ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
INDIE FOLK-LORE Bon Iver's long, lonely winter turned into a good year for the folk singer By LaRue Cook cook@knoxvoicecom
28 Knoxville Voice
AUGUST 7, 2008
“Things actually made it on the recording that I didn’t even know about at ﬁrst,” says Vernon, who provided nearly all the instrumentation and mixing. “On ‘Creature Fear,’ my dog knocked a coat hanger down the stairs. It happened in another place in the song, but I didn’t leave it where it was. I copied and pasted it as somewhat of an intro to the song; it’s half-raw, half-experienced.” A similar aesthetic resides in Vernon’s voice, which has been compared to that of TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe for its atonal, almost animalistic tendencies. The vox sound lived-in rather than trained, although Vernon says the eﬀect has taken time to perfect. “It’s not something that just happens; it’s a long development,” he says. “For years I was a yeller and a screamer, and the way I’m singing now is a product of that. I’m still in the development process, and I don’t want the process to stop.” While For Emma comes oﬀ pleasantly languid piped through speakers, Vernon says the energy has translated diﬀerently on stage with a backing band. Bon (H)Iver means “good winter,” but those who come to Pilot Light won’t necessarily be put in a frigid state. “When you’re recording there’s so much energy that lives in that, and when you’re in that, you do everything you can to ﬁnish
that song,” says Vernon, comparing his time in the cabin to the stage. “When it’s wrapped, it’s done. But when you’re playing live, you’re playing in the moment, creating a new energy and a new moment. It’s a diﬀerent feeling that has to do with the audience and where you’re playing and how you’re feeling that day.” This actually isn’t Vernon’s ﬁrst appearance at Pilot Light, though he was performing with DeYarmond Edison in the pre-Bon Iver days when he happened upon the not-so-much-for-proﬁt nightclub. After selling out New York City’s Bowery Ballroom and Music Hall of Williamsburg a month in advance, Vernon’s days of relative obscurity are admittedly numbered — he laughs nervously when told a few fans might have to be turned away from the cramped concert space in the Old City. For artists who stumble upon fame, the pressure and subsequent fear of a sophomore slump can often be maddening. Vernon is working on new material, but doesn’t “know if it’s an album.” The subject of a follow-up is never broached, although Vernon wouldn’t have much time for thought on the matter while he’s still spinning in this media whirlwind. “I’m going to keep touring and enjoying this moment, then take a really long break and ﬁgure out what’s next,” he says. “But this [touring, interviews, making music] is what I do now.”
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Justin Vernon didn’t expect it; can’t fathom it, really — how, in less than a year, he’s become someone altogether diﬀerent, yet eerily the same. Technically his name is still Justin, and he lives in a modest house in Eau Claire, Wis., where he grew up. But many likely know him by now as Bon Iver, his indiecome-folk French moniker. His 2007 self-released debut For Emma, Forever Ago, which was re-released in February by indie label Jajaguar, is part lament, part misanthropic rumination and will likely be the breakthrough of 2008. With stark vocals and jangly guitar chords, Vernon has become a must-book act this summer, while the romantic tale of Bon Iver has saturated music blogs, charming even the snobbiest of critics — all thanks to a relationship gone sour, a loss of direction and a rustic cabin in Wisconsin. “It’s interesting, the whole experience. It went from not even being a record to, in the course of the last year, being zero to 1,000 miles an hour,” Vernon says in a phone interview from home as he readies for Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival, where he performed July 20. “It’s actually been overwhelming; I’ve almost lost my head, not in terms of ego, but sanity. “I’ve been home for about ﬁve weeks, and just now have I been able to come down. It’s diﬃcult to have people telling you you’re great and trying to ﬁgure out whether or not to believe them.” Vernon remembers precisely the moment it all didn’t make much sense anymore. He’d moved to Raleigh, N.C., — “for no particular reason” — with his band DeYarmond Edison and discovered little-known nü-folk act Bowerbirds. “They’re … somewhat responsible for all this,” says Vernon, whose album has been steadily gaining momentum on this current tour, with muses Bowerbirds joining him (A.A. Bondy will open Aug. 10 at Pilot Light.) “When I was in Raleigh, I saw them do a show before anyone knew who they were. I’d never gone home after a show so in awe, and I thought, ‘I’m going to stop playing music.’ About two weeks later, I left Raleigh and went back to Wisconsin, and in no way were they a small part in that.” What happened when he returned to Eau Claire has become part of indie-folk lore: Holed up for the winter, Vernon wrote and produced an album that can be described simply, yet adequately, as raw. For Emma plays like strategically scratched vinyl, every pop of the hot mic and creak of the cabin audible.
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