We listen to music for an endless number of reasons, and often one of the main reasons is to relax and de-stress. For many people, there are certain artists and songs that they can rely on to help calm down and get their mind off of whatever is weighing on the present moment. For me one of those artists is undoubtedly Bon Iver.
Justin Vernon is the man responsible for Bon Iver—a happy accident that came to be due to a series of unfortunate events. Prior to Bon Iver, Vernon was a member of the band DeYarmond Edison. The band had been together for four years before breaking up in 2006, and around the same time his relationship ended with his then girlfriend. In an attempt to mend his heart after these misfortunes, Vernon shut himself in his father’s cabin in Wisconsin and simply made a lot of music. What resulted was his debut album For Emma, Forever Ago.
Because Vernon created this music with no intention of trying to make it anything big, the songs on For Emma, Forever Ago have an intimate connection with the listener that isn’t easy to come by in music these days. Vernon’s earthy, high-pitched voice layered over melodic guitar is something special. Music is supposed to make you feel something, and it is apparent that Vernon poured his emotions into this self-recorded album.
After coming out of isolation Vernon independently released For Emma, Forever ago. He sent the tracks to blogs and press companies, and among many positive reviews, the album caught the ear of indie record label Jagjaguwar. Vernon decided to sign with the label after mutual understanding of the type of creative freedom Bon Iver was looking for.
Vernon had been involved in the music industry since 1998, but something clicked with Bon Iver. Following the official release of For Emma, Forever Ago in 2008, the album gained a lot of public acclaim, which helped expose Vernon’s unique voice and put an indie folk artist on the map of the popular music scene.
As a result of this recognition Vernon worked on many collaborations with other artists in different genres. One of the most unique collaborations was working with Kanye West on his songs "Monster" and "Lost in the World" that are on Kanye’s platinum album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Bon Iver’s mellow voice combined with Kanye’s auto-tune/beat-heavy rap makes for a brilliant combination.
To take a step back, the best way to explain Bon Iver is as a project. Vernon leads the project, but as it expanded he began to incorporate other musicians. On For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon was responsible for everything from composition to production. This meant he could use technology to layer his own voice, guitar, drums, and whatever else he wanted in order to make songs sound the way he wanted them to without the need of anyone else. At the same time, it was apparent that during live shows—when this wasn’t possible—he needed other musicians to add depth to the performance. For Bon Iver’s second album Bon Iver, Bon Iver Vernon decided he wanted the contribution from other musicians to help expand Bon Iver’s sound. Bon Iver, Bon Iver was released in 2011, and this new integrative approach resulted in an even more positive response than For Emma, Forever Ago. Bon Iver, Bon Iver has just as much soul as For Emma, Forever Ago, but with more “oomph” and with Vernon’s healed heart—a less sorrowful sound. Among positive reviews and rankings after the release of Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Bon Iver won best New Artist and Best Alternative Album in the 55th Grammy awards. An honor not many artists can claim.
Unfortunately many fingers point to the fact that we may never hear new music from Bon Iver again, but that isn’t to say we won’t hear from Vernon. Vernon is a part of other musical projects (Gayngs, The Shouting Matches, Volcano Choir), and he has been involved in and continues to be included in a number of collaborations with other artists (St. Vincent, James Blake, etc.). It seems that his philosophy behind making music is to work with people in order to create music that feels right rather than being a part of only one group and possibly forcing something.
Vernon created Bon Iver as a music project rather than as a band, and maybe that’s why it worked so well. He composed songs he wanted to, included musicians he wanted to play with him on these songs, and had the freedom to produce the songs himself. One aspect of any project is that it has the potential to be completed, so perhaps the project that is “Bon Iver” has been finished. Fortunately we can look forward to future music from Vernon, regardless of where it comes from. In the mean time, we have existing music from Bon Iver. Music that is effortless listening.
By Gabi Schwartz