In the weeks following his Grammy nominations, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon was surprised to find himself just famous enough to piss a lot of people off. DAVID BEVAN tagged along with the whole family as 2012’s Most Conflicted New Artist faced the music in L.A.
"A naked guy at the Y came up to me a little while ago and said, 'Hey, way to stick it to those Grammys people,'" Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon says, his left hand nervously raking his beard. " 'They're not going to let you play your own music? Fuck 'em.'" Vernon is scrunched up on a couch in a dark West Hollywood hotel room, less than 24 hours away from his first trip to the Grammy Awards here in Los Angeles, an event that, along with four major, seemingly unexpected nominations, has brought with it intense, seemingly unexpected levels of scrutiny and opinion. The stranger at Vernon's hometown gym represents just one slice of the spectrum. "There's plenty of other people [back home in Eau Claire, Wisconsin] who said, 'Hey, good luck! Just be nice! Represent us well!'" he says, hand still tense. "I don't know what that means, though. Represent to whom? More people? Twenty-five million rather than 60,000? I don't know."
"I don't know." Over the course of 48 seismic hours in L.A., Vernon, 30, will repeat the phrase like a mantra. His discomfort is not a secret. In December of last year, immediately after nominations had been announced, the New York Times published an unused excerpt from conversations with Vernon ten months prior. The blog post's title: "The Bon Iver Grammy Quandary." Its central message: Months before the release of his record, an incredulous Vernon was openly uncomfortable when presented with the idea of being nominated for an award, as well as the notion of being called to walk across the Staples Center stage to accept one. A slew of online dustups followed, prompting Vernon to explain himself via Twitter and on radio, his every comment quickly documented by indie rock's various media organisms.
And all of that coverage only has intensified in the week before the ceremonies, as Vernon let slip to a Billboard reporter before Bon Iver's SNL debut in New York that he had—using loose, possibly whiskey-assisted verbiage—refused an offer to perform during the Grammy telecast. Given the option of playing alone on a satellite stage or alongside Bonnie Raitt, whose songs he had covered as part of a special medley on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon last year, he chose neither.
"The closer and closer we get to it, the more and more I'm confused about why I feel uncomfortable," he says as his cellphone flashes on the couch arm next to him. "If anything has gotten to me over the past few weeks, it's that people started to think I was being a baby. It hurt a little bit. It's been the one time that I've felt hurt. I don't care that much, but I care enough not to play that show without my band. They can talk about the cabin, they can make up bullshit about me or the band or mispronounce the name, but I really didn't like it that people were like, 'Man, shut the fuck up.' Because when you print things like they've been printing, I'd say shut the fuck up to me, too."
Vernon is visibly shaken, his baritone soft in the center, caught high in his throat. But up until now, the topic has remained an elephant in what's otherwise been a relaxed, quintessentially Southern Californian room. We've spent the day on a breeze, crawling through freeway traffic, swinging by the cavernous Convention Center downtown to grab our telecast tickets, and an In-N-Out Burger on Sunset, only to run away upon seeing the line of cars in the parking lot. We've been rifling through racks of denim at All Saints' pre-Grammys gifting suite inside the Chateau Marmont hotel, and seeking out a proper dress belt on Melrose for Vernon's Grammy night suit. At no point has Vernon shown any sign of anxiety, save for concern over the inevitable split-screen reaction shot ("so nerve-wracking") and an awkward moment in the gifting suite with a woman who asked him if he was so excited for what the weekend held in store. "Eeeeeeh," he said, coiling slightly in a fresh Hawaiian button-down. "You know." She didn't.
"If I was a professional basketball player," Vernon says, as his cellphone flashes again, "my favorite part would be the games, and my least favorite part would be the All-Star game. Those aren't the basketball games that mean anything. I don't think it's very smart to be mad at the Grammys. I'm mad at that Ken guy."
Vernon is referring to executive producer Ken Ehrlich, who, in what the former describes as a very genial, respectful conference call, expressed concerns that Bon Iver's music wouldn't translate to the screen, particularly when it came to ratings. "He was worried that our type of music would lose two to three million viewers during our three minutes, and that that can't happen. I remember hearing that and how it just echoed in my brain. It's still echoing in my brain. 'That can't happen.' As if what would happen? Someone would lose their job?" Vernon reasoned that he didn't need more exposure, especially if it meant appearing without his bandmates. They "agreed to disagree," as Vernon puts it (Ehrlich could not be reached for comment), but he remains rattled, doing circles in his head on the couch. His phone continues to flash. "Talking about this," he says, "I've started to feel pretty dumb, like I have no idea what I'm talking about and I'm in over my head. I've always had an opportunity to be confident and to speak my mind and express myself, and now I'm doubting that a little bit. The one thing I feel smart about is the music. I just wish I could play it where I want to play it, when I want to play it, how I want to play it, for as many people who want to listen. We'll see how I feel afterwards. Maybe I'll feel like a dick and everyone is awesome. I don't know what I'll think."
He stops to finally check his phone, where he finds a text message from an acquaintance: "Whitney's really stealing your thunder right now." "What could this mean?" he asks me, having not yet heard the big news of the weekend. We agree it's probably a reference to Whitney Cummings, but that doesn't make sense: Her show airs on NBC and the Grammys are on CBS, the "old people network." He pops up off the couch to start changing for dinner.