‘I reallllllly think I am going out of my head sometimes. I’m watching re-run marathons of sexual victims shows and shows about Sex in the City in a little barn house that my father built. I’m at least 60 miles away from anyone I love, sometimes more like 1,500. I am about 18 feet away from everything I love, however. Just up the poppel plank stairs, there is a pile of old guitars, a mound of microphones, wires, chords, electric boxes.
‘Today, though I am taking a break from the previous three days of tirelessly working on an opus: seven songs that have succeeded to pull me through a hardened shell of myself, surprise me, entertain, impress and even heal me. They are me, and I am them, but, they sound nothing like I have ever really written before. No need to explain, I kind of understand.’
Justin Vernon – January 3, 2007.
Sometimes you need to get away from it all. Sometimes you need to drop out of the hustle, find somewhere quiet, relax and have an aul’ think. Most people take a weekend trip to a city they’ve never visited before, or find a beach to soak up the sun and unwind. Most people, but not Justin Vernon. Vernon chose a remote forest cabin in the middle of nowhere, North Wisconsin, USA, as his private retreat in total solitude. In doing so, he discovered his new musical self, which he would christen Bon Iver, a debasement of the French for ‘good winter’. The plan was to get away from it all. The plan was to be alone. The plan didn’t include making one of the most honest, passionate and painful albums of 2008.
Speaking from his home in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Vernon explains his reasoning for the three-month sojourn was a simple one, at least in the beginning. ‘I needed a place to live,’ he sighs. ‘I needed a free place to live. That was the biggest thing. That’s the main reason. I didn’t exactly have any other reason than just to go there and hang out. I knew it would be nice to be out in the woods because I love it up there. So it was an easy decision to make.’
His answer belies the other reasons for the change, which included the break-up of his previous band and the general feeling of helplessness. Some would call it an escape. To Vernon, it was a bump in the road. ‘I guess everyone is trying to get away from something at any given time. It just so happened that I had an opportunity to get away from whatever was happening in my life at that point. It turned out to be a good time to do that,’ he says vaguely.
In his first few weeks at the cabin, he would fill his days by chopping wood and being proficient enough at hunting with a 300 mag Winchester rifle, killing deer for food. He had a wood stove to keep warm and recently installed running water, not clean enough to drink but suitable for bathing.
As melodies and musical ideas came to him more prominently, he realised his music equipment was packed into the car and the ‘very cathartic’ recording process of For Emma, Forever Ago began. ‘I would say I was planning on making music but I wasn’t planning on making a record,’ he notes.
You can almost see him put ‘record’ in miming hand quotes, despite the 9,000 kilometres separating Vernon from State. His recording equipment consisted of an old laptop computer, a pro-tools setup and an old sm57 microphone. With the album developing, a thoroughly modern setback occurred: his Powerbook hard-drive crashed and burned. In a journal entry, Vernon later calls the songs he lost ‘bad songs’. He buried his laptop in the snow in a private ceremony on the December 6, 2007. At the same time, he buried his musical past.
‘It’s kind of like if I was carrying around pictures of myself from years past and just trying to save them so I could somehow add them together to create who I am now,’ he admits. ‘I think that’s how my songs always were. Instead, I just shed those. They were taken from me but it was good that they were, as it really gave me a new face.’
With a renewed sense of purpose, recording began to take over Vernon’s time there but he began to produce music that he wasn’t expecting.
‘I would work for 14 hours a day and start to feel a little insane,’ he recalls. ‘But I think that’s when you make interesting moves. I heard Jeff Buckley say something about performing live and being exhausted and pushing yourself: it’s kind of like a football player at the end of a game and you start making these amazing moves and you don’t even know how. You go into a zone and start making these moves that surprise you. That can be really magical in that regard.’
Two of these ‘moves’ included using a falsetto voice he had been experimenting with and appropriating the unlikely influence of the Vienna Boys Choir which can be heard in the eerie, choral tones of ‘Lump Sum’ and ‘Creature Fear’.
‘It’s just something I always heard since I was a kid and I liked it so I figured I should seek it out,’ he explains, ‘In fact, for a year prior to that, I had been working on choral only songs, where I built scores of stuff.’
Apart from boy choirs, it’s pretty obvious from the title that the album was inspired by a solitary person whose name may or may not be Emma. When State asks about her, he’s reluctant to talk details and so goes into vague mode about the title.
‘To me, when that title came to me, it came very wholly and very intact,’ he avows. ‘What that means to me is: it reads like a letter, a dedication if you will. It’s also referring to something else’¦ like a road-sign,’ he expands. ‘Like all things point for Emma, towards Emma. Like Emma is an idea, a place that builds up in people’s minds as this old love. So it has a double meaning. It gives power to this person but also is an attempt to take the power away from that person: the power that they have over you.’
Later, when probed a bit further, he sighs heavily and concedes that Emma was his first true love.
‘It was just a bunch of personal things,’ he confesses. ‘Many people talk about love and lost love and all that. That’s just a part of what people go through. I was examining these things that I never really knew how to deal with for many years. I finally think I had the opportunity and enough space to do that. That’s what I concentrated on doing up there.’
Fast forward to the present and For Emma, Forever Ago is gaining plaudits from the music press and finding new fans at every turn. His live performances have had audiences rapt, with his debut Dublin show moved to the larger capacity Tripod from Crawdaddy due to demand. His life is a lot more hectic than those months in the cabin but Vernon is loving it and his new mindset.
‘I think hectic is the right word. There’s stuff to go on, stuff to get used to but it’s everything that you want, everything you look for,’ he laughs. ‘I didn’t have any direction and that’s what gave me an honest chance to make a record like that. It has given me a new perspective is all: a way, a path to follow for the next record. I need to shed all expectations that anyone would have for me. Just make a record based on what’s going on.’
Interview originally appeared in issue 5.
Bon Iver plays The National Stadium, Dublin on Wednesday December 3rd.