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Bon Iver's Justin Vernon has sat through a lot of interviews. The three times I spotted Vernon at South by Southwest this year, he was either playing or dutifully answering questions into someone's recording device. At one show, I watched him climb off stage and immediately launch into a Q&A with a journalist waiting in the wings, with barely enough time between performing and interviewing to wipe the sweat from his brow.
The critics' obsession with Vernon is easy to understand: He has a story. For those unfamiliar, Vernon's neo-folk project Bon Iver has been touring nonstop in support of For Emma, Forever Ago, a wildly successful album Vernon wrote and recorded at his father's cabin in northern Wisconsin. The idea of such a rustic and organic creative process is alluring and romantic, and it's an easy and tempting hook for journalists. The concept of Bon Iver has become synonymous with "that guy with the cabin," making most interviews with this rising star repetitive and a bit dull.
"The first one that people ask is, 'Why did you go to the cabin in the woods?' I'm really tired of that one, because I don't really know why I went. I just went because I had an opportunity to go," Vernon says. "I'm really annoyed by that, because I feel like they're trying to create some story that isn't there."
Vernon is venting. He is seated at a table at the Turf Club on a Sunday afternoon with three of his most interesting interviewers to date: Therese Nichols, age 14; Molly Tierney, age 13; and Rachel Nichols, age 11. The three girls are part of the elective program at St. Francis-St. James United in St. Paul, and they were given this opportunity by their teacher, Peter Pisano, who is a friend of Vernon's and lead singer of local group the Wars of 1812, the opening band at Bon Iver's show that night at the Turf Club. The girls look nervous; Vernon looks relieved. Even sitting down, his 6-foot-6 frame towers over the girls, making them seem miniature by comparison, and he smiles warmly as he awaits their next question.
"What is your least favorite part of your musical career?" asks Therese, looking up from a wrinkled sheet of notebook paper.
"Definitely, without question, it's not being home very much," Vernon replies. The three girls nod understandingly. "I haven't been home since February. That's the hardest part for sure."
"What do you think you did to make the most of your high school and middle school years?" asks Molly. "Do you have anything you wish you would have done?"
"I didn't play basketball my senior year to concentrate on music, that's my only regret," Vernon says. "I knew I wasn't going to play basketball professionally, so I should have done that one more year instead of concentrating on music so much."
There is a pause as the three girls eye each other, trying to decide who should go next. Therese steps up to the plate. "Why did you feel like it was so important to release this album to everyone, when it was so personal to you?"
"That's a great question," Vernon says, raising his eyebrows and scratching at his scruffy beard. "I think art, or any sort of creativity, is super personal. I think when you make art, the idea is that, first and foremost, it's for your own searching of your own soul, or whatever. And I think it's kind of a no-brainer. I never stop to think, Oh, I shouldn't put this out, it's too personal. After you're done with it, after you've taken it out or extruded it or whatever—it's out there. It becomes separated from you. And you want to share that. And you kind of have no choice but to share it. That's what music is, a thing that people can share all together."
The girls look pleased. Vernon looks pleased. "Thank you for your time. We've never interviewed anyone before," says Molly, and her two companions nod wildly in agreement.
"Well, you did a great job! You really, really did," he says, standing up. The four of them pose awkwardly for a photo, and then Vernon leaves to start sound-checking his equipment for the show that night.
Later that evening, for the third time in as many months, Bon Iver plays to a sold-out Turf Club crowd that is attentive and hushed; Vernon's eerie falsetto and sparse instrumentation keep the audience transfixed. He tells the crowd that the Turf Club feels like home (his hometown of Eau Claire is only 90 minutes east of St. Paul), and his face looks both exhausted and content. His sudden popularity has only increased in intensity since his album's national release in February on Jagjaguwar Records, and in both his performance and his demeanor Vernon seems a little worn down by the overexposure.
Bon Iver has made a brilliant record and has a spellbinding live power, but it's easy to forget that, in the end, Justin Vernon is just a gruff-looking dude from Wisconsin who gets homesick and wishes he hadn't quit the basketball team in high school.