The Uneasy New Life of Conor Oberst

The former boy wonder has a great new album – but inner peace is harder to come by

WIDE AWAKE: Conor Oberst in New York in March
Andreas Laszlo Konrath
By Patrick Doyle
Jun 16, 2014

"THIS ONES PRETTY CHEESY," says Conor Oberst, sitting in the control room at Nashville’s Blackbird studio, where he’s selecting tracks for his new solo album. He bounces his leg nervously to “You Are Your Mother’s Child,” a ballad that imagines watching a son grow up, from Halloween costumes to graduation gown. Oberst seems vaguely embarrassed by lines like “Tears will dry if you give them time/Life is a roller coaster, keep your arms inside,” but a friend urges him not to scrap the song. “I’ll consider it,” he says. “I always gravitate towards darker lyrics. Sometimes it’s nice to have a little sunshine.”

The ballad does, in fact, make it on Upside Down Mountain, a Seventies-folk-influenced LP that stands as Oberst’s best work in years. “When I first heard it, I cried,” says friend Jim James of “You Are Your Mother’s Child.” “It’s such a crazy-beautiful look at the whole process of life.”

The song underlines how far Oberst, 34, has come since a dec-ade ago, when his prolific output with Bright Eyes and other projects was a sprawling, open diary of heartbreak, depression, paranoia, drug abuse and self-harm. Those songs scored with critics and vulnerable teens alike, earning him many labels: Emo Heartthrob, Indie Rock’s Boy Wonder, New Dylan. But today, Oberst shrugs off that period of his life. “I don’t relate to a lot of that music anymore,” he says.

Around 2006, Oberst started slowing down, writing music everywhere from a Florida psychic colony to the remote Mexican hippie village of Tepoz-tlán. In Mexico City, he met his wife, Corina, a college student who was working for a local promoter. They married in 2010 –  James sang them down the aisle with “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” – and now split their time between New York’s East Village and Omaha, Nebraska.

Oberst’s demons may be quieter now, but you can still hear them all over Upside Down Mountain. “There are hundreds of ways to get through the day,” he repeats on the album’s best chorus before howling, “I hope I am forgotten when I die.” “Common Knowledge” is about an artist considering going “out with a bang, like Hemingway.” “A lot of people get beat down to the point where it’s hard to stick around,” he says, before quickly adding, “I don’t see a whole lot of myself in that character.”

He and producer Jonathan Wilson pile into Oberst’s dirty station wagon and drive to an East Nashville Italian spot. Oberst talks about his interest in sulfite-free natural wine and recently abandoning veganism (“I was like, man, that steak looks good”). Soon he hits on his biggest pet peeve, the Internet, deriding the “modern f***ing dilemma of how people live, which is staring at this bullshit all day,” he says, picking up his iPhone.

This is an extract. To read the full story, pick up a copy of Rolling Stone Middle East

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