LEAVING WINTER BEHIND
Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon has spread his wings and avoided the second-album blues, writes Iain Shedden
YOU can feel the chill coming off For Emma, Forever Ago, the album that brought Bon Iver to worldwide attention three years ago. Rarely has a record so exquisitely conveyed the isolation and melancholic mood in which it was created. It sends shivers up the spine, and not just because of its icy ambience.
The sweet falsetto at the heart of that album belongs to Justin Vernon, the singer and songwriter who in 2007 chose to lock himself away in his father’s cabin in the woods of northwestern Wisconsin. Hurting from the end of a relationship, the break-up of his previous band and a bout of mononucleosis, Vernon, 30, retreated to his native state after a year-long spell of trying to launch his music career in Raleigh, North Carolina.
The idea was to recuperate, physically and mentally, from his trials, but instead he emerged three months later with a bunch of songs that went on to earn Emma five-star reviews in newspapers and magazines across the globe.
Now it’s time for Vernon to back up his credentials with a new album. Curiously, the starting point this time is not the Wisconsin wilderness but Perth in Western Australia. The first track on Bon Iver’s upcoming, selftitled second album is called Perth, and it’s not due to any kind of artistic, random rambling on Google Earth.
Vernon cites Australia as his favourite place to tour, following his first visit here in 2009. It was in WA, however, where he had a pivotal moment. ‘‘ There’s a lot that goes into each of the song titles,’’ he says. ‘‘ There’s a beginning in that song because it was me going to Australia for the first time, but also Perth just felt like a rebirth for me . . . the beginning of something and the end of something. The record is like that.’’
If that’s an abstract explanation it’s one in keeping with Vernon’s approach to his craft. The new album, like its predecessor, is littered with ambiguous and indistinct lyrics. Several of the songs have place names for titles, including Minnesota and Calgary.
That’s part of Vernon’s art. He likes to create songs initially without using words but with vocal sounds he can adjust later. ‘‘ This time became a little bit more obtuse or detailed,’’ he says. ‘‘ It took a longer time but it was the same process.’’
Part of the process is to get himself into a creative state of mind. ‘‘ You have to do that. It’s like meditation. And you have to do it a lot, like anything. You have to do it enough to be able to draw something from it.’’
Unlike Emma, the new album wasn’t created in solitary confinement with a bare minimum of recording equipment, nor is it as sparse and stark instrumentally. Vernon invited other musicians along, including his regular stage band members, drummer Sean Carey, Michael Noyce on guitars and Matthew McCaughan on bass.
‘‘ I had a studio this time with more appropriate recording gear,’’ he says. ‘‘ The only other difference is that I had a new lesson that I’d learned. With the first album you’ve made something for yourself and it feels good and you live for a couple of years without hating it. That was a good model, but I didn’t take into account that people had loved it and it had become this successful thing all over the world. I just let that go because I didn’t think it was important.’’
His determination to keep his feet on the ground partly explains why he is happy to live in and around his home town, Eau Claire. To that end he and his brother bought an old house in the hills near there and converted it into a recording studio. ‘‘ It had a swimming pool and a veterinarian’s clinic in it,’’ he explains. ‘‘ We went in and remodified everything and turned it into a home-studio ark. I always dreamed of having something like that, building something where I could record, so to have that become a reality is really cool.’’ QUITE a few unimagined events have become reality for Vernon since the successful debut for Bon Iver (the name derives from the French bon hiver, which means good winter). He could hardly have predicted working with hip-hop superstar Kanye West, for instance, or having one of his songs, Skinny Love, covered by a 14-yearold English schoolgirl, Birdy, who took the song into the British charts for the first time.
His reaction to that development is that ‘‘ it’s crazy’’. ‘‘ I’m just happy that someone likes the music enough to make it their own music,’’ he adds. ‘‘ That’s quite a high compliment.’’ These are just a few diversions among many for Vernon in the past couple of years. He has collaborated with other independent musicians closer to home, among them Volcano Choir and Gayngs. He’s also producing the new album by Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards.
His relationship with West began when the singer, rapper and producer used samples from Bon Iver’s song Woods on Lost in the World, a track from West’s No 1 album from last year, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
West then invited Vernon to the recording sessions in Hawaii and the Bon Iver frontman soon found himself contributing to several tracks. Vernon is still excited at the memory of it and says the experience was educational and inspirational as well as being a lot of fun.
‘‘ You learn a lot from someone who is really great at what they do,’’ he says. ‘‘ Every time you get inspired by someone it helps you grow a little bit. You can get better every day if you allow yourself to be influenced. Hanging around him it wasn’t hard to get better. I enjoyed my time with him very much.
‘‘ The thing with Kanye,’’ he goes on, ‘‘ as with some other people I’ve worked with, is that he just goes at it hard. He works so hard. He knows the most important thing about his job, no matter how many aspects of his job there are . . . the most important thing is not to give up on the song . . . to make the song win and get it to where it has to go.’’
Working with musicians of West’s calibre is one reason for Vernon’s slight change of tack on the new album, but there’s another motivation.
‘‘ When I was a kid or a teenager or a young adult, inspiration would come and I would sit down and want to emote everything,’’ he says. ‘‘ Now that I’ve grown up a bit there aren’t as many things that I feel I need to bleed from the heart about or that I know how to bleed from the heart about. I know that I want to emote still but it’s a different position I’m in now.
‘‘ Psychologically I have to turn my creative brain on without having the other side of my brain having an influence. I can then examine that and see if I can come out with something new.’’
Vernon spent months last year getting the songs for Bon Iver where he wanted them to go. Initially it was just him crafting the bare bones of the songs — experimenting, altering, refining — then about halfway through the writing he brought in the other