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March 21, 2017 @ 9:00 pm - 11:00 pm
Conor Oberst joined his first band at the age of 13 and has been releasing music since 1993. Over the next two plus decades, he’s released cassette-only recordings, split 7-inches, and a dozen albums of uncommon insight, detail, and political awareness with his band Bright Eyes, under his own name, as a member of Desaparecidos, as leader of the The Mystic Valley Band, and with the Monsters of Folk supergroup.
While it’s been two years since his last solo album, Oberst didn’t expect to record an album this year. He hadn’t even written any songs. But like John Lennon so famously said: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Which goes a long way toward explaining how his fourth solo album Ruminations (Nonesuch Records) was born. He had moved back to his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska last fall after being briefly hospitalized in Jacksonville, Florida and being forced to cancel a tour with his rock band Desaparecidos, due to what doctors said was definitely laryngitis, anxiety, exhaustion, and, following an abnormal result from an MRI, possibly something very wrong with his brain.
Once the musician was back in Omaha, he reconnected with an old school friend who is now a physician specializing in brain research at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Oberst traveled to the Clinic to have a battery of tests lasting several days. Following a diagnosis of a benign cyst on the brain, Oberst was elated yet still unexpectedly at loose ends in Omaha—having given up his New York apartment after 13 years in the East Village—Oberst was faced with some long, cold, claustrophobic winter nights, with nothing really to do. Such conditions were the same as those that contributed to the very early songs he penned in his boyhood bedroom. This resulted in the anxious poetry, heightened self-awareness, and revealing confessionals that catalogued his doubts, demons, and nightmares. With Ruminations Oberst returns to the unselfconscious intimacy and revelations of his earlier works.
“It wasn’t premeditated at all. I don’t know if you know what Omaha is like in the winter, but it’s just paralyzing. You’re stranded in the house. Every night I was staying up late, making a point to play the new piano I had just bought and watching the snow fall outside the house. Everybody would be asleep and I would just go into this one room, make a fire, and play all night.”
“In November I had a whole pick-up truck full of firewood delivered and I thought, ‘I’m never going to run out of it.’ Before I knew I had gone through half of the firewood and I had five songs. By February I had burned through it all, and I had 15 songs. I had just spent the whole winter making fires and playing music.”
And in the same kind of immediacy with which the songs were written, Oberst realized he needed to record the songs right away, in order to capture the kind of raw intensity and rough magic behind them. He enlisted the help of his longtime friend, engineer Ben Brodin. The two of them entered Omaha’s ARC Studios, which Conor cofounded several years ago with Bright Eyes cohort and producer Mike Mogis, and emerged 48 hours later with the completed solo album. Recorded sparsely with a quiet hushed grace, and using only Oberst’s acoustic guitar, piano, and harmonica as instrumentation, Ruminations has none of the sound collages or found sounds of records past.
Making and playing music has always been a healing balm for the sometimes troubled musician. And this time it especially seemed important. It was if he was writing himself back to himself. Back to sanity. Back to understanding what is really important and has meaning for him.
“I have always believed there’s salvation through music and love. At least for me. It’s gotten me through the worst of things. But I want it to be that way for the people who listen to it, too,” explains Oberst. “I feel I always make an attempt, even when writing what is a pretty depressing number, to sew some silver lining into it. I think the secret to happiness is making yourself believe that happiness is possible. The first step in overcoming anything is to believe that you can do it. So in my songs there’s always a point where something pulls you out of the hole you’re in” -Jaan Uhelszki