Conor Oberst Plus Phoebe Bridgers Equals One Incredible Voice
Collaborations and super groups are always good for a headline or two, but rarely do two musicians with their own defined “thing” come together to create a distinct project. Bright Eyes alum Conor Oberst and singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers manage to do just that with their self-titled debut album, Better Oblivion Community Center.
“I’ve always liked bands with two singers,” Oberst tells TIDAL “When you think of the voice of the band, you think of the singer of the band. But in a band with two singers, their voices combined make that one voice.”
Bridgers brings the idea home: “It’s really interesting, also, what it does to a song when you hear two people sing. It kind of makes a third person. You’re not thinking about someone having the experience. You’re thinking about a story.”
The voice of Better Oblivion Community Center is somewhere between ‘90s power pop and modern indie; Oberst mixed with Bridgers makes the Blake Babies meets all the various Mommies.
And the protagonist is ever-changing: a stressed out young narcissist (“Didn’t Know What I Was in For”), a world-weary musician (“Chesapeake”), a sibling mourning his brother’s wasted fate (“Service Road”). Although you can pin some biographical facts to a line or two — Oberst’s brother drank himself to death in 2016 — the POVs keep shifting; the narrator in “Chesapeake” notably refers to themselves as “we.” The result is an entity that is neither Bridgers nor Oberst, but very much Oblivion.
Oberst, 38, and Bridgers, 24, met when the latter was performing at the former’s secret showcase in 2016. Oberst was impressed by Bridgers’ sound and songwriting — even if he did mistake an Elliott Smith cover for an original — and they worked together on a track for her 2017 debut, Stranger in the Alps.
For Better Oblivion, they brought Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner into the fold, as well as Carla Azar from Autolux. The band dropped their debut unannounced on February 24, with the hope that releasing the project part and parcel would prevent fans and critics from defining them based on just one song.
After the surprise release, TIDAL spoke with Oberst and Bridgers about how depressing it is to be a musician, how their voices mix and merge and, of course, oblivion.
In other interviews, you’ve said that the band name Better Oblivion Community Center is about experiencing impending doom together. Seems pretty apt for our times
Conor Oberst: Well, yeah. Separately we both make what people might consider downer music. And, turns out together we make that kind of music, too. But we recorded it with a lot of our friends in L.A. — at a house where people could just come over and play together.
Even though the subject matter is dark on the record sometimes, I think writing it with someone else and having friends come around to be on it made it a joyful process.
What did you teach each other about songwriting?
Phoebe Bridgers: Sometimes, when I’m writing, I’ll try to avoid finishing a song. I’m like, ‘Oh, this is a little bit hard, so I’ll stop.’ And Conor’s really good at [finishing things]. Like, we wrote ‘Dylan Thomas’ in one sitting. And I was fucking tired and trying to be like, ‘Ah cool, let’s finish tomorrow,’ or whatever.
Oberst: And I would say, sort of conversely, that I have a bad habit of finishing something and just going on to the next thing. Being like, ‘All right, that’s good enough,’ or, ‘That’s done.’ And Phoebe’s much more about revising and editing and taking a pass back through like, ‘OK, that line is a little clumsy,’ or, ‘This part could be more interesting,’ or just going back through and revising and editing. I just think she’s more of a perfectionist than I am, so that’s nice to have.
She was already thinking of production ideas and arrangements while we were writing the songs. I mean, I have those ideas as well, but I don’t have them until further down the line. More in the recording process. And to already be thinking that while still putting together the song structure and stuff, I thought was really cool.
So tell me about the song ‘Chesapeake.’ Phoebe, I read that you initially wanted to write a song about how it’s depressing to be a musician. You two are in such different points in your career, so tell me: how does that feeling manifest for you?
Bridgers: It’s great and fucking horrible at the same time. I’m very lucky to have my job, but then I watch people who I think are more talented — or better writers than anybody I have ever met in my life — get buried just because of timing or because of where they live. Like someone in the punk scene in fucking Richmond who is amazing doesn’t get to have as many opportunities as someone who is born in Malibu or whatever. Adam Levine is so giant — and he’s so horrible.
And then there’s our friends The Felice Brothers; they’re making records because they want to make records forever and they’re better than bands that are ripping off that same exact sound. But they aren’t getting glorified or playing the Grammys.
What’s depressing to me is that, a lot of the time, the music that we love isn’t getting the credit that it deserves. I mean, I can even see that from here, having only really been touring for two years.
Oberst: I’ve seen a lot of my friends have a period of time where they could tour with their band and it was pretty good and they’re coming home with money. Then time goes on and they come home with less money. By the end, like in the song, there’s someone you think is amazing playing to no one.
There’s also something really beautiful about that to me: a true lifer who wasn’t doing it for that anyway. And I think that’s admirable in its own way.
You both are pretty prolific musicians. The fear of not succeeding obviously doesn’t stop you. Are you able to compartmentalize the anxiety of, ‘How is this going to be received?’ or, ‘Is anyone going to listen to this?’
Bridgers: Personally, the only time I’m ever anxious about the way my music is going be received is if I’m not confident in it. If you try your hardest, and it’s something that you’re proud of, you genuinely won’t have anxiety about how it’s received.
If I were to put something out that I wasn’t proud of it, I would look for bad reviews. Because I’d be like, ‘Of course, I got bad reviews because I did something I didn’t believe in.’ I think if you’re hesitant about what you made, it’s probably not right.
Oberst: I get nervous about performing sometimes. As far as records, how they’re received… I don’t know. I don’t get nervous, really. Every record I’ve ever made, there’s been people that really fucking hated it — and really loved it. It doesn’t matter. I feel like it’s always going to be that.
The vocal style on this album is interesting. You’re singing together, but you’re not singing harmonies. How did you settle on that sound?
Oberst: I always liked bands with two singers. When you think of the voice of the band, you think of the singer of the band. But in a band with two singers, their voices combined make that one voice.
Bridgers: It’s really interesting, also, what it does to a song when you hear two people. It kind of makes a third person. You’re not thinking about someone having the experience. You’re thinking about a story.
The first song you wrote together, ‘Didn’t Know What I Was in For,’ really strikes a current nerve: the protagonist is trying to make a difference, but, in the end, they’re just performativity running races for cancer research and anxiously trying to sleep.
Oberst: All those things are kind of meaningless and it is sometimes infuriating to see the self-congratulatory nature of like, ‘I did the 5k run; here’s my picture!’ You know, all that stuff. But, what’s the alternative? To do nothing? To completely be a nihilist? Give up on making any positive change? That sucks, too.
So I’ve kind of come to the conclusion that it all helps a little bit. Maybe it is a drop in the bucket, but, still fills up the bucket a little bit. It’s a job. Better than not a job, I guess.
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