By his own admission, Conor Oberst suffers from wanderlust.
“I’m not that good at staying in one place for very long,” says the dark-eyed brainchild behind Midwestern indie behemoth Bright Eyes, shrugging. “Traveling has been a truly big part of my adult life. It’s something that I’ve had to do for the music, but it’s also something I really enjoy. Even songs that I’ve written that don’t specifically mention a town, in my mind they always have a setting or a place where they exist, even if it’s a completely fictitious place or an imaginary world.”
Appropriately, Bright Eyes’ latest is titled after a particularly compelling spot: Cassadaga—a Seneca word meaning “rocks beneath water”—is a 112-year old, 57-acre spiritual camp about 30 miles north of Orlando in Volusia County, Fla. Populated mostly by psychics and mediums (and known to some as the Psychic Center of the World), Cassadaga is also the self-proclaimed oldest active religious community in the American South.
“I took a pilgrimage there about a year ago,” Oberst explains. “It was recommended by a friend, and she took me there and showed me around. I didn’t live there, and it’s not a concept record about the town, but I did go there, and I left with a certain feeling—a certain peace of mind that I was able to take with me. And I thought about it a lot, and it entered into the songs—a lot of the ideas that had motivated me to go there became a big part of the songs. And in the end, I decided it was as good a title as anything.”
Even though Cassadaga’s country-infused punk songs tackle classic Bright Eyes woe (government corruption, drugs, kissing), there’s an element of otherworldliness lurking in Oberst’s wails, and the record centers on spiritual and emotional pilgrimages. On the haunting “Four Winds,” Oberst evenly chants, “So I went back by rented Cadillac and company jet / Like a newly orphaned refugee retracing my steps / All the way to Cassadaga to commune with the dead.”
“I went back again recently, and it was just as great as I remembered,” Oberst says of Cassadaga. “It’s a really small town, and a lot of the people just hang out on their porches. More or less, everyone is either a psychic or a medium. And there’s a mixture between a Southern gothic, Savannah, Ga., run-down kind of feel, and then a tropical Florida swamp, with palm trees. The people are really kind, most of them have converted the front rooms of their houses into reading parlors, so you just walk in and do your thing and then walk back out.”