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A Musical Vision Comes Into Focus

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 18, 2005

AT THE BEGINNING of 2005, Bright Eyes -- aka Conor Oberst -- was inescapable, gracing the covers of countless music magazines in conjunction with the dual release of "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" and "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn."

The first album, essentially solo and acoustic in nature, was full of the word-intense folk-rooted music that led Rolling Stone to dub Oberst "the indie rock Bob Dylan" and "rock's boy genius." It's a sound the 25-year-old Omaha-bred Oberst has been tweaking since releasing his first recordings at 13. Oberst has grown up to become an indie heartthrob, thanks to his good looks, heartfelt confessional lyrics and a fragile but intense voice once described in a review as "the slightly outta tune voice of a generation."

"Digital Ash" was an electric album with electronica twists and a more developed rhythmic presence, which was somewhat uncharacteristic, though hardly enough to burden Oberst with the sellout cries Dylan experienced in the '60s. Both albums were released on Saddle Creek, the collectively run Omaha-based label that Oberst and some pals created in junior high. Today, it's one of the hippest of alt-rock indies, its first decade celebrated in a new DVD documentary, "Spend an Evening With Saddle Creek."

Considering that Oberst's debut, "Water" -- recorded in his parents' basement the summer before he started eighth grade -- sold 100 cassette copies (mostly to family and friends), the commercial success of his latest releases has been quite a surprise: "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" debuted at No. 10 on the Billboard album chart and "Digital Ash" at No. 15. Together, nearly 600,000 copies have been sold.

More surprisingly, the debut singles from each album -- "Lua," Oberst's soft-spun meditations as a newly minted New Yorker, and the more beat-driven "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)" -- snagged the top two spots on Billboard's Hot 100 Singles sales chart, a substantial breakthrough for indie rock and something that hadn't been accomplished since 1997, when the-rapper-then-known-as-Puff Daddy did it with "I'll Be Missing You" and "Mo' Money Mo' Problems."

Such success renders one scene in the Saddle Creek documentary ironic. The label has great indie credibility, but until recently, its releases seldom achieved six-figure sales. It wasn't until the Faint's 2004 album, "Wet From Birth," and Cursive's 2005 compilation, "The Difference Between Houses and Homes," that the label's other top two bands broke the 100,000 mark, as Bright Eyes had first done with 2002's "Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground." At that time, label president Robb Nansel bestowed on Oberst a "wooden" record, adding that there would be no more celebrations until someone sold 500,000 copies (the record industry's official "gold" standard).

"And I don't think we're going to do it," Nansel jokes in the documentary.

Speaking from New York recently, Oberst said, "If we do get a true gold record a few years from now, Rob's going to have to come up with a seriously big party for everyone!"

As for Bright Eyes, Oberst seems ready for a little shut-eye after having already toured twice this year, once for each record (first acoustically, then with a 10-piece band). As 2005 ends, he's going out one last time under the malleable Bright Eyes moniker, serving up a different show every night from his considerable songbook; this road show features harp, xylophone, clarinet, trumpets and pedal steel guitar, as well as more traditional instrumentation. He stops at DAR Constitution Hall on Friday.

"We always have a different band when we're on tour, and so we always have to learn a different set of songs," Oberst says, adding that for this go-round, "we learned as many songs as we could so we could do different sets every night and not feel bored."

The challenge, one would think, is less music than memory: Oberst is a decidedly wordy fellow, and those dense lyrics and observational narratives, frequently eschewing traditional verse-chorus symmetry, can't be easy to remember.

"The more I play certain songs, they'll morph a little bit on the way, with lyrical changes or melody shifts," Oberst concedes. "I have a terrible memory in general, but one thing I've always been able to remember is my songs. Sometimes you lose the plot in your mind, but in my songs, there's a logical progression from the way one line ends to where it somehow prompts the next line, even if when the song's starting I'm thinking, 'Oh, there's no way I'm remembering all these words!' "

Those words started coming when Oberst was in seventh grade. Raised in a family of musicians -- his father was a computer tech who played guitar in cover bands on weekends, and two older brothers had bands -- Oberst found that writing was something he was "always drawn to from the point when I could put any words together. But I wasn't the type that learned a bunch of cover songs or tried to get very good at guitar by practicing the scales or anything. The first few chords I could play and switch back and forth between, I wrote a song with those chords."

