Community Spirit: Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers on Better Oblivion Community Center

Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst provide musical refuge from the world’s end with their melancholic collaboration and unintentional surprise album

Feature by Stuart Holmes | 30 Apr 2019
  • Better Oblivion Community Center

The formation of Better Oblivion Community Center was a chance encounter written in the stars of the LA sky. In the summer of 2016, the then up-and-coming Phoebe Bridgers performed as part of a ‘secret showcase’ at the Bootleg Theater in her home city. The show was curiously named the Swamp Soiree. Its headline act was the live debut of a newly formed outfit named Crawdaddy Lafayette, a pseudonym created by its frontman, Conor Oberst. The evening provided the beginnings of a harmonious friendship between both artists and an altogether new band with a similarly intriguing name. Ahead of their short UK tour, they speak to The Skinny from the city where they met to explain how it all happened.

"We have a mutual friend named Kyle Wilkerson who is a promoter," Oberst tells us. "He had an act fall through, so he called me up and asked if I could do something at the last minute. I was making a record out there (Salutations) so Jim James [from My Morning Jacket] and Gillian Welch were around too. We all decided to go down there to do some songs and that was the first time I heard Phoebe play. She was amazing." Bridgers also reflects, laughing at the event’s name: "It was Louisiana Creole-themed for some reason... but I was so stoked. Kyle was doing me a big favour. He knew I was a big fan of Conor."

There was an instant rapport. The following winter, Bridgers supported Oberst on his Ruminations tour, which saw the pair perform the Bright Eyes song Lua together each night. Oberst also featured on the track Would You Rather from Bridgers’ debut album, Stranger in the Alps, which was mixed by Mike Mogis (his Bright Eyes bandmate) and released in September 2017. During this period, they experimented with songwriting together before forming Better Oblivion Community Center. The results of their initial efforts produced Didn’t Know What I Was In For, which would eventually become the opening track of their eponymous debut album.

Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers on collaboration

Despite being born a generation apart, the duo’s musical maturity is balanced, with Bridgers, 24, syncing perfectly with Oberst, 39. They are also both experienced collaborators: Oberst has a solid discography of side projects including Desaparecidos and Monsters of Folk, whilst Bridgers has recently received praise for her work alongside Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus with Boygenius. They have clear admiration and respect for one another, which proved to be fruitful during the songwriting process.

"I have been lucky to collaborate with a lot of people I was a fan of first or people who were more established than me," says Bridgers. "But what was so different about working with Conor was that he immediately dispels the power in music and asks, like, ‘What key should we use here?’ or ‘Does this song make sense to you?’ It felt like a true collaboration. It didn't feel like Conor helping me with a song, or me trying to write part of a ‘Conor song’."

"I think we both have the right amount of self-conscience, where neither of us imposes our ideas on the other person," adds Oberst. "The first couple of songs were a learning process, but I think once we found our groove it was very easy. One of the biggest things, when you’re writing with someone, is being able to share your bad ideas first. I think we are comfortable enough with each other to say what we are thinking and critique each other's work in a way that is positive. Phoebe has definitely told me when she thinks a line could be better, but I don't ever take offence to it – that's what you want out of a writing partner."

Better Oblivion Community Center's 'not that secretive' surprise release

The album was recorded in LA during mid-late 2018. It was produced by the duo themselves, alongside Andy LeMaster (formerly of Now It’s Overhead), before its unexpected release to fans in January. This suggests the fact that it was made secretively, but the duo explain this was never the real intention. In fact, it was a surprise to them that their project remained unexposed in the social media age.

"We told our friends, so it wasn’t that secretive," says Bridgers. "We never said, ‘Don’t tell anyone’, but magically the word did not get out until the release." Oberst adds: "It’s not like we were sneaking into the studio. No one was expecting it, and no one was looking for it. We didn't put a bunch of stuff online or anything like that, but we also weren’t overly discrete."

The album’s accompanying promo shots showed Bridgers sporting freshly dyed, inconspicuous yellow hair. This photo shoot took place late last year whilst she was supporting Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, but still, no questions were raised. "I literally dyed my hair yellow and nobody noticed!" exclaims Bridgers. "We showed fans a bunch of photos with my yellow hair, then everybody was, like, ‘What? Phoebe dyed her hair yellow!’, but it was yellow for a whole two weeks on that tour."

