"To whitney," declares My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick Hallahan, his cocktail glass raised to Vernon's. Whitney Houston's death had just been announced a few hours earlier. We're in the lush, beautifully lit backyard garden of the Haus of Strauss, a special showroom that Levi's has set up around the corner from the Chateau Marmont and four miles from the Beverly Hilton, where news crews are camping out, trying to cram their way into a press event preceding Clive Davis' annual pre-Grammys party for more information. The mood here, though, is serene. Vernon and My Morning Jacket's Jim James are meeting for the first time tonight, bonding from the start over their individual contributions to an ongoing collaboration with the Flaming Lips. "Is it an EP or an album?" James asks. "No idea!" Vernon replies as they both pivot into place for a photo together. Levi's has arranged for chef Ludo Lefebvre to prepare a five-course meal in celebration of the Grammy nominations of Bon Iver, My Morning Jacket, and beardless Aussies Cut Copy.
"Every time I have been nominated for something, I have lost," Lefebvre jokes as we're seated. "So I am crossing my fingers and hoping for you this weekend." Halfway through our entrées, Bon Iver's Song of the Year nominee, "Holocene," begins to drift from the speakers overhead. "Can't we get some different music?" asks Vernon's father, Gil, with a wink.
The next morning, the day of the awards, we meet for breakfast at Urth Caffé in West Hollywood. Vernon brandishes a twice-folded piece of white paper and spreads it flat between his giant Americano coffee and egg sandwich. It's a list of people to thank should he win tonight: "Jagjaguwar... family...friends. I started saying something in my head, and I decided to write it down," he says as he edits with a fountain pen. "[Whitney's death] also puts it all into better perspective. I remember when my grandmother died. I made a mixtape off the radio, but just of 'I Will Always Love You.' And when she died, I put it on repeat and just laid in my room and cried. I must have been eight or nine."He laughs.
Before long, Bon Iver publicist Matt Hanks arrives with a blue folder under his arm. Together with Vernon's management team—younger brother Nate and Kyle Frenette—Hanks breaks down any number of possibilities and press obligations that await once the telecast begins early that evening.
"Will I be able to get up to take a shit or smoke a cigarette?" Vernon asks with a grin. Hanks nods, reminding him that he'll be expected to be in his seat when his categories roll around. "I literally almost had an anxiety attack walking the red carpet at the Q Awards," he says of the English rock magazine's 2011 award ceremony. "Not into doing it here."
At 1:30 p.m., we meet in front of the hotel to pile into our ride to the ceremonies, a burgundy rental SUV the Vernon brothers picked up at LAX upon arriving Thursday night. After some photos with his mom, dad, and girlfriend, singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards—who's just stepped off an early-morning flight from Toronto where she played a show the night before—Vernon says he'd prefer to drive. "Everybody good?" he asks the entire car before hitting the gas. "It's better if he drives," Gil says. "My mind is occupied. I'm nervous." While Nate navigates, Justin swerves in and out of traffic, slamming on the accelerator at one point to maneuver around a sedan turning left onto Edinburgh off of Melrose.
"Did you forget your mother's in the car?" his mom, Justine, gasps.
"Mother. Breathe," Justin replies, making eye contact through the rearview mirror.
And as we barrel into the parking garage and through the tunnels to the Convention Center, everyone grows increasingly tense. We're late. Through the sunlit atrium, we rush past fragrant swarms of suits and gowns, into the darkness of the pre-telecast ceremony already underway. Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" is being honored for its second Grammy, Short Form Music Video. "Kinda fitting that Adele is the first win we see, huh?" Vernon says. As his parents take a seat near the front, we stand there in the back, eyeballing the list of categories still to come. Bon Iver is up for Alternative Album of the Year, second to last on the schedule.