“I have never been comfortable with celebrity, even the little I have experienced.”
Conor Oberst, best known as the frontman of Bright Eyes, is not a shy individual. But he is pensive and wary. If you’ve read his name in the news in the past couple of years, you’ll understand this attitude isn’t entirely unfounded.
In 2013 an internet hoax made him the target of a false rape accusation – later withdrawn by the accuser, followed by a public apology. He describes the experience as, “surreal and painful”.
“It definitely cemented my disdain for the current culture of clickbait, but I just try and keep it all in perspective, because horrible things happen to people everyday – much worse things. The experience absolutely hurt and it definitely changed me. How could it not?”
Perhaps tellingly, the solo album he released last year, Upside Down Mountain, was his most personally revealing in years. It forgoes his recent fictional tales of mystical shamans to explore more emotional and philosophical tangents.
“I think Upside Down Mountain is very conversational and approachable, more so than some of my other recent albums where the language was a little more dense and coded.”
There have been recurrent themes of mortality and death throughout Oberst’s career – from the morbid metaphors in Sunrise, Sunset, to the escapist liberation of a plane crash in At The Bottom Of Everything. “I would say I have always been a little preoccupied with thoughts of time and death. Death scares me, sure, but it is also one of the few things all creatures on this earth have in common, which is comforting in a weird way.”
Forever the reluctant poster-boy for a scene he was out-running, Oberst refused to conform to people’s expectations, or to fit inside the square labelled “folk musician”. “I think folk music is traditionally music made by untrained musicians using whatever instruments are on hand. Now as for what constitutes ‘folk’ music in 2015, I can’t really say. I don’t know if I would describe myself as a folk singer, although I know people have in the past. I guess I just think of myself as a songwriter.”
Putting forward the hypothesis that the early Laura Marling records and recent Sharon Van Etten record are reminiscent of his style of songwriting, the discussion swiftly moves to his lyrical idols. “Laura and Sharon are great. As far as more modern day lyricists, I admire I would say Ian Felice, Bill Callahan, Gillian Welch, John from The Mountain Goats, Matt [Berninger] from The National, Jenny Lewis, Alex Turner and Stuart Murdoch.”
When I propose that both he and Berninger have the propensity for acerbic, uncontrollably raw moments on stage, some common ground is found. “I just go out every time and try to live inside the song while I'm playing it, which means remembering the meaning of the song and trying to transmit that as best I can. I think whatever state of mind I am in on a given day can affect the way the song comes across, but I think that is what make live music a different experience than just listening to a record really loud.”
Conor Oberst is playing the Zoo Twilights series at the Taronga Zoo on March 4.