Late last year, Conor Oberst realized that he'd clawed apart his favorite guitar, a small, "parlor size" acoustic he'd bought from a boutique luthier in Austin, Texas. "I'd been getting that Willie Nelson thing going on," he says, running his fingertips across its face one afternoon in late March. "Strumming so much that it started to disintegrate. When I sent it back to them to be repaired, they were like, 'What do you do to your guitars? We've never seen anything like this.'" He pulls his shoulders back. "I'd only had it for two years, but I'm sure my technique isn't very sophisticated."
Oberst has just stepped out from underneath the lights of a small shared studio at CBS Interactive in midtown Manhattan, where he and his guitar-playing cousin-in-law, Steve Bartolomei, have just finished performing two songs from his forthcoming solo LP, Upside Down Mountain, for a video segment to air on Last.fm. As part of a highly concentrated, four-day press blitz in New York, he and Bartolomei are making the radio rounds, uptown and down, satellite and online. One half of the room's walls are stacked floor-to-ceiling with vintage speakers; the other, where CNET hosts an online show dedicated to gadgets, has been decorated with old legos, Nintendo cartridges, and a model of the Delorean.
At 34, Oberst is an at times unsettling vision of himself at 20, the unlikely, porcelain-skinned pin-up that launched a thousand LiveJournals. He is still delicate in build, still armed with an inky mess of fantastically disheveled, famously sculpted hair. And as he might have been in 2001, he's also wearing a tight, black Cursive T-shirt, a show of undying support for that band of older brothers, bandmates, and mentors from his native Omaha. But at 34, his brown eyes are also offset by a face that has finally taken on the lines and valleys and visible hardness of a man's: He looks as though he knows worry well, as though he's seen a number of recent sunrises.
"Do you guys want to move on to the interview portion?" Last.fm's producer, Matt Simpson, asks the room cheerfully. "Just 20 minutes," he promises Oberst. "We'll just talk through the new record and what's going on with you. The hard questions."
"As long as there's no math questions," Oberst says. "I was never good at math."
In December of last year, a then-27-year-old North Carolina woman named Joanie Faircloth left a string of comments on the website xoJane, in response to an essay by a woman who had been abused by her boyfriend, a musician. In what appeared to be a display of solidarity, Faircloth alleged that Oberst, then 22, had sexually assaulted her after his longtime songwriting vehicle, Bright Eyes, had finished a show in Chapel Hill, North Carolina nearly 11 years earlier, on what was her 16th birthday: January 25, 2003. The story was immediately polarizing. Though xoJane would eventually delete them, Faircloth's comments had already been archived and shared readily through various social media channels, including Tumblr, where she would subsequently start an account herself named xoJaneCommenter, which she used to answer questions and elaborate on her previous statements. That account has since been deleted, but not before it had also been archived and posted by many others online.
In early January, just before he was due to embark on a tour of Australia with his recently reunited punk outfit, Desaparecidos, Oberst issued a statement vehemently denying Faircloth's allegations. He claimed that he had never met her, and, after she had repeatedly refused to retract her statements publicly, Oberst and his legal team decided to file a libel suit seeking up to one million dollars in damages, which, if successful, his camp would donate to charities supporting the victims of violence against women. While his legal team has pointed to a number of inconsistencies in Faircloth's story (Bright Eyes had not, in fact, played a show on that date in 2003, though Desaparecidos did a year earlier) as well as her social media history, questions of Oberst's guilt and innocence were already being considered and answered online, well out of anyone's control. The tour was canceled, and he would end up spending much of the month of January in Nashville, applying the final touches to Upside Down Mountain, an album whose arrival has frequently been obscured by the conversation surrounding the case. Though Oberst has yet to publicly address the allegations at any length, a pending trial prevents him from doing so, interviews no exception. During our time together, his longtime publicist was always present, as was a second audio recorder for his own reference.
