Conor Oberst: Grounded on the Upside Down Mountain

Music Features Conor Oberst
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“I always say, if I could do what I do and truly get off the grid, I’d do it in a second,” Conor Oberst tells me from his New York apartment. We’re on the phone to discuss his newest album, Upside Down Mountain, and it’s not long before he’s revealed that—after penning hundreds of self-dissecting tunes ruminating on love, depression, the big questions; after getting married; after trekking out on week-long river trips—he appears to have found some long-term peace. So while we’re here to talk about his career, his accomplishments—that whole album-cycle talk—he’s advising this plugged-in writer of all the good some stillness can do.

“Unfortunately,” he continues about off-the-grid living, “there are practical concerns. Everyone gets used to convenience, and that’s something that needs to be navigated,” he says. Of course, we’ve all got things to plug in for—whether they’re mortgages, mouths to feed or albums to promote. But still… “just having some awareness or desire to do that—you should do it. You should go camping.”

Okay, our arrival into the great outdoors isn’t quite as strange as it sounds. Yeah, it’s a favorite topic of mine—finding peace in a tech-dependent culture—but I didn’t necessarily strong-arm Oberst into the welcome free pass to dust off my tent. Upside Down Mountain’s opening lines brought this all up nicely, and they’re more literal than you’d think.

Polished my shoes, I bought a brand new hat
Moved to a town that time forgot
Where I don’t have to shave or be approachable
I can do just what I want
I want to walk in the howling wind till it scatters all my thoughts
Sit all alone on that riverbank till I forget that I can talk

While I can’t speak to the hat or shoes, Oberst did find some quiet after Bright Eyes wrapped up the cycle behind The People’s Key in 2011. He’s discovered new life as a married man: “It’s like hanging out with your best friend. It’s definitely been a grounding, settling effect on my life.” He opened a bar in Omaha, Neb., called Pageturners. You know, web devotees—the ones from books. “I’ve had a pretty bad track record as an entrepreneur,” he laughs. “But it seemed manageable. It’s mostly just a little lounge bar. I don’t really have anything to do with the day-to-day, but it’s nice to employ some of our friends and do little events.”

And then he started meditating. “I mean, I don’t know that I’ll become a full-on Buddhist or anything,” he clarifies, laughing. But his step-by-step details—like, ”think of [your thoughts] like a buoy in a lake. You’re bobbing there, but you always come back to your center”—they don’t exactly dismiss meditation as an empty way to pass the time. “I have an uncle who’s been practicing yoga and meditation for 30-plus years, and just this year, he’s been ordained as a Buddhist monk. I’ve been learning from him,” he clarifies.

Like Oberst said, maybe he won’t be a full-on Buddhist. But that doesn’t mean he can’t borrow a few good ideas, so without deadlines or big musical ambitions, he just was in the last few years. After all, he laughs, admitting the successful songwriter’s dilemma: “there are only so many songs you can write about hotels and airports.”

So he checked out from time to time.

“Some of my friends are professional river rafting guides,” he continues. “So me and a group of friends would go out on a trip where you’d go down the Salmon River in Idaho or the Chama River in New Mexico. It’s a week trip, and you just kind of go down the river the whole day, and then you make camp and see the stars. Cellphones don’t work. Once you get that far out, it takes me to [thinking of] life in the world before humans. You feel more grounded and connected to the deeper part of being a human. So much of modern life is about distracting ourselves. I’ve been kind of learning to meditate to calm the waters of everyday living. Spending quality time with my family and my friends and my wife. Finding stuff that’s away from the busy-ness.”

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There’s one thing that’s overlooked in most interviews with Oberst—buried somewhere in the personal blurbs, the songwriting quirks, the young prodigy angles, his distaste for social media. That’s his ability to tell a story. Drop yourself at any point of the songwriter’s catalog. Listen. It’s common knowledge that he’s capable of expert-level storytelling in song by now, right? But in casual conversation, Oberst is a grounded, easy-talking guy when he details these river trips, his meditation, or that time he auditioned to play the lead in Inside Llewyn Davis. “First off, a bunch of musicians did,” he says. No, he didn’t meet a Coen. Yes, he was nervous. “It wasn’t like I was on any sort of short list. I was super flattered to even be thought of by the Coen Brothers because I think they’re true masters of film.”

But as Upside Down Mountain’s producer Jonathan Wilson will agree—he’s pretty damn funny, too, and while we discuss the ups and downs of his decade-plus in the business of writing songs, even in his serious tales, I wind up bracing for the punchline, that clever connection. Moments before we hang up, he tells me he just discovered one of the most beautiful voices he’s ever heard during our call. He put his ear to his apartment floor searching for it, and after some investigating, maybe during a boring question or two, he found the voice after stepping into the hall.

It was his mailwoman.

As most of Oberst’s devotees already know, it was a long enough path to get here—a treasured storyteller who’s in, out of, or tiptoeing around the spotlight. But wherever he might be in the public eye, his history is one that was committed to tape almost immediately as his career began. Since age 13, Oberst would use the public platform of song to navigate his troubles—whether it was singing the harsh lows of depression or the cautious highs of love on albums like I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning or Fevers and Mirrors. A decade later, it’s hard for him to look back on some of his early efforts. There are those lyrics he might not pen at age 34, or a vocal delivery that’s hard for him to revisit. In a way, that’s reassuring.

“I made my first record, quote unquote, when I was 13 years old, on a little four-track,” he says. “If you look hard enough, you can probably find that out there somewhere. That’s pretty embarrassing, but I also feel there is a part of it that’s fortunate. If anyone’s interested in my songwriting or my work, it’s all out there in the open. They can follow the trail all the way from that cassette to this new record—not that I recommend that—but you can do that, and there’s nothing to hide. I was never on the Mickey Mouse Club. I never had to rebrand myself as alternative rock. In that sense, it’s an open book.”

Some of those growing pains were as harmless as you might expect—I imagine Oberst’s disassociation with some of his earlier material feels about the same as your desire to revisit early high school essays, but the difference remains: most of our early creative pursuits didn’t sell hundreds of thousands of copies, yield some beautiful songs or build up a fiercely devoted fanbase.

“Some songs I relate to more than others,” he says. “I still perform a lot of old songs, and some have stood the test of time more than others. Some of what’s painful for me, looking back on old records, a lot of it has to do with the sound of my voice—it kind of makes me cringe. Some songs, I can still feel the melody and the words and the chorus and all that, but it’s really just the recordings that bother me. Then there’s others…it’s all just where I’m at stylistically at a given time, what resonates with me.”

That’s the thing about growing up in public: your back history’s there for the masses to dissect with every future album, and Oberst shares one of the more grating memories of growing up under a songwriting microscope. Because for every adoring fan—and there were plenty—there was also some head-scratching Berklee dude who doesn’t get it. Again, we can laugh now, but when I talk to Wilson before my interview with Oberst, he mentions the “consonants story.”

“I went [to Berklee to give a talk for professor] Livingston Taylor, James Taylor’s brother,” Oberst says. “He teaches this performance class, I forget what it was exactly. I ended up being invited by him to talk to the class. They had really basic questions, like ‘How does tour work?’ and he asked if I would mind playing a song. So I played whatever my newest song was at the time, and it was super nerve-racking. I finished, and he got this huge look on his face, and he turns to the class and says ‘did you hear those consonants?’ Which, someone’s told me before—I guess I over-annunciate my consonants, which I guess might be annoying or unusual, or whatever?

“But one of the kids in the class, we did a Q&A after, and he said ‘So, you don’t care if you sing in key at all?’” Oberst’s laughing right along with me at this point. “He was totally straight-faced. He wasn’t trying to be mean or anything. And I was like, ‘actually, I was trying my best, I was never a trained singer…’ I tried to throw out the idea that maybe perfection wasn’t the best thing.”

He’s happy to recap the past in great detail, but there are some things Oberst can’t share now—legally. Days before our interview, I received an email that set a few boundaries: questions on his current libel case, which was filed after an online commenter accused Oberst of rape, were strictly off limits; his lawyer wouldn’t allow him to comment in any capacity. Once the case is settled, he’s expected to break his silence, but for now we’re left with a publicly issued statement from his lawyer.

But with all of his songwriting lessons out in the open, Oberst’s still applying what he’s learned to tape. Here, in 2014, he lets the songs come to him between real life experiences—whether that’s a night at home with his wife or alone, under the stars. He’s more focused on interesting language, perfecting these concise three-to-five-minute, melodic tales—“not stuffing every line with as many syllables as you can.”

“What I’m into these days is getting the phrasing right, and having the flow right,” he says. “Sometimes that means being a bit more precise with the words. I also think it’s important to have a lot of colorful details to songs, and I get excited when I hear a word in a song that I’ve never heard in a song before.”

Upside Down Mountain, then, would turn into a decidedly different album. It’s one that doesn’t necessarily recall what he built up with Mike Mogis in Bright Eyes’ heyday—that voice is still there, but it’s unwavering, precise now; the arrangements are lighter, winding, bright. Most importantly, it still advances Oberst forward as a songwriter.

But with writing sessions taking place over such a broad period of time, three years by his count, Oberst did notice a glaring hole in the project: “A lot of these songs, I don’t see them fitting together—which I’m fine with,” he explains. “I think it’s cool that they’re looking at different emotions or telling different stories.” But to make this an album, not a collection of songs, Oberst knew there had to be a unifying thread, which turned out to be the production work of Wilson—producer of Father John Misty’s breakthrough, Fear Fun, and an established writer and guitarist himself.

