With his trembling voice, acoustic guitar, and confessional approach to songwriting, Conor Oberst played an important role in shaping the lighter, intimate side of indie rock during the late '90s and beyond.
His main project was Bright Eyes, an eclectic group of rotating musicians that vacillated between pop, folk, electronica, and country-rock. Although Oberst remained at the center of that band, he also logged time in a number of other outfits, including Commander Venus, the Magentas, Park Ave., Desaparecidos, and an early version of the Faint. Finally, he supported like-minded artists on an executive level, co-founding Saddle Creek Records in the '90s and launching his own label, Team Love, in 2003.
A native of Omaha, Nebraska, Conor Mullen Oberst was born on February 15, 1980. He began playing guitar at the age of ten, receiving lessons from his brother Matt -- a part-time teacher who doubled as the vocalist for Sorry About Dresden -- as well as the boys' father. Conor's second sibling, Justin Oberst, joined the effort three years later by financing Conor's first release. Entitled Water, the album featured a cameo by fellow Omaha resident Ted Stevens, who also played alongside Mike Mogis in Lullaby for the Working Class. This early partnership set the stage for Oberst's collaborative discography; it also allowed Oberst to further his friendship with Mike Mogis, who would later play an integral role in Bright Eyes' success.
Although still a young teenager, Oberst joined the ranks of Commander Venus and Norman Bailer (who later rechristened themselves the Faint after Oberst's departure) in 1994. The Faint's Todd Fink then joined Oberst in 1996 for a short-lived band named the Magentas. That same year, Oberst expanded his résumé by playing drums for Park Ave., although the group disbanded two years later. Bandmates Jamie Pressnall and Neely Jenkins went on to form Tilly and the Wall, with Oberst issuing the group's albums under his own Team Love label.
Along with longtime partner Mike Mogis, Oberst experienced an unexpected amount of success with Bright Eyes. The group released several recordings in the late '90s and early 2000s, during which time Oberst also set time aside to play with Desaparecidos. He returned to the Bright Eyes project in 2002, issuing the intimate Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground that summer and following it up with several EPs. It was 2005's ambitious double-album release, however, that established Oberst as a commercial artist, with both discs (I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and the electronic Digital Ash in a Digital Urn) enjoying high-ranking slots on the Billboard 200.
Bright Eyes released another album, 2007's Cassadaga, before Oberst decamped to rural Mexico to work on his first solo effort in years. Recorded in a makeshift studio with a cast of musicians dubbed the Mystic Valley Band, the self-titled Conor Oberst arrived in 2008. While on the road in support of that album, the Mystic Valley Band found time to compose another album, this time highlighting the group's collaborative spirit. Released in 2009, Outer South featured lead vocals and songwriting contributions from several members, a move that expanded the band's sound without threatening Oberst's status as bandleader. Three years later, a documentary about the Mystic Valley Band called One of My Kind appeared on DVD accompanied by a soundtrack collection of B-sides, outtakes, and the tour-only Gentleman's Pact EP. In late 2012, Oberst hit the road once again on a tour of North America and Europe, where he would play a variety of music from his many different monikers. Oberst then worked with producer Jonathan Wilson on the 2014 release Upside-Down Mountain, his first album for Nonesuch Records. The following year, Oberst retreated to his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. It was there that he spent the winter writing and recording his seventh album, Ruminations, which saw release in 2016. He quickly followed up that pared-down recording with Salutations, which featured full-band versions of the songs on Ruminations, in 2017. ~ Andrew Leahey, Rovi