The controversy comes at an especially difficult moment for Oberst. The Nebraska-bred singer-songwriter has struggled of late to equal the emotional impact audiences felt from a defining run of songs that vaulted him from cultish obscurity in Omaha to unenviable Dylan comparisons to protest performances alongside Springsteen to a symbolic appearance in Jonathan Franzen's 2010 epic novel, Freedom. For a generation of listeners who grew up without the Smiths, Oberst became a formative voice while at a formative period in his own life. But can he be more than that? Few artists grow up so publicly — their every transition, creative or otherwise, archived and shared online — without self-detonating, drifting towards irrelevance, finding themselves forever trapped in amber. Even fewer outrun their youths.
"My public life and my career and all the music that I've made: You can find it all," he says. "It's out there in the world. I'm not a Mickey Mouse Club star that got to rebrand myself. For better or worse, my stuff is all out in the open. And if you have any interest in what I do, or my songs, or the records I make, you can follow the whole trail. I absolutely don't recommend that you do."
Written and recorded in the three years that have passed since he quietly married Mexican musician and engineer Corina Escamilla Figueroa, Upside Down Mountain finds Oberst trading bombast for nuance, and white-knuckle verbosity for relatively calm, plain-spoken tones. It is not a major reinvention, but a work of immense beauty that both transcends pre-existing narratives and suggests that, even as an adult, Oberst can still connect. "No one knows better than me what it's like to have a second life within a career," says Jenny Lewis, a friend, Rilo Kiley frontwoman, and former child actor whose film and television work during the late '80s and early '90s has followed her for years. "Can you imagine what it's like to play indie-rock shows in basements where people are yelling Salute Your Shorts or The Wizard? I mean, are you fucking kidding me? Just having to get through that and present your work regardless, when people grew up watching you? I don't think his work is that different. I'm with him from the beginning to the end. I want to hear what he's going to be writing when he's an old man."
Under the lights again at CBS, now seated alone, Oberst clears his throat. "How long have you been making records?" Simpson asks. "Well, my first record was actually a cassette," he says. "I was 13 years old. That was 1993. It was called Water, go check it out." He pauses. "Actually — no. Don't check it out."
Oberst was just seven years old the first time he took a stage. His father played in a series of classic-rock cover bands on weekends and when the younger Oberst became especially fond of Ritchie Valens' "Donna" by way of the 1987 film La Bamba, he was brought out to deliver lead vocals with the band behind him. Soon after, he learned some chords and covers with the help of his father and "pretty immediately," Oberst was gravitating towards writing his own material.
His next-door neighbor at the time was an older kid named Bart, and most days, he and his next-door neighbor, Ted Stevens, would let Oberst watch and listen to their band practice in Bart's basement, "just so stoked to hear rock music that loud and close." Stevens, later of Cursive, was the first friend with whom Oberst shared his originals, songs like "Purple Chin," "Over It," and "Space Invaders," a particularly prescient number about "the video game-slash-emotions." That early material, Stevens says, "was as rough as you could expect from a 12-year-old: a little awkward, squeaky, and laden with seventh-grade humor." But he offered to bring his four-track over to Oberst's house to record what would become Water, a cassette release they wanted to sell at their local record store and one for which they would also start their own label: Lumberjack, which would later become Saddle Creek, a deeply loyal collective of friends and friends' bands, inspired by pioneering punk-rock institutions like Dischord in Washington, D.C. and Merge in North Carolina.
Oberst's age wasn't an obstacle. While still a sophomore in high school, he enthusiastically gathered his friends — then in college — to form Commander Venus, a post-hardcore outfit that would, for the first time, find them touring outside of Nebraska and landing on the same label as Creed. "There was definitely a novelty effect to being that young and performing," says Oberst, who was the band's gangly, bespectacled frontman. "I don't know: Maybe a lot of breaks that I got did come because I was so young. Like, 'Look at this freak. He starts screaming when you put a microphone in front of him.'"
Youth would certainly galvanize his subsequent, early work in Bright Eyes, the shape-shifting songwriting project with which Oberst will likely forever be synonymous. As Commander Venus' time came to an end, Oberst's home recordings took on a new focus, combining the hushed intimacy of folk with the emotional volatility of punk. Both his songwriting and his increasingly distinct vocal delivery — a quaking, often unbridled, underwater vibrato — radiated a post-adolescent anxiety that, in the event of 2000's Fevers and Mirrors, saw Bright Eyes (and by extension, Saddle Creek) develop such a ravenous cult following that Oberst would never return to the University of Nebraska-Omaha, where he studied English before dropping out to tour full-time.
For leagues of similarly awkward, sensitive, and self-serious teens, he became something of a poet laureate, providing high-stakes, turn-of-the-century bedroom anthems whose existential anguish and emotional drama could sound precious — if not ludicrously pretentious — to non-believers, adults in particular. "I mean, I wrote [those songs] when I was that age," he says. "For whatever reason, some of my old records are totally a high-school thing: You come to high school and someone hands you one. I know that to be true because I get the royalty statements. Someone's still buying those records and I assume they're not 40 year-olds. It's like that first Violent Femmes record, Catcher in the Rye: something that's so easily understood at that stage in life. I'm not embarrassed by that at all. I'm actually proud."
When its seismic follow-up, Lifted, arrived in 2002, Oberst's early vision had begun to gain notice from the mainstream media, with rock journalists flinging around weighted terms that still follow him today at 34: "boy genius," "wunderkind," "the finest songwriter of his generation," "The New Dylan." And as Oberst went, so too did Saddle Creek. Bright Eyes' multi-instrumentalist producer Mike Mogis — the band's only other constant member in just over a decade of recording — became a highly marketable studio presence, and representative of a common sound coming out of Omaha. Elsewhere, Saddle Creek bands like Cursive, the Faint, and even Los Angeles-based inductees Rilo Kiley, were all developing robust and passionate followings on their own. When they sold the 100,000th copy of Lifted, the label rented out Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and threw a black-tie party for friends and family. "I can't believe they let us do that," Oberst says. "The people from Sub Pop came and gave us a wooden record. Like, 'Good job, little label guys.'"
But in early 2003, Oberst left Omaha for New York's East Village, where he continues to keep an apartment today. And while the change in scenery would birth a pair of albums in 2005 — the near-perfect I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and its experimental, electronic sister LP, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn — that were preceded, auspiciously, by two singles that would land at No. 1 and No. 2 on the Billboard singles chart, the ongoing collision between economic interests and punk ideals was profoundly disheartening. Unable to convince his friends back home to sign artists he was finding while on the road and elsewhere, Oberst started his own imprint so he could: Team Love. When Saddle Creek agreed to cooperate in a 2005 documentary about their label's first ten years, Spend An Evening with Saddle Creek, Oberst was staunchly opposed. "I didn't want it to be released at all," he says. "I think somebody sometime should do like, Morning After Saddle Creek. I don't think it's unique to our story, but there's that optimism and that collectivism and that thing that you can have at a certain age in your life — and it can't last forever. The real world intervenes."
Lucrative new signing opportunities presented to a number of Saddle Creek's flagship bands — the Faint and Cursive, two examples — were passed on, Oberst says, not out of loyalty to the label, but to one another. "It upsets me that Clark [Baechle] from the Faint has to bartend. Or that Ted Stevens…The label started with me and Ted. Not everything ended up equal. Originally that was the hope, that it would." And while "everyone is still massively supportive of one another," and there is "no bad blood," and that time period "will always obviously be a huge part of my life," Oberst says, the reality that Saddle Creek, as a collective notion, had been replaced by a business, was at once bittersweet and liberating. "I don't have any special information on any of this, it's just my speculation," he says, "but, if you get [Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance of Merge, Ian MacKaye of Dischord] to sit down on a couch and really talk honestly about those labels, I bet it may have started one way but at a certain point it turned into a real record label, in the sense that it was doing business."
