Justin Vernon, who you may know better as Bon Iver, has emerged from hibernation with a dazzling new album which is released today. We spoke to him.
After a bit of wrangling, Justin Vernon has finally managed to get permission to open a window. To be fair, his room is on the ninth floor of a fancy London hotel, and you know how people get about heights. “I had to sign a paper saying that I will not kill myself,” the 30-year-old musician says, scratching his beard in mild amusement, as the contractually agreed-upon summer air drifts in.
The whole open window thing is also a handy metaphor — and Vernon likes a metaphor — for his new album as Bon Iver: a breath of air into an intimate space. If you own his first, For Emma, Forever Ago, you’ll probably know it was made in a snowy cabin in Wisconsin, to which Vernon had retreated in a state of heartbroken malaise. If you didn’t know, you can hear it in the hauntingly beautiful songs he emerged with.
Earlier, in the lift up to Vernon’s room, a guy alighting at the eighth floor turned back and confessed, almost bashfully, “I love your music, man.” Bon Iver has that effect on people: it captures something intimate, personal; it puts a knot in your chest — you want to believe you’re the only one who’s in on it (tough luck: For Emma has sold 160,000 copies in the UK and neared the top of just about every “best album of 2008” list).
Kanye West may have felt it too, inviting Vernon to work on several tracks for his recent album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The unlikely but fruitful collaboration resulted, a couple of days before Esquire’s interview, in Vernon joining West on stage at the Coachella festival in Palm Springs. The singer appeared on a giant white cube while the rapper and a troupe of feathered dancers cavorted below him. “He knows my scene,” says Vernon. “He knows I can’t dance and shit. But I showed up and they were like, ‘Uh, you should probably put on some of these white clothes.’”
But Kanye is done with for now, and so is the heartbreak. The new album, as the easygoing Vernon explains, flexing a flip-flop, is about belonging and separation, birth and death. Opening track “Perth” references — albeit obliquely — Heath Ledger; the late actor’s close friend Matt Amato happened to be shooting a Bon Iver video when he heard the news. “We sat with bottles of bourbon around the fire and he grieved. It was the strangest and most intense three days of my life.”
The album was recorded in a studio Vernon built with his brother, Nate, just outside his hometown, Eau Claire, Wisconsin (where he still lives because he “just can’t figure out where else to be”). The record has Vernon’s trademark falsetto and spine-tingling fragility, but it’s more expansive, more airy, more joyful. Plus there’s some sax, a bit of pedal steel and Bruce Hornsby’s keyboard. There’s even the odd carefree electric guitar solo: “It’s like, ‘Yes! I am going to play guitar licks! Because that’s how good I feel!’ It’s saying goodbye to charcoal and saying hello to brighter colours, you know?”
Bon Iver by Bon Iver is out today (4AD)