Last week, Bon Iver was nominated for four Grammy awards. And while Paste readers will scratch their heads wondering how a musician that we put on our cover in 2009 can be up for Best New Artist in 2012, it’s a testament to how Justin Vernon followed up one of the most heartbreaking albums of the young millennium, For Emma, Forever Ago, with something entirely different and original. Bon Iver was our pick for 2011 Album of the Year, and we talked to Vernon from his home in Eau Claire, Wis., about making his sophomore record.
Paste: When did you start writing the songs for the album?
Vernon: It’s hard to even say because it’s such a slow growth, but before For Emma came out on Jagjaguwar. Before that, I had some of the ideas planted. I had scratch recordings of things way back—three or four years ago now.
Paste: The circumstances between recording For Emma and going into the studio for Bon Iver couldn’t really be any more different. Did you feel the weight of expectations going in?
Vernon: No, not really. Maybe it’s where I grew up or my friends and shit or the whole situation being in a family bazaar, but I just kind of didn’t care and knew that what matters is not any of that stuff. Not to me anyways.
Paste: You had a lot of collaborators for this one as well. What was your hope in involving more people in the creative process this time?
Vernon: I’d always been working with people that were around: friends and things. Not that everybody on this record weren’t friends, but because the process of writing the songs was a really long process, I wanted to get as much imagination into the record as possible. I don’t know if I said that out loud, but at a certain point it became apparent that there was opportunity to flesh out the songs with some more sonic stuff that I hadn’t really been a part of using since maybe high school—being a part of concert band or jazz band or even my band in high school had nine people in it. I think it was just an opportunity for the songs to become open to those ideas, if you will. I had the opportunity to call some of my favorite musicians in the world—some that I had met, some that I hadn’t—and just put the exact pieces that I was hearing in there. Without the people that came to help I wouldn’t have been able to do that.
Paste: The first time you were on the cover of Paste you said that part of the magic on the first record came from the solitude—that as soon as you get excited about it and tell someone, your ego’s involved and even the smallest fraction of that can kill some of the magic. How did you try to counteract that this time knowing that was impossible?
Vernon: Just patience. Solitude, I’ve learned, is not just a thing that can only happen when you’re alone. I know that’s sort of what defines the word, but in this regard, I think what it’s mostly about is an internal conversation. The ability to quiet the outside—the exterior basically, everything outside of yourself—quieting that down enough to be able to let things happen in a natural way creatively. It’s like drawing a picture; you can’t know what you’re going to do in a certain way because it’s being edited.
As far as quieting down the ego, I just had to have the patience to know that I didn’t need to finish a record for anybody. There’s no schedule to creativity. I know that sounds Hallmark-ey or hippie or something, but so many things are fashioned. I was thinking about this today as I was driving by the movie theater here in Eau Claire, and there’s this movie coming out that I want to see—The Descendants with George Clooney. Seems like an incredible film, but it didn’t come to Eau Claire. It’s not just because the size of our market, it’s because the movie studios and the companies that own the movie studios and the way that the commercial—I’m not just hating on commercialism here, I’m just saying that it’s a fact that art is not just art sometimes. It’s compromised or carried out by people that aren’t necessarily the artists themselves. I just feel like it’s way too fucking interesting to do just artist by itself without any of the other shit.
Paste: You’ve sold a lot of records now to the point where this is not just your livelihood but it’s become part of a business. This thought that art shouldn’t have a schedule, shouldn’t have this sort of expectation from business partners—would that keep you from being on a major label?
Vernon: I just wouldn’t be on a major label because it’s not a good model. It doesn’t work currently any more. Not that I know a shit-lot about it, but that model just doesn’t seem to work for anyone. The artists are working for labels in that situation. Major label deals—even some indie label deals—are something like 80/20 if you’re lucky. Not 80 percent to the artist by any stretch of the imagination. That’s just fucked up to me. It just doesn’t make any sense. Especially since who knows? Labels are important I guess, but what is more important? [Laughs] I’m a humble person but come on, if you don’t have a good song you don’t have a fucking record to sell.