(Ballance agrees. "What he said is true," she told me. "We realized at some point that it wasn't just fun and games anymore. As we started to have some level of success, and then employees, it meant we had a responsibility to keep them employed and be bosses. Bands started to have expectations. We had to be more serious about all of it. Sometimes," she adds, "I feel nostalgic for the days when we didn't make any money, but it was just fun. We would just get together and drink beer and put seven-inches together and eat pizza.")
Do you feel like punk is a childish concern then? I ask him. Is punk for kids?
"I've never quite heard it said like that," he says, hesitantly. "But I can't completely disagree with you."
The next afternoon, after another radio visit to WFUV in the Bronx, Oberst and Bartolomei are running late for a taping of The Dinner Party Download, a beloved culture show from American Public Media that's hosted by Rico Gagliano and Brendan Francis Newnam, a trim thirtysomething with shoulder-length brown hair and a wool scarf knotted at his throat. It being Friday, the midtown office is mostly empty and silent, save for the drone of Canadian public television, which is also produced here remotely. "While we wait," Newnam tells me, half-jokingly, "maybe you can interview me." He stands up at his cubicle so I can see him from a nearby waiting area. "The first time I saw Conor he was 19 years old," he says, "It was at the Khyber Pass in Philadelphia, and I remember him begging people after the show to tell him where the after-party was." Newnam takes a moment. You can feel him work out the math in his head, the amount of time that has flown by since. "This was pre-'emo'," he says, smiling. "As a movement or a phrase."
When Oberst finally arrives, bottle of Perrier in hand, Newnam quickly leads him to a tiny studio on the opposite side of the floor, past a row of offices recently vacated by Australian Public Radio. After a quick interview, I'm led in and handed a second pair of headphones so that I can listen in as Gagliano, phoning in from L.A., asks Oberst to describe, in a variety of ways, his ideal dinner party and the three songs he'd ideally play. "What does a Conor Oberst dinner party look like?" he's asked.
"Beautiful," Oberst says with a laugh. "Elegant. Candle-lit. Sophisticated. With many forks you have to navigate, embarrassingly, and the longest dining table you've ever seen." Oberst tells a customary joke, garners an unending stream of giggles from Gagliano, and selects music from the So So Glos, Nina Simone, and John Prine, whose "Long Monday" he likens to Fernet. And, as is required of him by the occasion, he is asked to set the scene for a new song of his own, "Hundreds of Ways."
"Where do you leave people at the end of the night?" Gagliano asks him.
"I don't often play my own music at my dinner parties," Oberst says. "But, it's a surefire way to clear a room."
The first time Oberst heard the word "emo," he was "16 or 17," and touring the West Coast, where a close friend named Stephanie — also the first vegan he'd ever met — had arranged for Commander Venus to play a show in Los Angeles. After their set, he says, "someone came up to me and was like, 'What are you guys doing playing here? All the emo bands play at the Library,' or whatever the other club was called. We didn't know what [that term] was. I asked around."
Before it would mutate and migrate to the American shopping mall or cement its place in the popular vernacular, "emo" was defined first as a melodic, hyperemotional strain of hardcore punk named "emocore." But as it later transitioned from the underground to the pop-cultural landscape, Oberst would come to represent it as a whole — visually if not musically. In addition to titans like Fugazi, Superchunk, and Sunny Day Real Estate, he and his friends had also come of age ingesting the emotional fireworks of bands like Mineral, Cap'n Jazz, Giants Chair, and Christie Front Drive. "The loud, quiet thing," he says, describing how it once sounded. "The real windy guitar riffs. The 'stretch-a-syllable-as-long-as-you-can.'"
