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.
In January 2009, Bon Iver released “Blood Bank,” a four-song EP that debuted at No. 16 on the Billboard 200 and found Vernon tinkering with Auto-Tune — the pitch-correcting audio effect that experienced a renaissance with rappers like T-Pain and Lil Wayne. Vernon continued experimenting between tour dates, contributing ornately produced tracks to the Red Hot Organization’s “Dark Was the Night” compilation and the “Twilight: New Moon” soundtrack, as well as forming the ambient-experimental troupe Volcano Choir. He also played on and helped mix “Relayted,” the debut of indie rock group Gayngs that has sold 13,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Gayngs founder Ryan Olson says the release of “Relayted” was delayed a few months because the band members waited for studio time to free up on Vernon’s schedule, rather than work without him.
But Vernon’s most prominent activity between Bon Iver records was working on “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” with West, whom he had followed as a fan since brother Nate played him the rapper’s song “Family Business” in 2004. As a result of Vernon spending a few weeks in Hawaii with West in early 2010, the Auto-Tuned “Woods” was sampled on “Fantasy” track “Lost in the World,” and Vernon appeared on “Monster” with West, Ross, Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj. Vernon still occasionally trades texts with West.
“We keep up and make sure we’re still alive, or whatever,” he says. “It was exciting to be around West [at Coachella]. It felt positive — and so much negativity sort of trails that dude around. He was in such bright spirits, and to see it go down the way it did, so successfully, was really good.”
Nate Vernon says that his brother’s work with West won’t be spotlighted in the promotion of “Bon Iver, Bon Iver,” but Frenette points out that the label’s smartest marketing tie-in might’ve happened before the new album was even finished. Bon Iver’s management decided to bill Vernon as Bon Iver on “Monster” and “Lost in the World,” even though Vernon wasn’t joined by his now-regular backing musicians; thus, the Bon Iver pseudonym is found on two hip-hop tracks that have sold a combined 515,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
“When Justin performed with Kanye at Coachella,” Jagjaguwar artist development director Kevin Duneman says, “we didn’t really have to do anything. [Bon Iver] was trending on Twitter just by how amazing his performance was.”
Jagjaguwar’s unobtrusive approach to the marketing of “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” has an old-school feel that ultimately complements the album’s cohesiveness. Vernon and his revolving band of cohorts, which included violinist Rob Moose, guitarist Greg Leisz and saxophonist Colin Stetson, recorded the album at April Base Studios, a former veterinary clinic in Fall Creek, Wis., that Vernon calls a “compound of art.”
Vernon and an eight-piece band will begin a U.S. headlining tour July 22 in Milwaukee. The hymn-like song “Calgary” went to radio as the first single on May 16, with an official music video on the way, while a 12-inch of the track is part of a “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” preorder bundle. The 12-inch also includes covers of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and “Nick of Time” by Bonnie Raitt, the artist Vernon says he would drop everything to work with. “She’s our greatest singer, and the most underrated guitar player,” he says.
But with each track gliding into the next, the new album is one to experience as a whole, and Jagjaguwar is relying less on social media and more on natural discovery to relay that experience. Updates on Bon Iver’s official Twitter and Jagjaguwar’s website have been regular but muted. Van Arman notes that the label met earlier this year with Apple, Amazon, Starbucks and Best Buy. “We’ve shared the record, had listening sessions,” he says. “There’ll be things growing out of those meetings.”
Vernon sees himself concentrating on “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” for the foreseeable future, but he’s already co-produced the fourth studio album by Canadian singer/songwriter Kathleen Edwards, set for release early next year, and hopes to again play with DeYarmond Edison, the group whose breakup led him to the cabin.
“I’ve got ideas for gospel records, for another Volcano Choir record,” Vernon says. “I could probably make a punk record at some point — if it comes naturally. I’ve got a ton of ideas.”