More important, Oberst received encouragement early on from slightly older Omaha musicians who let him sit in at folk clubs and coffeehouses. "When I try to explain to people the big influences in my life, or at least when I first started, the most important ones were my friends who were also writing songs and were typically four or five years older than me," he says. "Knowing them and seeing the way they wrote songs, just the way that they dealt with the creative process, took the mystery away from it, and it seemed really easy to obtain the same process that they were using."

Playing primarily for themselves, those musicians started peddling one another's cassette tapes until 1993, when Saddle Creek precursor Lumberjack was founded by Oberst and his older brother, Justin, Tim Kasher (Cursive/Good Life), Ted Stevens (Cursive) and Nansel. The first Saddle Creek release was a split single by Drip and Commander Venus, a band featuring the 14-year-old Oberst, Nansel and Todd Baechle (later of Cursive), followed by the first Bright Eyes album, "A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997." The "uber-indie" label is now distributed by the Warner Music-owned Alternative Distribution Alliance, but its mindset remains clear: "Motion Sickness," a new live album drawn from this year's Bright Eyes album tours, is available only in indie stores.

"Fortunately we were blessed with a little bit of patience and work ethic to just keep going and really take every little step of success, be grateful for it and always find success in little things along the way," Oberst says. "I can't imagine back then having the label as well put together as it is now in terms of distribution and selling records. Along the way, we always celebrated everything as 'This is incredible,' the most important thing being 'Wow, we're making music,' no matter how few people are listening to it, and how great that is. That's definitely a product of having a community of people all doing it together, not doing it alone in whatever moment you're in."

There have always been crossovers and entanglements among the dozen or so mostly Omaha-based acts on the label, amusingly recounted in "Spend an Evening With Saddle Creek." The label's first decade is revisited through interviews, home movies (including some of a very earnest young Oberst), rare live performances and archival footage, but the film ends before the recent commercial successes, which are mentioned in an endnote.

The film also doesn't explore Oberst's emerging political voice. (He was the indie-est rocker on last year's Vote for Change tour.) It's really nothing new, Oberst suggests: As a 10-year-old during the first Gulf War, he wrote an antiwar song. "Old Soul Song (for the New World Order)," from "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning," was inspired by a 2003 antiwar march in New York the day Oberst turned 23.

In May, Oberst caused a media furor when he performed a scathing new song, "When the President Talks to God," on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," imagining a deity who might be a president's equal in terms of callous, small-minded ignorance: "When the president talks to God are the conversations brief or long?/Does he ask to rape our women's rights and send poor farm kids off to die?/Does God suggest an oil hike when the president talks to God?"

"I don't really plan ahead too much of what I'm going to write about," Oberst says. "It's just things that are on my mind that I'm thinking about at the time. Definitely, it's always there, and you can't really escape it -- it's just how much time you give it in your thoughts and how much it affects you on a daily basis. For me, starting around the 2000 election, and obviously accelerated by 9/11, this new war has made it be something I wrote about a lot more."

Despite being so closely associated with Saddle Creek and Omaha, Oberst has established some independence: He and his manager, Nate Krenkel, last year started a New York-based label, Team Love, though its first signing was an Omaha band, Tilly and the Wall, whose singer Neely Jenkins was Oberst's childhood sweetheart. The two labels, Oberst admits, are similar, "but we can do different things, or smaller things, that we couldn't get everyone to be into at the same time" at collectively run Saddle Creek. Oberst is not involved with a club Saddle Creek plans to build in Omaha, though he and longtime producer/Bright Eyes constant Mike Mogis are building a recording studio there. But Oberst will have to visit to record, having settled in New York a couple of years ago.

"Although Omaha is my birthplace and the place I grew up, I don't see myself spending extended amounts of time there," he says. "I feel almost more comfortable and more at peace in New York. I've been going over it in my head a lot, because next year I don't have anything going on as far as obligations. To be honest, this year there's been so much traveling and other things that I don't necessarily know where I want to be."

BRIGHT EYES -- Appearing Friday at DAR Constitution Hall with Magic Numbers and Feist.

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