With a pair of ambitious new albums, indie rock's most exciting young star -- Bright Eyes mastermind Conor Oberst -- could finally be wading into the big time

By Leah Greenblatt
Updated January 24, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST

In his 11 years in the music business, indie-rock veteran Conor Oberst (best known by his alter ego, Bright Eyes) has cofounded two record labels, fronted three bands, released 10 albums, and shared the stage with a host of legendary figures, including Bruce Springsteen and Michael Stipe.

He is 24 years old.

”I’ve heard [child-prodigy references] a lot, a lot, a lot,” says the Omaha native ruefully, shifting his negligible weight on the well-worn couch of his manager’s cramped New York City apartment. ”I would be putting out records when I was 15, 16, 17, 18, 20, and in the first paragraph of every magazine story it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, he’s gonna be something…someday.”’

Someday, say hello to Now. With the Jan. 25 release of two masterful new Bright Eyes albums — the mostly acoustic I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and its electronic-oriented counterpart, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn — Oberst has matured into the kind of singer-songwriter artists of any age would envy. And fans are already taking note: When Oberst released two Bright Eyes singles (one from each CD) last October, they captured the top two spots on Billboard’s singles sales chart, a remarkable feat that undoubtedly took also-rans like Usher and Alicia Keys by surprise.

Wide Awake, an artful blend of bittersweet lyrics and delicate melodies, seems most likely to broaden Bright Eyes’ audience (although Digital Ash‘s cooler, more glitchy textures also deserve attention). The album’s Dylanesque appeal owes a lot to Oberst’s intimate confessions and distinctive voice — and to a certain unusual guest star: Emmylou Harris, who duets on three lovely tracks. ”At first, I was totally in awe,” says Oberst of the session with Harris. ”But she’s so disarming and sweet that she takes all that away immediately by just talking. She’s just an angel.”

It’s the kind of collaboration he could barely imagine growing up in off-the-map Omaha. Back then, playing guitar was merely a means to stave off the boredom of Nebraska’s infamously long, brutal winters. In 1994, two years after picking up the instrument, the quiet, bespectacled 14-year-old formed an outfit called Commander Venus with a few friends. Soon after, the band founded a label, Saddle Creek, to release their no-budget EPs; only later would it grow into the impressive indie-rock juggernaut it is today, home to well-received artists like the Faint and (until last year) Rilo Kiley, as well as Bright Eyes and Oberst’s other band, Desaparecidos. In the early days, ”if we wanted to make a CD, we scraped our money together and no one gave a s—. We sold them at local stores and played shows wherever we could. But we sort of rejoiced in it, and at each step we felt like if that was as far as it went, we would be happy. Because it was made out of nothing, so it’s not like we had anything to lose.”

When Oberst introduced his Bright Eyes alias in 1998, few people outside the Omaha scene knew his name. But something about Bright Eyes — which includes a revolving cast of musicians — connected; with the release of 2000’s Fevers and Mirrors and then 2002’s epic (in both title and execution) Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, the Gospel of Conor began to spread.