By Breanna Murphy; photos by D.L. Anderson on June 20, 2011
“It’s easy to be cynical in this world. I think it’s important to be cynical and doubtful of certain things, but I also think it’s important to stop and realize that It’s good. Whatever’s going on is good, It’s not bad. Or, at the least, there’s an opportunity for that. It’s about one’s personal opportunity in a lifetime to make their own life good or positive or to fix themselves. Everybody’s a little bit busted. I think you can actually build something.”
He’s swerved off the conversational road again, or so he says, apologizing for seeming too general or vague or verbose in explanation toward the questions posed. But the answer speaks precisely to the artist’s condition—where he has been and, more importantly, where he is going—little does he realize how much sense he’s making.
Justin Vernon is thousands of miles of telephone wire away in Toronto, and only hours away from touching down on the West Coast, where he will perform twice at the 2011 Coachella Music and Arts Festival—once with his hometown, childhood compatriots in GAYNGS and once as a guest with the festival’s pinnacle headliner, Kanye West. The distinction between Vernon’s two appearances is clear: On the one hand, he is the guy who grew up in the small town of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, alongside Joe Westerlund and Brad and Phil Cook (of Megafaun) and Adam Hurlburt and Ryan Olson (of GAYNGS)—all of whom he has played with in at least one band; on the other, Vernon’s success with the pseudo-solo project Bon Iver—whose 2007 debut For Emma, Forever Ago, was lauded by trusted critics and word-of-mouth fans alike—has earned him enough crossover cred to land him in both a tent and on the main stage.
Just five years ago, however, his condition was very different—it was a bit bleak to be sure, but it was also just the beginning of this story. In 2006, the then-25-year-old Vernon had just experienced the dissolution of DeYarmond Edison, the band he formed in Eau Claire with Westerlund and the Cooks, and with which the four moved from Wisconsin to Raleigh, North Carolina, just a year previously. In a MySpace blog dated September 16, 2006, Brad Cook wrote of the DeYarmond Edison breakup, “Justin will temporarily/indefinitely be heading back west, taking the time to really explore some long overdue recording. I am sure there will be new material from him in no time.” Vernon retreated back home to Eau Claire, where he took up residence in his father’s cabin, came down with a nasty case of mononucleosis, shut himself away in a kind of isolation and began to write the songs that would become For Emma, Forever Ago.
“I didn’t know I was making a record in parts. It was more when it was starting to wrap up that I realized that it was something,” he explains. “It wasn’t until months after I was done recording it that I knew what to call it. I knew what to call the record, but I didn’t know what the record was.”
Vernon’s treading well-traversed territory here, a time in his life that has been examined from every angle and analyzed by every pair of ears to have been blessed by For Emma’s devastating grandeur. “Microscopically, that time has been evaluated more recently by friends, family and [music critics] just because it’s a unique time as far as what it spawned in my life. I’m a nostalgic guy, but I just don’t think about it that much. The nostalgia [for it] comes from feelings and vague memory. Music always, for me, places those times and memories.”
The voice on the line is deep, with a northern Midwestern accent whose vowels testify to its proximity to the Canadian border, and he speaks carefully, eloquently. It’s a tone sometimes difficult to match with the one mourning some invisible, wrenching pain on For Emma’s trembling “Flume,” crying out in falsetto echoes in hopeless resignation on “Lump Sum,” or lilting wildly in frustration against exacting acoustic strumming on “Skinny Love.” Self-released in 2007, the record’s subsequent journey—its discovery by a blogger via Vernon’s MySpace account, re-release in 2008 on Jagjaguwar, and resulting universal acclaim and admiration—is testament to its intrinsic nature: a document of haunting near-perfection, a record frozen in time, encapsulated by its author’s pain and catharsis spinning slowly beneath a record needle.
“It’s still really hard for me to know what For Emma is really ‘about’; I think it’s hard to say it’s about anything,” he confesses. “Generally, it was about mourning some past pain. And it’s also an attempt to purge that pain. At least, trying to decide that pain is not the route to go…[not] doing things that would ever cause pain in your life, as romantic as it is to sometimes lose yourself, and [not] to go through those motions in life that don’t necessarily serve you well in the end. For Emma is very achy. The sound of it is very wooden and distant and alone.”
