Bon Iver’s Big Thaw
Two years ago, nobody outside of Eau Claire, Wisconsin had heard of Bon Iver. At that point in time, the project was a one-man act, with everything written and performed by Wisconsinite Justin Vernon, age 28. As the act gained notoriety, Vernon enlisted some local musicians to help fill out the highly textured approach he created by himself in the studio, as he hoped to bring the Bon Iver sound into the live spectrum. Now, his tunes have reached every corner of the free world and Vernon’s touching, sorrow-soaked songs have made him the envy of everyone from collar-popping yahoos to introverted flannel-clad beardos. This night, following a sold out performance at the Cape Cinema, the Bon Iver of Spring 2009 is cutting lose, hanging out with friends from all walks of life, riding the high of a killer performance and soaking in the beauty that is downtime, something they’ve had little of over the past year or so.
In the early days of Bon Iver, it was nothing more than Vernon and his guitar, recording multi-layered tracks at his old man’s place in the woods of Northern Wisconsin. Much has been said and written about the supposed “guy goes to a cabin, comes back with masterpiece” angle, and truth be told, the album he recorded has truly struck a cord with listeners worldwide, offering an auditory history of a moment in time that has resonated in a very significant way. The album in question, 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago (read the review here), made a big splash, making the “Best of 2008” lists of Rolling Stone, JamBase, MOJO and Spin, to name but a few.
While folks grubbed out, boozed up and schmoozed at an art gallery next door to the Cinema, Vernon told me that none of his recent success entitles him to treat people differently, nor does it entail that he should be treated differently. “We’re not any more special because of [our success],” Vernon said. “We have this music and we play it and we’re extremely honest about it, but I don’t think that deserves a pat on the back. I’m not saying it’s not good, but it’s basically just us. This is who we are.”
Vernon’s pragmatic view of his current situation is very intentional. His emphasis on not being treated differently has been reinforced by the folks he surrounds himself with. Vernon’s brother, Nate, 25, keeps the trains running on time as Bon Iver’s tour manager. Sean Carey, one of the group’s two drummers, has been on board since Vernon was playing small gigs back home, and Bon Iver guitarist/vocalist/Vernon protégé, Mike Noyce, 21, got involved because he took guitar lessons from Vernon when he was in high school. Of the experience, Noyce says, “I stopped taking lessons from Justin after a while. After I stopped taking lessons, we started hanging out [socially] and that’s when I really started to feel like I was getting a lot out of it.”
For Emma was a gritty, heart-wrenching album that revolved around acoustic guitar and vocals that alternate between falsetto and baritone on a moment’s notice. While his fluctuating vocal tendencies were just as apparent as ever at their performance at the Cape Cinema, the edge that Vernon’s cohorts provided couldn’t have been clearer. They closed the main part of their set with the title track off For Emma, and as the tune wrapped they trailed off on a hard-hitting jam that featured simplistic-yet-explosive percussion, while Vernon raged on an electric guitar, evoking images of a mutton-chopped Neil Young as the bearded frontman wailed on a single note, abusing it with layers of distortion as he bent the strings as much as he could. Blood Bank, their follow-up EP to For Emma, debuted this January at #16 on Billboard’s Hot 200, and the self-titled opening track features Vernon getting grungy with a distorted guitar tone, and the last track on the EP, “Woods,” even utilizes a bit of Auto-Tune to manipulate his voice in a way that his already-stellar vibrato couldn’t.
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As for his influences, Vernon says it’s all about folk-icon John Prine. “He’s the one. Everything I do is a copy of him.”
Vernon’s comfort in his own skin has allowed him to handle the rapid praise heaped upon him from the media. “I see the hype and I can calculate it as overrated,” he said. “But so far I don’t think we’ve done anything that’s been un-founded by what we’ve accomplished, and if there has been anything [in the media] that says we’re overrated I don’t get mad about it. I just think, ‘Well you don’t know who we are.'”
In addition to keeping his career in perspective, Vernon seems to be very intent on keeping his background at the forefront of who he is and what he values, regardless of the heights Bon Iver reaches, and he’s proud of the grounded community he hails from. “There is nothing but 60,000 people in Eau Claire, Wisconsin who are trying to change the world,” he said. After thinking about this statement for a moment, he clarified, “[They’re] not trying to, they are changing the world.”
Vernon said that besides folks making a big deal out of “the whole cabin thing,” he thinks it’s pretty incredible to be at this stage in his career without feeling manipulated or exploited by journalists, record labels or opportunists. Regarding the picture the press likes to paint of Bon Iver, Vernon said, “It’s not degrading, but I recognize it as something that isn’t real. It’s real [in a way], but whatever. People don’t know me. They may want to know me, or may want to know us, but they won’t. And if they try to then whatever they know or want to know is more important than anything I could ever tell them. So, I’m pretty relaxed about it.”
Even with his fans, who he values immensely, Vernon doesn’t feel as though the taste the public’s had of him gives them an understanding of who he is. When asked what he’d say to a fan who feels they’ve connected with him personally through the way his music has moved them, Vernon replied, “I’d tell them that I’m extremely touched that it was my music that did that, but there were a series of musicians and people in my life that directed me to that point.” He added, “It’s all part of the process. It’s all about growing and changing.”
When asked about the future, Vernon said that he wants to be remembered as a family member and as a friend, not just a musician. “We’re in an extremely humble place, and we’re trying to play humble music,” he said. “Nothing we’re trying to do is supposed to make headlines.”
Bon Iver tour dates available here.
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