Bon Iver: The Craftsman
For folkie Justin Vernon, a No. 2 album debut is the latest symbol of musical success.
Justin Vernon’s Wisconsin compound isn’t just a totem of his success — it’s a metaphor for everything he believes in and everything he wants to achieve.
Resting on the floor in a corner of Justin Vernon’s home studio, safe from foot traffic, is a collage of Polaroid portraits pinned to cork. Dozens of smiles fan out across the two-by-four bulletin board.
“Memento vibes,” he says, hoisting it up proudly. “Look, that’s Colin Stetson.” He motions to a shot of his saxophonist, who’s played with Arcade Fire and TV on the Radio. “And there’s my dad,” he beams, pointing to a mustachioed guy whose frame is slightly brawnier than his own. The project commemorates the recent completion of Bon Iver, the self-titled follow-up to his debut, 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago. Every image features someone who had a hand in sculpting this project; many of these people are buzzing around the house right now. And at the board’s center is a scrap of paper with a quote scrawled in ink: I FINALLY DID IT, BABY. I GOT OUT OF LAGRANGE. This is not a line of Vernon’s, but one plucked from a Lucinda Williams song whose title serves as metaphorical glue for both this record and its birthplace: “Fruits of My Labor.”
Said birthplace is a ranch-style home, down a country road from where Vernon grew up outside Eau Claire, the county seat in a northwestern slab of Wisconsin. It’s the first week of May and the unofficial first day of spring: The sun is on relative blast, snow from a few days earlier has disappeared. Owls are punctuating the quiet from birch trees that slope into valley acreage out back, and Vernon’s two cats, Flo and Melmon, are prowling for mice.
“Man, they are killing it right now,” Vernon booms, his hair still wet from a shower and his cotton hoodie zipped up to his scraggly beard. “This is the first time in a long time they’ve been able to run wild like this. I didn’t think I was ready to have animals, but I needed something that wasn’t me to take care of.” Named April Base after Vernon’s birth month and in reference to an X-Files episode, the house is a former vet clinic that he and his brother/comanager Nate bought in 2008, aspiring to install a top-flight recording studio where an indoor pool used to be. (Vernon also rents an apartment downtown, making him very likely the only person in Eau Claire with a pied-ÃƒÂ -terre.) The stainless steel exam tables have been removed to make way for a production office, and the hole where the pool once was has been filled in and covered up by sneaker-scuffed hardwood that Vernon bought from a middle-school gym in St. Paul, Minnesota. Flo and Melmon aren’t allowed in here because they’ll piss on the green AstroTurf that protects the floor. (“It looks like grass to us, so it looks like grass to them,” Vernon explains.) Elsewhere, there’s a fireplace in the living room, a deck in the back, and, for both friends or visiting crews like the one that shot a music video here last week, enough hand-built bunk beds to sleep two dozen.
As the house has evolved since the Vernon brothers started on it, it’s come to act as a symbol as much as a workspace and part-time home: This is the house that Bon Iver built. And he’s loathe to leave it: To reduce the risk of homesickness, Vernon plans to spend no more than four weeks at a time on the road. And, in order to best accommodate the more muscular build of his new songs, he’s expanded his live band to nine.
“If I was going to decide exactly what I want to do, I’d play two shows a month for the rest of my life,” he says. “But making the record — that I would sign up for every time.”
In the fall of 2007, back in Wisconsin after dual breakups (a girl and his band, DeYarmond Edison) in Raleigh, North Carolina, Vernon holed himself up in a remote hunting cabin that belongs to his father — a spread referred to among family as “the land.” That cabin became the mythical birthplace of For Emma, a lonesome, frosted recording in which Vernon discovered a gift he never knew he had until the song “Flume” came tumbling out of him: a haloed, heart-juicing falsetto he had only used before while singing along in cars to female singer-songwriters like Canadian folk star Kathleen Edwards, who is now his girlfriend.
After a modest self-pressing of just a few hundred, the album was snapped up by Indiana indie label Jagjaguwar for wide release in February 2008, with a 4AD deal in Europe coming soon after. On the strength of Vernon’s moody, intimate songs, which became full-throated chamber pieces when rendered live, as well as near-constant touring, reams of critical hosannas, several side projects, and fervent word of mouth, Bon Iver became its own brand by the time he decided to press pause, two years and 300,000 albums later. In the process, he learned that not only did he prefer collaboration to the fenced-in feeling that comes with being the constant center of attention, but that blending in at home was both analogue and solution to that problem.
Among the admirers was Kanye West, center-of-attention by impulsive design. West’s similarly naked 808s & Heartbreak, from 2008, had been vilified by the press, and then there was that Taylor Swift outburst-turned-monument-to-memes, which prompted him to lie low for several months. But West, whose heavy use of Auto-Tune on 808s met with criticism, found creative kin in Vernon, who had employed a vocoder to his own vocals on “Woods,” from his four-song 2009 EP, Blood Bank. In February 2010, West reached out to see if they could collaborate. Vernon agreed, but with one caveat: West would have to come to him.
“Bon Iver had just finished touring [in November], and I was still into zoning out and doing my own thing here,” says Vernon, now on the back deck polishing off a handful of his 30th birthday cake, left over from three days earlier. West, as it turned out, was more than willing to travel. But grounded by a snowstorm, he asked Vernon to come out to Oahu, where he had assembled his own recording compound to create last year’s pop colossus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. “I don’t need to be here all the time,” Vernon laughs. “Going there was so much better — I got to see so much shit go down.”
