Conor Oberst’s Long Few Years
The singer discusses the growing pains of building a legacy career.
Illustration by John Garrison
Conor Oberst is rubbing the bridge of his nose so hard with his fingertips that the skin between his eyebrows is starting to flake off. "It's been a long, uh…" He winces as he counts time gone by, letting out an exhausted sigh through his hands. "...Well, a long few years, really."
The 37-year-old singer is sitting in his tiny, pod-like room on the third floor of his modern SoHo hotel in Manhattan and he's looking a bit worn. The smooth baby face that sparked a million indie rock crushes in the early 2000s is starting to show some cracks and is peppered with a few days' worth of stubble. His hair is no longer shaped into the asymmetrical swoop that accidentally made him an emo style icon at 20, but is now a rat's nest of black strands pinned back by a pair of sunglasses. It's 92 degrees outside but in this blank, white box that resembles the sleeping quarters of a futuristic spaceship, there's a stiff, air-conditioned chill so he grabs a fleece throw blanket from the bed and wraps it around the shoulders of his striped, button-down Levi's shirt. He has a hard time sleeping most nights and has the darkness around his light brown eyes to show for it. Life has dealt Oberst a few bad hands recently but, like a true product of a Midwestern upbringing, he seems incapable of discussing it without noting that things could always be worse.
"Sometimes I wish I was a bratty, shitty prima donna artist," admits the Omaha native. "But I feel like my disposition, the way that my parents raised me, it was like: work hard, be grateful for what you got, be polite to everyone." He looks down at his cup of afternoon iced coffee and sloshes it around. "I mean, if someone's an asshole to you, that's a different story."
In the last days of 2013, the social media averse Oberst was blindsided by an online firestorm. In the comments section of a personal essay posted on the now defunct women's site xoJane, a woman accused him of raping her in 2003 when she was 16 after a show that his band, Bright Eyes, played. "Conor definitely took advantage of my teenage crush on him. At first, I was flattered when he was playing with my hair and had his hand on my leg. It was like my dream come true at that point," read the comment. "But then he clearly wanted to go further and I made it very clear and told him I was a virgin and wasn't prepared to change that right then but he didn't stop."
As the allegations spread like wildfire, getting picked up by music publications and causing a heated debate on Tumblr, the court of public opinion seemed to have its mind immediately made up and even longtime fans began to turn on him. Oberst, who had always aligned himself as a feminist, was labeled a rapist, a misogynist, and whatever other ugliness anyone wanted to project on him. The internet sunk its unforgiving claws into Oberst and he was powerless in its iron grip.
"At the time, it was like: I've lived 34 years on this earth, and I'm not saying I'm a great guy, but I know I'm not…" he pauses and taps on the glass tabletop in front of him. "I'm not violent towards anyone. Nothing like that would be a part of my character. And for a second, to have the whole world think that was true about me just did a number on my psyche."
As Oberst fell into a dark hole of depression, his team worked on his behalf. His lawyers and management made repeated attempts at contacting the accuser in an attempt to diffuse the situation before ultimately filing a defamation lawsuit, seeking $1.2 million to be donated to charities benefitting victims of violence against women. With each passing day that rumors and accusations circulated, the name Conor Oberst seemed to be garnering an unshakeable stigma, and the career he had built over 20 years in music appeared to be in a death spiral. His longtime publicist couldn't steer the conversation away from the story, and eventually became less concerned about his career recovering and more worried about Oberst's declining mental state. The album he released during this period, Upside Down Mountain, largely went unnoticed in the shadow of the black cloud hanging over him. Most publications were reluctant to cover someone embroiled in scandal, some even pulling their coverage, and he was unwilling to discuss an ongoing legal matter in interviews.
"I don't really do anything with the internet, ever, and it's always been this thing that I've avoided or kept at a distance—interacting with fans or having comments on anything," says Oberst. "So to have this outside force appear in my life, and having to deal with it, it was one of the most surreal experiences in my life." Oberst's fanbase has always leaned a bit obsessive, particularly among straight women. Chalk it up to his non-threateningly handsome looks or the often emotionally vulnerable nature of his lyrics. Whatever it is (he's not sure himself), he's developed something of a cult-like following, replete with stalkers and dedicated fansites. So when this following turned on him, it did so with the same passion.
Some of the Oberst faithful stuck around, though, and found some holes in the accuser's plot, namely that her dates didn't line up and she had a history of catfishing online. After her story started to unravel, on July 14, 2014, almost seven full months after her original comment, she emerged to retract her statement, calling her claims "100% false" in an apology letter, stating, "I realize that my actions were wrong and could undermine the claims of actual sexual assault victims and for that I also apologize." Oberst's name was officially cleared, but the damage had already set in.
"When something like that—something random and terrible—happens to you, it's like… At this point I equate it to getting in a car crash or getting struck by fucking lightning. I don't feel like there's ever complete closure to something like that in the sense that you carry the psychological things with you," he says, just before his Midwestern mentality catches up. "But everyone has some or many things like that in their life, maybe not that public or extreme. It's one of those things where you've just got to go on with life."
