Over the last 20 years, Conor Oberst has represented so many things to so many people, it's hard to believe one man is capable of so much. From soul-baring emo rock to penetrating lo-fi folk to cathartic digital pop to shaggy alt-country to fiery agit-punk, the Omaha native has channeled nearly every form of American music through his feverish mind. Amazingly, nearly all of it has come out smelling like sonic roses and bearing Oberst's unmistakable stamp of quavering vocals, hook-drenched instrumentation and intensely personal insight. With more than 20 albums, multiple business ventures and a mystifying public persona, we examined nine of the many lives lived so far by Conor Oberst.
1. The teenage prodigy.
Oberst first appeared onstage at age 12 and, at 13, self-recorded his first album of original material, Water, in his parents' basement. By 16, he'd released three more solo cassettes and performed with at least five other bands (see No. 6), all of which set the stage for his hyper-sensitive, incendiary work with Bright Eyes. That band's first album, A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997, was released before Oberst even turned 18.
2. The tortured lyrical firebrand.
More than any of his emo contemporaries, 34-year-old Oberst has a gift for incisive storytelling that was, even at a young age, so visceral and throat-grabbing no one could turn away. Oberst tried, mind you; many of his early performances involved him either averting his eyes from the audience all night or performing with his back to the crowd. For those who grew up clinging to every word on early masterpieces like Fevers and Mirrors and Lifted, that self-loathing approach just made the stories — some autobiographical, some mythical, some intimate, some universal — knife even deeper.
3. The production savant.
As a solo artist, Oberst took early inspiration from outsider folkies like Daniel Johnston and Elliott Smith, embracing their lo-fi self-recording ethos that relied solely on acoustic guitars and four-track recorders. Like Smith, though, Oberst and Bright Eyes bandmate Mike Mogis developed a production style so
exotically guttural, symphonically sparse and
comfortably discombobulating that the orchestrated kitchen-sink sound came to define the so-called "Omaha Sound" that, thanks to Mogis' steady workload, prevails today.
4. The electronic visionary.
As early as Bright Eyes' 1998 debut full-length, Oberst was toying with the construction of folk and pop songs using drum machines, tape noise and experimental feedback, elements eventually peppered throughout his work. In 2005, Oberst even released two albums simultaneously: the folk-based I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and the slick, electro-bathed Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. The trial-and-error approach inevitably turned off many of the purists who originally hailed Oberst as a folk prophet. The shameless genre-hopping also presaged the way that indie music circa 2014 gleefully embraces sonic direction from across the creative spectrum.
5. The mellow roots rocker.
Interspersed among Bright Eyes' incisive emo tours de force were several unabashedly countrified moments, including a large chunk of I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. In 2007, with critical attention on Bright Eyes reaching a critical mass, Oberst finally put that Americana fascination front and center, turning his entire creative focus toward a brand of dusty, rollicking roots rock he and his backing Mystic Valley Band perfected during a two-month retreat in Mexico. Oberst's last three full-lengths — 2008's Conor Oberst, 2009's Outer South and 2014's forthcoming Upside-Down Mountain — all ramble and roll in a similar vein, touching on electric blues, honky-tonk and classic rock.
6. The ubiquitous collaborator.
Before he formed Bright Eyes, Oberst either founded or played with at least five other bands: dance-punkers Norman Bailer, who eventually became international sensations The Faint; emo-rockers Commander Venus (with Tim Kasher of Cursive and The Good Life fame); politically minded ragers Desaparecidos; and bubblegum poppers Park Ave. Since catapulting to worldwide stardom, Oberst hasn't given up on his collaborative ways, either. In 2004, he teamed up with Mogis, M. Ward and My Morning Jacket's Jim James to form the appropriately named supergroup Monsters of Folk; in 2013, he personally directed Desaparecidos' reunion; and earlier this year, he had Swedish folk stars First Aid Kit provide backing vocals for his new album. On his current tour, Oberst has LA folk-pop experts Dawes opening for him — and as his backing band.
7. The unabashed lover of Florida.
Bright Eyes' 2007 album Cassadaga was purportedly inspired by Oberst's fascination with the Central Florida spiritualist camp, while his self-titled 2008 solo album kicked off with a song called "Cape Canaveral" (sample lyric: "Saw the migrants smoke in the old orange grove/And the red rocket blaze over Cape Canaveral"). It's not exactly a full-fledged love letter but, since most indie icons treat Florida as an annoying afterthought, we'll take it.
8. The business executive.
Oberst's older brother Justin founded Lumberjack Records in 1993 as a college class project — but also to release Conor's debut record, Water. The following year, the label morphed into Saddle Creek Records, and by the turn of the century, Saddle Creek — now governed by a collective of longtime Omaha friends — had become the spiritual home of impassioned indie rock. In 2004, Oberst founded Team Love Records to release smaller projects from lesser-known musicians, and in 2012, he opened a bar, Pageturners Lounge, in downtown Omaha.
9. The perpetually pissed-off agitator. Oberst has made very vocal stands for various liberal causes since the early 2000s, most notably immigration reform (see Desaparecidos' 2012 single, "MariKKKopa," about notorious Arizona lawman Joe Arpaio). But he doesn't reserve his wrath for just racist politicians. On 2000's Fevers and Mirrors, Oberst recorded a fake radio interview to skewer the media's obsession with his supposed neuroses and scathingly personal lyrics. More recently, in January, Oberst told Rolling Stone, "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."
That line felt particularly shocking, considering the fact that a North Carolina woman claimed on her Tumblr account the month before that Oberst had raped her in 2003, when she was 16 years old. Oberst has vehemently denied the accusation, filing a countersuit for libel in February.
So which of these Conor Obersts will Northeast Florida music fans see when he hits Ponte Vedra Concert Hall on May 13? We hope it's a sampling of each of the man's many iterations, though the show will surely focus on Oberst's new country-flavored album Upside-Down Mountain, which drops May 20. After all, since 1993, Oberst has embodied nothing if not perpetual forward-looking motion. "I don't relate to a lot of my earlier songs," he told Rolling Stone in January. "They were extremely verbose. That might be cathartic when you're doing it, but it doesn't necessarily hold up."