All of a sudden, 2019 had granted us a reflective, intriguing and exciting record that captures the strengths and depths of Phoebe Bridgers’ and Conor Oberst‘s work beautifully. Emotionally intelligent, moving songs with gorgeous harmonies that add just the right amount of lightness to the often painful observations and sentiments that are explored by the two songwriters over the course of the album. While the project was still kept under wraps, we had the opportunity to meet Phoebe and Conor in Berlin on a misty, grey January morning. The two musical partners in crime treating themselves to a delicious breakfast and us to many interesting insights in regard to Better Oblivion Community Center.

Oberst as well as Bridgers are both no strangers to the idea of collaborating with other musicians, however, joining forces under the name of Better Oblivion Community Center carried a new sense of musical companionship that felt tempting and innovative at the same time, Phoebe recalls:

‘Both of us have other bands with other artists and it brings a little of everybody’s strengths to the table, but with these bands it was always more like a compilation record almost in terms of people’s styles. And this record – because we were in the same place writing the songs – it’s like our songs from top to bottom. It was truly collaborative. That was cool. I record my records over a super long period of time and that’s cool, but this album has a specific sound and specific style because it was recorded over the same kind of couple of weeks.’

Conor agrees: ‘I’ve made different records with people and collaborated, but this was the first time I made an entire record just with another songwriter writing every song together. It’s all jumbled in a true co-writing situation which I haven’t done that much so that was cool and interesting. We did all the recording in a month. The songs were written over a year maybe. With guitars and notebooks. Very old school I guess. No laptops.’ (laughs) 

Watching them interact, it seems like they share a level of comfortability and a chemistry that naturally seems to benefit their co-songwriting. A condition that helped them ease into this project and figure out its path together – no power dynamics or expectations in sight as Conor confirms:

‘Obviously, the whole process got more comfortable and easier as we went along. The first song we wrote ‘I Didn’t Know What I Was In For’ – we decided to do that not knowing if it was going to be for my record, Phoebe’s record or maybe someone else’s record. I think it went so well that we were like ‘Let’s do another one’.  And then after the second one, we wanted to keep the songs for ourselves and make a project of it.’

Something that Phoebe emphasizes as well: ‘It’s important – the level of comfortability. I feel like I could never force a collaboration, With my Boygenius band a bunch of people thought a label was like ‘You guys should all get into a room together and write…’. I feel like that sounds like a nightmare. I could never do anything premeditated like that. With this project, I think it’s just like a level of comfortability and no power dynamics. I work with producers who are older than me and men. Inherently, there’s like a power dynamic and I’m comfortable now, but I met them when I was like 19 and it started with a teacher-student-dynamic which I would never seek out in a band collaboration. So I think just the feeling of comfortability and knowing that we’re on the same level with each other is important to me.’

Learning how to be comfortable with each other as songwriters is about recognizing each other’s strengths as well as being willing to acknowledge differences, Conor Oberst explains: ‘Obviously, we share a lot of sensibilities. We like the same kind of stuff and so it’s not like we’re coming from entirely different worlds, but at the same time we’re kind of playing to each other’s strengths. There’s a lot of things Phoebe is better at than me. She’s definitely a better singer. She has a really natural gift for melody and I feel like I get stuck a lot of the times in my same melodic patterns when I’m writing a song. So when I was writing with her it was cool to break out of that. I think it’s nice to have a musical partner in crime that can do things I couldn’t do on my own. That’s why you seek out people to write with.’

(Credit: Nik Freitas)

A lot of Oberst’s finest work can be traced back to his birthplace Omaha, Nebraska. Better Oblivion Community Center, however, was brought to life in sunny Los Angeles, California. Phoebe being a Californian native. According to Phoebe and Conor – ‘a great place to make music with fellow friends’. So they did.

Oberst happily looks back: ‘It’s a great town to have a lot of talented musicians around where we didn’t have to fly people in and set aside a bunch of time. I mean we thought a little bit ahead of who we wanted to play with, but for the most part it was…who’s down the street? There was also a bit of luck that everyone was there at this right time.’

The list of remarkable musicians who contributed to the recording of the album is a reflection of just how much talent is present in the duo’s orbit and vibrant music scene in Los Angeles – Nick Zinner (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), Carla Azar (Autolux, Jack White), Andy LeMaster (engineer, producer) and members of Dawes. 

The communication of musical nuances and exploration of new territories

When working closely together with others, communication is the key. David Byrne wrote a whole chapter about the nature of musical collaborations in his book How Music Works – also elaborating on the ‘real or invented’ terms musicians sometimes use ‘to try to communicate musical nuance’. Lyrically speaking, Bridgers and Oberst both have an incredible sense of expressing their thoughts and feelings in their songs. When working together in the studio, though, things tend to be a bit more loose as it seems: 

‘Conor has a whole vocabulary of shorthand that he doesn’t care if other people understand. I feel very lucky that I almost understand 100% of it now. Also, Conor has never interacted with the internet before. For the first time, he did it for his tweet ‘peng’. He thinks ‘peng’ is the funniest thing anyone’s ever said.’

“Peng! Peng is worth it. That’s my next tweet”, says Conor a bit amused, ‘But in the studio, yeah, it’s a lot of mouthing of instrument parts…’ (laughs)

Where there is collaboration, there is often friction as well which is something Oberst appreciates very much when it comes to working together with others: ‘I think it’s healthy to butt heads – which we do. I mean, I remember the first song we were recording was that song ‘My City’ on the record. We had the drummer and bass player in there and we thought we had figured out what we wanted them to do. As we started tracking it became clear that we were on completely different pages as far as what the drums and bass should be doing. That was the closest we got to ‘Wow, we might have to make like two different records’. The Phoebe mix and the Conor mix.’

