Four winters ago, Justin Vernon retreated to his father's secluded cabin in northern Wisconsin, purging his sorrow through a falsetto that no one would probably ever hear. He spent three brutally cold months alone, piecing songs together using antiquated recording equipment. "It feels good not to be there," Vernon says now. "But I feel proud that I had to go through some of that stuff."
Three winters later, Vernon found himself in another confined space, but no longer alone. He was at Avex Honolulu Studios on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, where Kanye West was recording in early 2010. He shared a room the size of a closet with Miami rap star Rick Ross and helped construct "Monster," perhaps 2010's strongest hip-hop posse cut (it peaked at No. 18 on the Billboard Hot 100), while smoking, according to Ross, "some of the best weed the world has to offer."
It took Vernon, the 30-year-old mastermind of the band known as Bon Iver, a frozen season in solitude to find his voice. It took Ross less than an hour to recognize its power.
"He's a fucking genius," Ross says. "I'd never seen nor heard of him in my life, and I looked up, and I was in a fucking 5-by-5 room with a white guy, smoking weed . . . and his voice is like something I've never heard, and he's using words that are far from common. Within 20 minutes, I realized why Kanye had him there."
How does a pale, bearded folkie like Vernon draw a line from Eau Claire, Wis., to the Aloha State? Vernon's (unwitting, according to him) plan was two-pronged. First, he earned the admiration of the indie blogosphere with "For Emma, Forever Ago," the nine-song by-product of his three-month sojourn featuring little more than an acoustic guitar, a few bass drum kicks and lilting vocals that packed devastating emotion. After a 2007 self-release, "Emma" was rereleased on Jagjaguwar in 2008 and became the indie label's biggest album ever -- 323,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan.