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Once upon a good winter, forever ago

The indie music sensation that is Bon Iver

By Nancy Wesenberg

Justin Vernon outside his rural Fall Creek home.
Justin Vernon outside his rural Fall Creek home.

When we say someone has good instincts, we usually mean that person is able, at crucial times, to override thought and logic and tap into something more primal — some quiet but insistent inner voice that guides that person in making decisions.

If the last few years are any indication, Justin Vernon has great instincts, artistic and otherwise.

Anyone familiar with the indie music scene on the Internet has probably heard about the phenomenon that is Bon Iver. A stage name adopted by Vernon when he began performing solo in 2007, Bon Iver is now a four-member band led by Vernon. Many Chippewa Valley residents know this story too.

For all others, here are the basic facts, repeated numerous times over the past year in everything from Rolling Stone and The New Yorker magazines to respected online indie music sites like Pitchfork.com.  

During his teens and early 20s, Vernon, an Eau Claire native and 2004 UW-Eau Claire graduate, made his name with several popular local bands, including Mount Vernon, a band he formed while at Memorial High School, and later with DeYarmond Edison. When DeYarmond Edison began to attract a wider audience, the band’s members decided a change of scene was in order. They moved to Raleigh, N.C., where they befriended and performed with local favorites like the Rosebuds and Bowerbirds and continued to gain fans. But despite the favorable reaction, Vernon said he began to feel that he was heading in the wrong direction, moving further away from his own musical path.

A bad time followed. Vernon not only broke up with his longtime girlfriend, band mates and close friends, he also contracted mononucleosis, which resulted in a liver infection that left him seriously sick, weakened and despondent.

Unsure of his next move, but working on instinct, Vernon came home to Eau Claire in the late fall of 2006. It was then that his parents offered him the family’s Dunn County hunting cabin as a place to recover and regroup.

The rest is Internet music history. As his health and strength gradually returned, Vernon began to use some old recording equipment he’d brought with him to work through his feelings. Experimenting with new songs and singing in a falsetto voice, also new for him, he layered multiple tracks to produce songs and effects that fans and critics have since described as "eerie," "haunting" and "gorgeous." The result was a melancholy nine-song collection, "For Emma, Forever Ago," which one New York Times critic called "irresistible" and another, from Rolling Stone, called "a quiet marvel of an album." Fans and critics have indicated that they respond both to the raw emotionality of Vernon’s voice and the elusive poetry of his lyrics, which one writer described as "puzzle pieces that combine uneasily."

Most of the album features Vernon performing alone on guitar, creating what one critic called a "wolves chorus" with his own layered voice. However, one track, "Flume," was recorded before Vernon left Raleigh and includes a drum and vocal performance by Christy Smith. Later Vernon also added some horns performed by UW-Eau Claire Jazz Ensemble I alumni Randall Pingrey ’07 and John DeHaven to the title track.

Vernon eventually dubbed his new musical persona, born that winter in the cabin, Bon Hiver — French for "good winter." He first heard the phrase used as a greeting on reruns of the 1990s television show "Northern Exposure," which he watched while recuperating from his illness. (He later dropped the "H.")

But perhaps the most amazing part of this story is that Vernon began the process of gathering an international fan base simply by posting his music on his MySpace page on the Internet. Friends who knew Vernon listened, sent the link to other friends, who sent it on to yet others, and the buzz began. The reaction was so overwhelmingly positive that before long some big record labels were calling.

Once again, however, Vernon let instinct guide him. He chose local band promoter Kyle Frenette as his manager after Frenette e-mailed him to tell him how inspired he was by his music. Together they self-released the album locally in July 2007. Later they chose to sign with the small indie label Jagjaguwar, based on Vernon’s feelings following a phone conversation with label reps. Jagjaguwar helped guide Vernon through a re-release of the original album, and it came out in February 2008.

Still a fan of the energy and camaraderie he’d experienced as a member of several bands, Vernon let his instincts guide him yet again when he started adding band members to Bon Iver. Eau Claire native Mike Noyce, a former guitar student of Vernon’s, left Lawrence University at Vernon’s invitation, and former Rosebuds drummer Matt McCaughan had become a friend during Vernon’s time in Raleigh. Drummer Sean Carey ’07, an alumnus of UW-Eau Claire’s Jazz I, approached Vernon himself.

Carey had met Vernon a few times through the local music scene, but fellow Jazz I alumni Pingrey and DeHaven encouraged Carey to go online and listen to Vernon’s new music.

"They weren’t just good songs, they were great, interesting, unique; it’s a beautiful album," Carey said. "So I spent two weeks holed up in my bedroom with laptop, headphones and notebook, and I wrote down all the drum parts and learned all the lyrics, melodies and harmonies (a strategy encouraged by UW-Eau Claire music professor Bob Baca). When the band I was in opened for Justin at his first local show as Bon Iver, I told him I knew all his songs and I wanted to play with him."

Vernon said he was so surprised and impressed with Carey that he invited him to play with him that evening and signed him up for the band that same night. 
From then on, Bon Iver’s fame and fan base began to snowball at an astounding rate. Throughout the rest of 2008, Bon Iver performed to enthusiastic crowds, beginning with an extensive North American tour that included more than 50 major cities. As the acclaim grew, European dates were added, and the band performed in Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom before coming back to play repeat concerts in the United States. In the meantime, Bon Iver songs began popping up in the background  of such TV shows as "Grey’s Anatomy," "House," "Chuck" and "One Tree Hill," and the band performed on "Late Night with Conan O’Brien" and the "Late Show with David Letterman." The band’s incredible year ended with a stunning and much-appreciated hometown concert at Eau Claire’s State Theatre on Dec. 22.

