Bon Iver’s Justin Ver­non has spread his wings and avoided the sec­ond-al­bum blues, writes Iain Shed­den

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music -

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

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