In the spaces between then and now, Vernon spread himself widely, with roles alongside friends new and old on a multitude of diverse projects, including contributions to Volcano Choir and the aforementioned GAYNGS, as well as a notable collaboration with Kanye West on the Vuitton Don’s gaudy, egomaniacal 2010 masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Despite the far reaches, Vernon has remained surprisingly embedded in his hometown since his storied return from Raleigh. His family still resides in Eau Claire, and nearby Fall Creek is the location of his recording studio, called April Base. Even while he is far from home, Wisconsin remains rooted deep within him. “People decide to live in places for seemingly unwarranted reasons. You just live there and for whatever reason, I still live here,” he says, speaking of Eau Claire from the same Toronto phone line. “I don’t leave, ever. I just haven’t figured out how to leave. For whatever reason, I’m inspired by it and I’m observing it, at the very least, because I’m always here. Or…there,” he admits, realizing his adverbial error. “I put that priority pretty high because it’s my comfort level, and sometimes I can doubt that. Why do I do this? Why do I keep living here when I don’t have to? It’s my favorite place so far, you know what I mean? I couldn’t see myself going other places.”
In those same spaces of time left wide after For Emma, Vernon had been curiously silent regarding his own, highly anticipated sophomore effort. In five years, far from stepping away from Bon Iver to clear his head, the candle glowing on the sill of his father’s cabin never actually extinguished, instead burning slowly and steadily during the last half-decade, now finally ready to ignite the past at last. Songs and recordings begun as far back as three years ago have their own places to fill, and they’re far too grand for any four walls to confine. Where For Emma, Forever Ago dissolved into silence on “Re: Stacks” is where Bon Iver resumes with “Perth,” beginning softly, welcoming the listener warmly back into Vernon’s space, before breaking out of it completely in one carefully composed, swelling crescendo and drum pattern.
“This record is very much encapsulating and full of color. Bon Iver is a personal statement, but every personal statement is not just made by you, it’s made by your environment and the people who made you who you are—the guys who play on the record are people who inspire me and help me make the music.”
Whereas his debut was an entirely solo affair, Vernon’s second Bon Iver record features recognizable faces from live tours, members of what he calls his “inner circle”: the reedy, jazzy saxophones of Colin Stetson and Michael Lewis are heard alongside familiar vocals from Mike Noyce and the multi-instrumentalism of Sean Carey and Matt McCaughan. In a deeply personal addition for Vernon, legendary Bill Frisell contributor Greg Leisz adds steel pedal to several tracks, namely the album’s soulful closer, “Beth/Rest.” Though he’s invited numerous people into the new record, Bon Iver still retains blurred lines of mystery, avoiding conscious definition. Not a “solo project,” nor a “band,” Vernon sees himself instead as curator of a greater musical project, one that eludes explanation. It’s personal, and will always be bound close to his soul and his home—and the people, memories, loves, hates, wants, can’t-haves, joys and sorrows that make it whole. “Bon Iver is a place in your mind, it’s a place in my mind and everyone has their own version of that. It’s not necessarily ‘Bon Iver’ for everyone, for me it is. The best answer that I can give—the only clear, concise and accurate answer—is this record,” Vernon admits. “It’s what Bon Iver is to me: What I think it could be, what I think it fails to be…it’s everything.”
Vernon’s cathartic mourning, his purification through pain, has evolved to the state of Bon Iver, a reflection of a brighter shade for its author. “It’s about inviting happiness into your life and not doubting it. Not, ‘this is stupid’ or ‘this is uncool’—actually trying to figure out what everlasting happiness could be like.” It’s harder to be happy than it is to be critical, disillusioned and bitter. It’s an ideal that’s difficult to subscribe to in a cynical world, to allow oneself due elation. And this is “Bon Iver”—the state of “a good winter”—where Vernon’s music resides in its new home. Bon Iver is a transcript of the places this state of mind takes you; sometimes, oftentimes, it’s a condition of knowing the unknowable, trusting more to feeling or sentimentality than tangibility or reality. Vernon’s lyrics delight in this abstruseness, obscuring meaning without erasing it. And, finally, it’s a triumph to the person to whom it matters most.
“The record is personally complete to me. I finished it. I know I nailed it for myself. I did the record I wanted to do. And the last line on the album—‘this is axiom’—just means: Whatever is said, whatever anybody can say about this album, this song, these notions that I’ve come up with… they are self-evident truths,” Vernon declares, catching his breath evenly. “It means I know that they are true because I know they are true. It’s such a strong word, and the courage or whatever it took for me to do all this, it’s kind of like…this is true. What I am saying is true.”
Do you know what I mean? F
This article is from FILTER Issue 44