On top of winning back the trust of his fans after a messy public legal battle, Oberst also found himself kicking against a new set of admirers he'd unwittingly picked up: men's rights activists. To anti-feminist groups who fantasize about falsified rape statistics and work to delegitimize rape culture, Oberst became their poster boy. "How Conor Oberst Became an Accidental MRA," read one headline.
"It's such a tricky topic for me because I don't ever want to minimize how much that happens to women all the fucking time," he says. "They say one in four women will experience some kind of sexual assault in their life which is fucking insane and heartbreaking. So as painful and surreal and fucked up as my situation was, I don't ever want to use this as an example to justify anything."
Oberst finally opened up about his nightmare year to New York Magazine writer Lizzy Goodman in September of 2016 as he was writing a new solo album, Ruminations. "I didn't want to do any press for that record," he says. "That was the compromise with my publicist and label: Just do one interview and make it really thorough and you don't have to do anything else." In the profile, he discussed the mental and physical toll the year had wreaked, including high blood pressure and a cyst on his brain which forced him to cancel a month of tour dates with his punk band Desaparecidos, who had just released a long-awaited sophomore album after a 13-year absence.
The interview was conducted in Omaha, where he holed up in his house with his wife and musician friends, returning home after 13 years in New York. It was there, drinking, smoking cigarettes, and mentally recovering in a familiar, isolated setting, that he wrote the songs for Ruminations, a collection of lonely, bare bones tracks that would get a full-band revamping a few months later as Salutations. It's a painfully sad pair of records and, while Oberst has always combined fictionalized storytelling with personal experience, given the very public turmoil that inspired them, it's easy to read some of the songs as autobiographical. On "You All Loved Him Once," for example, he sings about the phenomenon of hero worship that builds artists up only to tear them down. He says he specifically kept in mind John Lennon, whose rabid fandom ultimately turned fatal, in the line: "So to satisfy the Philistines, you stabbed him in the back / You all loved him once, imagine that."
"People don't like to hear it because it's like, oh, you're complaining about being famous, but it's just straight-up objectification," he says, noting that his celebrity is relatively small in comparison to some famous people he knows. "In their head, someone makes you an object. They disregard your humanity and they expect you to accept it, I guess because you're getting paid."
If Oberst had hoped that the closure of the New York article would return life to normal, though, those wishes would be short-lived. His personal misery gave way to a collective one two months later as the country was blindsided by the election of Donald Trump, a man Oberst called "an orange rat" at a concert in Dallas a month before the election. The politically active Oberst had earned a reputation as a protest singer after spending eight years rallying against George W. Bush, sometimes famously on national television, and it looked like he'd have to take up the cause once more. At an outdoor concert in Brooklyn's Prospect Park the night after we talk, he'll call Trump a racist, homophobic charlatan to a cheering crowd, adding: "And I fucking hate his whole family, too."
But just two weeks after the election, when the words "President Trump" still seemed like the result of some fever dream, more personal tragedy struck. Oberst's brother, Matt, a North Carolina teacher who formerly played in the band Sorry About Dresden and taught Conor to play music at a young age, died suddenly at 42, leaving behind two children. His obituary did not mention the cause of death, just that he died "peacefully in his home."
"He basically fucking drank himself to death," Oberst says of his older brother. He looks around the room for something to fixate on but the minimalist design offers nothing, so he just looks back down and clears his throat. The room gets so quiet after that that the only sound to be heard is from the branches on the tree outside gently brushing against the window's thick glass. He takes a moment to dig deep down to look for that bright side, or maybe to find anything else to talk about.
"But everybody has so much of that stuff in their life," he finally says. "There's no equivalence. We're never going to understand what it's like to be a kid in Syria, getting fucking chemical bombed and watching their family die. That's a level that you and I will never understand."
When asked if, during the darkest days of the last few years, he ever thought of quitting music and changing careers, he shakes his head. "No," he laughs. "I have no employable skills whatsoever. Honestly, I don't know what I would do."
Although he hasn't ever considered another career, he admits to harboring the desire to be someone else or that he'd never played music in the first place. "There was definitely a point when that thought crossed my mind, where I wished maybe I'd never wrote songs," he says. "But since I've been doing it since I was 12 years old, and that's the only thing I've actually ever done in my life, even having that thought is wishing to not be myself—not necessarily suicidal. To me, wishing I'd never played music is wishing I'd never been alive because it's the only thing I've ever done."
As Oberst weathers the storms of the last few years and heads into the next phase of his career, he's learning that the key to building an enduring legacy is simply to keep moving forward. "So much of being a human is taking it on the chin and keep going," he says, though that doesn't mean it's easy to wake up every morning.
"There's days where I can't imagine eating a meal or brushing my teeth, and it's like: Do I really have to do this again?" he says as he squints tight and rubs the bridge of his nose once more. Then he opens his eyes wide and blinks a few times as his vision adjusts to the world around him. "But that's what life is. Not mailing it in is the best you can do. That's what I'm shooting for."
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter.