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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.
You just wrapped Boygenius over the weekend, and it feels like you’re never stopping. Like, you’ve been waiting your whole life for this moment, and now that it’s here, you’re going to go for it.
Phoebe Bridgers: Exactly. It does feel like that. There was a time when I was anxious and wanted to do a bunch of projects, and now I get to, so f*ck it, I’m going to do it.
Do you feel the need for rest?
Bridgers: I’m worried because I don’t know, but I hope I don’t crash. I made this record and the Boygenius record in the same month. I made Boygenius the first four days of June, and this record the rest of June. So, it feels like all the stuff in motion is for hard work that I already did. I’m excited to show people the songs. I think I’ll be able to tell when I need rest, but right now I’m just stoked and all-systems-go.
Did you grow up listening to Conor and Bright Eyes, and do you have any memories of connecting to particular songs?
Bridgers: My parents, and my mom, in particular, listened to a lot of songwriters, and I was raised on Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell and stuff like that. So when my friends all started listening to Bright Eyes around me, it was like “sh*t, it’s like that but for me!” And I think the first time I saw Conor was Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which was awesome.
That was The People’s Key tour?
Conor Oberst: Good memory!
Bridgers: There was a time in my life where my friend Kathleen and I were basically like a Bright Eyes cover band, so we played pretty much every song we wanted to learn. I liked that the chords were the same as the songs my mom wanted me to listen to, like Hank Williams or whatever.
Oberst: Are you calling my chords simple?
Bridgers: Simple, yeah. Are you calling Hank Williams simple?
Getting someone like Conor, who you admire musically, to take an interest in you when you are still launching your career, it feels like that is a huge boost of confidence that not a lot of people get. How does that feel?
Bridgers: It’s awesome. We played a secret show at the Bootleg that my friend Kyle booked and he knew I’d be super down, being the first of five for this Conor Oberst secret show. Conor watched my set and said it was nice and asked to exchange records. So I sent him my album and figured he’d send me something nice a few weeks later, but instead he emailed me just a few days later and it was this full email that was super thoughtful and sweet, and I felt so awesome. You don’t make music to impress anyone, but when someone that inspired a ton of your early music likes it without even knowing how influential they were, it’s super affirming and f*cking awesome.
And Conor, I’m sure you’ve seen a ton of talented songwriters open for you or play festivals with you, but there’s a big difference between recognizing talent and making a song with them and making a whole album of them. What about Phoebe made you want to take the big leap?
Oberst: I think when I got in the position where I could take smaller bands on tour, it felt natural to do that and play songs together. Hearing Phoebe’s music, there are some people’s voices that you can’t unhear. Her voice is so striking and unique and amazing, and her songs are amazing. I liked the show at the Bootleg, but it was hearing the album’s rough mixes and then her coming to Nebraska and mixing it with Mike Mogis from Bright Eyes, that’s when I sang on the record and we really started to become friends. Once I heard all of the songs together, I knew the record was really special.
Even then, it wasn’t like “let’s form a band.” I was spending a lot of time in LA the last couple years and hanging out with a crew of friends here. I feel like it is a uniquely LA thing, but maybe that’s just in my head, the idea of people getting together and doing co-writes, and not necessarily for a certain project. I feel like Phoebe does that all the time with Christian, get together and work on music. It seems like it’s for fun or for the experiment of it.
Bridgers: There are two things there. My friend Christian Lee Hudson, he’s part of a publishing company, so they send him on all this sh*t with random people. But I started writing with my friend Marshall, he’s the first person I ever wrote with. And then my friend Harrison, my two friends, we’d always workshop stuff together. But Marshall didn’t want to be a musician himself, so it was always easy to bounce sh*t off of him because he didn’t have any skin in the game.
When I met Christian, he was doing that all the time, but we only really started doing it because we were friends. I need to write around people where I can tell them if they have a bad idea, because they know I think they are good and they can do better. So, I’ve never sat down for a writing session and I think about it in my friend group, where we’re all on tour together, if you have 15 minutes backstage — or even with Julien and Lucy — we’re showing each other songs but certainly not sitting down with the intention of co-writing a song.
Oberst: Yeah, that’s what I mean, putting “co-writing” in parentheses, not in a cheesy way where we have 15 minutes to write a song and we’re going to sell it to someone. It’s a genuine gathering of songwriters hanging out and exchanging ideas. I feel like there was maybe a time when I was doing that, but writing became a solitary thing for me, where I did it by myself. Sure, I collaborated when I had the songs done, but it became a thing that I did alone. Hanging out here with all these guys, it became a fun way to spend a day, getting together with friends and showing each other songs. Even with like the Dawes dudes, I feel like they are always doing that. Maybe it ends up on the next record or maybe someone covers it and it ends up on a Brandon Flowers record, that’s cool, too.
So we did it together as a fun experiment, and it wound up being the first song on the record, “I Didn’t Know What I Was In For.” After we did that, I realized this was good enough to not just be a “featuring thing.” And the rest is history, as they say.
As someone that got started in the music industry at such a young age, what do you think when you see young songwriters now. Do you feel like you want to advise people and be in the roll, or do you want to let people learn from themselves?
Oberst: I would never presume to be like “here’s how you do it, kid.” But if you’ve been doing long enough, like I have, where you do have some valuable information, whatever that may be — the business side of the fence, the creative side of the fence — of course to be able to pass that on to people that might be a few years behind you is great. People did that for me.
Have you found that valuable, Phoebe?
