New Kid on the Block

Photo: Pieter M. van Hattem

Conor Oberst’s indie cred has always been tangled up in his midwestern roots. At age 12, he picked up a pen in lonely, snowbound Omaha and wrote the first of the six albums of songs that have made him and his band, Bright Eyes, a favorite of the lost and lovelorn alt-rock set. Fans from here to Tokyo idolize the sensitive, big-eyed boy through Websites, poetry, art projects, stalkathons, and proclamations shrieked during quieter concert moments (“I love you, Conor!”), and though he could have transplanted his hip nerdiness just about anywhere, Oberst stuck to the heartland. In fact, his prodigious lyrics were so tied to a certain bleak emotional landscape—which often mirrored the physical one outside his parents’ window—it seemed certain he would never leave Nebraska. But recently, he did. He moved to New York.

It was an unlikely decision for a songwriter who is widely considered the creative cornerstone of Omaha’s burgeoning independent-music scene, an artist so concerned with commercial purity that he refused to play Clear Channel venues on his upcoming tour. Conor Oberst moving to New York is like Faulkner leaving Oxford for Atlanta. (Sure, Faulkner moved to Hollywood for a while to write screenplays, but only because he had to eat.) Oberst’s ambition has always been less showy than self-flagellating, with spotlight-averse instincts in the Kurt Cobain tradition—a fresh alternative for a young audience sated on exhibitionism. Which, while it may sound contradictory, partly explains why he’s here.

Oberst and Nate Krenkel, the former Sony publishing hotshot who gave up a director position to manage Bright Eyes, recently started their own record label, Team Love, out of Krenkel’s East Village walk-up. “I came and stayed with Nate for three or four months and I sort of fell in love with the town,” Oberst says one afternoon over black coffee, an untouched Mimosa, and eggless huevos rancheros at Life Café, a favorite East Village hangout. He barely touches the meal and looks like he’d rather have a cigarette, but he’s not in Omaha anymore. “It’s funny, because when we would first tour, when I was a teenager and stuff, New York was always my least favorite place because it’s so overwhelming,” he says. “I liked it, but I was always anxious to get out of the city. I mean, I grew up in Nebraska. It’s, like, space, you know? Nothing closing in on you. But I was just like, this is where I need to be.”

Oberst quickly found his comfort zone in the Lower East Side. He took a share on Tompkins Square Park with his booking agent, Eric Dimenstein of Ground Control Touring. He’s usually there, or six blocks away at Krenkel’s, working out some bit of Team Love business in the narrow bedroom turned office where Krenkel’s friend Norah Jones bunked when she first moved to the city; or drinking at St. Dymphna’s on St. Marks Place, appropriate given Oberst’s matrilineal Irishness. They premiered Team Love’s first signed band, Omaha-based Tilly and the Wall, at the Mercury Lounge, with Oberst slinking around unnoticed, unbothered, just another shaggy-haired, hoodie-loving hipster, slender as a sophomore, hanging onto his bottled beer. Occasional appearances on gossip Websites such as Gawker notwithstanding—“Taunt whiny rock boys!’’ one post advised—Oberst has mastered the New York art of hiding in plain sight, no teary fans camped out on the lawn.

Oberst still keeps the twenties-era bungalow he bought a few years ago in Omaha, on a leafy old street near his parents and next door to his former childhood sweetheart, Neely Jenkins, the singer for Tilly. (Oberst was rumored to have dated indie-magnet Winona Ryder, but he says they were just friends.) Bright Eyes’ label, the increasingly coveted Saddle Creek Records, remains in Omaha, too, along with most of Oberst’s notoriously tight crew, including girlfriend Maria Taylor, of the band Azure Ray.

At the Mercury Lounge, Oberst slinked around unnoticed, unbothered, just another shaggy-haired, hoodie-loving hipster clinging to his bottled beer.

Oberst might’ve worried that by moving to Manhattan he’d be leaving his inspiration behind. He recorded his first cuts in his parents’ basement, with his mom, an elementary-school principal, hollering down the stairs or saying “That’s pretty” after a ballad; his brothers or dad sometimes played backup. “Sometimes I worry that it’ll just stop,” he says of the songwriting. “Every time, there’s a certain mystery to it, which I feel is good. I shouldn’t try to figure it out too much. We’re practicing in Chelsea at this sound studio near the galleries, and there’s a big billboard that says EXPLANATION KILLS ART.”

Yet while Nebraska gave him the beautiful gloom his fans adore, New York is providing him with even richer material. I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, two new Bright Eyes albums to be released later this month, contain intimate nods to life in post-9/11 New York. There’s an earned weariness and universality to the newest songs. “They’re more timeless, more eternal,” the guitar phenom and singer-songwriter M. Ward said over drinks at the Gramercy Park Hotel recently, just before going on tour with Oberst and Jim James of My Morning Jacket.

In “Old Soul Song (For the New World Order),” about an antiwar protest, Oberst describes walking “40 blocks to the middle / of the place we heard that everything would be.” “Lua,” an early release that hit Billboard’s No. 1 singles slot (a historic ratings achievement for an indie rocker), follows a drugged-out couple on a freezing New York night as they fail to hail a taxi to ‘’a party at some actor’s West Side loft,’’ the girl ‘’looking skinny like a model with your eyes all painted black”; finally they share a flask on the subway and try to stay conscious. Not your average night in Omaha. “Train Under Water” works a folk-rock twist on one of the city’s age-old perks—thrilling impersonality and the constant prospect of urban serendipity: “I was a postcard, I was a record, I was a camera, until I went blind / Now I’m riding all over this island / Looking for something to open my eyes.”

Oberst has toured the globe, but you won’t find meaningful allusions to, say, Munich or Amsterdam, or L.A. A place has to become personal to him to show up in his music. “Conor lives in his own world,” says Emmylou Harris, who sings on three tracks of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. “Sometimes you find yourself saying ‘What is this song about?’ but ultimately it doesn’t matter because you get caught up in the words and the melodies. You get that one line or hook that starts doing a loop in your head.”

Of course, Oberst knows what can happen to young rock stars who move to the big city: the potential for sellout, burnout, or creative dead-end. He turns 25 the day after Valentine’s Day, and already he’s flirting with thoughts of a second act. Fiction, maybe. Films. “We’ve been getting scripts lately,” he says. “That’d be awesome, but I don’t know if I’m qualified. I mean, I don’t know how to act.” He thinks about this a minute and says, probably joking but maybe not, “I don’t know. Maybe I just need to be a movie star.”

New Kid on the Block