The success of Phoebe Bridgers’ 2017 album Stranger in the Alps — as well as the cult-following of her supergroup, boygenius, with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus — has transformed the 24-year-old Los Angeles-bred artist into one of the most critically acclaimed songwriters of her generation. And she has no intentions of slowing down anytime soon. For her next act, she’s teamed up with indie-rock royalty Conor Oberst in a project dubbed Better Oblivion Community Center.
The duo met during a show at the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles, where Oberst was playing a secret set and Bridgers was opening. Oberst eventually invited her on his Ruminations tour, and would later appear on Bridgers’ quiet, anxiety-ridden track “Would You Rather.” It makes sense that the two connected musically, considering their similarly downcast, intimate lyrics, and striking vocals.
But they never thought they would make an album together. In April 2017, they penned “I Didn’t Know What I Was In For,” the first song of what would be the Better Oblivion Community Center project. They were so pleased with the results they kept going, writing music with the intention of having it played by a full band. “We definitely wanted to avoid the trope of a duet album or something like that,” Oberst tells EW.
From Omaha, Bridgers and Oberst spoke about their surprise new record, their upcoming tour, and whether they’ll continue to collaborate together.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Better Oblivion Community Center is a cool project name. Where does it come from?
CONOR OBERST: It’s just a string of words that we liked that had a little bit of a dystopian ring to it. I feel like the “community” part in the name is more like a dystopia that we’re all in together — which is maybe the zeitgeist of the world right now.
Did you know when you collaborated on “Would You Rather” that you’d want to do something bigger together?
PHOEBE BRIDGERS: No. It’s so weird because we recorded that song right when we first met. I was in Los Angeles, and then Mike Mogis, who’s in Bright Eyes, was mixing my record [in Omaha], and so Conor just sang it from Omaha. Then, we went on tour together. Somewhere along the line, we decided to make it a real thing instead of just helping out with each other’s projects.
OBERST: Actually, the very first song that’s on the [Better Oblivion Community Center] record is the first song we did together and it’s kind of cool…. We did it without much thought as to whose album it would be on or anything like that. I think it went really well and we were both super stoked on it. And then we wrote another song and we were like, “Hey, maybe we should just do a single for fun,” and then it slowly got bigger . After casually writing for a year, we were like, “Oh, we have the makings of a full-length record, so might as well go for it.”
Why did you decide to keep it a surprise?
OBERST: It was somewhat logistical. Phoebe had such a crazy last year with her record and the boygenius stuff that we kind of wanted to let it all run its course before announcing this record. There wasn’t a lot of time between being able to announce it and sell tickets to the shows we were going to do, so it made sense to do some kind of surprise thing. It was kind of Phoebe’s idea to drop it without any warning, and then the label had a lot of cool ideas about unconventional marketing: let’s just try to have fun with it and make it a mysterious thing that maybe people figure out beforehand, but hopefully just appears and everyone can see the whole record at once as opposed to just hearing a couple of songs and then guessing what it’s going to sound like.
Have you guys been dropping hints?
BRIDGERS: Yeah, kind of. Or the label is. I was pretty gung-ho for a surprise release because of everything that Conor said: presumption and people’s preconceived notion of what our separate music sounds like and what it would sound like together. There’s a phone number that you can call and you kind of hear one of the songs. It’s cool. I’ve never done anything like this before.
OBERST: They made this weird brochure for the community center that they’re sending out to the people on our mailing list, but also other fans on their label lists for people that might like our stuff. So, basically a bunch of people are going to get this weird brochure for the Better Oblivion Community Center in the mail and I’m sure a lot of them will throw it away, but some people might be like, “What’s this?” and call the number and kind of be intrigued.
Did you have any trepidation about how you’d sound together on a full record?
BRIDGERS: I think I was really curious, and I think that’s why it’s complimentary because we have such different voices. Who I sing with on my solo music is my drummer Marshall [Vore], and he didn’t really sing before. I forced him to, because he kind of sounds exactly like me. That’s what I like: when it’s a song from one person’s perspective, I think it’s really cool. What’s cool about this is that it’s the polar opposite of that. I think stylistically too, it doesn’t follow my music or Conor’s music. Conor’s music and my music is somewhere in the middle.
OBERST: One thing we talked about while we were making it was the idea of trying to have the sound be a full rock band sound. There’s maybe [a little bit] of a throwback — some ‘90s indie rock where there’s two singers the whole time, and that’s a sound that we both liked a lot… [It’s] not what you’d expect.
Did you guys pour your anxieties out on the table while writing together?
BRIDGERS: It’s weird because I feel like we didn’t actually preface a lot of writing. We would just start writing a song and the themes would kind of emerge. There are one or two examples on the record where I’d be off on some tangent about something, and Conor would take it and write it almost entirely in a more poetic way. Weirdly, we never really sat down and were like, “Okay, this is how our personalities overlap” [but] we definitely talked about how we’re both pretty emo.
Tell me about the first single “Dylan Thomas.”
BRIDGERS: I was in Los Angeles doing boygenius. We did not expect to write another song. Nine songs is fine for a whole record, and Conor and I were supposed to record a couple of days later. I have some voice memo of the melody and then Conor was thinking about a bunch of dark shit and we finished it in the night.
OBERST: There was actually at the house that we recorded the record at a book of [Dylan Thomas] poetry sitting on the table. That was the last one we wrote for the record. It happened really fast. That was one of the ones that came the easiest. Maybe because we’d written however many songs before, so we knew the way we worked together at that point. But that was one that felt like a happy accident.
You’re going to be touring the record together. Will you be playing it in its entirety, and are you going to be playing your own work individually as well?
OBERST: I think definitely the whole record, and just to make it a long enough show, I think we’ll end up doing covers and a couple of our different songs. But we haven’t really figured all that out yet. I would say definitely keeping it centered on the record. Since we only have 10 songs, we’ll probably play most of them. Right now, we’re recording a couple new songs that will be [on] a single when the tour starts.
Is this going to be a one-off or are you going to continue on with this project?
BRIDGERS: I think the spirit of this and the spirit of boygenius is it’s been a s–t ton to do back-to-back and not thinking about that question has been really freeing…. But yeah, I hope so.
OBERST: It’s kind of hard to see into the crystal ball, but I would assume that as long as we’re both alive and friends and everything, I imagine we’ll make more music in the future. At least I would like to.