A conversation with Phoebe Bridgers & Conor Oberst
It’s so great to see you guys. Phoebe, I like your hair yellow like that. Is it Manic Panic?
Phoebe: No. It’s got a sort of grunge vibe.
Did you know that in dream analysis the color yellow is symbolic of intellect, energy, agility, happiness, harmony, and wisdom?
Phoebe: Of course.
So, first thing’s first: Better Oblivion Community Center. I heard you guys were visiting Forest Lawn Cemetery – which we’ll talk about again in a minute – and you took a selfie to post on Instagram, up by where they have that statue of David there, it’s bigger than the actual statue of David in Florence, I think, and you guys noticed in the location tagging that there were a lot of geolocation options in other languages…I guess…Armenian? Mandarin? Korean?
Yeah! Burmese. Right? And then you tagged your location but later on you typed those characters into Google Translate and it turned out not to be tagged from “Forest Lawn”. It actually translated as “Better Oblivion Community Center”. Is that right?
Conor: (laughs) No.
Really?! Cuz I heard that and I thought that was so cool! Where did the name come from then?
Phoebe: Do people care where the name came from?
Alright. We can leave that in, I guess we answered it… So let’s get to when you two met. It was a show at the Bootleg in LA, and Conor you were playing a secret show and Phoebe, your friend at the venue got you to open for them. This was July 2016, so before Stranger In The Alps was out, and Conor, you were there early enough to watch her set. And afterwards you asked her to send you her record. You must’ve really been impressed with her set.
Conor: Yeah. It was a weird thrown together show. A lot of people played short sets, like Gillian Welch and Jim James. Kyle, who put on the show, said Phoebe was his favorite songwriter in LA, so I was excited to check it out. I was immediately struck by her voice. There are not a lot of people whose voice stops you in your tracks like that.
I bet you get people trying to send you their music all the time. Everywhere you go, right?
But you actually asked for hers.
Conor: I did.
And then you invited her to open for you on tour.
That was the Salutations tour?
Right yeah, Ruminations. And you guys would do “Lua” together on the road?
So then you guys would guest at each others shows, right? And Conor, you were spending a lot of time in Los Angeles around this time. Cuz you’ve been in Omaha mostly the past few years but you have a spot in LA, on the West Side.
Conor: East side.
Right, and so you guys would show up and guest at shows. And you’re on Phoebe’s song “Would You Rather”. So really early on you started collaborating on music, right? That was kind of an immediate spark, this instinct to perform and sing together. And your voices, they really compliment one another. There’s something really special about when you duet. Particularly when you sing in unison, it really works. Phoebe, you have a really sweet, crystal clear voice and Conor, yours is more world weary and raspy, so there’s something really striking about them together.
Conor: I guess that’s one way to look at it. I wouldn’t necessarily say Phoebe’s voice is crystal clear. At least not in a Mickey Mouse way. I think it’s textured in a very unique and interesting way. In that she can sing anything and there is a certain gravity to it that other voices don’t bring.
Phoebe: I do agree that Conor’s voice is pretty raspy.
Right, yeah. That’s true, “gravity” is a perfect word for it. And you know, I say ‘in unison’, it’s from the Latin. It means, literally, ‘one sound’ but when you guys sing together it’s really not, it’s incredibly rich because you get both these different emotions from the exact same lyrics. The sort of clear eyed optimistic sound of Phoebe’s vocal and then the more seasoned sound of Conor’s.
The first song you wrote together is the first song on the album, “I Didn’t Know What I Was In For” and at that time you weren’t really thinking it would be a whole album but you knew you wanted it to be its own thing, not a Phoebe Bridgers & Conor Oberst album of acoustic songs?
Phoebe: Yeah, we didn’t know if it would be a single or an EP or what, but we knew we wanted to try writing together and for it to have its own identity with a band name.
When you’re out touring, you’re on the bus and you’re playing songs to pass the time, right? There’s a photo of you in the album artwork, Phoebe you have a guitar on your lap and you’re both surrounded by this incredible mess of the tour bus. A lot of milk cartons, snack wrappers and piles of dirty clothes and just general mess. Is channeling the chaos of a bus tour into the structure of a song something you usually do?
Phoebe: I’m actually holding an acoustic bass in that photo.
Conor: We wrote in LA, mostly.
