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They get younger every year

Conor Oberst is the latest in a line of precocious and prolific songwriters. Nick Hasted talks to him about his unique vision of the world

25 May 2001

The prodigies

"Little" Stevie Wonder
Blind from birth, Wonder was a Detroit church fixture as singer and harmonica player by 10, when Motown signed him. In the Seventies, he dropped the "Little" to create masterpieces such as Songs in the Key of Life.

Van Dyke Parks
Sang with Einstein at three, was conducted by Toscanini in his teens and, between 1966 and 1967, played with The Byrds, produced Randy Newman's debut, co-wrote Brian Wilson's aborted "teenage symphony to God" Smile, and released his own album, Song Cycle.

Michael Jackson
In 1969, at the age of 11, Michael began a string of massive hits with the Jackson 5, and was still only 25 when Thriller became the best-selling album of all time.

"Little" Jimmy Osmond
Yet to live down the impact of his 1972 No 1 Long Haired Lover from Liverpool, the pint-sized Mormon shows little sign of equalling the achievements of "Little" Stevie.

Ash
Fourteen when their debut single, "Jack Named the Planets" was played on Radio1, the Belfast boys had to pass up a Pearl Jam support slot to sit their GCSEs, but are now established hit-makers.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The most precocious of them all? Mozart was playing the klavier at three and composing by the age of five. At 13, he went to the Vatican and transcribed Allegri's 15-minute, nine-part Miserere from memory. Died at the age of 35, and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Kate Bush
Kate was 14 when she was taken under David Gilmore's wing and signed to EMI, where she immersed herself in production's mysteries. Her first single, "Wuthering Heights", sounded like nothing else and shot to No 1.

The 20-year-old Nebraskan Conor Oberst, aka Bright Eyes, first leapt on stage to perform his peculiar songs when he was 12, an age he could still almost pass for. He looks a wisp of a boy, like he'll blow away in the rainy London street he's incongruously walking down with me. Fresh-faced, floppy-haired, obligingly friendly, the contrast with his work is dizzying. Listen to the two-album tip of his incredible 500-song iceberg released here this year, and an American Gothic hermit would look nearer the mark.

These LPs ­ Letting off the Happiness, out this month, and Fevers and Mirrors ­ span tumbling, hoe-down punk and delicate piano, while Oberst's voice fraily quavers, and then screams itself hoarse. His lyrics are so maniacally depressed they're hilarious. You imagine the inside of his head as a mix of Edgar Allan Poe's monomaniac stories, Andrew Wyeth's eerie cornfield paintings, and Kurt Cobain's neurosis. But the way Oberst tells it, the source of his prodigious output isn't really so skewed. It all starts with his hometown ­ Omaha, in Nebraska.

"Omaha is a city," he says, "but once you get outside it, there's as much space as you want. Going West, there's not much between Omaha and California, nothing to do but drive and think. I live on its edge, where there are endless cornfields. On clear nights I walk out, and it's beautiful. Then if you head to the Badlands, in South Dakota, it looks like hell. Omaha's a cattle town, conservative at its core, and there isn't a whole lot of mainstream culture. But within it there's a thriving, driven music community like nowhere else. In Omaha, everyone comes to every show, everyone helps everyone else. We have to, to survive."

Oberst's older brother played in that scene, and passed down key "alternative" albums of the Eighties and Nineties ­ early REM, The Smiths, Fugazi ­ while his Dad, also a musician, played him songwriters from the Sixties like Bob Dylan, and he heard folk, country and bluegrass in the rural air around him. Older friends leant him books, Raymond Carver to Dostoevsky, foundations for his later extraordinary lyrics. His hunger for experience most children wouldn't miss also took him to "a weird part of Omaha, a ghost town", where he spent afternoons with his friends watching films in an empty, echoing cinema. His mother had always told him to express himself. By the age of seven, he was ready to start.

"I always had an over-active imagination, so once I learnt a way to put that to use, other than day-dreaming, it was a big awakening. Once I figured that out, I never stopped."

It was Ted Stevens, of his fellow Nebraskans Lullaby for the Working-Class, who first asked 12-year-old Oberst to perform one of the songs he'd begun writing in a local coffee-house. Only a dozen were watching but, when his terror wore off, Oberst was hooked.

"I think at first it was a novelty act," he admits, "to see a little kid screaming his head off, strumming wildly on a guitar. I think that's what let me get away with performing so early, at first. That it was funny, or something. But gradually the novelty wore off, and I carried on. They forgot I was a kid."

Oberst was in several bands even before Bright Eyes, and still plays with others today ­ it's an Omaha tradition. At the last count, he'd released 150 songs of the half-thousand he's finished ­ "many so terrible I've gladly forgotten them" ­ and played hundreds of shows. It's a work-rate that suits his prodigious start but, already eight years into his career, it's also left him struggling with premature problems of burn-out. A couple of times on tours like the one he's taking round Britain this week, he's felt himself going through the motions ­ "it was gross, filthy, wrong". He misses Omaha's "house shows", where performers literally cram crowds into their living rooms ­ an intimacy that's his ideal.

Even songwriting's become daunting, as more people listen to his highly personal lyrics and start to work out who he is. "An Attempt To Tip the Balance", on Fevers and Mirrors, is his funniest effort to address the problem, a deadpan fake radio interview where he seems to explain his songs' themes and admit to the depression they indicate, until he's reminiscing about the five brothers his mother drowned in the bath-tub and you don't know what to believe. In person, though, he's disarmingly straightforward. The depression is real and life-long. And some of that misery's roots lie in another side of his odd Nebraskan childhood.

"For 12 years, I was schooled by Jesuits," he tells me. "For 11 of those years I just accepted God, like oxygen. Then I stopped believing. It was like someone had pulled a terrible trick. You grow up believing that someone up there's looking after you, that your actions matter, that there's an afterlife. Without that, I was terribly lonely. I had a long period when I didn't feel attached to life. I could take it or leave it. It's only in the last year that I've realised how lucky I am, how important it is to be alive."

He's also realised that strip-mining his own emotions for songs will leave him played out before long. After a typically self-absorbed adolescence, he's ready to start writing about the world.

"It's a lot harder than self-expression. But I don't know if I have the stomach for that any more. I have realised that I am just like everybody else. Everybody feels this way ­ this bad and this wonderful, all the time."

The album 'Letting off the Happiness' (Wichita) is out now

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