Into the Wild

How Justin Vernon ditched his life, isolated himself in a cabin, and produced an unexpected masterpiece as Bon Iver

BON IVER
For Emma, Forever Ago
Jagjaguwar Records

The pull of the story behind Bon Iver's debut record is almost—almost—as strong as the pull of the record itself. Released last year independently, and now picked up by Jagjaguwar Records for a national release on February 19, For Emma, Forever Ago was written and recorded by Justin Vernon in a cabin in rural Wisconsin. At the time, it seemed like the nadir of his musical career, and perhaps his life. But if the upswing that followed that lonely winter continues its arc in 2008, this won't be the last time you hear about Vernon's cabin.

The record the Eau Claire, Wisconsin, native crafted there is, to put it simply, wondrous. It whispers, breathes, and consoles itself, strung up on the delicate falsetto that Vernon discovered while working on his solo recordings. But it also goes off the rails at points, slowly shattering into clatter and noise or stretching off into silence and darkness. It's a rootless roots record, a folk album without folks, an intensely personal document of a musical rediscovery. Bedrooms and basements across America must have birthed dozens of records that bear an outward similarity to Bon Iver's debut, but the story of it—how Vernon retreated to the woods following the dissolution of both a romantic relationship and his band DeYarmond Edison, and there uncovered a whole new way to make music—amplifies its resonance.

If you can answer his riddle correctly, the Merry Man of the Woods will show you the path out of the forest
Rosemary Kosin
If you can answer his riddle correctly, the Merry Man of the Woods will show you the path out of the forest

A tale so compelling, though, threatens to overwhelm the fact that when Vernon headed up north, it wasn't a story: It was just his life unraveling.

"I left up north in February [of 2007] to sort of end that chapter of things," he says by phone. "I thought I might put it out as a hundred copies of an EP, but in the spring, after a few more of my friends started to hear it, I started to think that maybe it was a record."

At what point did it become clear to Vernon that he maybe really had something special? "The only way I can really truly answer that question is to say that when I took a breath after I was done creating the songs, I definitely knew that they were speaking to me in a way that I had never spoken to myself before. So I think that was the thing that gave me some sort of clue. I'm a really humble person, but when people started coming back to me and saying, 'This really means a lot to me,' I wasn't surprised because it had done something to me in the process as well."

The common perception of the artistic process is that it's linear—an artist possesses some immutable personal vision, and follows the refinement of that expression, piling up achievements. But more commonly, the road is littered with dead ends, the river punctuated by oxbows and stagnant backwaters. Sometimes it takes a certain amount of falling apart before you can put it back together.

"I had never surprised myself," says Vernon bluntly, looking back on his musical career. "I thought I had always reached my level. My music had always sounded like my influences, or I'd always just met the bar for my expectations. Up there, I got to a certain spot where I just didn't care anymore. I wasn't sure if I was going to make records or work that hard to try to make it a career. I let go of all expectations, and that allowed in all these other ways to do things."

He sounds far older than his 26 years as he talks about this record that has taken on a life of its own, all too aware of the capricious nature of success. "I'm super humbled and find myself feeling really fortunate. You just catch a certain wind, like sailing. I feel like this record does represent other people's bedroom laments, and I'm happy about that."

So what felt like the end became a new beginning, but once For Emma, Forever Ago has worked its careful magic and the story of its creation has been worn thin through repetition, the real question seems obvious: How do you follow up a record born of such unusual circumstances?

"Thinking about your own art is dangerous," says Vernon. "If I can use a weird metaphor...I only had a certain kind of money in my pocket and I was cashing it in on those songs during that time. Now it's just different money. If I try to go back and use different currency to get myself in the door to whatever path I was on then, I'm only going to end up broke."

Bon Iver was one of 2007's best surprises, and 2008 promises even greater success. Can Vernon continue to surprise himself and his listeners while still holding their attention? It's certainly a delicate position to be in.

"I think that's the best word you could wrap it up with," he laughs. "Delicate." 

BON IVER performs with the Pines and Roma di Luna on THURSDAY, JANUARY 17, at the Turf Club; 651.647.0486

 
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