But Oberst was a focused lyricist from the beginning. And his poetry, coupled with his soft, slightly vampiric good looks, made him an object of obsession for young girls who preferred a guitar-toting beta male, not to mention an object of intense ridicule for those listeners less inclined to share their feelings so forcefully and dramatically. "Lately I've been wishing I had one desire," he sings on "The Perfect Sonnet," a fan favorite from 1999's Every Day and Every Night EP. "Something that would make me never want another / Something that would make it so that nothing mattered / All would be clear then." He ramps it up quite a bit more in the chorus ("I believe that lovers should be tied together and thrown into the ocean in the worst of weather… And left there to drown… in their innocence") but, like any of his most potent work, the emotional dynamics at play were powerful enough to make him an inadvertent icon — emo's inaugural crown prince. "I definitely got called that a lot," he says, over dinner blocks from his apartment, a few hours after concluding the taping for Dinner Party Download. "The Prince. I'm trying to think if it ever pissed me off or upset me…I didn't ever feel like it applied or was true so I didn't pay much attention to it… I always thought it was weird not to have emotion in music. Unless you're Devo or you're trying to dehumanize your sound, it's pretty essential."
As though on cue, Neutral Milk Hotel's "Holland, 1945" begins to blare from the restaurant's stereo and he raises his finger.
"I mean, this music is extremely emotional to me and this definitely affected early Bright Eyes' aesthetic," he says. "More than a lot of shit. But I've never heard this called emo."
Given the histrionics in his early songs and the lost expression on his face, it was often difficult to discern if he was deliberately embodying the persona or simply paralyzed by it. Onstage, between songs, his eyes affixed to the floor or often obscured by drapes of hair, Oberst was constantly peppered with ritual, irrepressible screams of "I love you, Conor!" from all corners of the room. He rarely responded. But as emo continued to ooze toward the mainstream, congealing with high-gloss pop-punk in the process, he became all the more polarizing among an already skeptical indie rock elite. "I guess I was aware that my voice grated on people," he says. "I was aware that a lot of people didn't like what I was doing. But I took that as a badge of honor. I never minded that we weren't a cool band. I actually thought it was nice."
At a Brooklyn benefit show in the fall of 2004, to raise money to pay legal fees for those arrested during the protests of the Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden, I remember him stopping in the middle of a song, to remind a singing audience, that, "This isn't a Dashboard Confessional show. How about I sing the songs and you listen?" He'd later apologize upon finishing, say he'd just found it distracting, that the same audience relationship that worked for Chris Carrabba, a perceived contemporary, did not work for him. By that point, he'd taken on the mantle of serious folk singer, of someone who was attempting to leave that perception of who he was behind him. It's been a challenge since. Perhaps more than any major songwriter in recent memory, Oberst has struggled to shed skins as well as his heroes. He's been cast as a mope, a ponce, a prodigy, an alcoholic, a fraud, a dilettante, a loud-mouthed liberal, a sexual predator, the voice of his generation, Winona Ryder bait — his first impression strong. "I'm like a person who wants to be a chameleon, but is a bad one," he says. "I think I'm pretty much always recognizable, even if I think I'm in costume. But I still like to get into costumes. It makes me feel like I'm trying new things, even if another person can listen and go, 'Oh, there he is again.'"
"I think Conor knows that as an artist you have to keep moving," says Jim James, his bandmate in Monsters of Folk. "Sure the past exists, but you cant dwell on it. One of my favorite examples was hearing him perform the song 'Kathy with a K,' when we were on tour…and Jesus…I mean…one of the most beautiful songs lyrically and so light and delicate. And then you go listen to the original recording and there is a certain youthful violence about it. It just really makes you see evolution and question the nature of what a 'song' is. What is a 'song'?"
Oberst's ongoing branding issues have never inhibited his wanting always to be on the move, stylistically and otherwise, whether it's the mystical country of 2007's Cassadaga, or the well-intentioned mic-passing of his recent Mystic Valley Band period, or the new-wave obfuscations of his presumably final Bright Eyes record, 2011's The People's Key. "Maybe it's stubbornness," he says. "Maybe it's because I'm a brat. Maybe it's because I like to try new things. But I have the opposite impulse: If something gets a positive reaction, that I do, I tend to want to do something else, immediately. Maybe that's shot me in the foot career-wise, a few times, but that's just the way I am.”
Shortly after getting married in December of 2010, in a ceremony at the Cloisters in Upper Manhattan, Oberst began writing "Double Life," the first in a spate of songs that would become Upside Down Mountain. It is, like much of the record, beautifully rendered and artfully arranged, with a rib-parting chorus and a wobbly, wah-wah'd slide riff that pays homage to JJ Cale. But it's also striking in that you can hear Oberst turning a corner, as clearly as one ever could. "Feeling different," he sings early on, "Staying in, made a little home / So when I sit back, in my chair, as the evening wanes / I don't rememeber getting here, but I'm glad I came." His voice is remarkably steady. "I hear a lot of the anticipation and apprehension in there that I think everyone who ties the knot experiences," he says of the song, which he also performed at Last.fm, his eyes pinched closed, his teeth bared. "But it could apply to any potentially transformative decision or experience in life. The ones that require a leap of faith and often come with a lot of fear. It's those moments in life that end up defining us and elevating us."
After demoing with a series of producers, in hopes of finding a strong personality to direct him in Mogis' post-Bright Eyes absence, he teamed up with new Laurel Canyon luminary Jonathan Wilson, a friend whose CV includes production credits with Father John Misty and stage contributions to Seun Kuti's Egypt 80 band. Both serve as handy reference points here, with Wilson providing gilded layering, liquid guitar tones, a haunting clarity to every syllable, and, perhaps most surprisingly, rhythm sections built from the bottom up. "The goal," says Wilson, "was to get it as groovy as possible." (One song, "Artifact #1," is taken from an early session with Californian producer Blake Mills.)
Before finally decamping to Blackbird Studios in Nashville, they worked together at Wilson's own recording space in Los Angeles' Echo Park neighborhood, with Oberst flying tapes back to his studio in Omaha, where he added horns and vocal harmonies from sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg, of Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit. Known for its wealth of rare equipment, their budget at Blackbird allowed Wilson to run audibly wild — after 21 years of releasing records with independent labels, the release of Upside Down Mountain on Nonesuch, home to David Byrne, Björk, and Randy Newman, marks Oberst's major label debut in North America. The label's president, David Bither, had attempted to sign Oberst upon hearing Lifted in 2002. Out of loyalty to Saddle Creek, he declined. "Why is it," Bither asked me via e-mail, "that only in pop music are artists thought of as old by the time they are leaving their twenties? At the ripe old age of 33 he's written some of the strongest songs of his career — to me it signals the beginning of the next phase of his creative life."
Over the course of the past three years, Oberst was able to polish and play much of what you hear in a live setting, as he did on solo acoustic tours last year. And in that time period, a lot happened. He took it upon himself to write a feature-length screenplay for a dystopian, "sci-fi action adventure" film that, soundtrack included, is meant to one day supplant the second LP from Monsters of Folk, his cheeky folk-rock "supergroup" with Mogis, M. Ward, and My Morning Jacket's Jim James. ("It started as a joke," Oberst says. "As most things with that band do. Hopefully we can make it someday. Although, we need to raise 100 million dollars 'cause this isn't some little indie film bullshit — this is as big budget as it gets!)" He remained nomadic, shuttling between New York, where he prefers to write, and Omaha, where he has a home, a car, a studio, a dog he misses, and Pageturners, a new cocktail lounge with a sunken bar that takes its name from the used bookstore that used to sit in its place. Co-owned by Oberst and his friend Phil Schaffart, it's been open and mostly free of musical acts since September of 2012, not long after he reunited with Desaparecidos, a band whose political specificity allows him to save more universal musings for his own work. (They recorded five new songs in March and are set to continue working on more later this year.)
