Conor Oberst gets carded as he enters an East Nashville bar on a recent Monday night, but at 33, he doesn't feel like a kid anymore: After an insanely prolific 15-year run in which he played in half a dozen different bands and wrote hundreds of songs, Oberst slowed down, opened a bar in his native Omaha, Nebraska, and in 2010 quietly married his girlfriend, whom he'd met in Mexico. "She's a reason to go home," he says, digging into a sausage pizza (he recently started eating meat again). "I've been writing songs since I was fucking 13 years old. So much of my younger life was devoted to endless tours and a frantic need to create. But maybe I don't need to chase every ambition."
Oberst is in Nashville finishing up a country-flavored solo album, produced by Jonathan Wilson (Dawes, Father John Misty). Many of the songs deal with settling down and finding solace after emotional turmoil. "I'm gonna work for my sanity, give it everything I got," he sings on "Time Forgot," which features gorgeous harmonies from Swedish sister duo First Aid Kit, who sing throughout the LP. "I don't relate to a lot of my earlier songs," Oberst says. "They were extremely verbose. That might be cathartic when you're doing it, but it doesn't necessarily hold up." Around the time Bright Eyes were touring for 2011's The People's Key, Oberst spent six months writing a screenplay starring the Monsters of Folk, the group he formed with Jim James and others (Oberst describes the film as "an allegory about how the Internet is destroying humanity"). After that fizzled, he began work with Wilson, who adds jammy, Garcia-ish flourishes throughout the album. "I tried to work with some big-name producers," says Oberst. "And it was like, 'This dude doesn't know shit from shit.'"
Oberst is older and wiser, but his outlook isn't exactly Zen: Among other targets, he hates social media: "I don't know if it makes me an asshole to not want to talk to my fans. But I'm not going to sit on a fucking computer and try to talk to some fucking 16-year-old in wherever-the-fuck." He takes a sip of pinot noir. "I try to remind myself to be grateful. I'm not a fucking superstar. I'm not a bazillionaire. I get to do my shit, and for the most part people leave me alone. And that's the way I want it."
This story is from the February 13th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone