omaha and Nashville, it's breezy even in its quieter moments, with slide guitar and divine harmonies by Swedish sister folk duo First Aid Kit. Wilson's rhythm section helps make the album Oberst's grooviest yet.

Subject matter has also evolved. On "You Are Your Mother's Child," Oberst adopts the perspective of a rueful father, proud of his child's accomplishments despite his own shortcomings. "Although he's a bastard, make your papa proud/Cuz you're a fine young man, and I've got no doubt/That you're gonna do this better, because you are your mother's child."

"I definitely struggled with whether to put that one on the record," says Oberst of the song. "It has more sentimentality to it than any of the other songs, but I've seen a lot of friends go through that stuff. [Having kids] would be a cool thing to do someday. I don't particularly feel ready for it right now, but I guess no one ever does."

On rollicking lead single "Hundred Ways," Oberst appears to address his own legacy, and all those phantom Obersts that he can't seem to shake. "Maybe no one really seems to be the person that they mean to be," he declares. "I hope I am forgotten when I die."

"I think a lot of times there's the sense that we have of ourselves and then there's the perception of people we interact with in the world, and those two things are not congruent," says Oberst. "It's a bit of a snarky line, but it's essentially saying that once I'm out of the picture I hope no one talks about me, because it won't be me they're talking about — it'll be their perception."

Starting a new chapter with a new label, Oberst can take solace in having a much better success rate in music than in Hollywood. Prior to his screenplay, he auditioned for the title role in The Coen Brothers' 2013 folk music drama Inside Llewyn Davis, which eventually went to actor Oscar Isaac. "The way that they explained it was that they were looking at a lot of musicians, hoping that they could act, and a lot of actors, hoping that they could pull off the music," recalls Oberst. "It was terrifying. The Coens weren't there, but their casting director was. I did the scene where he's talking with [Carey Mulligan's character] at the cafe, and then I sang a song. I'm sure I was terrible."

The audition did land him a gig last September at the Showtime-broadcast Inside Llewyn Davis celebration concert "Another Day, Another Time," where he performed alongside Patti Smith, Joan Baez and Marcus Mumford. Nonesuch released the film's soundtrack.

As for whether, if the right opportunity arose, he would ever consider leaving his current gig for Hollywood, Oberst thinks for a moment and then shakes his head. "It just seems so frustrating," he says. "The whole idea of focus-group testing? And having to go back in and re-edit something? I think about what it would be like if I had to do that with my records, and it's insanity to me. People should just let the artist be the artist."