Here we are, on a purple velvet fainting couch in a dressing room inside of Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, and Conor Oberst is sharing his battle scars.
“I smashed my head on a drum set the other night,” he says, lifting up a flop of brown hair to show me a half-inch cut above his right eyebrow, which is still a little crusty. “I was rocking out with Griff, and I didn’t take into account the rototoms. I knew where the normal drums are, but these are a little higher, and I came down on a point. I didn’t even feel it on stage, but I walked off and had blood all over my face and Corina was like, ‘ahhh!’”
Griff is Griffin Goldsmith of Dawes, Oberst’s current backing band as he tours behind his newest solo release, Upside Down Mountain, and Corina is his wife of over three years, who travels with him and is the name above mine on the venue sign-in sheet. It’s a few hours until show time, and it also happens to be CMA Fest, a multi-day event that fills the entire downtown Nashville area with everyone from fledgling honky-tonkers to big-leaguers like Brad Paisley. On my way into the Ryman lobby, I’d been stopped by a couple from Mississippi wearing fanny packs, cowboy boots and clear tote bags stuffed to the brim with mementos: their CMA guidebook, a promotional Miranda Lambert postcard, discarded VIP wristbands. They wanted to know whose tour bus was parked outside.
“Conor Oberst,” I told them.
“Conor who?’ the woman replied with a blank stare, after which they discussed going down the street to Tootsies, presumably to hear a cover band. “Do y’all know if the gift shop is open?”
Oberst is, of course, one of the unique musicians who straddles the line between critical praise and cultish indie adoration, as famous to some as CMA Fest superstars but unknown to others, never letting himself dunk fully into the mainstream. Famously making music since the age of thirteen in his native Omaha, Nebraska, he’s only just now signed with a major label, Nonesuch, home of similarly highly-adored, spotlight-skirting artists like Wilco, and mostly just to keep things interesting. He gets bored a lot.
On this particular June afternoon, Oberst is wearing a black and red Cursive t-shirt (a band signed to the label he launched, Saddle Creek, out of Omaha), dark jeans and a pair of navy sneakers, which he’ll trade later that night for a blazer and slip-on dress shoes that will help him shuffle, strut and spin around on stage like a punk James Brown.
“I’ve come to terms over the years that this is show business,” he says, clutching a paper coffee cup and leaning in. When he was younger, as the frontman of Bright Eyes, he had a difficult time separating the demands of the stage from whatever mood he happened to be in at the time – sometimes he’d play shows drunk, forget words, “smoke cigarettes instead of sing.” But who, in their teens or early twenties, is any good at shuffling back emotions, anyway? “Some days I feel like shit, and the last thing I want to do is have a bunch of people stare at me and do that weird judgment shit. But now I do it. I put on a little sport coat and fucking kick ass as much as I can, with whatever I’ve got.”
Yet when it comes to Oberst, people only see what they want to see. Maybe it comes from a career built on vivid, narrative-driven lyrics that listeners tend to internalize as boiling confessionals, or maybe it’s the subsequent intimacy that results from delivering those words with a voice that punctuates each note with a furtively expressive power, breathing fire, spitting air. In person, he’s warm, affable and easy to talk to – holding eye contact, cracking a smile. Though this isn’t a “new” Oberst; I’d thought the same then when I interviewed him in 2008 about the presidential election. He was polite and gracious then, nowhere near the character he portrays on 2000’s Fevers And Mirrors, where he screws with an imaginary radio DJ on “An Attempt To Tip The Scales,” just one of the pieces that started to paint Oberst as full of unrepressed contempt for, well, just about anything.
Take a flip around the collective narrative surrounding the release of Upside Down Mountain, and you’ll see two prevailing phrases: Conor Oberst grows up! Conor Oberst stops being sad! The obsession around Oberst’s long-past “angsty” youth is still cloyingly pervasive – despite the fact he’s only 34 and has never been anything but prolific, with each proceeding record being heralded “the Most Mature Yet!” by critics. Trace back, and you’ll see EntertainmentWeekly even dubbing Bright Eyes’ 2007 release, Cassadaga, as “too mature” at moments, while The New York Times titled a live show review from the same year as “The Miserablist, All Grown Up And Hard At Work.” At this rate, he’s been “growing up” over and over for years – he may as well be 84, not 34.