Justin Vernon on the Pressure to Create More Bon Iver Music & His Eaux Claires Fest's Return

Justin Vernon of Bon Iver
Phil Bourne/Redferns via Getty Images

Justin Vernon of Bon Iver performs on stage at Hackney Empire on Feb. 12, 2015 in London, United Kingdom.

The first go-round of Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Aaron Dessner’s (The National) Eaux Claires Arts & Music Festival by all standards was a success. Vernon was especially heartened by the environment the fest cultivated by those who showed up. In an interview with Billboard, Vernon shares that the inaugural fest was “probably the best weekend of my life. It felt like I was getting married and everyone was there and everyone was getting married to each other.” 

With the second Eaux Claires taking place Aug. 12-13, all of the organizers are aiming even higher with what they’re looking to accomplish. Eaux Claires is still being held at Foster Farm in Eau Claire, Wisc., but the camping grounds have doubled in size for the attendees. More importantly, the lineup is killer, including Justin Vernon's own Bon Iver, James Blake, Jenny Lewis, Erykah Badu, and the band Vernon's most excited to see, Indonesian experimentalists Senyawa.  

Read Justin Vernon’s interview with Billboard below. 

Second Eaux Claires Music Festival Lineup Revealed; Bon Iver, Erykah Badu, James Blake & More Performing

With regard to both the curatorial and technical aspects of planning a festival, what did you learn the first time, and how did that translate into preparing for the second festival?

Yeah, the first year was so successful -- like, the vibe, the music, the music production side of things, we really nailed. So if we learned something positive it's that we're on the right path. We're doing the thing that we set out to do, which is to make a unique experience. And I think that unique experience has so much to do with who we're asking to come. It's not just good musicians, it's musicians that are willing to step over the normal bounds of playing a festival. It's usually: You roll in with your crew, you get off the bus, you step on the stage, and you play and you leave. It was so different.

Of course I'm biased and they were all people who were all my friends. It just felt so good in that way. We learned that we had to trust our gut. That's a hard thing to do when you're in a creative position in any sort of "marketplace." We really had to trust our gut on that. But little things -- like we had water stations set up, but lines were a little too long. We kind of struck out on food the first year. Because of it being a first year festival we couldn't get Madison and Minneapolis food trucks to come in and serve excellent food. We're leapfrogging -- we're really upping the food in general. The production team are experts in safety and crowd management and the flow of everything, and our artist relations was excellent. In year two, it's about taking what we learned that was all positive and fixing a few of the other things and just trying to graduate. To keep graduating every year.

I feel like Eaux Claires grew out of frustration with the monotony of the major festival lineups. What was your goal? 

It's like anything. If you're tired of something, the important thing is to not have a negative attitude about those things. The festivals that Bon Iver got to play over the years have only helped us. They were all great experiences, they were all fun. I think about Sasquatch, I think about Roskilde, we even had fun at Coachella. You learn. We pocketed 50 festivals probably as far as our experiences. Michael Brown, the creative director of Eaux Claires, has done as many festivals, if not more, than me. We took all that stuff and really tried to relay it into a thing that made sense to us in every step of the organizational process. Also, it's not about being negative, but I think in general, journalism with music is a funky thing because music is both a commodity and a thing that serves human kindness and togetherness. This sounds like a Hallmark card, but so much of it feels like it's become a commercial product first and foremost, and then the experience comes after the bigger festivals are able to sell their tickets to whomever. It's just blindly shooting at a target. But the target is really huge. It's like, "Oh yeah, if you get this, this, and this person, you'll for sure sell out." But I think for us, we put experience and even the knowledge that we're going to show some people some things that they never thought they'd like before. We had so much success with that in the first year, and we're just gonna keep following that lead.

Do you plan on making this an annual festival?

That's the plan, that's the plan.

The lineup features big names like Erykah Badu and James Blake but also bills a lot of local Midwest bands, particularly from Minnesota and Wisconsin. Was that a conscious decision, or did it just happen to play out like that? I don't see other music festivals with a similar size and scope of Eaux Claires fostering their local music scenes. 

