The Bright Eyes frontman releases a new solo album

More than a decade ago, Omaha native Conor Oberst—as Bright Eyes—ignited the neo-folk movement and put Nebraska indie label Saddle Creek on the map. Since then the singer-songwriter has recorded as part of a number of different groups, including Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band. But for his latest, his Nonesuch Records debut Upside Down Mountain, Oberst goes it alone.

The 34-year-old began his musical meanderings as a teenager, recording on the age-old bedroom studio medium: cassette. After disbanding his first group, Commander Venus, in 1997, he turned his focus to a new project, Bright Eyes. As time went by, Oberst worked more closely with Saddle Creek’s co-founder and producer Mike Mogis and collaborated with multi-instrumentalist and arranger Nathaniel Walcott. Nonetheless Bright Eyes is Oberst—an impish savant with a beguiling turn of phrase and a voice that’s equal parts ache and anguish, guile and grit. In 2002, his album Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground set the tone for thoughtful young troubadours with band-like noms de plume like Phosphorescent and Bon Iver, as well as a trend toward lengthy album titles.

Oberst clearly values collaboration, and side projects include Monsters of Folk (with Mogis, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, and She and Him’s M. Ward) and Desaparecidos. For Upside Down Mountain, he selected Los Angeles-based producer Jonathan Wilson to helm the project and recorded at Nashville’s Blackbird Studio, adding bassist Macey Taylor, multi-instrumentalist Blake Mills, and Swedish sibling folk-rock duo First Aid Kit to fill out the sound.


This is a solo album, so does that mean Bright Eyes is you solo or is it a band?

It’s all mostly me, and I suppose it seems like splitting hairs to call this a solo record. But to me it makes sense. Early on, Bright Eyes was just me and my four-track, recording on my own. But then Mike Mogis became a big part of the process. By 2004 or 2005 Nick was also part of the process. By then, the three of us functioned as a band. And when there are contributions to that extent, they deserve the credit for it. Bright Eyes became a band, but it’s also me, solo.

Why choose Jonathan Wilson?

I went through a pretty extensive process attempting to choose who would produce the album. Jonathan, being one of my friends, was among them. He produced the Dawes records, and I like what he did with those. Once we had ideas flowing, I knew this was how I wanted the record to be. We have a similar laidback approach, and he became the main collaborator for the record. Jonathan and I hear music the same way.

How important is that?

At the end of the day, making and playing music is a collaborative process. If a producer is making big decisions that affect the record, then it’s collaborative. I’m the one who starts with the ideas and then works those into songs. But I only work with people who elevate my ideas.

Rumor has it this was slated to be a country music record.

Because we recorded in Nashville some media called it country-influenced, because that’s the easiest description. It isn’t a country record; I don’t feel that element in it at all. There are a lot of elements at the core of what I do, but I always think that I write folk songs.

Only folk?

I don’t believe in genre-hopping. I don’t like to think of musical fusion at all. That doesn’t interest me.

So recording in Nashville had little influence on the sound of the record?

The city itself had no influence on the record. We didn’t even get out in the city—we were hunkered down in the studio. But the studio itself and the access to all the great gear certainly made a difference. Jonathan and our engineer, Andy LeMaster, were like kids in a candy store. That all rubbed off on me when it produced a certain result. I don’t know much about gear; it doesn’t mean that much to me. I only know it’s great when I hear it.

Describe your writing process.

It always starts with the chords and a vocal melody. I get the chord progression down. Once I feel it’s sturdy enough to stand on its own, I think of it as a big walk-in closet where I can pick out things to dress it up. I start adding words and other embellishments.

So the music comes first.

The melodies always come first. I sit with a guitar or at the piano, and once I have the melody I start singing sounds, non-words—just vowel sounds. I get the chord progression fluid, and then I’ll walk around with it for a few days or weeks. Then I try out lyrics and find the phrasing that fits into the melodies.

How do you develop lyrics?

I let my mind wander and start tapping into my subconscious and the random experiences of my life. I don’t really have a method, apart from being patient and waiting for that lightning to strike. I’ve learned to have the patience and discipline to let it happen.

Your songs often have long verses.

I find it helpful to write way more verses than I need. I’ll write eight or more verses, and then get it down to what the song needs. When it comes to the craft, I always write more and then refine it and edit it down. It’s a discipline I’ve learned over time. I used to write a song and say, “OK, done,” and move onto the next. But now I go back and think, “This line could be a little tighter.” The process is a lot more satisfying.


It’s not a struggle—it’s really fun. For me, my best work comes out very naturally from being patient and waiting for access to that part of the brain. That’s what’s so exciting to me. That’s what keeps me wanting to come back for more.

Why select Dawes as your live band? 

Jonathan introduced me to them—he produced their two albums. They have the same atmosphere and style as I do—I couldn’t be happier. I am excited to meet up with them and start rehearsing.

Will having different players change the tone of the songs live?

It might. We won’t try and copy the album—we’ll do our own interpretation. Certain elements will be the same, but we’ll make the songs our own work. My songs have three lives: The first is when they exist in my mind as chords and lyrics, and the second is when they’re recorded and become physical things. Then the third is when they’re played live. And though they’re still my songs, they become affected by whoever’s playing.

–Linda Laban

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