There’s something inherently jarring about seeing Justin Vernon in Times Square. Given the mythology surrounding last year’s chilling, sparse insta-classic For Emma, Forever Ago (he holed up in a northwestern Wisconsin cabin to exorcise personal demons! He can field-dress a moose!), you’d think the lights and the noise would send him sprinting for the closest ice-fishing hole. Although Vernon is infinitely more gregarious than his wistful breakup laments might suggest, you’d be right.
“There’s a romance about New York that’s amazing,” he says, “but I’d lose my mind a bit. All these people who have the courage to be here all the time — good for them, you know?”
As New York days go, he’s having a couple of good ones: a Late Show With David Letterman spot alongside John McCain, sandwiched between two sold-out nights at the stately, 1,500-seat Town Hall. An hour before leaving for Letterman, the tall, bearded 27-year-old who records as Bon Iver — a bastardization of the French salutation bon hiver, or “good winter” — is hydrating, chugging a liter of water on the bed in his cramped Midtown hotel room and looking appropriately Bunyan-esque in his knit hat, fleece, red plaid flannel, and work pants.
And though Vernon admits the circumstances of his retreat from Raleigh, North Carolina, to his family’s backwoods cabin have been simplified and amplified for the sake of a good story — he broke up with a girl and a band at the same time — he’s aware that the trajectory from that fruitful exile to this valedictory moment has been both fast and deeply weird. “The excitement of everything is like a boat I don’t want to get off,” he says. “But I am looking forward to things settling, because at a certain point, especially for a band made up of guys from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, you can’t become Radiohead or something like that.”
Well, not with that attitude. But besides a ghostly falsetto that Thom Yorke himself might envy, Vernon trades in a rustic experimentalism that sets him apart from his beardy ilk, dramatically rearranging For Emma‘s largely acoustic songs for a four-piece band in live shows so rapturously received, the Radiohead comparison doesn’t sound patently ridiculous. The set climaxes with a sing-along and primal scream during the crescendo of “The Wolves (Act I and II)” that’s as powerful as any of the whispered bon mots that came before.
As Vernon prepares to write what should be a less tortured follow-up this year, a hint of ambitious things to come can be found on “Woods,” the final track of the new EP, Blood Bank, on which he makes like T-Pain and Kanye, robotifying his vocals through the magic of Auto-Tune. Hello, indie backlash — you’re early!
“All these bloggers are going, ‘Auto-Tune is evil and people in the folk realm shouldn’t use it,’ ” he says. “This has nothing to do with anything. It was inspired by an Imogen Heap song, it’s not a comment on [these other artists]. And even though blogs are tastemakers and have exalted a lot of bands that went on to become successful, there’s this clique mentality that just…Look, if you like Bruce Springsteen, like him. Don’t wait for somebody to tell you it’s cool again to like him.”
Eleven hours later, Vernon, his band, significant and insignificant others, and a posse including Elvis Perkins huddle in the back corner of a bustling pub next door to Town Hall. Promptly at 12:31, the jukebox is killed and the bar’s many flat-screens turn to CBS. As Bon Iver launches into “Skinny Love,” Justin Vernon beams, too drunk and happy to feign nonchalance. Each band member’s close-up is greeted with a cheer and a backslap. The song ends in a flurry of drums and harmonies and handshakes from Dave (“Is that ‘good winter’?”), and the entire bar, now well aware that the dudes on screen are in the room, erupts in applause and clinked pint glasses.
A business-casual reveler swerves toward Vernon, one hand outstretched for a high-five, the other clutching a camera. “That was great,” he says, “but one question: Who the hell are you?”