When Justin Vernon released his first album as Bon Iver, his whole world changed. For Emma, Forever Ago struck a chord with audiences. Its bruised tales of heartache and soulful acoustic tunes —recorded in a remote log-cabin in Northwestern Wisconsin, in the midst of a breakup— took Vernon from career unknown to 2008 'it' boy. Before the release of his 2009 EP, Blood Bank, Vernon spoke about the first year of the rest of his life.
Interview: 24 October 2008
Is the Blood Bank EP a way of diffusing the pressure of the follow-up album?
"Not really. It does feel good to get something out, because it’s been a while. But it had nothing to do with pressure, because the only real pressure comes from me, really wanting to do it. People will have expectations, I know that. But I won’t hear them, and won’t allow them into my, um, ‘worry center.’ I just don’t think that’s a good way to make music, with that sort of stuff in mind.”
It’s easy to say that when you’re making a record just for yourself, like your first album. But, this time, won’t it be hard to escape the knowledge that so many people will have such high hopes?
"It might be hard. But, for me, the big lesson with all that stuff is: it’s all in your mind. A really powerful thing to do, if possible, is to not care about that; to go to a mental place that’s only about making the music you want to play. I plan on shutting down that more ‘aware’ part of my mind."
"Well, as my first album shows, a lot of it’s about being in the right environment. I’ve got a house in the country, now, and out here I’ve got a little room set up, and I’ll probably make it down there. I haven’t thought about what’s going to be on it, or what it’s going to sound like. Eventually, I’ll just sit down and fire off an album."
Did 2008 seem like a crazy year for you?
"Yes! I feel extremely grateful and lucky and fortunate. There are so many things that have happened this year that, if any one of them had happened before, just one thing in one ten-year period, I would’ve considered myself lucky. So, it's been like this shining year, where the magnitude of it has been both constant and immense. I'm more than I can measure happiness with."
Do you think that's because you'd spent so many years playing that weren't so filled with success?
"I don't know. I think I feel this way because I've gotten more than I've ever dreamt of. It's crazy. I think that all those years playing music, I never felt like it was hard, or like I was struggling. I was just happy playing music. Then, all of a sudden, this happened, and it far exceeded everything else I've ever done added together. I'm still reeling from that."
So, had you ever read Thoreau before this year, when you were oft called a 'modern-day Thoreau'?
"I had read Walden in my freshman year in high-school English classes. I didn't read the whole thing —I wasn't a good student— but I remember really liking the couple of pages I did. I actually don't read books very often; I think I've only completed about ten books in my life. But I remember authors, and the way Thoreau put words together rung true to me."
How do you feel about being portrayed as some rugged, back-to-the-land poet of the snowy interior?
"Anytime a person makes something and puts it out into the world, then that thing they’ve made becomes global, or shared. And when that happens, the original person who actually made that thing is, in a way, removed from it. When those people think something of me, rather than just the record, that doesn't make me feel good or feel bad. I don't think it makes me feel anything. However people want to paint me, as a person, after hearing my record, almost says more about them than me."
Is this record a product of its physical environment? Do you actually hear that in its songs?
"Well, for me, sure it is. At this stage of my life, I think I could dig into myself more than ever before. By being at my dad's cabin, by myself, surrounded by woods, with no outside influence, that really helped me to shake loose a lot of things that'd always been there, and allowed me to access a lot. In that way, it really was a result of its environment."
When you play these songs live, does it bring back memories of the time in which you made them?
"It stirs up the elusive emotions, for sure. They're definitely stirring the same pot of feelings, but I don't just associate those feelings with that time. They go from way before I made the album, to all that's come after. The songs become this experience that I've been sharing with my band-mates. We've been trying to erect these songs as these singular entities, these things that come alive and exist just for that night, just for that moment in which we're playing them. It's almost like the songs I wrote were eggs, and now they’re the cracked eggs, flowing and running and we're chasing after them."
How much was For Emma a break-up record?
"It's, like, 6% breakup. Most of the record is about a love from very long ago. But there are many conversations in there between me and my most recent girlfriend, and we talk about this other third person from long ago. So, it's definitely not a 'break-up record,' in that specific definition. It's more a portrait of seven years of my life, and how it unfolded in the end. It was a long bottoming-out —a really long, grey period— and, finally, at the end of those seven-years, I started having some perspective on what I'd been going through, and that's what the story of the record is. My revelations and ruminations on that whole era."
In some of your promo pics you're clutching a basketball. Are you a baller from way back?
"Oh, I still ball. I still play basketball as much as possible. I just played Monday at the YMCA. It's one of my favourite things in the world, basketball: as a game, to play it, to watch it, to think about it. I have trouble exercising unless it's basketball, because nothing else seems so fluid. It just shakes everything out. It's so good for your mind, because you don't think like you usually do. Your mind relaxes into this instinctive, reactionary zone. It's beautiful. It's always good, no matter how good or bad my life is. Or my game is."