The Line of Best Feet meets Bon Iver
The reputation of Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, precedes him like a particularly florid trumpet fanfare.
Never mind the insular indie music press – if you’ve opened a Sunday supplement or flipped past Jools Holland recently, you’ll have seen his emotionally wrenching debut For Emma, Forever Ago hyped almost beyond the limits of logic or sanity. The tale of For Emma‘s creation entered modern mythology pretty much immediately: Vernon had spent years chasing success with a number of bands, most lately Wisconsin four-piece DeYarmond Edison (true), endured a difficult breakup (true) and a nervous breakdown (untrue), retreated to a remote log cabin (true) and spent three icy months in total isolation, his only sustenance a few bits of melted snow and a deer he killed with his bare hands (almost true).
It hardly matters now what actually happened and what’s just wild exaggeration. Without even planning to record an album, Vernon emerged into the spring of 2007 with nine tracks of atmospheric, minimal acoustic guitar and octave-spanning vocals, layered into an intensely personal, primal sonic epiphany. (He’s said, beautifully and a little spookily, “I recognise that the record is enigmatic and special in a strange way. I can’t take full credit for it, and I was the only one there.”) He self-released For Emma to instant Pitchfork acclaim, was picked up by Jagjaguar in the US and 4AD in the UK and took this year’s SXSW by storm. Still, he’s a thoughtful, funny, humble soul who is more interested in international politics and music with a conscience.
I don’t want to dwell too much on the cabin experience. It seems quite distant by now from the music itself.
Well, that’s what I like about this whole story picking up. As much as the story’s about me, the reality is that I’m down here and the story’s out there and I can get out of the way a little bit. It’s created its own enigma, it’s created its own path, and I can enjoy it for what it is. It could be really weird if I didn’t have the right perspective on it. I think I would go insane if I didn’t.
Maybe because we’re city people, we’re fixated on specific details, like the cold – which you grew up with, I’m sure for you it’s not that big a deal – and the deer. Did you find it strange that people latched onto it and romanticised it?
Surprised, no. Caught off guard, yeah. I just didn’t think it would get to this point. I didn’t think I’d be sitting here talking to you, in London. But it makes sense. To me it was just a couple of months. I mean, I don’t want to take away from it, from the fact that it did feel special, as far as the courage it took to take the time off and to leave some stuff behind. That’s the part that feels very real, kind of sacred. But the other stuff, the enigma and the story – it’s a good metaphor, moving to a cabin in the woods. But for the most part I think it’s just people wanting to take control of their life and make a decision that’s hard to make, that’s bold and that requires a lot of courage to change your life. At the end of the day, when it all boils down in the pot, that’s what’s ringing true to people.
How does it feel to watch this thing take on a life of its own?
I let it go. I don’t really have time to get caught up in that. But I think the interesting thing, the thing that’s really touching and special about it, is that when I made these songs, they were done in such a specific way, with such specific vibes and cadences and notations and references, and odd ones at that. So the fact that people are coming back to me and saying, “That’s what got me” – I’m like “That’s pretty weird, man”, because I’d never thought in a million… I’d thought that was very hidden and majestic, and the fact that it’s reaching you in the capsule that I set it out in, that’s crazy to me. That means that people operate on levels outside of what you think would be mainstream.
After a storming performance at ATP vs Pitchfork (words such as “heart-piercingly beatiful”, “magical” and “entrancing” have been thrown around), Vernon heads to London’s Forum. At 7.30 on a Friday night, the venue is packed to its 2,000+ capacity. He’s backed by a second guitar and drums, all three men singing in glorious falsetto harmony to transform the album’s intimate reverberations into all-encompassing wall of sound. There’s a twinge of gospel about Bon Iver live, a potent blend of the joyful and the melancholy. After the set, the applause and cheers roar out for ages. Vernon gives half-embarrassed waves and thumbs-up signs as he packs up. It sends the crowd into a frenzy. There are screams for an encore long after he’s left the stage.
It seems like quite a jump to translate songs like yours, where it was originally just you on your own, to the stage, and for everyone to sing along. Have you learned anything as you play them live that maybe you didn’t see in them at first?
I think you get to know them a little bit. These songs are mysterious enough where you’re still learning about them. They’re like people almost. You get to know them and you become familiar with them but they can still surprise you.
I’ve heard you didn’t go about the songwriting in a very conventional way. Is it right that the sound came first – you were sort of singing without words – and the lyrics came later?
Yeah. Imagine drawing a picture. If you’re sitting with a blank piece of paper and you start drawing lines, freely, going with your gut, eventually you realise that you’re making something. And that result is so interesting because your hand and your gut and your mind made that shape, but you didn’t necessarily know you were going to sit down and draw a house or a circle or something. But you made it for a reason. I’m not talking about fate – I think it’s subconscious. So you set down a form of a song and you start humming ideas and not only do you go “La la la”, you toy with the sounds of words.
So the shape and the sound and the cadence of the words followed the music very specifically.
Yeah. I would listen maybe 10 or 12 times, on different days, and on different days I would get different messages and they would all compile into these meanings, these songs that felt very complete.
Had you ever worked like that before?