Bridgers: Oh yeah. I’ve found it very valuable and very annoying, both. Sometimes I’ll be stoked to do some festival and I’ll mention it and Conor will be like, “f*ckin’, if you see Phil whatever his name is,” and I’ll be like “damnit, it’s not going to be fun.” And, he’s always right, too, but I don’t get to discover when something sucks. But for the most part, I’ll tell him I’m going to play something and he’ll be like “that’s going to be great, those people are awesome and the backstage is sweet.” And I’ll go and it’s true.
Oberst: We just talk about catering and stuff.
Bridgers: The really important things.
Oberst: “The bathrooms there are really rough.”
Bridgers: It’s never “be sure not to close your eyes too much when singing.” You’ve never given me that kind of advice. It’s more like “on the drive from Fargo to Vancouver, there’s going to be Love’s truck stop on your left that has a weirdly great coffee machine.”
As a music listener, you rarely have the opportunity to hear someone grow up on record, and people have that opportunity with Conor Oberst records. How is your relationship with the music of your past? Do you wish sometimes that there wasn’t this record out there of you at 16 and you at 20? Are you embarrassed by that or have you come to terms with it?
Oberst: All of the above. There were years where if I could wave a magic wand and erase my old records, I would have done it. But the funny thing is I would have done that a lot of times along the way, and then I’d just have my last record. You hear about those people that were once a Micky Mouse Club star and they have to reinvent themselves and become edgy, but because of my situation and everything being on the internet, it’s all out there for me. Tons of that music, I had no idea anyone would ever hear it. Or more than like the 100 people in my town. I might be embarrassed by some of it in that it’s cringy for me to hear it, but I’m not embarrassed that I made it. I think it was cool that I was making things as a kid instead of playing video games or whatever.
Do you find that you two have a similar way of seeing the world? Listening to Phoebe’s songs and listening to Conor’s lyrics, I feel like you have a similar way of approaching observations and feelings and these basic human emotions.
Bridgers: Yes, but I think that the big difference in mine is the way that I interpret things personally, and it’s very black-and-white, exactly what’s happening to me. Conor has more of a big picture way of looking at things, where it’s often about what would this person would feel about this thing. That is a totally new exploration for me, even in writing our first song together. Not being me, but being “this” or “that,” that’s totally brand new for me.
I feel like that’s been the last ten years of Conor’s songwriting specifically, writing from persona and exploring different characters. The younger stuff was a bit more confessional.
Oberst: A huge part of it for me is that even when it’s not technically autobiographical, you’re always drawing from your worldview, as you were saying. And I think it is pretty fair to say we have similar worldviews, but maybe different ways of expressing it. I’ll still write very direct songs sometimes, but after you write a lot of songs, you kind of want to… I dunno, Phoebe’s songs don’t come across that way. Maybe to her they do. Sometimes that annoys me about songwriters, when it’s too on the nose, overtly diary entry. I’ve done plenty of that in my life, but I don’t get that from Phoebe.
Bridgers: I like specificity.
Oberst: But that’s different.
Bridgers: I feel like you are talking about something more general. I feel like I always have this argument with myself in songwriting, where I want to make something sound more interesting, but I have to make that voice shut up and just say the thing that I was thinking. Make it rhyme sort of. Just say the f*cking thing. Don’t try to veil it in mystery, that’s always stupid. But I do like the character exploration thing, I’ve been trying to do that a little more. It’s not like faking, trying to write a movie script or something like that, it’s just writing about the way that you feel but in a different context. It’s making me branch out a little bit more.
Oberst: I think good writing, you have to have some ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Observation and general empathy for whatever you are writing about makes for better writing.
Tell me the moment on the album that best demonstrates what you love about each other as a songwriter.
Bridgers: For me it is the song “Chesapeake.” It was me and my friend Christian…
Oberst: You can tell the full story, I’m not going to get embarrassed.
PB: Okay, Christian and I were f*cking around with this melody and had this idea of what it was going to be about, basically about music and how depressing music is. So we had this concept and we’re playing chords over and over, singing the melody over and over, not really coming up with anything but feeling like we were working on something. And Conor was being pretty irritating and distracting us, literally throwing sh*t at us, tripping on mushrooms by himself.
Oberst: I was trying to get in the mood.
Bridgers: And he was saying “Chesapeake, I keep hearing the word Chesapeake, it just sounds good.” And I was like ‘okay, shut up dude.’
Oberst: I heard them singing, I was in the other room and just kept hearing this beautiful melody and chords.
Bridgers: He even fell asleep and woke himself up with his own laughter at one point. Right in the middle of writing a line. It was f*cking insane. And then he just wrote the song, basically top to bottom. We’d throw some little lines in there, barely, but here he was, so obliterated, it made us feel like sh*t. We were so excited by these chords and this concept, and Conor just basically pwned us with his heat.
Oberst: It was just stream of consciousness.
Bridgers: Yeah, f*ck you, that makes it so much worse! We were trying so hard and your stream of consciousness was so great.
Oberst: Well, I would say, I get so in the box melodically, and part of it is having deep limitations with my vocal range, but it was so great writing with her because it opened up all these other melodic things that I wouldn’t think of on my own, that’s for sure. And even if I did have the melody, she would find some note that makes it twice as catchy and cool than I could ever come up with. It happened on the “Service Road” chorus, where I had a limited standard folky thing and she would bend the melody in a new, exciting way. I’d be like “I guess that’s what you can do when you are a real singer.”
Better Oblivion Community Center is out now on Dead Oceans. Get it here.