"I just don't give a shit if I make a record that everyone hates if I love it."
Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, is a few weeks from launching his highly-anticipated second album, the eponymous Bon Iver, Bon Iver. It's been four years since he self-released For Emma, Forever Ago, a painfully beautiful debut with a compelling mythology surrounding his now-infamous heartbreak. The blogosphere was almost united in singing its praises, building such strong word-of-mouth that it was re-released a year later by indie label Jagjaguwar.
Between then and now is the stuff of a surreal, Hollywood-styled fairytale – complete with a cameo from hip-hop's crown prince, Kanye West, and falling in love with a famous musician he'd idolized. But, the 30-year-old singer-songwriter has no interest in succumbing to the glitz and glamour. For example, rather than sitting in some board room in an office building in LA or New York, Vernon prefers to fulfil this press obligation from the normalcy of his pre-fame existence: walking around his hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, killing time while his "shitty car" gets a tune up.
I can't seem to give up the ghosts in this one," Vernon says. He's referring to the car, but it's fair to say the sentiment has broader implications.
The first time Vernon was in this position – waiting for his record to drop – barely anybody knew For Emma was coming and very few people cared. Four years later, the situation couldn't be more different. "It's kind of weird, to be honest with you, sitting here and doing interviews at this time and having the album not really be out there," Vernon admits. "The first record, I just made and it was just out there, it could do whatever it wanted to, I didn't have to sell it. I feel a little bit of like we're selling it now, but whatever, I'll live and learn. It's the waiting and like, marketing plans and shit for your record. It's what everyone does, I guess."
The stakes are higher this time around – he has labels, management, and those pesky marketing plans – but Vernon tried not to think about it when he sat down to make his second record, resolute in his convictions: art first, fuck business. And his commitment to his craft has paid dividends. Sceptics worried about a sophomore slump, or those concerned about Vernon's transition from DIY-indie to label-indie, can take a seat. Bon Iver is big, bold and beautifully orchestrated. It's a more challenging, sonically complex album than For Emma, that Vernon says, start to finish, is even more personal.
"The first thing I worked on, the riff and the beginning melodies, was the first song on the record, 'Perth,' back in early 2008," Vernon recalls. "The reason I called it that right away, is because I was with a guy that I didn't know very well. In the three days we were supposed to spend together – he's a music video maker – in those three days, his best friend [Heath Ledger] died. And his best friend was from Perth. It just sort of became the beginning of the record. And Perth has such a feeling of isolation, and also it rhymes with birth, and every song I ended up making after that just sort of drifted towards that theme, tying themselves to places and trying to explain what places are and what places aren't."
The entire album carries that theme, each song crafted and named for a specific place. "Beth/Rest," the album's risky closer is a glorious summation of the album's numerable '80s flourishes – electronic keyboards, vocal distortion, moody saxophone. The Decemberists' Colin Meloy is such a fan of the song, he shared via Twitter that it "never fails to evoke fifth grade me, desperately making out with the crook of my arm." Vernon laughs at the one-sentence review, but also feels compelled to defend it with the earnestness of someone who can't quite take a gently teasing compliment.
That song is like I bit off a lot because I'm going to have to chew on it for a while," he says. "People – and I don't really blame them because I'd probably be doing the same thing – but for me, living with that song and writing it when I wrote it, and putting it at the end of this album that I'm so, so proud of to be truthfully honest, the song doesn't come from some kind of ironic push. I don't know how to explain it. It's like, deeply serious." He laughs at himself, but continues. "All those sounds... have been crafted by engineers and people trying to be cool, but I don't give a shit about being cool. I definitely recognize using the sounds that I did in that song might seem like I was trying to do something to not be cool, but that's just how uncool I am, I guess."
He may be deeply sensitive, but it's hard to argue he's uncool. If his reluctant celebrity status doesn't afford a certain level of cool, then his starring role as Kanye West's right hand man last year does. Their collaboration on West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was the stuff of a hipster's wet dream, and Vernon himself sounds like he still can't quite believe it was real.
"We'd heard that he was interested, but I was working on my album and said, 'Well, if Kanye wants to work together, have him come out to Wisconsin," Vernon recalls. "But then his flight got cancelled and we ended up having a really long conversation on the phone and he's just like, 'Dude, it's fuckin' cold in Wisconsin. Let's hang out in Hawaii.' So we did the Hawaii thing for about three weeks."
