Bon Iver - Biography
The music of Bon Iver—particularly the nine songs found on the debut album, 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago—really does sound like winter. The much-discussed story of the album’s recording process, which has now achieved mythical status, fits the tone of the LP to a tee. Justin Vernon, the man behind Bon Iver, recorded the album by himself in a secluded cabin in snowy northern Wisconsin. Since then, he’s been the subject of wild, Internet-fueled adoration, from amateur bloggers to well-respected music journalists. His music has inspired big, often strange reactions. The songwriter himself claims that one fan fell to the floor and cried upon hearing the album. Another was inspired to get a divorce. Not everyone has a jaw-dropping story about their first time hearing For Emma, but just about everyone who has come across it has been touched in one way or another by Vernon’s story. It’s easy to mythologize the image of a man going into the snow-coated woods to be alone for four months and emerging with a great piece of art, and some details of Vernon’s trip have certainly been exaggerated. However, it’s difficult to exaggerate the quality of that respite’s final product.
Justin Vernon began recording songs as a solo artist after the disbandment of Deyarmond Edison, a primarily acoustic folk band that began while he was in high school in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. When the band felt that their notoriety in their hometown had gone as far as it could go, they transplanted themselves to Raleigh, North Carolina. After two self-released albums, almost everyone in the band was excited about where things were heading. The lone doubter was Vernon, who was unable to shake his dissatisfaction with the group, so he left the band on amicable terms.
Since Vernon’s departure, the other members of the band have started a new group called Megafaun. Vernon moved back to Wisconsin after a year away, and brought plenty of baggage with him. On top of his decision to leave Deyarmond Edison, he had broken up with his girlfriend and contracted pneumonia and mononucleosis, a disease of the liver.
Vernon moved into a cabin up in the virtually uninhabited north woods of Wisconsin, still sick and understandably despondent. He remained there for four months. Ironically, writing a hit album was not Vernon’s intention, nor did he plan on making music at all. The idea was merely to get away from the unfortunate circumstances of his personal life, to be alone, and to be in the cold. Nevertheless, he did happen to have some recording gear with him, the result of a recent session with North Carolina indie rock band, The Rosebuds. While his spirits may have been low upon his arrival to the cabin, his creativity level proved to be remarkably high. Once the songs started coming, they didn’t stop, and he would work on them in intervals of 12 hours. An old guitar was his only accompaniment at first, and he recorded the skeletons of his songs with a Shure SM57. Once a bona-fide project began to take shape, he had his brother drive up and drop off a set of drums. Occasionally, he would even make instruments himself out of items he found around the cabin.
The melodies came first. Vernon’s process consisted of recording a melody with no words and then playing it back repeatedly until lyrics began to take shape. Skeletons of songs were all Vernon was trying to come up with. He began as many songwriters do, with an acoustic guitar and a vocal line. Little by little, these simple songs turned into swirling, layered opuses, many of them featuring eight or more Vernons singing at one time. When the spring came, Vernon had a nine-song LP. The recordings were rough, and by his estimation, they needed to be further fleshed out and re-recorded in a proper studio. His plan was simply to use the recordings as bait for a record contract that would finance his studio time. But after playing the recordings for his close friends and hearing all of their enthusiastic encouragement, he decided to leave them as they were—raw, unpolished, and genuine.
While never really touched up, the songs were further expanded on when Vernon brought in a few friends to do overdubs. Flute and drum parts on opener “Flume” came courtesy of Christy Smith, a member of Raleigh-based band, Nola. The horns heard on “For Emma” were played by John DeHaven and Randy Pingrey. The name that Vernon chose for this project was taken from an episode of Northern Exposure in which the characters wish one another a “bon hiver,” which is French for “good winter.” Vernon wrote a letter to The Rosebuds and signed off with “Bon Iver.” When he finally played his recordings for The Rosebuds, they suggested that he use Bon Iver as the name. He later discovered that he’d misspelled the phrase, but ultimately decided to leave it that way.
Vernon signed with Jagjaguwar Records in October 2007. For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver’s debut album, appeared on that label on February 18, 2008. Vernon promoted the disc with a small tour that found him primarily in Canada and the Midwest. He handpicked a couple of bandmates to help him translate his heavily layered songs to a live audience. Michael Noyce, a former guitar student of Vernon’s, was a year and a half into his college career when he got the call from his old teacher asking him to join him on tour. Then there was Sean Carey, who’d been spending his time playing his own music around Eau Claire before taking it upon himself to approach Vernon during the very first Bon Iver gig. Vernon was surprised to hear Carey’s claim that he knew how to play and sing every song on For Emma. Carey was invited to accompany Vernon on-stage that night, and he has been on-stage with him ever since.
The album was the quietest of successes throughout the better part of the year. Critics had been singing its praises since its release, but it wasn’t until a little over halfway through the year that college radio and indie lovers took note. It was a favorite of critics and made its way onto many year-end best lists by the end of 2008. On January 20, 2009, Vernon was back with Blood Bank (Jagjaguwar), an EP containing songs old and new. In 2012 Bon Iver released an EP called iTunes Sessions, and won 2 grammys for best new artists and Best Alternative Music LP for the 2011 release Bon Iver, Bon Iver.