Bon Iver - Artist Profile

The Lonesome Hunter

Bon Iver winner
Chris Jackson/Staff/Getty Images Entertainment

Core Members: Justin Vernon
Formed in: 2006, Eau Claire, Wisconsin
Key Albums: For Emma, Forever Ago (2008), Bon Iver (2011)

Justin Vernon is Bon Iver. His Anglicized nom-de-disque is a play on the French for good winter, bon hiver, and it reflects the time in which his project was born. Recorded in a snow-bound log cabin in Northwestern Wisconsin, Vernon's debut record For Emma, Forever Ago is indivisible from its romantic, Thoreau-esque back-story.

Background

Vernon (born 1981) grew up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, an All-State footballer in high-school and a World Religions major in university. Throughout that time, he was playing in a band called DeYarmond Edison. A group of old high-school pals, the band relocated to North Carolina in 2005 in search of new musical frontiers. But, just over a year later, things had fallen apart: Vernon, feeling out of place in Raleigh, breaks up with the only band he'd known, breaks up with his girlfriend, comes down with a bout of mononucleosis, and, lost, heads back home.

"I was running away," confesses Vernon. "Things were just unraveling there; I was working a job that I hated, and a band that I'd been in for ten years had just broken up. I needed to get out."

Beginnings

Vernon found salvation in a log deer-hunting cabin that his father built in the woods of Northwestern Wisconsin, 70 miles outside of Eau Claire.

Settling down with the meat from two deer, a case of beer, and a heavy heart, Vernon started writing songs. He ended up spending four months living and working in isolation in the middle of a snowbound winter; chopping wood by day, playing the blues at night.

"It wasn't this magical time, making a record in a winter wonderland," warns Vernon, "I went there because I felt like I had nowhere else to go, and because I needed to try and make sense of my life."

"I didn't go there thinking that I was making a record," Vernon continues. "I knew I'd write songs, work on music, but had no idea, until about halfway through, that what I was doing was a new project. I didn't even know it was a record at that point. I wasn't making a record when I was 'making the record,' y'know?"

The resulting record, For Emma, Forever Ago, is a set of sad, sad songs crackling with the low-fidelity feeling of the first Iron and Wine album, the cabin’s natural reverb granting Vernon's soulful music an eerie, charmed, 'alive' air.

Dealing with a titular Emma —the middle-name of an ex-girlfriend— it sounds for all the world like a breakup record. "Honestly, it's not really," Vernon refutes. "It's about me, and others. It's a study of the years preceding it, all these different things that I was feeling. I didn't just go into isolation after getting dumped and make a record. It's about this ancient love, this long-lost love that had lingered on for years... those feelings manifested in a particular place and time."

And whilst Vernon wishes to play down that romanticized 'dude in a snowbound cabin' backstory, even he can't help but fall into that thematic trap. For Emma, Forever Ago is "enshrined with tractor-tires and mud," he says.

"It's enshrined with a saw mill and stacked logs. It's enshrined with my father's hands that built the cabin. It's enshrined by the pines and snowy hills and trails. It's enshrined by weather, by winter."

Breakout

When he left the cabin, he "still felt like s**t," but, with hindsight, and an album to boot, Vernon later realized "how much it did" for him and his self-esteem. The change began when the songsmith decided to press up and self-release a batch of CDs, in 2007. But, mostly, he sent them out to various blogs and internet sites, where his recordings were met with an instant embrace. "I feel good in the sense that something that felt so personal resounded with so many people," Vernon says.

And many people it has. After the Bon Iver album was officially released by idiosyncratic independent imprint Jagjaguwar (the sister label to Secretly Canadian) in January of 2008, it sold over 30,000 copies in its first three months, becoming their biggest and quickest selling title ever.

In the midst of such unexpected success, and with reams of online praise growing, ever-tasteful, historically-rich English imprint 4AD inked up Bon Iver, releasing For Emma, Forever Ago throughout Europe.

Developments

In 2009, Bon Iver released the Blood Bank EP, essentially an addendum to the For Emma, Forever Ago recordings. The four-song set unexpectedly debuted at #16 on the . Coupled with two Bon Iver songs appearing on the mammoth, indie-heavyweight-loaded compilation, Vernon's status as defining indie act was newly cemented.

Late in 2009, Vernon debuted his side-project, Volcano Choir, an ad-hoc collaboration with members of Wisconsin post-rock ensemble Collections of Colonies of Bees.

In 2010, Vernon contributed a track to the instantly-iconic Dark Was the Night compilation, played in ironic soft-rock-revivalist 'supergroup' Gayngs on their debut LP Relayted, and collaborated with Kanye West on his ridiculously-praised My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy LP. In 2011, 14-year-old English singer Birdy took a cover of Bon Iver's "Skinny Love" into the UK Top 25 singles chart; showing Vernon's pop-cultural influence had spread far and wide.

In 2011, Bon Iver finally released the long-awaited follow-up to For Emma, Forever Ago. The self-titled second Bon Iver LP was a set of songs each written about different places in the world. The record had a more intricate, studio-centric sound that employed an array of effects and, notably, an array of woodwinds, including the notable work of guest saxophonist Colin Stetson.

"I think in that way I was emboldened by seeing how Bryce and Aaron [Dessner, of the National] work in their life," Vernon told The Guardian. "And also how Kanye worked: 'I want that – get that. I want an 80-piece orchestra – get it.' And I guess I just was like: 'Oh, I can see now! I know my two favorite saxophone players in the whole world, so why don't I get them in the same room?'"

The praise for Bon Iver was overwhelming, with Pitchfork leading the chorus with an epoch-making 9.5.

The album debuted at #2 in the US, #2 in Australia, #4 in the UK, and hit #1 in Norway and Denmark. The era of Bon Iver the veritable pop star had arrived.