West had promised time off and Jet Skis, but what Vernon found instead over the course of three visits was entrÃƒÂ©e to a scene where he could trade ideas, face to face, with the cream of rap royalty, including Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, and Jay-Z. Between pickup basketball games and breakfasts of smoothies and omelets, Vernon worked 18-hour days in a bathroom-sized space of his own, laying down vocal tracks and engineering a few recordings, like that of Rick Ross’ verse on “Monster.”
“Rick Ross would just be sitting there a lot of the time while I was working on shit, on a piano bench right behind me, smoking blunt after blunt after blunt,” Vernon recalls. “In between takes, he’d inhale and then say real quiet, ‘That was good, homie.’ I’d be like, ‘Okay! I’ll keep going!’?”
While West would take “Woods” and transform it into his own lights-out finale, “Lost in the World,” these sessions were an opportunity to test-drive his voice in a more pop-centric, extroverted fashion. But keeping that particular company also taught him an important quality that’s rare in his usual indie-rock circles: swagger.
“Kanye hates the word ‘humble,’?” Vernon says. “And after I spent time with him, I don’t use that word anymore. He got really angry with me and asked me, ‘Have you ever looked at the definition of that word? It’s borderline self-loathing.’ It really made me think. I don’t want to be humble. I want to have humility.”
But Vernon remains, in a few key ways, West’s opposite: intensely allergic to the idea that Bon Iver’s success has everything to do with him and committed to the idea that he found his way here by tapping into the creative energies of his friends and neighbors. If this one hive-like afternoon at April Base is any indicator, that’s not just a career model, it’s a day-to-day reality. North CarolinaÃ¯Â¿Â½Ã¯Â¿Â½”based folk-rock band Bowerbirds did some recording here a few days ago. Longtime pal Brian Moen, with whom Vernon sometimes plays as blues-rock duo the Shouting Matches, drops by today to borrow an amp input. Dan Spack, bandmate in Volcano Choir, one of his many nonÃ¯Â¿Â½Ã¯Â¿Â½”Bon Iver projects, and Spack’s partner Jennifer “Bez” Bezjak, who’ve been overseeing the home renovation, are hard at work on a second studio space downstairs. Live-in sound engineer Brian Joseph is currently fastened to a control panel as he prepares remixes of every song from Bon Iver, so each of the touring band’s eight other members can study their parts in context.
There’s a constant hum to the house, at the heart of which is Edwards, 32, who not only just recorded half of her next album here (with Vernon producing and playing bass), but has also become a fixture in other ways. The couple have a system in place so they’re never apart for more than two weeks at a time. Today, she’s planting a garden.
It’s an environment that Vernon claims has shielded him from the pressures of delivering a much anticipated follow-up, as well as one that helped him make an album he wanted, as he wanted. There wasn’t the urge to deliver a sequel of any kind. “I was able to do that by being here,” he says plainly. “Shopping at Festival Foods. Seeing my folks. Being at this house. Building this thing. My job was to make my songs as good as I could, so we could keep building.”
Written over the course of three years but wrapped at April Base last winter, Bon Iver sounds just as Vernon says he intended: a cyclical statement that might redefine what Bon Iver means to any audience. And having performed at such a high level has had a lasting effect on Vernon: There’s a confidence now that simply wasn’t anywhere to be heard in the quiet of his earlier recordings.
Beginning with “Perth” (read: birth), whose knuckle-sandwich drum work is so forceful that when he and Joseph laid down its tracking over five hours early one morning, Vernon’s hands started to bleed. First single “Calgary,” Vernon says, is a wedding vow song he wrote with Edwards as his muse, long before they had even met. And “Beth/Rest” (see: death) is a velvety soft-rock coda that would feel completely out of place were this record not as varied and boldly evergreen as it is. Gone is the easily located entry point that made For Emma so distinct, and in its place a moving target Vernon sums up when that falsetto of his sounds quite clearly, “This is not a place.”
“You can only be as good as the love you’re able to muster,” he says. “So much of the shit we do is honest, but it’s compromised. I don’t think this record is compromised at all.”in the evening, we drive into town for dinner at an upscale Italian spot named Mona Lisa’s. A former high-school classmate of Vernon’s comes over to say hello as does the owner’s wife, the restaurant’s namesake.
“She’s fired so many of my friends,” he whispers between bites of pizza. “But she’s nice to me, always giving me free shit.” He cocks his head and asks, “Do you ever feel like the weight, in our culture, is totally backwards? Like, the way things are valued. I’d like to have a lasting career because I like playing music. But I don’t need it to be as big as this.”
After dinner, everyone meets up at Vernon’s favorite bar, the Joynt, for a belated birthday celebration. He says hello to a half-dozen people he knows on his way into this former jazz dive, a temple to local beer, and the spot where his parents met in 1979.
“You’re the world champion of picking basketball sons of bitches,” yells a balding guy against the wall, waving his hands in Vernon’s direction as his club-soda-sipping Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, JFK, looks on from his bar stool. Vernon looks incredulous, as though he’d never even filled out a March Madness bracket this year. But he won nonetheless. Behind him, Edwards is asking for a second opinion: “It smells like barf in here, right?” Kind of. Brian Joseph walks in the door not two seconds later, saying very casually, “It smells like hot dogs in this place.”
Vernon tucks Edwards’ hair behind her left ear and smiles. “How does it feel to be 30?” she asks.
“I feel good,” he says. “I feel free.”