Paste: How important has Eau Claire been for you—just to be outside of the spotlight of New York and Los Angeles?
Vernon: Incredibly important. So annoyingly important. I’m just here all the time. I’m centered here. It almost becomes an issue when I’m not here. I’m just comfortable here. Nobody lives here now in my family—like any of my extended family. They all moved away and I’m the only one left. So it’s a little like, “What the fuck is going on?” But I’ve never wanted to live in any of those places, and I’ve never made music from any of those places. Those places don’t involve me—I don’t involve them, really other than as a tertiary inspiration, as any place does—places are sort of a “thing” for me. But I’m just here—this is my spot, this is where I do my thing. And now that I’ve built this house—well I didn’t build the house, but we’ve been building the innards of this house to become a creative space for people, myself included, to make art. I’m never going to give that up.
Paste: I’ve been thinking a lot about R.E.M. lately and how Athens kept them grounded, and you being in Eau Claire and managing to keep away from that. That struck me as a treasure to have as someone in the spotlight.
Vernon: I think it’s a treasure for anybody. I think it’s more noticeable for people in the spotlight. Also, I think to be grounded is not just about a place. There’s some people in New York that, I’m sure, are grounded. But I think it’s also about who you’re with, what kind of family you had—if you had a shitty family, what kind of friends did you have? What kind of courage did you have? Not to underestimate what Eau Claire has done for me, but there’s a lot going on for a lot of people out there.
Paste: You took a big break between the two albums, spending a lot of time working on collaborations. What did you get from those experiences with Kanye West and GAYNGS and Anais Mitchell and bring back into your own music?
Vernon: I had recently watched this Neil Young documentary. …He explained that, for him, it was just Neil Young record after Neil Young record, but every one was so different. The only way to explain it was that there were these opportunities for me to just create, and it was what was happening where I was. I didn’t spin any of those projects into being, I was just asked to do them. I was just asked to them and I could. But I never stopped working on the Bon Iver record either—I didn’t really take a break. The Bon Iver record was with me the whole time while I was just doing other music. Like I said, it was a really slow growth. Like you said, in this particular field, if you will, after For Emma coming out, I just knew I wanted to give it all the air that it needed to be real. All the other projects were just music—I love music and I had all these great opportunities to do really vastly different shit. It was just awesome and I needed to do it. Absolutely.
Paste: The range there from Anais Mitchell to Kanye West is pretty broad. Were you surprised that somebody from the hip-hop world had latched on to your music?
Vernon: Not when I stop and think. When you think of somebody like Kanye—obviously hip-hop world, right? But I also don’t think that I ever imagined that Kanye was just some guy that just listens to hip-hop or something. Really, honestly, “Woods” is a really weird song for me to put out but I was into it and it felt like a Bon Iver song. It felt like the perfect song to put out on our EP after For Emma just to make sure people didn’t think that they already figured Bon Iver out. For that song to be picked up by him, aesthetically, it just makes too much sense almost. I wasn’t asking for it, by any stretch of the imagination, but it made tons of sense. So I guess I wasn’t surprised in a way. Of course it was strange to just land in Hawaii by myself and get picked up in a car and get brought to the studio. Mostly because it was Hawaii. [Laughs] Like what was I doing in Hawaii? I’ve met plenty of musicians, and musicians are musicians. That whole scene was very calm. I was really calm the whole time, alarmingly. I don’t know, the whole thing was really useful. It was just doing music, and it was good.
Paste: Judging by the song titles, this seems almost like a theme album. What do these places and these titles mean to you?
