When singer-songwriter and filmmaker Tim Kasher takes the stage this Tuesday at the Charleston Music Hall, it will be, in some ways, in the shadow of the more famous Conor Oberst, the one-time “next Dylan.” Oberst’s records, under the Bright Eyes moniker, made the Omaha-based Saddle Creek Records an unlikely household name in independent music circles in the early 2000s.
Which is kind of a shame. Kasher recorded on that label too, both in Oberst’s early band Commander Venus as well as in his own bands Cursive and the Good Life. And in many ways the fervency of his cult following is very much the equal to his more famous friend. The music each makes seems so indelibly informed by one another, with much of the same lyrical wit, tender earnestness, and intensely character and story-driven songwriting that can knock a listener over with its emotional power.
“We were all so close-knit and consuming the same stuff, but also paying really close attention to what each other was writing and using that as our own jumping-off point for what we were doing,” Kasher recalls. “It was a really exciting time back then. Every new record that somebody wrote, we would all get stoked on it. We’d joke, ‘Well, I guess we have to write a record as good as that now.’ It was such a positive influence, which is something I think a lot of scenes don’t have, which I think is a lot of why it did happen in Omaha.”
And even more than their shared songwriting sensibilities, you can hear a distinct sense of community on those early Saddle Creek records — the mix of DIY zeal and Midwestern squareness combined with grand, if ragged, musical and narrative ambition that seemed to flourish among the label’s early offerings. And none more so than from the pen of Oberst and Kasher.
As Saddle Creek continued to flourish and diversify, though, it became less tied to that identity, particularly as many of those early contributors also drifted away geographically and musically. Now, Kasher and Oberst tour together again at a distance from their roots, along with Frances Quinlan of the young folk-rock band Hop Along, who signed with Saddle Creek in 2014.
“She must have such a totally different Saddle Creek experience than we did,” Kasher muses of Quinlan, who he says he’s a huge fan of. “I can probably speak for many of us in feeling like it’s really been a while. We’ve flipped over generations even since Omaha was really put on the map for being a music town. We’re all off doing what feels like pretty significantly different stuff.
“But keeping that tether alive, like getting opportunities to tour with each other and stuff, reminds us that we all came up together, even if we have a bunch of new friends and live in different cities,” he continues. “It can kind of seem like high school in that regard. But it’s great to keep that thread going in these kinds of ways.”
While Oberst has maintained his spot in the public eye a bit more, Kasher has maintained a steady output of musical releases under his own name and the Good Life moniker, as well as writing and directing his first feature film, No Resolution, which is also the title of his latest, suitable theatrical solo effort, a complementary piece but not the soundtrack for the film.
“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” says Kasher of making the film. “The kind of story I tell on it, and I’ve been telling at the screenings, is that music really took off in my 20s and that was great, but once I turned 30 I made a pledge to get into songwriting because that’s really what I’ve wanted to do since I was a young teenager.”
Kasher’s turn towards songwriting isn’t surprising given his finely tuned character sketches and penchant for fully formed short stories that delve into the sensitive emotional details of our relationships (particularly romantic ones) with one another.
“I feel like, despite all of the time that has gone by, that what I was interested in when I was 20 isn’t so different from what I’m interested in now,” he confesses. “You kind of have to go back to your most precious and important concepts. For me, I’m always wanting to go over the minutiae of our intimate relationships with one another, and I’m always wanting to touch on religion, or question society in one form or another.”
And while his music, whether as a solo artist or in Cursive or the Good Life, does not draw the same fervor as it might have a decade ago, he’s comfortably settled into his career, re-issuing early Cursive records alongside his new solo album on the label 15 Passengers, a new business separate from Saddle Creek that he and the other members of Cursive are forging together. Which, despite his long affiliation with the Omaha effort, makes sense.
“It mostly had to do with the way Saddle Creek started,” Kasher explains with an even-keeled finality. “That spirit of releasing records ourselves is still there, but Saddle Creek hasn’t been our label for a long time. It became a label — it achieved that impossible thing where it’s a national label that people are aware of and celebrate.
He adds, “We just feel older and don’t need that [infrastructure]. We have a career established and aren’t as hungry. It’s just nice to have control and do it ourselves.”