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“There’s a continuum to all of it.”
Conor Oberst noted this fact early in our meeting at an Atwater Village cafe on a sunny December California afternoon. He recalled being a teenager, now more than 20 years in his rearview and long before capturing international acclaim as Bright Eyes, coming up in the insulated music community of Omaha, Nebraska. He’d already made something of a name for himself in the local scene after playing his first shows at 12 years old, and by 14, one of his favorite musicians, Cursive’s Tim Kasher, was looking to collaborate with him. “The next thing I know I’m in my basement with my favorite guy in town writing and playing songs together,” Oberst recalled. “That made me feel like I could do anything, that this thing is for real.”
Phoebe Bridgers is not at a point in her career where she needs a cosign from anyone, but that same spirit of a young songwriter teaming up with someone they were inspired by can be heard on the pair’s new joint project, Better Oblivion Community Center. Bridgers is already on the map in the pop consciousness, and in some circles, she’s even pushing the narrative. Her 2017 solo debut album Stranger In The Alps was a rare debut that combined an innate ability for warm and inviting melodies with razor-sharp wit and keen observational skills, which only seemed to improve when she teamed with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker for last year’s Boygenius EP. Her work there included penning Uproxx’s 2018 Song Of The Year, “Me & My Dog,” an honor that Bridgers tearfully discovered just hours before our interview.
It’s also just days after wrapping the Boygenius tour, and already Bridgers has changed her hair, dyed a faded highlighter blue that a white t-shirt would take on if a new navy sock had somehow slipped into the wash. Oberst, for his part, is letting a few strands of grey reflect in the daylight, betraying the fact that the artist whose career was long defined by youth is now a genuine elder statesman. But when the pair is together, it doesn’t feel like a relationship where either fills a role defined by age or experience or even gender. In person, they speak as much to each other as they do the questions, chiming in frequently with a quick quip or playful challenge, the pair’s chemistry as palpable in conversation as it is on record.
Because that’s what Better Oblivion Community Center is built on: Chemistry. They’ve demonstrated it on record (Oberst guested on Bridgers’ “Would You Rather” from her debut album and she returned the favor on his standalone version of “LAX“) and live (Oberst has popped up frequently on Bridgers’ tours and Bridgers has dueted “Lua” with Oberst at his own shows), and now this collaborative album that feels like a favorite pair of black jeans, the kind that fit so well you don’t even have to think about it. Throughout the record, the duo try on each other’s aesthetic tics for size, with “I Didn’t Know What I Was In For” simmering to a boil in a manner similar to “Me & My Dog,” while “Dylan Thomas” rambles with the warm acoustic folk that Oberst has been perfecting for the last ten years. Electronic textures seep into the fold on the Digital Ash-esque “Exception To The Rule” while “Big Black Heart” drifts confidently into the red for a song that sounds like nothing either has ever done.
It’s an album full of trust in each other, as well as their superb cast of collaborators, which includes the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Nick Zinner, Dawes’ rhythm section Wylie Gelber and Griffin Goldsmith, Jack White’s drummer Carla Azur, Christian Lee Hutson, Anna Butterss, and Andy LeMaster. But mostly it’s an affirmation, one where Oberst and Bridgers realize that they have much to offer each other. Oberst still remembers the impact that someone like Michael Stipe had on him, telling him he liked his music and bringing him on tour. But to see this work with Bridgers as just this “continuum” would fail to see what Bridgers offers Oberst in return, connecting back to a joyful, collaborative spirit that becomes more elusive as the years go by. Musicians this well-matched rarely find each other, and when they do, even rarer is it in something so effortlessly symbiotic at Better Oblivion Community Center. Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst come across as each other’s biggest fans, pushing the other to be the best they can possibly be.
Check out an edited and condensed version of our conversation, discussing everything from writing on mushrooms to cool truck stops in North Dakota, below.