Cullen Omori of Smith Westerns performs during the 2011 Austin City Limits Music Festival at Zilker Park on September 16th, 2011 in Austin, Texas.
Releasing records mainly under the alias Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst has spent the last 20 years building a body of work that drew from the great pantheon of American blues and folk music artists and made a virtue of gabby, emotionally-direct lyrics. Oberst gained fame in the late Nineties as latest in an ongoing string of artists proclaimed the "next Dylan." He wasn't (no one ever is), but what made Oberst stand out was not just his youth — he was just 15 when he began recording as Bright Eyes — but also his melodic gifts, the consistency of his output, and his ability to hold a Rasputin-like grip on his burgeoning fanbase.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, on February 15th, 1980, Oberst is the third son of Matthew Oberst, an information manager with Mutual of Omaha, and Nancy Oberst, an elementary school principal. At 10, he learned a couple of guitar chords and began writing songs. Outside of school, he would hang out at Antiquarium Records, a music shop specializing in indie rock and electronic music.
Oberst was 14 when he began singing and playing guitar with the band Commander Venus (which included later members of Cursive and the Faint) in 1994. His older brother and friends set up a label, which eventually became Saddle Creek Records, to release the band's first album, 1995's Do You Feel At Home? After a second album, Oberst left the group to concentrate on his Bright Eyes project, which kicked off with a set of solo experimental music called A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997.
Bright Eyes' first album as a full band was 1998's Letting Off the Happiness, recorded with a cast of Omaha musicians including the group's sole mainstay other than Oberst, producer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis. Oberst briefly attended the University of Nebraska before dropping out to go on tour.
Bright Eyes released their second album, Fevers and Mirrors, in 2000, followed by some singles and EPs. But it was the third album — Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, released in 2002 — that earned Oberst his "new Dylan" accolades and profiles in major papers like The New York Times. Lifted sold more than 250,000 copies (good for such a small label), nudged its way into the Billboard 200 and reached Number 11 on the Top Independent Albums chart.
In 2004, Bright Eyes appeared on MoveOn.org's Vote for Change tour alongside R.E.M. and Bruce Springsteen, with whom Oberst sang some duets during the shows. The attention helped sales of two Bright Eyes singles, "Lua" and "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)," which wound up rocketing into the top two spots of Billboard's weekly Hot 100 Singles sales chart. The songs came, respectively, from the folky album I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning (Number 10) and electronic-based Digital Ash in a Digital Urn (Number 15), released simultaneously on January 25th, 2005.
Before those two releases, Oberst relocated to New York City and started up a new label, Team Love, with his manager. Oberst and company continued putting out EPs, and the live album Motion Sickness, recorded during Bright Eyes' Wide Awake tour, came out in 2006. A month after the April 2007 release of the group's next studio album, Cassadaga, Oberst and friends performed a seven-night stand at Town Hall in New York, along with a laundry list of guests including Lou Reed and Norah Jones.
Oberst's experience with the MoveOn.org tour apparently tapped a political nerve. He sang a protest song, "When the President Talks to God," during Bright Eyes' performance on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno in May 2005. That October, at an awards show in Los Angeles, Oberst criticized the Clear Channel media conglomerate for making touring hard for independent acts, and in early 2008 he played at a rally for presidential candidate Barack Obama.
As that year went on, though, Oberst seemed increasingly indifferent about maintaining the Bright Eyes moniker. In ¬August, he released an album of folk and country songs under his own name on storied North Carolina indie Merge Records — a departure form his longtime affiliation with Saddle Creek. The songs were recorded in January and February of that year, while Oberst was seeking respite in Tepoztlan, Morelos, Mexico. Oberst dubbed the musicians he assembled for this record — among them singer/songwriter Nik Freitas and Rilo Kiley drummer Jason Boesel — "The Mystic Valley Band."
A mere nine months later the group released a second album, also on Merge, called Outer South, which was followed by a tour. A short two months after the release of Outer South, Oberst told Rolling Stone he was planning to retire the Bright Eyes moniker, confirming suspicions that had been brewing since his first Merge release.
Though he was planning to close a chapter in his musical life, Oberst continued to be prolific: in September he teamed with longtime associate Mike Mogis, My Morning Jacket's Jim James and singer/songwriter M. Ward for the Monsters of Folk project, which peaked at #15 on the Billboard Top 200. The group toured for the better part of that year in support of the record, their setlists consisting of the songs they'd written together along with songs from each of their distinct catalogs.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). J. Edward Keyes contributed to this article.