While elements of folk, African guitar pop, and American roots-rock are all present, lyrically, Oberst says, he wanted to try something 'old-slash-new," and make his words "more conversational and approachable." But not, he emphasizes, confessional. "My goal is never to convey details of my own life for its own sake. If I wanted that I would write a memoir or go to confession."
After he'd finished up at CBS a day earlier, Oberst returned to Lafayette House, a private boutique hotel in a converted 1840s brownstone in New York's East Village that his camp had been using as a staging ground for interviews and photo shoots. In a garden level room in the back, flush with varying shades of red velvet and peeling antique furniture, he'd settle in to work on new songs late at night, alone, so as not to disturb his wife while she slept a few blocks away in their apartment. "Maybe a 17 year-old won't be able to relate to this new album, if they love Fevers and Mirrors," Oberst told me there. "But my guess is, when that 17-year old is 27, they will. And hopefully this album will be waiting for them when they get there."
It's only when he's preparing for tours that Obert listens to his older recordings, he says. And though the sound of his voice then makes him cringe, he's still able to recognize himself. "I'm 34 years old. I have this very vivid memory of my dad's 35th birthday. I was 8. There was a big party in our backyard. My mom and her sister made this big banner and they hung it over the side of the house: '35 and Still Alive!' It's hard to connect, to realize: Because sometimes you still feel like you could be 15 or 20. In all of us, there's a part that has trouble recognizing that so much has changed. But that's not unique to me. That's an element of aging that's hard when you're 65, and you look at yourself in the mirror and there's the grey hair. You still see yourself there, but those things are only going to get more psychedelic from here on out."
A few weeks later, Oberst is slated to headline the second night at WNYC's second annual Gigstock, a two-day "festival" set in their Tribeca concert studio space, the Greene Space. As doors are opened up to a line of diehards that slinks around the corner outside, a woman with short brown hair and a houndstooth handbag can be heard marveling at a photo of Oberst that appears on flat screen monitors in the lobby. "He is the most beautiful human on the planet," she says to her date as she sips on a bottle of beer. Inside, the atmosphere is electric: Just under a hundred very eager, very earnest-looking late-twentysomethings are getting situated around the room's floor-level stage, a small platform positioned below a rippled wall of blonde wood turned pearlescent in the light.
The evening's opener, the Irish singer-songwriter James Vincent McMorrow, was a smart booking. As he wails through a sparse set of piano and his gael force falsetto, the emotional amperage in the room reaches familiar highs. Looking around, you half-expect to see each face start to quiver, pucker, then come undone. When WNYC's Jon Schaefer — the evening's MC and the nightly host of New York public radio's Soundcheck — informs McMorrow that he has time for one more song than he originally expected, the singer-songwriter pauses to think. "Don't be nervous!" a girl yells from the back of the room. "I'm okay," says another, more sharply. "I'll make it."
It was that same young woman before, speaking to her date, who was now comforting her. Both the anticipation and the alcohol had forced her to double over in her seat, head between her knees. As Oberst walks out a few moments later, and swiftly begins to strum the opening chords of gorgeous Upside Down Mountain opener "Time Forgot," she sits up straight, eyes closed, and extends her arms toward the stage in front of her, taking on the ecstatic facial expression of someone at a tent revival, of release. "Oh shut up," she would drunkenly shout at Schaefer as he did his best to interview Oberst between songs, all of them new. "Just shut up." As aware of her as everyone else in the room, Schaefer, visibily distracted, doesn't acknowledge her as he speaks. Oberst, his brow gleaming with sweat, shifts uncomfortably in his chair as he takes nervous swigs of water between each question. "I love you Conor," she, and so many others, would shout when the silence allowed. "I love you, Conor!" He acted, as he had so many times before, as though he couldn't hear.
lead photo by Jolie Ruben for SPIN / All photos by Jolie Ruben for SPIN