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Despite critical adulation, Kanye West collaborations and commercial success, Justin Vernon is still in love with small-town life
BON IVER with the ROSEBUDS at Sound Academy (11 Polson), Monday (August 8), doors 8 pm. $35-$45. Sold out. See listing.
When I reach Justin Vernon, the musician behind Bon Iver, he’s wandering around his small hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Specifically, he’s dropped off his car at the detail shop and is now awaiting its return.
“I’m trying to make this 2003 Honda CR-V situation happen for another few years,” he explains. “It’s been with me for a long time. My mom sold it to me in 2005, and I’ve driven it across many countries. I can’t really give up on it.”
Kind of like his relationship with Eau Claire, where he still lives despite his experimental folk project’s great success.
“That’s exactly right,” Vernon laughs. “Don’t speak too much truth around me.”
He’s joking, of course, though the remark’s worth considering. Truth actually seems to be exactly what the acclaimed singer/songwriter with the haunting, soulful falsetto is after. In conversation, he’s humble, candid and thoughtful. He gives out his cellphone number to the press, and his publicist doesn’t micro-manage his interviews.
When I admit to being a big fan, he says, “I appreciate that. I’ve become close friends with people whose music fucking rearranged my life. Music is fucking special and it’s a gift to all of us, and I don’t think I feel somehow more important than you.”
But back to Eau Claire.
Place is the major theme in Vernon’s music, evident more than ever on his self-titled sophomore masterpiece out on Jagjaguwar. Including first single Calgary, seven of its 10 songs are named for cities, mostly fictional but real-sounding: Hinnom, TX Lisbon, OH Minnesota, WI Michicant. But no city inspires him more than his hometown.
“When I first started writing songs, I was like, ‘I love the hills and the lakes,'” he says. “Eau Claire is my perspective and context always. I’m 30 now, and there are definitely times when I’m like, ‘What in the fuck am I still doing here?’ I’m the only one in my family who even lives here any more. But at the same time, I love it. It’s simple. It doesn’t require anything from me.”
Since Bon Iver’s debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, was released in 2007, each passing year has required more and more of Vernon. That sparse solo album, famously written in a wintry cabin in the aftermath of a band and relationship breakup and while Vernon was battling mononucleosis, landed him on the Jagjaguwar and 4AD rosters as well as the best-of lists of major critics and countless fans.
Its follow-up EP, Blood Bank, features the mesmerizing Auto-Tune experiment Woods that captured the attention of Kanye West. Vernon lent his vocals (and samples of Woods) to the hip-hop star’s chart-smashing My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album from last year.
It all means Vernon’s in an entirely different league this time around – fielding interviews with the New York Times, appearing on late-night talk shows and selling out concerts on his North American tour, even when the venues are as large as Sound Academy, which he hits on Monday (August 8), and on his fall European tour. Both see Toronto-based alt-country star Kathleen Edwards – his girlfriend, whose new album he produced (see sidebar) – in some of the opening slots.
And yet the new album reveals an artist doing anything but repeating a winning formula or hesitating to take chances. Self-produced in a studio built by Vernon and his brother just outside of Eau Claire – 3 miles from the house he grew up in and 10 minutes from the bar where his parents met – it’s bold, ambitious and provocatively synth- and horn-steeped but keeps intact the fragile emotion, impressionistic lyrics and wounded falsetto that made us fall so hard for him in the first place.
The album grew from the song Perth, which he immediately knew would be the opening track “because that weird artistic click happened where I went, ‘Well, you just wrote the first song on your new record.’ There’s no way around it. I was like, ‘Well, shit, I guess I’m making kind of a heavy metal record.'”
While the new release is decidedly not a heavy metal record in the typical sense, it is heavy. Much of that comes from the sheer number of participating musicians – 16, including Polaris Prize-nominated saxophonist Colin Stetson. (Nine back him up on the tour, including his regular bandmates Michael Noyce, Sean Carey and Matthew McCaughan.) Vernon’s involvement with the 25-plus-member Gayngs and six-member Volcano Choir, plus his numerous collaborations, hinted at large-scale aspirations, yet the album’s elegant density still comes as a marked departure from the debut.
To Vernon, though, it’s a natural next step.
“My whole life, I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of very large bands,” Vernon explains. “My high school band had nine people. My high school jazz band had 28 people. There’s a power that happens with large ensembles of music.
“Seeing how Kanye was allowing all these people he liked to do things, seeing how Ryan Olson of Gayngs does that – that [sense of collaboration] resounds with me. Not only does it inspire me, but it also makes sense to me. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to make this record, and for having the time, money and space to do it.”
Also changed is his songwriting style. He took a non-traditional approach after discovering he could no longer make acoustic-guitar-centric/verse-chorus-verse songs work for him. Instead, he often took a single sound – he uses the example of an improvised saxophone pass caught on tape while Stetson was figuring out a part – and built it into a song in the studio in a “constructionalist” way that gives it a “mystery and not-so-obvious feel.” The approach works entirely by feel and instinct and, Vernon admits, requires lots of editing and reworking.
What hasn’t changed, however, is his ability to channel his fears into sonic beauty the way he did with For Emma, Forever Ago, when he was lonely, sick and isolated.
“The success was scary in a way,” says Vernon, “coming from where I came from and seeing how the record took off and not really feeling like I had a choice in the matter. Not that I was bummed. I enjoyed the success and that I was able to be a musician finally. But there was kind of a general anxiety.
“And so I used this record to dig down in the earth and really centre myself. Even when I wasn’t at home, when I was on the road, I’d have these snippets of ideas. I noticed how when I listened to them, they made me feel better. They made me feel closer to home, closer to the earth. Safer. They really became a companion to me, honestly.
“I made the record I always wanted to make. I couldn’t be prouder.”
Justin Vernon on how he kept at bay the pressure of recording a follow-up to a hit record:
On his decision to make better, healthier decisions:
On his desire to demystify the “go record in a rural cabin to find yourself” myth that’s followed him since recording For Emma, Forever Ago: