Last summer, Phoebe Bridgers had an idea for a song.
“I wanted to talk about how stupid music is,” says Bridgers, 24. “I wanted to talk about how awesome music is, and how depressing it is, and why we all make music if it doesn’t last forever.”
She had been tossing around possible lyrics and melody lines with singer-songwriter Christian Lee Hutson when another friend and collaborator, Conor Oberst, wandered into the room out of nowhere. Oberst, who had taken mushrooms and was in the middle of a trip, began talking out loud: “Chesapeake, Chesapeake,” he mumbled to himself. “Chesapeake is cool. I like the way ‘Chesapeake’ sounds.”
Within a few minutes, Oberst had somehow written an entire first verse to the song. “We were like, ‘Conor is completely out of his mind, and he’s crushing it right now!” Bridgers recalls with a laugh.
That song, “Chesapeake,” is one of several devastating highlights of Better Oblivion Community Center, the self-titled debut album from Bridgers and Oberst’s new duo. The pair of singers have regularly performed together over the past few years, joining forces in concert on duets like Bright Eyes’ “Lua” and Gillian Welch’s “Everything Is Free,” but Better Oblivion Community Center forges their distinct sensibilities into an altogether new direction.
“One thing we talked about ahead of time was trying to steer clear of the folksy duet album,” says Oberst — who, like Bridgers, is best known for morose, down-tempo balladry.
Their new songs range instead from synth-driven electro-pop to roots-rock to plaintive folk. (“It’s still us,” Bridgers admits. “So there are some more duet-y, folky songs.”) Mostly, Better Oblivion Community Center is an album of sprightly, contemporary singer-songwriter pop, with songs addressing everything from sage houseparty wisdom (“Why does everybody always end up in the kitchen?”) to debased online political commentary (“These talking heads keep saying/The King is only playing/A game of four-dimensional chess”).
Unlike the many collaborative side projects that consist of artists helping one another polish their own pre-written songs, all of the material on Better Oblivion Community Center was written jointly by Bridgers and Oberst. As a result, the collaboration is full of moments, like the chorus in “Service Road,” or the rising climax in the final verse of “Sleepwalkin,” that sound simultaneously like a blending of trademark melodies from the two artists.
Bridgers, a slow-working perfectionist, and Oberst, a prolific writer prone to off-the-cuff improvisation, both describe the album’s writing process as a constructive, learning environment. “I’d never had the experience of writing a full record with another songwriter like this,” says Oberst. “It was from the ground up, sitting with guitars and spitballing different lyrics. Sometimes when I finish an idea I’ll think it’s cool and move on, whereas Phoebe is more in the camp of, ‘Okay, I think that’s cool, but let’s spend a few more days really hammering down the second verse.’”
Bridgers and Oberst, who plan to take their new band on the road this spring, share a jovial familiarity with one another. Discussing the album in advance of its surprise release, Bridgers explains the process of deciding who sang lead on which song: “Conor — sorry to speak for you — but Conor doesn’t sing harmony.”
“No offense taken,” he replies with a chuckle.
“I would make an active choice to be like, ‘Okay, I always sing harmony, so on a couple of these songs I want Conor to sing harmony,’” Bridgers continues.
“It made me a better singer to have to do that,” Oberst adds. “It was cool to stretch myself a bit. It’s definitely not my strong suit, but Phoebe’s really fucking great at it. So to have a vocal coach like her being there being like, ‘No, you can do it. Try harder…’”
“That’s what I tell him every time he’s done with his vocal take, actually,” jokes Bridgers. “‘Try harder.’”
Better Oblivion Community Center is the result of several years of on-and-off informal songwriting sessions between Oberst and Bridgers, who first met in Los Angeles in the summer of 2016.
Bridgers, a decade and a half younger than Oberst, grew up adoring Bright Eyes albums like Cassadaga and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, but Oberst had never heard Bridgers’ music before hearing her perform live when the two shared a bill at L.A.’s Bootleg Theater.
“I definitely remember that very first moment of hearing her sing,” he says. “It was just one of those voices that sounds completely unique — but also sounds like, ‘There’s that friend I should have had my whole life.’”
After meeting, Bridgers and Oberst began informally writing songs together in Los Angeles over the period of a few years, beginning in the spring of 2017, before Bridgers had ever even released an album herself. The first song they wrote together, “I Didn’t Know What I Was In For,” which opens the new record, was a commentary on white guilt and self-congratulatory activism in the age of social media. “It was a really long, ranty conversation that turned into music,” says Bridgers. “We’re all guilty of slacktivism, or of feeling like a savior for taking two seconds of your day to think about someone else. We didn’t want it to seem like we were just talking shit, so we made sure to include lines that were self-referential. We’re all guilty of it.”
The rest of the album came about as “kind of an accident,” according to Bridgers. After releasing Stranger In the Alps, Bridgers was initially hesitant about following her debut with not one but two consecutive collaborative side-projects, both recorded this past June.
“I was a little self-conscious about it, but then I just thought, ‘Fuck it. This is what’s happening right now,’” she says. “Same thing with Boygenius. I’ve done a pretty good job of letting the part of my brain win that says I should just go with whatever’s happening, so that you still enjoy your fucking job and it’s not a weird math problem you have to solve.”
As for Oberst, the Omaha singer-songwriter had just recently released his solo album Salutations, and was spending a lot of time in Los Angeles “hanging out with Phoebe and her friends.”
“I was at a weird point in my life where I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do next, musically, and was essentially just bumming around L.A.,” says Oberst, 38. “It felt good to be around people who were not jaded, where the idea of a nice afternoon is just hanging around with your friends and passing a guitar around. I’ve had that at different points in my life, but it had been a long time since I’ve felt that sense of, ‘Wow, I really like music still, and everything doesn’t have to be a super-solitary, painful exercise.’ The whole experience was just what the doctor ordered for me to get excited about music again.”