“You As Someone Else“
Conor Oberst on his Ruminations
words and interview by tom johnson
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Ruminations is a word that perhaps best describes my own relationship with interpreting and writing about music. When hearing music for the first time it’s often within the frame of what it stirs in me, where it takes my head and my heart. It also happens to be the title of Conor Oberst’s latest album, a collection of songs from a distinguished songwriter who has always had a very definite impact on both mine, and many others, musical journey. I first discovered Oberst’s Bright Eyes projects, as many did, at a time when I felt like I really needed those songs; when the shape of his words and songs and furious sentiments could lend a little light to those corners of the house where the light’s still never been.
Those gnarly, impassioned early recordings eventually led to 2005’s ‘I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning‘ LP; Oberst’s career-defining, breakthrough record. The country-esque landscapes he so beautifully sculpted on that record would send his career down something of a new path, the dead-of-night confessions that felt like they could fall apart at any given moment replaced by a beautifully considered take on the classics. Perhaps what makes ‘Ruminations‘, released at the tail-end of 2016 such a thoroughly rewarding listen is the way in which it feels like new-age Conor but with the cracks there for all to see. Initially recorded as a set of demos to present to The Felice Brothers, who were to be his backing band on the full record, Oberst’s label, Nonesuch Records, loved his skeletal recordings so much they became the album we hear today; as raw and unadorned as the day they were recorded. “The label, who I love dearly, don’t like me to refer to Ruminations as demos but that’s really what they were – they just happened to be recorded really nicely,” Oberst tells us as we sit down with him before his recent Edinburgh show, for a chat about his recent record and the wonderful ones which preceded it.
Fans of The Felice Brothers fear not, however. Said demos still got made in to a full record – and Oberst will release ‘Salutations’, the full band version of Ruminations, at the end of March. “I’m sure some people will talk shit about paying for the same songs twice, but I think it makes for a really interesting journey,” Conor says of the forthcoming album, which features the Felice Brothers alongside legendary drummer Jim Keltner (George Harrison, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Neil Young) who ended up co-producing the whole project. “The Felice’s were in between drummers and I was speaking to a good friend of mine, Gary Burden, who’s an artist who did all the great album covers from California in the seventies – Neil Young, Joni, Jackson Browne – and he told me he’d been having dinner with Jim Keltner and that he’d been singing my praises; which was surreal! So I just cold called him,” he continues, “and we ended speaking for about an hour; just about life. He’s the fucking raddest guy.”
The two ended up heading to Malibu’s Shangri-La Studio, now owned by Rick Rubin but a previous home to The Band, among many, many others. “We spent a month there and made plans to come back to finish later in the Summer,” Oberst says of the initial plan. “In between that, the label heard these rough cuts that we’d made and they pitched the idea of doing it as two releases, and it really worked out. Typically labels don’t really have interesting ideas but they really cared about these songs and I’m stoked that they did.”
The tour we find Conor in the middle of plays in to the haphazardness of the Ruminations recordings. It’s a brilliant show; Conor bashing the piano, slamming the guitar, spitting the harmonica in a brazen, blazing performance, accompanied throughout by his touring partner MiWi La Lupa, with the occasional, striking accompaniment from tour support Phoebe Bridgers, who very nearly steals the entire show. Mostly playing songs from the new record, Oberst is in fiery mood, lamenting his country’s new President, who hadn’t been inaugurated when Conor left to play these shows. “I’ve kind of been able to switch off, to some extent,” he says about the political situation elevating back home, “or at least I’ve tried to pretend it’s not real, in attempt to stop myself from falling in to despair while I’m away.”
The day of the Edinburgh show happens to be the same day as Bandcamp’s incredible day of support for ACLU, and Conor says he certainly sees the musical world playing an important role in the fight against the rising tide. “I think there’s always been that question of ‘do people do things to make themselves look and feel better’ but I don’t care about that anymore. Whatever people can do at this point, they should. Hopefully that can have an accumulative effect, and places like ACLU and Planned Parenthood are certainly going to need to be able to function while Trump tries to strip away every fucking human right that he can.”
Oberst has never been one to shy away from showing his political stance. In 2005 he appeared on the The Tonight Show to play ‘When The President Talks To God’, a song aimed at George W Bush and his policies. “It’s not even a choice for me; I have such visceral disgust for that man.” he says of speaking out against Trump during his shows. “The fact that he can already make you nostalgic for George W is pretty fucking amazing. He was just a dumb-ass surrounded by some evil cats, and I’ve heard people say that if he was a dude that just ran an old bar somewhere he’d probably be fun to hang out with; he just happened to be running the country. Trump is way different,” he continues. “I’m not sure he’s an evil mastermind as much as he’s just a huge ego and a showman. Although he certainly has the ability to charm and control a crowd, so in that respect maybe he is. And there’s certainly something sinister in the fact hat he pulled this off. I know people use ‘unbelievable’ a lot in hyperbole, but I literally find all of this unbelievable. It’s unbelievable in the literal sense of the word. And it only just fucking started.”