On Ruminations Oberst returns to the unselfconscious intimacy and revelations of his earlier works. “It was just time, I think. I just let go of some of that stuff. I stopped caring about the outside world, and realized that this kind of writing is what I’m supposed to be doing right now and I really can’t let anything else get in the way of that.”
But having said that, he didn’t actually realize he was making an album when he started.
“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. [My wife] Corina goes to bed a lot earlier than I do, so I was basically alone. 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 he found that he was writing autobiographically once again, revealing small parts of what had happened to him over the last few years, and slowly allowing his audience back in, without even realizing that was what was occurring.
“I think what happened is I sort of forgot about the world, the audience, everything, and kept writing. And writing. And writing. It was unexpected but obviously it had been brewing subconsciously for a long time. It’s hard not to say the culmination of the last couple of years is clearly embedded in these songs. But I just put that whole part of my brain on the shelf for a while, because I felt I had to.”
But once he reclaimed it the words just began to tumble out. “It just all kind of spilled out. And I think because I wasn’t expecting anything there was a freedom there. This record was not constructed, and there was no grandiose idea of the kind of record I wanted to make. On a record like Cassadaga the songs were written over a couple of years. These were written over a couple of months.”
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.
“I knew I wanted to record them quickly to get them down. They seemed to demand that,” he explains. 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.
“I felt that I needed to just leave the songs alone,” he explains.
Interestingly, Oberst usually requires some form of transportation to write, but not on Ruminations. “Once I have a melody solidified in my mind, then I can slowly work on the lyrics wherever I am, like just walking around,” he explains. “I find that motion helps my brain. Cars are good. Planes. Motion always seems to be involved. But not this time. There was definitely less traveling—more of a stranded feeling.”
The only traveling that seemed to have occurred was time traveling, revisiting old concerns and then attempting to resolve them. “Some of these songs were very therapeutic for me. With 'Counting Sheep,’ for instance, there was definitely a draining of the poison. If you’re able to put a name to something, all of a sudden it has a little less power over you,” he says quietly.
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.
Songs like “Mamah Borthwick (A Sketch),” inspired by iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s lover who was murdered, is perfectly constructed like a Lloyd Wright edifice, each paragraph anchored by the name of one of his famous buildings that has endured despite adversities, fire, and earthquakes. It contains the phrase that the album takes its name from, and it’s a testament to creating art that withstands times and changing tastes, or as the lyrics explain: “build something that’s sacred till the end.” Something that Oberst is fully capable of doing himself.
“The title of the album comes from a psychological term for a thought that keeps repeating. The only way I knew to stop the thought was to make music,” he says.
“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.”