Physically, Conor Oberst's face, which seemed like it would remain milky and childlike forever, has gained some lines and his cheeks have sunken slightly. His greasy mop of inky hair, however, looks the same as it did when he began writing music at 13. But even if his looks haven't changed considerably, Oberst has explored nearly every realm of music with his myriad of projects.
He has a reputation for not always being the sweetest — "I don't know if it makes me an asshole to not want to talk to my fans," he told Rolling Stone in February — but fans will put up with almost anything as long as a musician is talented and brooding. That is where Oberst excels. His performances astound; his quivering, bittersweet vocals keep listeners as intrigued as his mostly introspective lyrics do.
Sunday, this indie rocker plays the Knitting Factory. In preparation, check out the many faces of Conor Oberst.
It began in Omaha, Nebraska. For everything the city is — hometown of former President Gerald Ford, rich guy Warren Buffett and the alleged inventor of the Reuben sandwich — it was never known for its indie music scene. And while Oberst and his friends were by no means the first groups out of Omaha to warrant interest from the rest of the country (311 started there, for what that's worth), they were the first to stay put.
After releasing his debut solo cassette at 13, Oberst's brother Justin co-founded Lumberjack Records, which later became Saddle Creek Records. The label served as a platform for Oberst and other music made in Omaha. Within the next two years, Oberst would go on to form the short-lived rock groups Norman Bailer (later the Faint) and Commander Venus. He also experimented with other bands, but soon Bright Eyes would be his ticket to stardom.
He wouldn't always stay in Omaha — in 2003 he hightailed it to New York (where he still keeps an apartment) — but has since come back. He even opened a restaurant/bar in his native city in 2012.
Song to start with: "Patient Hope in New Snow," Bright Eyes
Bright Eyes is Oberst. The band has settled down, with its steady lineup of Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott since 2006, but it still essentially is Oberst's. The group started as a moniker for his solo music, but quickly shifted to a carousel of musicians playing alongside him. The sound began as incredibly emotional and sad; misunderstood teens everywhere latched on to it. But then a funny thing happened: Around 2002, music critics noticed the band too, and many hailed Oberst as the next Bob Dylan. Since then, the band has experimented, flavoring its indie-rock sound with deeper folk, Americana and electronic influences.
Its most recent album The People's Key came out in early 2011. Oberst has hinted at retirement, but only time will tell.
Song to start with: "First Day of My Life," Bright Eyes
If he didn't have other musical outlets, it seems that Oberst would feel stymied. Enter Desaparecidos and Monsters of Folk, two acts he's dabbled with. Desaparecidos began in the early aughts, quickly broke up, then reassembled in 2012. The group caters to Oberst's punk and social-commentary sensibilities.
With supergroup Monsters of Folk, which includes Jim James of My Morning Jacket, M. Ward of She & Him and Bright Eyes' Mike Mogis, Oberst was part of one of the biggest folk records of 2009.
Song to start with: "Greater Omaha," Desaparecidos; "Ahead of the Curve," Monsters of Folk
For his new country-tinged solo record Upside Down Mountain, his first album of any kind in three years, Oberst has moved to a major label, Nonesuch Records, which is distributed by Warner Bros. and also boasts the Black Keys and Wilco. He's officially no longer indie.
Much has happened since his previous work. Despite a rape accusation against him that has since been dropped and recanted, the 34-year-old may actually be happy. Take the lyrics from "Hundreds of Ways" for instance: "What a thing to be a witness to the sunshine / What a dream to just be walking on the ground."
This can be attributed to his recent marriage to Mexican musician Corina Escamilla Figueroa, but also he's no longer a teenager. Life is no longer so emo.
Song to start with: "Time Forgot," Conor Oberst ♦
Conor Oberst with Jonathan Wilson • Sun, Sept. 28, at 8 pm • $25 • All-ages • Knitting Factory • 919 W. Sprague • sp.knittingfactory.com • 866-468-7623