Vernon: It’s pretty spread out, the ideas. If I had about an hour and a half I think I could probably go through all the lyrics with you and explain the trajectory—the start and finish, if you will, of the cycle of the album. Because it’s pretty thought-out, maybe too thought-out; probably too thought-out. But in general, the whole “places” thing was just something that started from titles arriving. You always hear of songwriters or artists sometimes not feeling responsible for the ideas themselves. And all the song titles came and they started to kind of come together as this odd group of slightly fictional, slightly non-fictional, places that all meant something just by being stated aloud. “Michicant,” I don’t know how to explain that one other than to just say “Michicant”—that’s just what it is. But in general, on a more thematic level, the “place” thing—you know in the first line, or the first stanza, if you will, of the record, is, “This is not a place.” That was me trying to say that all these places are places, but they’re not. They don’t matter—there’s places in us that matter. It’s our relation—how we link up and chain up with our surroundings that define the places. There’s places in time—there’s places in space. It’s kind of a large evaluation of what places could mean and have meant to me and what they could mean in the future. Probably the most explainable one is “Hinnom, TX,” which is basically a pretty big nod to a Lucinda Williams song. There’s this one line of hers where she says, “I finally did it baby, I got out of La Grange.” The way that she sings it, it’s like in this one line she explains an entire novel of heartbreak and also of freedom and letting go and leaving a place behind you. So in the song, we say “I got out of La Grange.” Hinnom is a place in Jerusalem where they buried strangers like in Biblical times. It’s where they buried people who didn’t have names or didn’t have families or whatever. So I thought that when you leave a place behind, it’s kind of like you’re burying your past or burying yourself and trying to renew yourself. It’s almost like your skin deteriorates and you have to renew literally. There’s a lot of that kind of imagery in the record in general, but I think that’s probably the most explainable one.
Paste: And there’s a break here really between everything that came before, including songs like “Blood Bank.” There’s always been a little bit of obliqueness to the lyrics, but definitely more so this time. Was that a conscious change in your songwriting? Did you realize that was happening?
Vernon: I think it was an evolution—it got more detailed. On the first record, I was kind of letting go of an old style, and it was kind of the first shot at letting go of trying to explain everything and trying to paint the fruit on the table, if you will, in songs. The second record, Blood Bank, was sort of a collection of random things. This record was definitely an extension of those lessons learned on For Emma and the detailing, for me, became really specific. But in a way, for me, being so detailed—the amount of time I put into lyrics on the record was really substantial. I mean years and years now I spent on songs like “Calgary” and things like that. In a weird way, that made the shit make less sense to everyone, but at the same time I think that there’s images in the way that I say things that I could just not say any other way to explain what I’m trying to explain. And so I can’t really put a finger on it, necessarily, but I definitely know that I’m getting better. I don’t know if that’s better, but we’ll see. It’s better for me.
Paste: It seems like the choruses provide a way into the songs. The verses are very personal and give the listener things to wonder about. But these choruses are, well, choruses. They’re straightforward; they’re sort of a way in. Is that intentional or just sort of where you went?
Vernon: Not really. I couldn’t really define anything on the record as intentional before the fact. It’s kind of like panning gold. You just wait and you try to put it together so it makes sense. So nothing is intentional per se, but when you find a chorus and you know it’s good, as a songwriter I suppose you put it in the right place. Not every song has a chorus per se, but I like choruses, so when I had a few I decided to put them on the record.
Paste: I have to say, it took me a while, but “Beth / Rest” has really grown on me. Can you talk about that song as the album’s closer?
Vernon: Sure. I’ve never gone through as much as I went through writing a song as that. And maybe not in the way that you might guess. I never doubted the song—I never was like “Ah shit, this is all weird and ’80s.” To be honest, the most surprising thing that happened to me in this whole Bon Iver-becoming-big-band-thing is when people started to adjust their hats to that song—like not understand it or something. I was surprised. I wasn’t disappointed; I guess it made sense after the fact.
Paste: The very first time I heard it I thought maybe you were being ironic. It was so different from everything that came before it—although, now that I’ve listened to the album many times, there are hints of it throughout the album. But it was definitely a “Whoa, where’d that come from?” kind of song.