The fact that you have to come up with something that you’re both satisfied with makes the work rise a little bit to another level.’ (Conor Oberst)

The level of enthusiasm clearly reached a new dimension as well during the recording of Better Oblivion Community Center with the song credits even revealing the use of a whirly tube (My City). A long hidden talent or new found love? Conor Oberst explains the mystery with a smile:

They had some of those at the studio and they are so fun. When we were playing back the track (My City), I was just doing it in the room joking around absent-mindedly and then we were like „Oh this is actually weirdly in the perfect key of the song. Let’s record it!“. It is a cool sound.’

The whirly tube in action on CBS This Morning

The harmony-screamo-challenge

Exploring new sounds not only led the duo to experiment with instruments, but also with their own voices which ended up being quite a challenge for both singers, Conor tells us: ‘For me, one of the things I think I’ll take away from this record and this experience is that Phoebe wanted me to sing harmony which is really hard for me. I’m not a good harmony singer. Or she would write the harmonies and teach them to me and get me to sing them. And I think that made me a better singer.’

While Phoebe adds: ‘Conor would make me scream. Like emo-screamo-scream which I had never done in my own music. He was like ‘Pretend you’re in a hardcore band’ and I screamed at the end of a couple of songs. I feel like you really pep talked me. Stuff like that gives you an opportunity to step out of your comfort zone. It’s becoming clear to me now with so many collaborations what I gear towards when I start writing something. Basically, I’m finding myself giving myself weird rules with my own music whereas with a project like this I don’t have to be in my weird brain prison of like ‘Oh, but I really can’t write a song like that’. It actually doesn’t make any sense so I hope to take stuff that I tried from this project into my next record. I think it’ll make it more interesting. Basically, I hope my next record is more cool after this project.’

Any form of evolvement can be scary – whether it comes as a personal or musical change. The prospect of something different on the horizon always seems to bear a kind of fear, yet it is the only plausible way to go as Conor Oberst admits:

‘We are all sort of creatures of habit in a way. I don’t know whose quote it is, but it goes like ‘The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results’ – I think about that a lot. If you’re unhappy in your life and you just do the same thing all the time, of course you’re still unhappy. I guess that’s just like a testament to how difficult it is to change sometimes or do that new or different thing that scares you a little bit.’

‘Change is terrifying for people. Myself included. It’s easy to wake up that and continue living in your weird life that you’re not happy with and decide to make it really shitty for a minute with the change and then better in the longterm.’ (Phoebe Bridgers)

Photo by Nick Freitas

Despite longing for some kind of change and movement artistically, on a personal note, what’s at the core of Conor’s being and value system has been the same: I want to have peace of mind and have things that interest me. Basically, the same things I’ve always been looking for are there, but outside the world keeps getting crazier. I refocus on what matters more. You have to be conscious and figure out what matters to you.’

Sometimes that also means giving in to the fact that there are things we don’t understand as Phoebe admits:

‘I think that there is so much of the universe that we don’t understand. I guess I’m looking forward to either never figuring it out or being a part of whatever it is if that makes sense. I love facts that don’t make sense which I feel like exist a lot in science and space.’

Speaking of science, Conor adds: ‘When I’m watching a science documentary and it’s a nobel award winning scientist explaining the universe I’m like – you guys are insane. It makes no sense. Maybe that’s just my lack of understanding. Everyone’s head is like a different world and they can see what they want to see. My mom talks to birds and sings to dead people. But that makes her happy so I’m happy for her. But to always think you’re right is ridiculous. If you go around in the world and your life and always think you’re correct, then you’re obviously not. That’s a very easy way to demonstrate how ignorant you are. My friend Matt is the best person I can think of because he’s not like that at all. He really wants to know the answer and he’s really curious. He’ll talk to anyone in any situation and he really wants to know what they are thinking. I wish I could be more like that. I think those are the smartest people in the world. People who are inquisitive.’

‘People who are curious end up being the most wise people because they took the time to ask questions instead of just assuming they knew or be like ‘What’s up’?’ (Conor Oberst)

Asking questions regularly is as important as checking in with yourself from time to time. Like listening to your own needs, for example. Better Oblivion Community Center might just be the perfect place for that. Phoebe Bridgers, at least, has a clear vision of what kind of person she would like to be in the future: ‘I want to be a less anxious person. I want to wake up with less plans about how stuff is supposed to be. Like people who just go with the flow genuinely. I want to be a less careful, anxious person. I want to be a little bit more unapologetically myself and explore day to day life as much as possible.’

Whereas Conor Oberst wants to break free from a similar cycle: ‘I keep having the same New Year’s resolution of just being like ‘I need to actually live the moment more’ or take every day and get what I can from it. Because I’m definitely guilty of either thinking about the past and obsessing over that or obsessing over the future. We joke about this a lot. When you’re on tour, your schedule is mapped our for months. You think ‘After the tour my real life will begin…’. There is always that. Then you get home – and you’re still you.’

It’s something Phoebe can very much relate to: ’I favourite Pinterest recipes. I don’t cook, but when I’m on tour I’m like ‘When I get home, I’ll cook!.’ Then I get home – and I don’t cook.’

Better Oblivion Community Center will be touring with their self-titled album this spring. The albums is out now digitally via Dead Oceans and will be physically released on February 22nd, 2019.