Even Conor Oberst is petrified by something. The Nebraska-raised singer/songwriter who is, by just about all accounts, a generational talent on par with the Dylans and Simons of yesteryear, has no secret sauce or formula for penning an ever-growing catalog of introspective numbers. He just hopes, heartily, that whatever it is never leaves him.
Oberst argues his best work comes when he's in the doldrums, but the periods in between, when he can fully digest the rollercoaster he's just stepped off, are when the songs seem to come together, he says.
It usually begins with a melody mystically meandering into his subconscious. A lyric or two can accompany, but oftentimes the melody is enough to ignite the foundation for a song. From there, it can take multiple paths.
"A lot of times, I'll carry the melody with me for a while and let it grow with me," he says. "When it's a melody that sticks, then putting lyrics to it usually happens relatively fast."
Oberst's lyrical structure varies from confessional to narrative. However, what sometimes sounds like stream-of-consciousness personal imagery is really nothing more than a rhyming yarn. Likewise, what appears to be cohesive story, in many cases, turns out to just be one big block of catharsis. That's the magic in Oberst's writing: You never really know what he's talking about, but somehow, you can easily relate to it.
"The source of my songs is never really revealed to me until they're completed and I've listened to them a lot," Oberst says. "It can be a movie, a book, something I've seen—but I'm never really sure at the beginning. How the lyrics flow with pronouns is really irrelevant. . . . 'I's and 'you's are interchangeable to me."
In recent years, he has edited his lyrics more, allowing him to craft the final version as tightly as possible, with every word carrying an equal amount of weight in the grand scheme of the composition. With so many albums full of memorable songs, another thing Oberst would be justified in fearing is finding a way to live up to his own legacy. The way he sees it, that's not an issue. All he wants is to keep moving forward.
"I don't think about trying to top what I've done before," he says. "I just want to keep doing something different. Each album that I do is a reaction to what I've done before. . . . I try to keep things from sounding and feeling the same."
With as many projects as Oberst has going on at any one time—Bright Eyes, solo work, Monsters of Folk with Jim James and M. Ward, etc.—it's hard to imagine he can write so freely without tagging a certain track for one avenue. Oberst, though, doesn't specifically worry about songs fitting projects. Rather, for him, the idea is having collections of songs—albums—work as a cohesive unit.
"I've recorded songs that just don't fit with whatever record they're supposed to be on," he says. "It's usually more the exception than the rule, but I'll keep those songs or pieces of them, and sometimes they'll fit into something else further down the road."
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Oberst has been writing, recording and playing music live for well more than a decade. Having come close to mastering songwriting and touring extensively across the globe, he still gets riled up at the birth of a new idea.
"There is nothing like the actual moment of creation. . . . It's inspiring and ridiculous," he says. "It's my favorite feeling."
This article appeared in print as "Letting Off the Happiness: Conor Oberst on the method to his musical madness for Bright Eyes."