Ah, okay. But you wrote them together. It’s not like Conor would have a song and send it to you, or you would have a song and he would just add bits to it. These songs you guys sat down and wrote together. In the same room?
You guys obviously compliment each other vocally, we talked about that, but you also feel an affinity with one another in that you admire each other’s songwriting. And you both generally write alone, right? It’s not your usual thing to write a song with someone else.
Phoebe: I write with my friends a lot.
Conor: I don’t have any friends.
Did you guys ever sit down and talk about themes or how you wanted the album to sound? Did you discuss what kind of songs they’d be or did you just sit down and start writing to see what would happen?
Phoebe: We knew we wanted to play with a band, so we kept that in mind while we were writing stuff.
Did you see that Nick Cave documentary? Where he’s in the studio writing with Warren Ellis and he says if they’re not having terrible ideas that they have to walk back they know they’re not getting anywhere? They call it the “Walk Of Shame”, when you have to walk back an idea that didn’t work. Have you done the “Walk Of Shame”?
Phoebe & Conor (in unison): Yeah.
One of my favorites is “Forest Lawn”. People outside of Los Angeles might not know that it’s the largest cemetery in LA. And it’s very beautiful, I should add. There’s something so sweet about the song but it’s essentially about losing someone and wanting to get them back. “Dig you out”, you say. It’s not really about exhuming someone. Or maybe it is? Maybe it’s the sweetest song about exhuming a corpse ever written?
Phoebe: It’s not not about exhuming someone.
Music critics have spilled a lot of ink over your guys work. I’m not even gonna try. But can you describe each other’s song writing in three words?
Phoebe: Cis white male.
I think if I heard you two had made an album I might’ve expected something a bit different. Because it sounds so much like a band, it might not be exactly what people would guess it’s gonna sound like. It’s got a great synergy. And you put together an awesome group of musicians for it. You guys have got Nick Zinner from Yeah Yeah Yeahs – he plays guitar on “Dylan Thomas” and “Dominoes”. And you’ve got Carla Azar from Autolux, she’s also Jack White’s drummer, she’s on about half the record. Conor, you’ve played with her before, haven’t you? She played on the last Bright Eyes’ album The People’s Key.
She’s great. And Nick Zinner is someone you’ve been friends with for years. He played a lot on your record Digital Ash In A Digital Urn and toured as part of Bright Eyes back in 2006/2007?
And you’ve got the rhythm section from Dawes, Wylie Gelber and Griffin Goldsmith, who you’ve also toured with. They were your backing band on the Upside Down Mountain tour.
And some other talented friends, songwriter Christian Lee Hutson on guitar, and Anna Butterss on bass. They both played bass in Phoebe’s touring band at different times, right? How would you compare them as players?
Phoebe: They’re both good, a lot different stylistically.
And you produced it yourselves with Andy LeMaster. Andy’s someone you’ve worked with for almost your whole career, Conor. So he’s someone you trust?
There’s so many great lines on this album. A lot to unpack. You can really lose yourself in it. Do you have a favorite lyric? Or maybe a favorite lyric that the other one came up with?
Conor: We pretty much wrote everything together, so it’s hard to remember who wrote what.
You’re going to tour this record in March and April. You’re putting a band together for it now, right?
I wanted to talk about “Dylan Thomas” cuz that’s the first single, right? It’s the first single and the last song you wrote for the album. There’s a lot of death and ghosts on the album, and mentions of illness and feeling unwell and being anxious – and those are things you’ve both written about a lot – which is partly why this collaboration works so well. Dylan Thomas, we all know, is the esteemed Welsh poet who died in 1953 at the age of 39. He’s mentioned for ‘dying on the barroom floor’ and you know, he was definitely a big drinker. He was drinking at the White Horse in the West Village every night he was in New York before he died. And he fell into a coma at the Chelsea Hotel and died soon after at Saint Vincent’s on 8th Avenue. Did you know that he actually died of emphysema, pneumonia and bronchitis? And that in November 1953, the month he died, over 200 people died in New York City from air pollution? He probably died from smog.
I should ask why you released this as a surprise.
Phoebe: We love surprises.
I guess my last question is do you think this is a one off or do you think there will be more Better Oblivion Community Center albums to follow?
Conor: Your guess is as good as ours.
Guys, thanks for your time. Are you gonna eat the rest of that donut?
Conor: It’s all yours, man.
– Chester Middlesworth (PHD)