Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon tries to turn his back on the remote log cabin with his new self-titled album.
It’s the same old story. A terrible break-up and illness leaves you unable to function socially, you lock yourself away in a wooden cabin in the middle of some woods for three months, you pour your heartfelt feelings into songs to find some way of coping with them and the resulting album leads you into a collaboration with Kanye West. You know how it goes.
This random thrust into the limelight following the release of 2008’s ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ by Bon Iver, the stage name of Wisconsin’s Justin Vernon, could never have been predicted. Vernon’s debut, a collection of lo-fi, double tracked, tear-jerkers so personal that you feel like an emotional trespasser every time you play it, became a critical hit among folkies grasping at its depth like fans of the latest release in WH Smith’s personal tragedy section.
But three years down the line, Vernon is in a very different place, physically and mentally. The cabin has been replaced by a studio set up to perfection by Vernon and friends, and the wealth of love and experience he has gained have seeped into his now much happier consciousness. Even turning thirty couldn’t shake his good mood, despite the usual ‘have I done enough with my life’ fears.
What this new album, simply titled ‘Bon Iver’, does bring is a closure to what has been before and an exploration of what and who Bon Iver has become.
“I became very eager to explore what Bon Iver meant to me in the life of this project. I wanted to move forward because I knew it was about more than the one record I made,” Vernon says, much chattier than the complex emotional sponge predicted. “This was the chance to break out. I had the golden opportunity to make the record of my dreams.”
But it wasn’t a simple journey, Vernon says. He believes he forgot how to write songs when making ‘For Emma’, and the pigeon steps through 2009 EP ‘Blood Bank’ and the many collaborations with the likes of West, Jay-Z, All Tiny Creatures, Gayngs and Peter Gabriel that followed his critical success were all part of his recovery.
The key to this new-found freedom appears to be keeping his emotions in a place where he can see them, manage them and ignore them.
“I didn’t feel like there was something I need to say anymore, which gives me a new-found freedom on this record that I never had before. The feelings are still rumbling away, but I don’t know what they mean anymore. I mean, I used to write songs like Neil Young or Springsteen, and who’s to say that’s not as personal.”
Maybe the collaborations played an important part in this change of attitude towards his own music. “I’ve listened to Kanye for nine years and Peter Gabriel is an influence on me,” he says, unnecessarily justifying the partnerships. And while he was happy to be part of these projects, especially the six tracks of West’s 2010 ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, it wasn’t his music, his ideas or his creation.
“Genre is not important to me. I liked Kanye’s music so it made sense for me to work with him, even if on the outside it seemed odd. Working with him wasn’t difficult and it wasn’t challenging because it wasn’t my music, it was his.”
Throughout all of this, Bon Iver was “still inside”, Vernon says, rumbling away for three years just waiting for the right time to burst.
He describes it like an “excavation”, reaching back deep into his brain to pull out his own creative monster – the end of one era and the start of another.
But what’s interesting is, in this new offering, the remoteness of the cabin remains, even if that wooden structure is far far away.
The album is a narrative of places – “they’re not just places I have been, they’re about places in general and what they mean to different people, like an emotional place or a time. The meaning is open ended.” The songs are about places that don’t exist, people you don’t know, deaths that can only be predicted. It has swapped personal agony for a more distant variety of emotional turbulence – a key ingredient of Bon Iver it seems. Like ‘Calgary’ on the new record, a song of wedding vows for someone you haven’t met yet, or ‘Beth/Rest’, which says it’s the end of you and me, but it’s actually the beginning of a new life.
It’s still pretty heavy, and the sound is not that much of a departure from ‘For Emma’. The double tracked vocals are still there, the pained and strained singing, the simple guitar-strummed melody. But it sounds richer, more confident and not as tortured.
Physically, it’s recording couldn’t be further from the cabin.
“I was in this studio, which became like an artists’ camp where I was able to let my guard down.” So friendlier, busier, but still with that self-esteem struggling in the background. “I had just turned thirty and was dealing with a lot of self-depreciation in the discreet comparison of other people, like when you think of what your parents were doing when they were thirty. I was thinking, ‘Shit, I haven’t prepared’. But I realised I had done a lot, and the things like Kanye were other external compliments.”
Vernon admits the “invitation of sadness” in his twenties destroyed him a little, but he’s mending and can now “enjoy the peace”.
How long this peace will last only time will tell. Bon Iver heads to the UK with a nine-piece band in late October and Vernon hasn’t thought about how he’s going to perform anything from ‘For Emma’. With such a fan base here, turning his back on it isn’t really an option.
“You asshole, thanks for bringing that up! I hadn’t even thought about it,” he feistily tells me. A Bill Callahan-style rearrangement of songs could be on the cards, or Vernon may have to find a new way of wrapping the old Bon Iver in an emotion-proof sack just like his new stuff. Whatever he chooses, there’s no escaping the recipe of his success.
Words by Gemma Hampson
Read Clash’s review of the ‘Bon Iver’ album HERE.
This interview appears in the current issue of Clash Magazine, out now. Read more about the new issue HERE.