The American Songwriter Q&A: Bright Eyes

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After a brief stint as a solo artist, Conor Oberst has revived Bright Eyes to release The People’s Key, an album that deals with the nature of time, spirituality, and human existence. Also, it’s Rastafarian friendly.

You sing “I and I” on a few songs, and there’s a track called “Haile Selassie.” Have you gone Bob Marley on us?

I think there’s a reggae influence to the album, lyrically. I’ve always liked reggae music, but liked the lyrical themes which are kind of redemption, and liberation, and overcoming oppressive evil. In their case they’re singing about imperial powers, the oppression of the poor people, and those ideas. The way I’m thinking about them it’s more about humanity as a whole. I do really believe that there are evil people in the world and there are good people, and often times the evil people run the show. I find a lot of the imagery in reggae music can be so potent and powerful, so I guess in a sense I co-opted some of those ideas, maybe took it out of context. But I still think it’s applicable to a wider message. It’s basically like people that believe in peace and love and equality of all humans, seeing one another in each other.

When I initially heard the album I thought of Digital Ash In A Digital Urn.

It’s true that neither has very many acoustic guitars, which is different from some of our other records. I think there’s all of our music throughout the years on this record.

They say that your first album is easiest to write, and then it gets increasingly challenging after that.

I know I’ve heard that, like you spend your whole life writing your debut album and then you’re supposed to write one every year. I made my first record when I was like, twelve, so I guess I didn’t have much of a life at that point, you know? I find these things come in waves. Sometimes I’ll feel more inspired, more productive and creative, and then other times I don’t and I write less songs. That’s just the ebb and flow, for me. Sometimes I feel like I’m never going to write a song again, but it comes back around.

Does the life of a rock musician lend itself to having things to write about more than the life of a troubled teenager?

Everyone has a point of view and everyone has the right to express that point of view, artistically or creatively in some way. You’re going to get a different kind of song out of people who are from different places in their life. Neither one is inherently better or worse than the other. It’s the quality or level at which they can articulate their view to you, the listener.

Has the way you approach writing lyrics evolved over the years?

It’s the same in the sense that I usually have the melody first, and then I have the words to the melody. My style, I suppose, has changed over the years, maybe slightly less narrative, or confessional. These new songs, they mean a lot to me. They might come off as a little more coded or something, but I guess that’s just a stylistic choice. I like to hear interesting words in songs, that you don’t hear all the time. That’s something that I’m trying to do, trying to find new words, I guess.

Do you ever write a song and then wind up saying, “It’s too derivative?”

Every time I finish a song… most of the time it’s in my own head, like this sounds too much like a Townes Van Zandt song, or whoever. I realize there are so many melodies and chord progressions in pop and rock music that are so similar that you can kind of trace it back to other things. Most of the time it’s just in your head.

What’s it like to write a song that’s highly personal and then have your audience, or the world, sing it back to you?

It’s rewarding in a sense to feel like you’ve communicated something that people take with them. To take part in their life is a great thing. It can be a little uncomfortable, whatever, face to face with someone. People project so much of their own life into the songs, which is a great thing, but it doesn’t mean the same thing to me that it means to every person that hears it. I kind of learned my lesson a while ago. I used to not like it. When I was younger writing songs, I really wanted people to know exactly what I meant. I really wanted to be explicit. I would be upset they didn’t understand, that they misunderstood me. Now I almost like it better that they misunderstand or that they have a different interpretation. There’s so much value in that. As a listener, you’ve got to find your own self, your own ideas, through the music.

What do you hear when you listen to your old albums?

I don’t really do that, that much. I’ll listen to albums if we’re rehearsing for a tour or re-learning songs. Sure, I can hear an old recording of myself and cringe at the sound of my voice. Sometimes I think the songs are better than the recordings. I still feel good about the song itself, the lyrics and the melody, but the recording, for whatever reason, whether it’s the sound of my voice or the way I arranged it, I’m like, that’s not that tight. I guess I don’t spend a lot of time listening to old stuff. It’s more about coming up with new songs.

Spirituality is a continuing theme in your work. When did you start getting interested in that?

I grew up going to Catholic school and had that experience as a young child, and then, I think the quest to understand myself and the world, the human condition, whatever. I think that’s just part of being alive, not just skim across the top life. If you want to, if you’re somebody who wants to reflect on things and wonder about things, then you’re at some point going to have to deal with spirituality or the search for meaning, so I just think that’s part of being alive.

Do you think the world will end in December 2012?

I don’t think so. I don’t know how accurate those calendars are, but I wouldn’t mind going down to the Pyramids then, just to hang out.

Someone should put out an album on December 21st, 2012. It would be really cool if it was you.

Well, I’ve got to get crackin’ on it then. I don’t have much time.


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