With the release of 22, A Million, Justin Vernon is finally back with Bon Iver, ending a five-year wait for fans. But it’s not as if he’s been dormant in between — as always, he’s been writing and performing with multiple side projects, producing other acts at his April Base studio, co-founding and running the Eaux Claires festival, and appearing as a guest musician on more tracks than even he could possibly recall.
So in honor of Bon Iver’s return, we’ve collected some of Vernon’s best performances outside of that band, from his early years in Wisconsin to his forays into hip-hop (though we’re excluding his Kanye collaborations, because they’d come as a surprise to no one).
JD Vernon, “Feels Like Home”
This is the first track from Vernon’s first solo album, 2001’s Home Is. Released as J.D. Vernon, it’s more in the soulful folk vein of someone like Ray LaMontagne or Iron and Wine with a Midwestern vibe. It’s obvious he has talent, but shows little indication of how prolific and experimental he’d become.
DeYarmond Edison, “Bones“
Vernon and some friends founded this Eau Claire-based band after meeting as teenagers, using his two middle names as their moniker. With some local success, the band moved to Raleigh, North Carolina for a fresh start only to break up in 2006. Three members – brothers Brad and Phil Cook, and Joe Westerlund – went on to form Megafaun while Christopher Porterfield later started recording as Field Report, with all their careers overlapping at various points. “Bones,” from their 2005 LP Silent Signs, is them at their indie-folk best, a little closer to the sounds he’d explore on Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago.
The Shouting Matches, “I Had a Real Good Lover”
Formed with Phil Cook and Peter Wolf Crier drummer Brian Moen, the garage-blues band recorded an EP, Mouthoil, in 2008. On this slow jam, Vernon hits both the high notes and soulful screams over a sparse backing track that features some top-notch guitar shredding. The trio released its second album, Grownass Man, in 2013.
Anais Mitchell, “Doubt Comes In”
“Doubt Comes In” is the second to last track on Anaïs Mitchell’s fourth album Hadestown. Vernon appears on several songs throughout the record, which follows the Greek myth of Orpheus and his wife Eurydice, whom he has to rescue from the underworld. Here, Vernon sings as Orpheus while Mitchell plays Eurydice, encouraging him to stay strong on his quest, over a brooding, Tom Waits-like score. It’s easily one of the darkest tracks he’s ever done.
Vernon is one of the 25 people artists who contributed to this experimental soft-rock project inspired by the English group 10cc. Founded by Minneapolis-based musician Ryan Olson, the group includes Har Mar Superstar, Megafaun, and members of Doomtree, Poliça, the Rosebuds, Solid Gold and more. A sublimely mellow jam, “Cry” comes from their only album, 2010’s Relayted (aside from a 2011 Doomtree-produced remix album called Affiliyated). The current status of the group is unclear.
Lia Ices, “Daphne”
This duet with Lia Ices comes from her second album Grown Unknown, which, like Bon Iver’s records, was released by the label Jagjaguwar. Once again, Vernon joins the main artist to sing about a Greek myth, this time about Daphne, a nymph who was turned into a laurel tree. His vocals contributions herald the the song’s sound changing from sparse and mournful to powerful and triumphant,
P.O.S, “How We Land”
After working with Kanye on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Vernon returned to hip-hop with this appearance on Doomtree rapper P.O.S’ fourth solo album, We Don’t Even Live Here. His verse, which closes out the song and features both his falsetto and some speak-singing, is as difficult to parse as any: “Cut the cable, leave the oaks/I’m the fable, now we choke/Love me baby while you poke/I won’t befriend a lie.”
Volcano Choir, “Byegone”
Vernon collaborated with Collections of Colonies of Bees to form Volcano Choir in 2005. They released their second album, Repave, in 2013, which featured Vernon only contributing vocals on the tracks, letting his fellow Wisconsinites handle the epic instrumentation.
This collaboration found Vernon reuniting with Gayngs cohorts Olson and Channy Leaneagh, the lead singer of this Minneapolis synth-based group. They recorded much of their second album, 2013’s Shulamith, at Vernon’s April Base studio, so it was only natural that he’d jump on one of the tracks, with his voice both harmonizing with the ethereal Leaneagh’s, and serving as a means for a call-and-response verse.
Lizzo, “Bother Me”
Yet another collaboration with a then-Minneapolis-based artist recorded at April Base, Vernon is here more for atmospheric effects with his vocoder-manipulated singing. It sounds somewhere between his work on Kanye’s “Lost in the World” and Relayted.
James Blake, “I Need a Forest Fire”
After originally teaming on “Fall Creek Boys Choir” in 2011, Blake and Vernon came back even stronger with this year’s “I Need a Forest Fire.” It’s expansive yet subtle, with both singers taking turns belting or just fluttering in with a few notes here and there. The harmonies are exquisite and the interplay seamless.