Oberst also likes to change up the environment where he physically lays down his work, and has recorded everywhere from Tepoztlan, Mexico to Los Angeles. So when it came to picking a location for Upside Down Mountain, he left the decision up to Wilson.
“I said, ‘What studio, if you could go to any, would you want?’ and Blackbird in Nashville was Jonathan’s top choice,” Oberst says. “For the insane treasure trove of gear. I’m not a big gearhead, but I was pretty blown away.” The Martina McBride-owned place was lacking a little in atmosphere, so “we burned some sage and stuff,” but it made up for any shortage in ambiance with a huge cadre of equipment with which Oberst could flush out the richly-embellished sounds on Upside Down Mountain.
“We were there for about a month,” he says, “and we had a house rented in East Nashville for a lot of the time. I’ve been to the city many times, and have love for the place.” Though he didn’t have time to escape to any shows, “we went to the weird coffee shop that was like Portlandia,” and “ran into some frustration on where to buy alcohol.” The coffee shop in question, Barista Parlor, charges six dollars for brews that are made-to-order in a contraption that looks more fit for a meth lab, and once sold special-edition train caps for $150. (Later, at the Ryman show, he would dedicate “If The Brakeman Turns My Way,” to “all the hipster moustaches, old-timey-shit, to Barista Parlor,” spitting out the syllables like chewed up sunflower seed shells).
“Even from five or six years ago when I came and stayed at Gil and Dave’s house,” he says, referring to his friends Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, who have both lived in the area for years and opened their studios, Acony, here, “Nashville’s changed.”
Oberst, however, splits his time between his hometown of Omaha and New York’s East Village. Contrary to previous reports, he doesn’t really prefer to write in any one particular place (though he likes not having to drive when he’s in the city). Instead, it’s just really where inspiration strikes. New York does boast some specific challenges – particularly when it comes to working in the Manhattan-proportions apartment he shares with his wife.
“As close as we are, I don’t necessarily want to pick up the guitar around her and start singing nonsense syllables until I find a melody,” he says. He often went to a friend’s store after-hours to write songs for Upside Down Mountain. “It’s an awesome antique, mid-century furniture place with nice maps and globes, on Crosby Street. He gave me a key, and I’d go down there and go through the gate and sit in this empty store at night, because I had to go somewhere.”
That idea of “nonsense syllables” is how Oberst primarily writes – which could be a little surprising for someone known for the palpable power of his lyrics. He starts by signing “vowel sounds, or gobbledygook,” tinkering around on the piano or guitar. Then he lets his mind wander, sometimes in the middle of a conversation. “A friend of mine used to say, if I wasn’t paying attention, ‘Oh, he’s in his office.’” These days, he’s a little more regimented, setting aside specific time to work on songs, and rarely in emotionally-charged moments.
“I do my best work in sort of ordinary times,” he says. “I don’t really write in heightened states of emotion. That might be surprising to people, but if I’m really happy I am trying to enjoy the moment, not capture it.”
Though he spends a lot of time working through ideas in his “daydreams,” he does tap into a small network of friends and peers for feedback. One such person is Omaha musician Simon Joyner, who has been a longtime inspiration to Oberst and one of his most valued critics. “He’s one of the reasons I started writing songs,” says Oberst. “I started this tradition of sending him demos, and I’ll type out the lyrics for him. He hits me back with ‘this is cool, this is a little clunky.’” Oberst will do the same for Joyner, too, when he has new songs to share.
“I think Conor knows that I’ll be brutally honest with him, and that he can trust me to tell him if I think something isn’t working,” Joyner tells me. “I know he always challenges me to approach my songs in new ways and I try to give him that kind of advice too, instead of just blowing sunshine up his skirt.”
“The funny thing is, we do this for each other but we’re both pretty stubborn, so historically not much ends up getting changed,” he adds.
On Upside Down Mountain, Oberst was working on the idea of space. “There were some Bright Eyes records I thought we left in the oven a little too long,” he says, pointing to his friend Britt Daniel of Spoon as someone who has mastered the art of empty time. “The less-is-more idea was a little hard for me to learn.”
Lyrically, Oberst is the rare songwriter whose words engage the listener into immediate attention, blending poetry, fine storytelling and keen imagery – lines like “If someone says they know for certain/ They’re selling something certainly” off of “Artifact #1,” show an artist with a extraordinary understanding of the mind and the pen, and never caught up too much in metaphor. Most of the time, he’s just following his imaginary landscape – tracing Kick Kennedy to Hyannis Port on “Kick,” watching a father look back on his son’s life with both regret and relief on “You Are Your Mother’s Child.” And examining the idea of commitment – with all the demands it makes on one’s freedom, both in good and bad ways – on many of the tracks.
“Most of my songs are composite sketches. Very rarely are they right out of real life,” he says. “Pronouns are very insignificant in my songs. Sometimes when I am singing a song, I forget if it’s supposed to be ‘I’ or ‘you.’”
“Few guys know what to do with words the way he does,” says Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes. “I get so bummed when people compare him to other artists. Because I think the special thing about Conor is that he is singular. It’s like trying to talk about Willie Nelson or Elvis Costello or Joni Mitchell. I have no problem saying he exists as a songwriter in the ranks of all them. He’s one of the all time greats, there’s no doubt about that.”