Vernon: Yeah, there are hints of it throughout the record. Once I started writing “Beth / Rest”—it was one of the last songs I worked on—I didn’t know it was gonna be last or anything. But basically, the song is the only song that could end this record. I’m thankful for this but it’s also just a little self-aware. This album is such a spring record. Bon Iver is like saying goodbye to Bon Iver, saying goodbye to For Emma, like saying goodbye to goodbye. It’s like saying goodbye to an old time or a sadness that maybe you wanted to hold on to for a while. And this song, “Beth / Rest,” is a song about finding true love and then feeling a little bit like “Oh shit, I have this. I have to go away now, I have to go to the sky. I’m high already. And nothing in my life before this is ever going to be as meaningful as this right now”—and there’s an ache to that, a little bit. But it’s also the most uplifting song and the most accurate to joy. Ironically, I think Bon Iver, and rightfully so, is kind of understood as a kind of melancholy inward, downward-spiral kind of listening, I suppose—when you look at our records. But this song is just like the ice-break—it’s everything coming to an end. Almost all the sounds are done on this one keyboard—the Korg M1, it’s called. The fact that this song kind of sounded like it came from nowhere and was sort of surprising sort of knocks you around a little bit. It doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable, but when I put the order together—and this is what I was getting to what you were saying about it sort of popping up in the album before that—it’s that sort of tonality, that keyboard, is in the rest of the record. The first time you hear it is in “Minnesota.” It’s in bits of “Holocene.” It’s definitely in “Towers.” “Michicant.” And then it comes back very, very heavily in “Calgary.” That same keyboard is that exact sound that plays throughout all of “Beth / Rest,” it’s just connected through the ninth track, “Lisbon, OH.” For that song to just culminate all these things, and take something like the electric guitar from “Perth” and completely just narrow it down, it’s almost like all the lush, rich stuff that happened on the record was just like diluted or bit-rated down to the simplest, smallest, speck of width. And that’s what the song sort of became. I just talked about that for a super long time, but I love the song. I’m so thankful to the song that it did that for me and it happened for me and so forth.
Paste: So if this song ends the cycle in this joyful moment—almost pinnacle moment—what comes next?
Vernon: Probably summer. I don’t know. I’m not sure. I have about 40 or 50 snippets of songs, and I wouldn’t tell you that they’re songs because they’re not good. I’m in that sort of pre-Genesis phase, if you will. I’m in the tad-pool at this point, waiting for things to gather. I’m not afraid—it might take six years this time, it might not. At this point, you’ve gotta just wait around for it to reveal itself. I don’t know how much I want to follow the fact that For Emma certainly is a lonely, winter record and this is most certainly like a saying-goodbye to winter record—a spring record. There’s a lot of spring themes like in “Wash.” and stuff—ice breaking and things like that. I don’t know if I’m gonna make myself stick to that. I don’t know how important that is to me yet.
Paste: What would that mean for you to have a summer record?
Vernon: I don’t know—partying? Dance music? [Laughs] I’m not sure. I have some sonic ideas and they’re all kind of electronic. Really kind of organic electronic ideas. But I don’t know anything—I don’t have anything yet, so we’ll see.
Paste: Aside from your own music, what on the horizon most excites you right now? Anything you’re particularly looking forward to?
Vernon: Man, I’m really excited to play Eau Claire in a couple weeks—we’re playing here in the basketball arena at the college. We did all the tickets [offline] so all the people in Eau Claire would get a chance and there wouldn’t be any scalpers. I’m really excited about that. I’m excited to do the rest of these tour dates for the next year. Sort of go out and coast a little bit and enjoy it and try to make the band better. I’m excited about the new songs, whenever they come, whatever they are, but I do know it’s time to wait and to sit and breathe so I’m just kind of in that zone right now.
Paste: Are you and Kathleen Edwards planning on doing anything together musically?
Vernon: We just did a tour together in Europe and we did some songs of hers with the band and it went really well. But yeah, she’s doing her own thing so I don’t know when we’re going to have time really. Her record isn’t even out yet, but I’m really excited for it to come out just from a selfish standpoint. Whatever work I did on it I’m really excited about being able to share with folks. No plans as of now, but I hope I get to play music with her for a long time.