Bright Eyes Greets New Year With Two Albums

Excerpted from the magazine for

Saddle Creek Records received a finished album from Bright Eyes last February and prepped the set for a summer release.

But then Bright Eyes principal Conor Oberst had other ideas.

He went back into the studio and recorded enough songs for a second set. Unwilling to scrap or combine any of the material, Oberst told his Omaha, Neb.-based label he wanted to release two separate albums -- on the same day.

"We felt like, 'Why not kill two birds with one stone and put it all out there?'" Oberst says.

On Jan. 25, Saddle Creek will release "I'm Wide Awake It's Morning," an acoustic-driven record with country undertones and contributions from Emmylou Harris and Jim James (My Morning Jacket), as well as "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn," which explores a more electronic, beat-heavy sound.

While "I'm Wide Awake" was recorded in about 10 days, Oberst and producer Mike Mogis spent three months in the studio for "Digital Ash," creating what Oberst describes as a "drugged-out, psychedelic thing." Oberst was passionate from day one that they be treated as separate entities, despite sharing a release date.

It was a request, he says, that Saddle Creek owner Robb Nansel met with skepticism.

"Robb is a very careful man," Oberst says. "He's a hard person to read. I love him, but I have to check his pulse a lot to make sure he's still with me. At first, he asked whether I really wanted to do this and objected a little, but once he realized our mind wouldn't change, he got behind it wholeheartedly."

In October, the label released two singles, one from each album. "Lua" and "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)" together have moved more than 27,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. There was such a demand for the two releases that they each sold 7,000 copies in one week, placing "Lua" at No. 1 and "Take It Easy" at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Sales chart in the Nov. 13, 2004, issue.

"The people who have bought them have been the die-hard fans, and they're not favoring one over the other," Nansel says.

Oberst was in Sweden when he heard about his singles topping the chart.

"I kept saying, 'I think you've made a mistake' ... I think it's a testament to the idea that there are still music fans, and it's not all about how big your promotional budget is. It's a triumph anytime an indie label can outsell people with a lot of money behind them."

Bright Eyes act is coming off of its most successful album to date. Its 2002 release, "Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground," was its first to reach The Billboard 200, spending one week at No. 161. The set has sold 184,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Bright Eyes, which is essentially a revolving door of musicians centered on Oberst, built its following largely through word-of-mouth and touring. That is one reason Oberst never considered combining the two albums.

"We're in the very fortunate position of not having to care about the commercial risk of putting out two records," he says. "Our success is not based on radio or MTV."

Each album will receive its own tour. A more intimate January outing will visit theaters, and a spring trek will feature a collaboration with labelmate the Faint, which will back Bright Eyes on the more electronic-leaning songs.

Excerpted from the Jan. 8, 2005, issue of Billboard. The full original text is available to subscribers.

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