Thus ends the part of the story that most Bon Iver fans already know.

Fewer people know that Vernon graduated from UW-Eau Claire or that he majored not in music but in comparative studies in religion. According to Vernon, few people have asked anything about his college years, except as they relate to his time with DeYarmond Edison. But Vernon himself insists that his time at UW-Eau Claire was incredibly important to his development as a person and as a musician.

His decision not to major in music may seem surprising, given how heavily involved in music he was all through high school and college, but it turns out it was another decision guided by instinct.

"The music program at Memorial High School was just life changing," Vernon said. "Bruce Hering (’80, ’94) and Steve Wells (’80) were very tightly knit with Bob Baca, Ron Keezer and the university, so basically we were getting a college-level education as high school kids. And I think, at a certain point, I’d reached a level of understanding of music that I just wanted to hang out there for awhile. I felt like emotionally I understood enough about what I wanted to do with music, and I wanted to branch out a little.

"Even now I’m not completely done with the idea of going back to school to study music, or even film, but when it came time to decide … you know, I wasn’t a great reader, and I wasn’t a great practicer, and I didn’t have great theory, and the music program at UW-Eau Claire is very difficult," Vernon said.

So although Vernon said he feels a real pride in and connection with the UW-Eau Claire music program and talks it up wherever he goes, he opted to study religion and philosophy.

"I was always kind of a spiritual kid, and I was always real interested in people and why things like love and memory or any of those things are important," Vernon said, adding that as a child he’d always gone to church with his mother, and she always discussed her beliefs and questions with him.

Charlene Burns, one of Vernon’s religion professors, remembers him talking about his family.

"Justin was a real delight in the classroom — very smart, great sense of humor and personal humility, engaged in getting the most out of his educational experience and always looking to be challenged," recalled Burns. "He cares deeply about the meaning of life and struggled with the genuinely difficult questions, like how to make sense of the reality of evil and suffering. I recall his becoming intrigued by things like the powerful expressions of suffering and hope in African-American spirituals and the implications of the Dead Sea Scrolls for understanding Christianity. He talked a few times about the influence of his parents on his decision to study religion and philosophy in college — they apparently told him they didn’t care what he majored in, as long as he was passionate about it and got a degree," Burns said.

Vernon, in turn, expressed gratitude to Burns, describing her as "a guiding light."

"I wasn’t an A-plus student at all, but that was one of the reasons why I appreciated Charlene so much," Vernon said. "She knew that I wasn’t an academic; she knew that I wasn’t going on to graduate school. And even though she never let up on me, pushing me to do the right things academically, she allowed me to study what I wanted to take away for my life, and the whole experience was just very good for me," Vernon said, adding that all of his experiences with the philosophy and religious studies department were extremely positive.

Vernon is close to his entire family (his younger brother has taken time off to tour with him even though he has a degree in neuroscience from Macalester College), but his relationship with his mother and older sister might also help explain his decision to pursue a topical minor in the philosophy of feminism.

"Yeah, I know," Vernon laughed, explaining that decision. "It sounds like the stereotype of the one guy sitting in a class full of women, and sometimes I was, but I really didn’t do it to try to pick up girls or anything. It was just after I took that first class, it was like alarm bells started going off in my head. It just seemed so obvious that our society, at its really deep core, is so patriarchal, and it seemed so important for me, and everyone, to understand that something is really wrong with that."

Vernon has already played a number of benefit concerts, and when Bon Iver played in Eau Claire last December, the proceeds of the concert were donated to the city’s Bolton Refuge House, a shelter for women and children escaping domestic abuse.

Vernon also recalled his work in UW-Eau Claire’s Media Development Center (now Learning and Technology Services).

"I learned so much about electronics from Larry Glenn, Rick Mickelson, Joel Jensen, Dave Grabowski and Norm Card," said Vernon, who clearly put that knowledge to use on "For Emma, Forever Ago," where electronic effects create so much of its distinctive sound.

Those effects did cause Vernon a little worry when he started taking Bon Iver on the road for live concerts, but he has managed to reproduce much of that sound with the addition of his band members’ voices and by encouraging audiences to join in on some songs. Examples can be heard on the band’s many video clips on YouTube.

Bon Iver’s four-track EP, titled "Blood Bank," was released in January, entering the Billboard 200 at No. 16 and selling 23,000 copies in its first week. It also made the iTunes top 10 seller’s list in its first week and eventually climbed to the No. 2 spot.

Bon Iver also completed a nine-date tour of Australia in January before taking a few months off to rest and work on new material. The band will begin touring again in May, with dates already scheduled in the U.K., Germany, Norway and the United States.

Vernon said he isn’t worried about trying to reproduce the success of "For Emma" and "Blood Blank." He is still full of ideas and extremely grateful to now have the time and financial resources to pursue them.

"One idea comes, and I just kind of try to build around it," he said. "It might be the singing, or it might be the drum part; it just kind of changes from time to time.”

Fans of Bon Iver can hope that Vernon’s willingness to be guided by instinct is one thing that never changes.

Nancy Wesenberg is a writer for the UW-Eau Claire News Bureau.

 

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