To answer your question, we're going to keep our foot on the gas pedal of even trying to explore more and more about how to put what we have here in the upper Midwest -- the Minnesota, Wisconsin situation -- on display in the future. For me it's so interesting, and it's part of the uniqueness of our situation at Eaux Claires, that Erykah Badu and Tenement -- there might be an equal amount of fans for Erykah Badu and Tenement, the band from Appleton, at this thing. And while Erykah is an extremely important part of the landscape of this year, everything plays into that. For me it's just interesting to watch those worlds interact and also coexist simultaneously. 

Totally. Genre is not what connects the lineup. 

Yeah, exactly. The genre thing is just getting blown up. Everything goes out the window, and it's all about the umbrella of Eaux Claires being the experience -- versus, this is an electronic festival, or this is a blues festival. 

Do you think that the Midwest, like Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, is underrepresented in terms of cultural or musical production?  

Yeah, I absolutely do think that. I'm not mad at it, though. There's something about being from here my whole life and everyone else that's from here. You can be the world's best musician, but there's a humility that you're just forced to deal with being from the Midwest. It's a humbleness that's required if you're going to make it through the winters here. All the farming culture and our roots here are like that. I've never been that concerned, you know. Like everything that happened with Bon Iver, everything blew up so much and we were really thrust into that upper echelon platform for the world to see. But for me it’s always been about remembering that every time that music is happening that that music is happening for a reason, and that reason doesn’t have to do with awards or accolades or records sold, it’s about the experience that you’re getting in that moment, whether you’re sitting around watching somebody play guitar on the street or in a living room or you’re watching Coldplay play in an arena. Everything between there runs the gamut, and they’re all experiences that are important and inherently beautiful to the people experiencing them. 

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What sets are you most excited for?

Senyawa, that’s the one I’m most excited for. We worked really hard. We had to hire immigration lawyers. To get them to come from Indonesia is no small feat. I’m so excited we put our resources into getting them. Long story short: I was in Berlin, recovering from a very long night out, and I was staying at the Michelberger Hotel, and they have this channel there that they curate. And I was watching a Vincent Moon film that he made, but it’s just a performance film, a half hour long or so, of [Senyawa] playing their music. I hadn’t had a musical experience like that where I’d just seen something I had never heard before that was immediately in my blood. They are a perfect example of like, I want other people to have that same thing, just like, “Oh Senyawa, cool I’ll check that out.” And to see them do their thing. I’m just so excited about it. 

What’s the current status of Bon Iver? Are you still writing music? Do you still feel like you’re winding down?

I’m no longer winding down. I’m not exactly sure where I am with it. I’ve been winding down for a number of years for numerous reasons. For exhaustion, exposure. It’s never died or anything to me. It’s one of those things that needs to be protected in my own spirit. This Asian tour that we’re doing, playing Eaux Claires last year, playing Eaux Claires this year. You know, we’re not just gonna play the same set we did last year. I’ve been working on music, you know, man. It takes a long time, and I’m not sure exactly what it is or what it means to me, and until that happens I won’t really know exactly what sharing it will look like or feel like or when. There’s sort of this internal pressure, not from anybody but myself, to come out with new music for the festival. But I’m not gonna make myself do anything. I really have to take it step by step and have patience and know that the music -- if it comes out, it’s gotta be really true, it’s gotta really live with the other records and extend from them and be reborn and all that. There’s a lot that goes into it. I’ve definitely been working on music. 

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Are you looking forward to the short tour in Asia? 

I really am, man. I had to proverbially step off the train. Like I said, exposure is tough for me. I never grew up trying to be somebody that was a recognized person, and that sort of happened. The metaphor that I’ve been using lately is like, “I  was looking for a fishing boat.” Like, I was looking for a really nice fishing boat to go through life in. To just have enough success to be happy and play music and to share my feelings and thoughts and express those things in music. And then one day rather than a fishing boat showing up in my front yard, someone just pulled up with a yacht. And it took me a while, I was like, “Oh, of course. I’ll drive a yacht around for a while.” I had to trade that in. I’m looking for a new boat on my own terms a little more. The last few years have given me a lot of perspective. It’s been valuable. But I’d rather be busy, and I’d rather be engaged. I learned a lot of lessons. I learned a lot about what this stuff can do to people and how it can change how people set their priorities. I’m not interested in having my priorities all screwed up.