In August last year, Bright Eyes released Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was. It was their tenth album and their first in almost ten years. It should have been a triumphant moment, but along with so much of last year, its release felt muted. Like thousands of other artists, Conor Oberst, Nate Walcott, and Mike Mogis, had their calendar packed with tour dates wiped clean thanks to the pandemic.
For Conor (and for millions around the world), it was completely unmooring. But now, the doors are starting to open, the calendar squares are filling up. Bright Eyes Stateside and European tour (from July-September) is back on, and Nonesuch is also reissuing Conor’s heartrending 2016 solo album Ruminations, with five extra tracks, on July 23rd.
On this episode Conor joins the Best Advice podcast sitting in his backyard in LA (he currently splits his time between California and Omaha, Nebraska where he was born). Conor’s been making music under various guises for over twenty years. To name just a handful, there’s Commander Venus, Desaparecidos, Monsters Of Folk, his partnership with Phoebe Bridgers as Better Oblivion Community Center — she actually calls him in the middle of our recording. And of course, he’s best known for Bright Eyes.
He’s an artist who, in the '90s when he was still a teenager, really cut his teeth locally, finding like-minded individuals on his doorstep, doing the kind of grassroots, everyone in a crappy van, touring that feels — especially right now — like a practice from a bygone era.
Conor’s not the guy to talk to about social media strategy or branding. He’s not the kind of guy who speaks in soundbites, so any advice in our conversation isn’t exactly doled out. His advice comes wrapped in stories and encounters, some with fellow musicians like Bruce Springsteen or Phoebe, some from people you might not know, like the late, great Gary Burden, a visual artist Conor calls one of his best friends, who was some 57 years Conor’s senior.
We talk collaboration, inspiration, trust, and so much more. And honestly, he ends on a piece of advice that seems so simple, yet so essential and often overlooked. It’s advice about life as much as anything.
Highlights from Conor Oberst’s Best Advice episode
Always work with people you trust.
If you trust someone and you know their like heart and you know where they're coming from, just stick with them 'cause there's gonna be a lot of cats that roll through and make you a bunch of promises. And they might have a bunch of famous people on their roster, but I think if you want to have a long career… It's all about trusting the people you work with.
Don’t let numbers and data drown you.
Don't worry so much about how many streams you get, or how many likes you get. [The] younger generation, I think they're kind of obsessed with these numbers, and I'm just like, y'all, just do cool shit. People will figure it out. And if they don't figure it out then that's fine too.
Some of the best advice he’s received was from his best friend, the late, great artist Gary Burden who taught him you never have to grow old . . . in your heart.
I guess the biggest thing I learned from him is you never have to grow old in your heart and you don't have to ever stop caring about art or caring about new music. He always wanted to know what was up with new music and what was going on. He had already lived such an historic, amazing life and the fact that he was still curious and interested at that stage of life was very inspiring to me. I was like, “Oh, you can keep your mind sharp and keep your mind open, you'll always discover stuff.”