For years, the two have shared an L.A. rehearsal space, and they’ve actually been “threatening to make an album together since 2008,” in Wilson’s words. And although they’d eventually hole up in Nashville to track the majority of the album, that wasn’t Oberst’s first choice. He was thinking something a little more tropical at first—maybe the Bahamas. Instead, it’d take them across the country, from Los Angeles, to Omaha (the sisters from First Aid Kit laid down their parts in the middle of recording their own new album with Mogis), and then finally to Nashville to complete Oberst’s very American release.

“I actually love getting away from everything and recording from places disconnected from your regular life,” Oberst says. “Whether it’s recording in Mexico, or going to a studio off the beaten path. But we worked a lot at the house in L.A. and kind of made the decision that we should get out of L.A., get away from distractions and friends and everything.”

“We started working on the album in L.A.,” Wilson says. “He said to me—and this is his style—‘Let’s take it somewhere exotic. Maybe the Bahamas or Jamaica.’ I said, ‘Yeah, that would be fun,’ but then he asked, ‘What’s the best studio in the world?’ And I said ‘Blackbird A in Nashville. It’s the most over-the-top, kid-in-a-candy-store studio.’ We gave them a call and set it up out there, and we stayed out there for a month and finished the album. We did a lot of tracking and then we did all of the mixing there.”

The album might be billed under Oberst’s name, but Wilson’s contributions to the album shouldn’t be discounted. Oberst himself credits his production work, as well as First Aid Kit’s lush back-ups, as the sturdy thread that pieces together the scattered themes. Yes, it’s a solo album on paper, but Wilson’s fingerprints are all over it: clipping, booming toms; his winding, lush lead guitar playing. It easily could have turned out very differently without full trust from Oberst.

“One thing about working with him that’s delightful as a producer: he’s got a lot of experience,” Wilson says. “He’s made a lot of albums and with that comes an interesting mastery of the process of it all. So he’s really open for his collaborators to try stuff and get ideas out. He’s very patient and in control. He understands the process. There’s no tension there, which multiplies creative things. That’s one of the mistakes that people who are not as seasoned, they can’t do it. It’s something that I do run into. For me, perhaps the greatest thing is his trust in the process and discovering sounds that happen when everybody’s super open.”

It wouldn’t be fair to call Upside Down Mountain thematically random, though. There’s plenty that re-emerges in tiny flashes throughout. That hope for peace and quiet on “Time Forgot.” Isolation. Love. Adult stuff. Then there’s the question of the real Upside Down Mountain—Pic de Bugarach in Southern France, a landmark that’s believed to have mystical powers because of its odd geography. Its top layers are older than those on the bottom.

So I’ve got to ask, this Upside Down Mountain, this reverse-aged fixture in the Earth. Does it attract a man who saw his busiest, most-chaotic years earlier in life? A guy who seems to have found peace and quiet years later?

It’d make for a good story, but it wouldn’t be the truth. In fact, Oberst didn’t even know about Pic de Bugarach until much of the album was complete.

“That’s a good one,” he says. “I’m going to use that in other interviews. I found that same place, and I know it’s sort of a spiritual center, a new age-y vortex sort of place, but I didn’t know about it when I came up with the title. I found out about it afterwards. I took it as a good omen.

“To me, the title’s more about the human condition, and the idea that we’re all alone on our own little mountaintops. You know, that old saying that you’re born alone, you die alone? It’s a sad thought, but I think there’s a lot of truth to it. And it’s that, the things we’ve been talking about—getting to that point where you’re sort of content. You see it for what it is, where you’re at peace with that reality, but at the same time there’s so many things you can think to find togetherness, to ease the burden of that reality. And that’s when things like love, and friendship, and music and art, and all the things like giving and sharing, and all the beauty in life are sort of ways to lessen that burden that sort of is at the heart of being human. That’s what was going through my mind with that…

“But I like what you said. I’m gonna use that.”

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In all the change swirling around Oberst, there is one thing that’s remained. The studios got bigger. Those commitments in love grew deeper. The solution to so many things came oddly enough in some peace and quiet. But what about finishing a song, Conor? An album? Surely that’s got to feel different, too.

“Amazingly not,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but the feeling that I get when I complete a song that I like is still my favorite feeling in the world.

“Essentially, you’ve created something out of nothing. You’ve manifested it into existence. Hopefully it’s something that will be beautiful. Hopefully it’s something I can be proud of, and that’s a wonderful feeling. It’s amazing. That part hasn’t really changed much. Everything else changed, but it’s nice to know there’s still some magic in it to me.”