Bon Iver: Beyond the log cabin

By Scott Kara

After his acclaimed debut, rustic singer-songwriter Bon Iver - aka Justin Vernon - is widening his musical horizons. He talks to Scott Kara.

Justin Vernon says new album Bon Iver is something he can be proud of. Photo / Supplied
Justin Vernon says new album Bon Iver is something he can be proud of. Photo / Supplied

For a sad and reflective album recorded all on his lonesome in a log cabin in the woods of Wisconsin, Bon Iver's debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, was an inspired piece of indie folk. Not to mention a success story, becoming one of the albums of the year in 2008 - and clocking in at No. 3 on TimeOut's annual list.

"I don't have to borrow money from my parents anymore," jokes Justin Vernon, the bearded bloke behind Bon Iver.

Since then he's collaborated with Kanye West, on the mega ego's classic My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy from last year, as well as dour rockers The National, and released the Blood Bank EP and two stunning albums with bands GAYNGS and Volcano Choir.

But now it's time for the follow up to For Emma and Vernon says the success of his debut has allowed him to make the album he wanted to make.

"It was a big chance for me to make a record with so may opportunities at my fingertips - to have the gear, the musicians, the time, and the space.

And this is definitely the biggest record I've ever made because of all those things, and in that way it really feels like something I can be proud of because I think it's a representation of, 'Holy cow. I'm a real musician that gets to make records'.

"I've been waiting to have this much time and space to make records all my life," he says sounding chuffed about how the new self-titled album turned out.

This laid-back and humble 30-year-old, who says he's a homebody at heart and misses his mum, dad, and other family when he's away on tour, is living the dream he's had all his life.

Still, when it came time to make the new self-titled album, there was some anxiety because he knew that with For Emma he had created something utterly unique rather than something that channelled his influences.

"So the burden came from me knowing I had done something I was really proud of in For Emma and that I wanted to out-do myself and I wanted to create something to search and discover, something that felt even more significant to me than that album was," he says on the phone from Toronto, where he is finishing off an album he produced for Canadian alt-country musician Kathleen Edwards.

While For Emma was inspired by a certain time and place - namely that log cabin where he was getting away from it all after the demise of his band DeYarmond Edison - Bon Iver was started from scratch. It was three years in the making, and even though he was doing many other projects at the same time he says he wanted to keep Bon Iver totally separate so it retained its uniqueness.

"It took a lot longer than For Emma," he remembers. "The songs came out first, so I kind of took a long time personally to get the songs going, and then I brought everyone else in to colour them and to change them. But then in a weird way it's more personal than the first record."

On it he branches out sonically, surrounding himself with players he respects, like pedal steel player Greg Leisz ("he's played on some of the most important records for me," he says of the guitarist's work on albums by Lucinda Williams, the Jayhawks, and Wilco) and Vernon's lovely high-pitched, almost metallic lilt is a haunting presence.

Which means it has a more lush, and fuller sound, but overall the impact is the same as For Emma - tender, often intensely fragile and compelling, and if anything has changed it's occasionally a little noisier, like on Calgary which starts serenely before crackling and distorting under a thrumming beat.

"Calgary is a place I've never been, and for me it sounds like a very romantic place and it's a romantic song, looking to the future, and unknowingness, and trying to unravel things."

Each song on the album represents a place, ranging from Lisbon, OH, to opening track Perth, where he went while on tour in Australia ("It seemed like a very righteous, dusty place for the record to start").

"For some reason I was just really intrigued with place-names on this record. It's more of a conversation about what place-names mean to people, and when you say a place what does that mean to someone. When you say Calgary: have they been there? Have they ever heard of it? Have they dreamed about it?

"I just want to make music that feels good to play, feels good to share, and hopefully inspire me to live a better life and be a better person and continue to be happy."

LOWDOWN

Who: Bon Iver, aka indie folk singer/songwriter Justin Vernon
New album: Bon Iver, out June 20
See also: Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago (2008), Blood Bank EP (2009); Volcano Choir - Unmap (2009); GAYNGS - Relayted (2010)

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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