I didn’t write like that before ever. It was very surprising. I used to just sit down with a guitar and write. And this was very fragmented and layered. Like one line times eight at a time. It was really freeing.
Those layers are really interesting because if you’re on your own with a guitar you could have ended up accompanying yourself in a very straightforward way, whereas the album never sounds like a man who’s on his own. Was it, consciously or unconsciously, a companionship thing? Sort of building a fellow human presence?
Yeah, I like that. I know there are a lot of kind of DIY records out there, where one person plays all the instruments, but I think I was conscious of those kinds of records being done already. Well, I didn’t even know I was making a record! But I think I was conscious of not having it sound like that, of really pushing my voice to make it sound like a female, or really low. But you know, when I was writing the album, I didn’t think that it would be made into a record. I thought that maybe these would be demos; maybe I’d be lucky enough to get a record deal and take it to a CBS orchestra and rerecord it, but it didn’t happen that way. So this is the record of this event, and that’s kind of cool. Maybe in 20 years I’ll redo this record that way, because at one point that was the intention and it’s just diverted.
Justin Vernon is a man with strident political views, part of the grand old American tradition of Guthrie and Dylan that views outspokenness as an artistic duty. Luckily he’s got the brains to back it up, with a degree in world religious studies and a thoughtful, articulate manner. “I’ve always been geared towards humanism, the ungraphed human condition,” he muses at one point. But he’s not without a sense of humour or a hilariously unexpected profanity. “I actually just pulled out my senior thesis the other day,” he goes on, shyly. “It’s kind of corny. It’s called ‘Leaving God, Finding Religion’. No no no, ‘Leaving Religion, Finding God’. Cos the reverse would be pretty fucked up, wouldn’t it! Ha ha!”
To me this record touches on a lot of aspects of the noble side of America, like the founding myth, the frontier, Transcendentalism, that haven’t really been part of our vision of America recently. With the election in sight, it feels like a bit of a turning point for Europe’s understanding of America.
I hope so, man. I think about that a lot. Not necessarily in regards to this record, but I talk to musicians at festivals and think about music and what it did in the 1960s, what music meant to culture, to western civilisation. It was a serious thing. I think somewhere around the corner, and I don’t know if it’s in three years or next year or 10 years, I do feel a rejuvenation in patriotism in America among young people. Because patriotism was so not cool around 2001. All of a sudden it had been commodified into bumper stickers on your car – fucking “Save America”, “God Bless America”. But in the last eight years, with the George Bush presidency, not only are people involved in politics but they are starting to become involved in the heart of America, that rejuvenation and that idealism. When you see Barack Obama speak, for instance, it’s not just a political thing. You feel the emotion. It’s something that isn’t just on paper.
It’s a different understanding of patriotism, isn’t it. It’s an optimistic kind and a very active kind.
It’s a responsible one. Because you live in a country that’s free, you ought to have some responsibility for that, some accountability. It’s been impossible in the last eight years to feel very American and feel good about it one ounce.
It’s easy to look back on the history of music and read musicians as speaking for the time, but that’s kind of culture’s job, isn’t it? The idea of responsibility is really important. Otherwise why would you pick up a guitar.
Exactly. And the 1960s did so much for awareness. It armed people, and it’s still arming people. People still listen to music from the 1960s now for the first time and it arms them with a mind, with the knowledge that they can make their own mindset. I think if there’s going to be a next step to that, it is taking that armed psyche and turning into into something that’s manageable and bendable and mouldable. I mean, I’m a dreamer too, so it could not happen and we could be fucked! I just feel like something’s going to happen soon. I just don’t know what.
What do you see the next 12 months holding for you?
I think I need to… well, I don’t need to make a record. It’s having courage and responsibility and following through to find the right perspective. To find the time and the honesty – because it takes hard work to be bold and to be honest and to approach yourself in a way that’s real. I really think that people are good people. But when you walk around in a big city, it’s like everyone’s like holding a mirror in front of their face. And instead of looking at them you’re looking at them looking at you. You know what I mean? So I think it takes a bit of courage to stand outside of that sort of vortex and create something normal and natural. I’ve toyed with the idea of moving somewhere – I think that would be fun. It would be cool to go to Australia. But at the same time I think I ought to be able to sit in my bedroom and do the same thing.
A lot of bands I’ve talked to at a similar point in their career are very concerned with the idea that now they’ve got a successful record, there’s all sorts of pressure on them. The industry all of a sudden is affecting their output and they’ve got to fight against that. It doesn’t sound as though that’s too much of a concern for you.
It isn’t. You have to look at that and set it aside because it’s not real. The industry exists because of you, you know what I mean? It exists because of you and the music you make. It’s not a selfish thing. You make music for yourself, and you hope that it resounds with others. Or you make music for others and you hope it resounds with you. It doesn’t matter. As long as you’re not making music to sell records. That sounds sort of punk, but that’s not my reasoning. The fact of the matter is, if you’re not concentrating on why you started playing music in the first place, what are you doing? You’re part of an industry and you’re doing a job and that’s not what is mystical or magical about putting records out in the first place. So it’s kind of easy. Or it’s not easy – maybe I’ll fail. It’s all about perspective. So I’m using my off time on the road to – not to write, but just to start balls rolling. Set them down the hill and see what they look like when they get down there.