Vernon's fame got him on Kanye's radar, and it's also partly responsible for the new love in his life: Toronto-based alt-country singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards. According to published reports, the two struck up a professional friendship, which quickly turned personal over a year ago. He's also co-producing her upcoming fourth album. One can easily hear Vernon's grin as he talks about how important she's been to him, even before they knew each other.
I've been a fan since 2003 when Failer came out and meeting her last year, it's just been one of the best relationships, you know?" Vernon says. "It's been so fun and easy and just being such a fan of her music – I'm like beyond a fan of her music. Like, her music was my music for many years. Like, it was just crazy how much I needed her records to be in my life."
Statements like these echo the appealing foundations of Bon Iver's music: an unguarded sincerity that should seem fragile, until one realizes how much strength there is in honesty. It's what his fans respond to, consciously or not. Vernon admits that his heart-on-his-sleeve approach has made parts of his life difficult, but it's preferable to the industry's status quo of manufactured bullshit.
He credits his first industry friends, Kelly Crisp and Ivan Howard, the couple behind indie rock band the Rosebuds, with showing him the importance of being genuine as well as negotiating the move from DIY to label artist. Back in 2007, when he was deep in the mire of his pre-For Emma existence – reeling from the dissolution of his band, DeYarmond Edison, and his romantic relationship – Vernon found himself alone and far from home in Raleigh, NC, contemplating the remnants of his tattered life. He had few friends and nowhere to go, until he met Crisp and Howard.
They'd heard I kinda knew how to record stuff and produce so we kind of went out on a limb to work with each other," Vernon says. "We didn't really know much about each other, but I ended up staying there for about six weeks making a record [Night of the Furies] with them. They were really my first friends who were in a professional band that toured... I was in awe of them and learned from them. They were so kind and so do-it-yourself, like truly indie and independent. And watching their relationship with Merge blossom – I don't know. Going right from there to going to work on my album – it was actually during that six weeks that I wrote my first song, 'Flume', for my record and then I took that and went up to the cabin. It was my last time in Raleigh before I went off and made that record, so it was a really, really big deal."
After For Emma came out, Vernon could have just blended into a sea of similarly bearded folkies, but his falsetto and the layers of lush harmonies and distinctive chamber-folk rhythms were a stark contrast to his genre's brethren. People responded to his unique sound, possibly in part just celebrating diversity in a fairly conformist, commercially-driven industry.
"Even really good people who are in A&R departments across the country – they are, unfortunately, not in a job of creativity, they're in a job of trying to match artists with a market," Vernon says. "We can sit around and talk about it, but guess what happens every ten years or so: somebody comes along and changes the entire game with their music. It's important for an artist to have some knowledge of that sort of thing, if only so they know they should be concentrating on music and nothing else."
The maelstrom of changes between then and now have inevitably taken their toll. While he's grateful for the luxury to afford making the kind of record he wanted to, there are other demands with which he's still struggling, such as the business of self-promotion.
There's this New York Times article coming out this week and there's nothing in it that isn't true, it's just that the little facts that were chosen to try to like, oh, what is it called, amplify the writer's wishes, or like, the editor trying to make something 'sexy' or something," Vernon says. "It seems so obvious to me. It just feels like Sesame Street to me, you know. But at the same time, that's how everything is, that's how all things are minus a few random artists or writers that choose to not play those games. That's what we were talking about early on with Kelly and the Rosebuds and DIY. Don't play the fuckin' games."
Keeping company with Kanye and falling in love with Kathleen are also indicative of just how surreal Vernon's journey from no-name to brand name has been. But, in part, it's Vernon's contempt for the hype machine – which has caused more than a few egos in the music business to self-combust – and his Midwestern sensibilities that have helped ground him. It's also provided some much-needed perspective about his new album, successful or not.
You start to believe for a quick second, like, oh man, maybe I am weirdly chosen for some weird fuckin' thing, but luckily I realized that's just totally inappropriate and self-involved. I'd much rather just have a life that I get to choose and change and adapt and grow and love and die, you know?" he laughs. "It's much more enriching for me, and I feel much more healthy in the relationships with the people around me as opposed to what you could end up feeling like if you follow that other path down the road. With that sort of attitude, I just don't feel any pressure. I'll just sink back in to my Wisconsin-y vibe and keep doing what I always did."