Justin Vernon: Bon Iver's singular indie voice
Justin Vernon has big sonic dreams. Just look at his work with folkies Bon Iver, plus Kanye and Gayngs.
The last time Justin Vernon performed in Southern California, he walked onstage and sang to a crowd of about 80,000 people during a headlining set at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio in April.
“I wasn't nervous, exactly,” Vernon said. “You just kind of forget that you're doing that. There's so much light onstage that you can't really see anybody, but it's definitely a trip.”
Yes, the headlining show was technically Kanye West's, who collaborated extensively with Vernon on West's acclaimed album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” But similar crowds for Vernon's yearning, experimental folk project Bon Iver, which plays a sold-out Shrine Auditorium show Monday and a second one at the Gibson Amphitheatre on Tuesday, may not be too far afield.
For the tall, blond-bearded Vernon, this was unexpected. Bon Iver, based in Eau Claire, Wis. (where Vernon still lives and records his music), saw its debut album, “For Emma, Forever Ago,” become one of the breakout hits of 2008, selling more than 325,000 copies for the independent Indiana-based Jagjaguwar label in a slow word-of-mouth burn.
It made Vernon an international headliner, a critics' darling whose songs landed in hit movies and TV shows. Even the album's now-famous story of cabin-bound recording got a gentle poke in the Onion (“Man Just Going to Grab Guitar and Old Four-Track, Go Out to Cabin in Woods and Make Worst Album Anyone's Ever Heard,” to paraphrase the headline).
Soon came a follow-up EP, “Blood Bank,” with an improbably gorgeous Auto-Tuned ballad, “Woods,” that West essentially covered on the “Fantasy” track “Lost in the World.” Then Bon Iver released a self-titled album this year that upended much of Vernon's reputation for insular, porcelain-delicate folk.
“Bon Iver” begins with “Perth,” a hazy yet massive revamp of Vernon's instrumental palette. His high-lonesome stacked harmonies are still in the foreground, but gone are “Emma's” minimalist acoustic strums. It has a Brian Eno-style ambience, backing a battlefield drum corps and ceremonial horns.
Album-ender “Beth/Rest” earnestly reappropriates the soft-rock synths of Phil Collins but enlivens them with pedal steel from Bill Frisell and Lucinda Williams collaborator Greg Leisz and saxophones from Arcade Fire's avant-jazz cohort Colin Stetson.
Vernon's quiet, dexterous guitar playing is a centerpiece, but on tracks such as “Holocene” and “Minnesota, WI,” it's a starting point for arrangements rather than a boundary containing them. For a singer with a reputation for making records both sonically and literally walled up in their own worlds, it's a striking new position for Vernon, as a kind of bandleader.
“My role has definitely gotten more involved,” he said. “It's developed into more of what I wanted. I looked at this album as an opportunity. Before, I would never have been able to take months off and just hang out and work on music, and fly people in and get out these more grandiose ideas.”
Of course, flying musicians into Wisconsin to record guest parts in a newly built, top-shelf home studio is expensive. Though the modest and self-effacing Vernon seems humbled by the fact he's become a major American songwriter and, given his work with West, maybe one of pop and indie music's most influential male vocalists. Films such as “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” and shows such as “Grey's Anatomy” and “House” have extensively used his music in soundtracks.
Given the groundswell popularity of “Emma,” Vernon could have signed the record deal of his choosing. But part of Bon Iver's success may be due to Vernon's instincts to stay close to home. Vernon is co-managed by his brother Nate's firm, Middle West, and Vernon has said that his studio is purposefully based mere miles from the bar where his parents met.
“I always feel like I should move, but then I always find reasons to stick around,” Vernon said of Wisconsin. “I kind of feel like I'm supposed to be there. I'm not trapped, but I like that it's a familiar place to build from.”
He stuck with the indie Jagjaguwar for a variety of reasons, from the label's vast distribution network (SC Distribution, which has handled similar indie hits from the Mercury Prize-winning Antony and theJohnsons and Sufjan Stevens) to the personal investment that each party has in Bon Iver.
“They've entrusted us to a great degree, and we don't take that trust for granted, nor the responsibility that comes with that,” said Darius Van Arman, founder and co-owner of Jagjaguwar. “There is a way to remain true to ourselves — while avoiding the wrong-headed creative transformations that marketing machines make you feel is required — while still being both critically and commercially successful.”
But Vernon also consciously subverts the Onion-parody version of Bon Iver as a wood-splitting, knit-capped voice from the wilderness. His time recording with West (envision, if you will, the recording sessions where he joined West, the rotund coke-rapper Rick Ross and pop's current lady killer, Drake, in West's Hawaii studio) and his stint in the droll Midwest glam-funk collective Gayngs proves that his singular voice and compositional vision have legs far beyond an indie-folk template. Bon Iver is his clearest assertion of that yet.
But for L.A. fans, Vernon's best feat might have been one of his most challenging. At a 2009 show at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, misty from fog andthe audience's herbal supplements, he got a fewthousand hipsters to come out for a special sold-outset — at the crack of dawn.
That takes a devotion that not even a Coachella headliner could muster from its audience.
“Because it was L.A., everyone was expecting it to be a big sunrise, but instead it turned into this dark, silvery morning,” Vernon said. “It was really cool, and I'll never forget that one.”
Bon Iver at the Shrine at the Gibson
Shrine Auditorium, 655 W. Jefferson Blvd., 8 p.m. Monday. Sold out.
Bon Iver at The Gibson Amphitheatre, Universal CityWalk
8:15 p.m. Tuesday. Tickets are $39.50.
-- August Brown
Image: Drew Kaiser