Better Oblivion Community Center was marketed by their record label, Dead Oceans, with cult imagery and subversive advertising parodies. Their live debut was on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert where the theme continued. Viewers could call a hotline number displayed on the screen to hear what transpired to be a sample of their recent single, Dylan Thomas, overlaid with confirmation that their current tour dates (referred to as "meetings") would soon be announced.

In keeping with the album marketing, the "meetings" were described as therapeutic experiences for all attendees, but despite their good intentions, the recent US shows didn’t always prove to be zen-filled. "Our tour started with a death threat... but that’s just one bad apple," says Oberst, casually. Bridgers elaborates: "The people who come up to you after shows are kind of a bad representation of your fans. We had a lot of great experiences with fans and then a lot of, like, really intense weird shit happens. But, for the most part, people were not weird at all and it did feel like a community vibe."

"I've always had an affinity for ‘sad sack’ music" - Oberst and Bridgers on melancholy in music

There has been much scrutiny and analysis of the band name since the album release, but at its heart, it aims to promote togetherness during hard times. The sense of ‘oblivion’ will mean different things to different people, but whatever troubles you, the Community Center aims to make it ‘better’. "We had in mind this idea that there's all this negativity in the world, but you can escape it through having community," confirms Oberst. And that’s where the music plays its part.

Both in and out of the recording studio, the duo shares a mutual love of melancholic songs. Each of the ten tracks on their collaborative album continues the trend of their solo work: candid and poignant lyricism, paired with euphonic melodies and often featuring heartbreaking vocal delivery. When all feels lost, their songs provide listeners with a much-needed comfort in sound.

"I've always had an affinity for ‘sad sack’ music over the years," says Oberst, followed by a wry laugh. "I think we’re all beginning to feel left alone in the world right now. Sometimes it can be helpful hearing someone else express emotions that you are carrying around inside yourself but might not have the right words to articulate. For me, growing up, listening to sad records, it was, like, ‘Wow, there's someone else out there who feels these things too’. It’s a function of trying to connect with someone and not feel so ‘out to sea’."

Bridgers responds with her own experience of connecting with such music: "It’s such a funny narrative because you’re so fucking depressed and you’re listening to someone else's depressing music. They literally say, ‘It will never ever, ever, ever be okay again. I'm a horrible person' – you’re hearing this from, like, Elliott Smith and thinking ‘That’s not true!’ You can say nice stuff about this musician you love, but not about yourself, because you have those same thoughts. It's kind of nice to be, like, ‘Wait, if that person’s wrong, then maybe I’m wrong about my outlook’."

Cover versions, and the future of Better Oblivion Community Center

In true community spirit, the "meetings" to date have seen the duo enjoy playing a variety of cover versions on stage. They both adore The Replacements and have frequently played Can’t Hardly Wait together, which Oberst explains is referenced on their own album track, Chesapeake, as a "tip of the hat to something that influenced our record". The Replacements themselves were well known for dropping their planned setlists at short notice to perform a whole show of cover versions. They did so simply to amuse themselves. Does this idea strike a chord with the band?

"I love that!" says Bridgers, excitedly. "I feel that too many people are fuck-ups and don’t try. They just don’t show up to the big event that they’re headlining – or whatever it is – or they trash their hotel room. That’s such bullshit to me. I like that The Replacements had to go and learn an entire set of show tunes just to piss people off. I mean, that’s a lot of work! It’s so funny – I like a good follow through on a joke!"

It appears that events at the Swamp Soiree three years ago were destiny. Bridgers and Oberst appear genuinely happy together as the co-leaders of this new venture. Better Oblivion Community Center has so far welcomed scores of people seeking musical refuge from the world. It begs the question: would increasing attendance in the future be aided by a second album?

"We definitely talk about how it’d be fun to record again," says Oberst, waxing lyrical. "I think that with this project, the spirit was so spontaneous and fun. It didn’t feel like work when we were making it – and because no one knew it existed, there was no expectation. I think that all lent itself to us making good music, so I don’t think we ever want to feel pressured to do it. But I have a feeling that Phoebe and I will be friends for a long time and hopefully, we’ll always want to play music together, or at least I will want to. I’m into it." Silence. "We’re going to need a verbal commitment...," continues Oberst, knowingly prompting Bridgers. "I’m into it," she responds, having zoned out momentarily, before laughing. "I feel that I talk about it more than you!"

Better Oblivion Community Center is out now via Dead Oceans
Better Oblivion Community Center play Bristol Academy, 10 May; Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, 11 May; The Ritz, Manchester, 12 May