Here at ATG we’re celebrating the return of Bon Iver — peep the new song “Heavenly Father,” to be featured on the soundtrack to the upcoming Zach Braff film Wish I Was Here, over at NPR — with a comprehensive primer on the lauded career of the man behind the moniker, Justin Vernon. If you’re not up on all things J.V., read on and let our resident Vernonologist Eric Atienza fill you in on why this singer-songwriter is worth knowing and loving.
Justin Vernon is a man of many projects. Of course he’s best known for his Grammy award-winning efforts with Bon Iver, though folks might recognize him from his Record Store Day 7″ with Peter Gabriel, his participation with folk supergroup Gayngs, his producing credits on an absurd amount of records from the last couple of years or his contributions to Kanye West‘s records My Dark And Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus. These, however, only scratch the surface of Vernon’s musical pursuits. Sure, he has side projects and credits on other peoples’ records as many artists of his stature do, but more than that he has a penchant for picking up and developing new bands. He’s prolific and tireless; a born musician that, for at least sixteen years, has known only how to create. Making new sounds is like an addiction to him, and listed here are his drugs of choice.
Vernon’s musical story started at Eau Claire Memorial High School in Eau Claire, Wisconsin in 1998 where he gathered some friends from jazz camp together to start Mount Vernon. The group’s aesthetic, heard here on “Breathe,” was a well-crafted but rudimentary riff on the same jazzy elements Dave Mathews was playing with around that time.
The execution is certainly simple, as most high school projects are, but the playing is fairly good. It’s especially interesting to note that the female vocal on the track is one Sara Emma Jenson whose name graces the album that would, in a few years, change Vernon’s life.
The next major milestone in Vernon’s musical career came in 2002 with a band christened for his two middle names, DeYarmond Edison. Long time friends Brad Cook, Phil Cook and Joe Westerlund — from Mount Vernon — joined him on this effort that began to show Vernon’s penchant for quiet, delicate songs drawing heavily from soft bits of Americana. “Dusty Road,” from the groups self-titled 2004 debut album, is a beautiful song featuring a steadily tapped snare, a light piano and a sparsely, skillfully picked acoustic guitar, with Vernon adopting an ever-so-slight twang in his vocal. It’s getting closer to that stripped down, bare emotion that made him famous, but still has a few polished touches of late ’90s/early ’00s soft rock.
The band experienced some success while playing out of the midwest, but eventually decided to move to Raleigh, North Carolina. Moderate success greeted the group there as well, and 2005 saw the release of a second record, 2005’s Silent Signs. The title track is full and rich, with even the quieter moments bursting with weighty anticipation. Other tracks from the record, like “First Impression,” further illustrate the group’s talent for using lulls to evoke thoughtfulness and longing.
While the group never really “broke out,” it clearly had something strong and touching going on, though as sometimes happens with collections of good songwriters, creative differences began to creep in. In 2006 the band broke up, though the members remained friends and later released a final EP of previously unreleased tracks. The dissolution of DeYardmond Edison coincided with the end of Vernon’s long-term relationship with his girlfriend, and while his former band-mates decided to stay in Raleigh and eventually form the trippy folk outfit Megafaun, Vernon returned to Eau Claire.
Though this was a trying time in the life of Justin Vernon, it was also a turning point. Upon his return to Wisconsin he holed himself up, and spent three months penning one of the best albums of the past decade.
Bon Iver is an intentional misspelling of the French “bon hiver,” meaning “good winter”. It’s a fitting name because, though it came on the heels of some heavy emotional tumult, the winter of 2007 was a productive one for Vernon. He isolated himself in his father’s cabin with a four-track and an acoustic guitar, and exorcised and then captured his demons on nine stellar tracks. As Vernon later told NPR, “You know, everyone kind of builds up negative energy in their life, and for me, it just built up a little too long. And I think I went up there to really fix myself. That’s what it was kind of about for me — afterwards, I realized that.”
The cathartic release of that energy is audible throughout For Emma, Forever Ago, especially as he slips between falsetto and powerful yowl on album standout “Skinny Love,” though he also deploys his full command of breathless pauses that he’d developed with DeYardmond Edison on songs like “Wolves (Act I and II).” The most telling moment of the record, though, occurs on final track “re: Stacks” as he calmly proclaims, “This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization/ It’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away.”
Vernon self-released 500 copies of the record in 2007 and began playing shows later that year. Soon after playing CMJ, he was picked up by Jagjaguwar, and the label re-released his album in 2008.
The years 2009 and 2010 were a flurry of activity. In addition to touring and doing TV appearances Bon Iver released the Blood Bank EP, which hinted at the more developed production that would appear on the group’s second full length, and Vernon dabbled in the above-mentioned collaborations with West, Gabriel and Gayngs.
The group’s self-titled second album, released in 2011, is a world removed from the cabin-recording of the first. It’s a rich and polished record with intricate, complex harmonies involving a multitude of instruments. Songs like “Perth” and “Calgary” show that while Vernon’s songwriting remained intensely personal and emotional, his musicianship was ever-expanding. Not long after the release of Bon Iver, though, Vernon put the band on a shelf, telling Rolling Stone, “I look at it like a faucet. I have to turn it off and walk away from it because so much of how that music comes together is subconscious or discovering. There’s so much attention on the band, it can be distracting at times. I really feel the need to walk away from it while I still care about it. And then if I come back to it – if at all – I’ll feel better about it and be renewed or something to do that.”
Luckily for him, though, he already had other outlets to occupy his time.
As early as 2005 Vernon had been working on some tunes with the folks from Collections Of Colonies Of Bees, and in 2009 the group came together under the moniker Volcano Choir and released its first album, Unmap. The record features tracks like “Island, IS” that are more nimble than anything Vernon had done previously. The beats came quicker, and the songs were more dynamic.
Volcano Choir evolved slowly. Work on a second album, Repave, began in 2010 and took nearly three years to come to fruition. The painstaking process paid off in 2013, however, with the album’s release showing off rich, lush production and enormous, sweeping melodies. Vernon didn’t play an instrument on this record, choosing to focus on his vocals, and often laying down his tracks over nearly finished songs. It’s easy to see why some folks say this record sounds like a new Bon Iver record, because numbers like “Comrade” show a continued musical evolution from what that group was doing on its second album. Repave dips into the electronic, marrying that with deep percussion to create a sound that’s at once vast and personal.
Volcano Choir represents a fork in Vernon’s musical interest. The other end of that fork is embodied in yet another band he’d been playing with over the same time span.
In 2008 Vernon got together with his old friend Phil Cook, and Brian Moen, drummer for label mate Peter Wolf Crier, to record a limited run EP of warm, bluesy tunes. Using the name Shouting Matches, the group didn’t see much action until 2013 with the release of the full-length album Grownass Man. It’s filled with songs like “New Theme” that are bursting with down-home charm, and while certain moments on the record are more subdued, others exude a slickness and percussive backbone that really fills out the music. The group splashes bits of fuzzy rock and roll with lazily winding melodies and a slight country twang. In all it’s a down and dirty evolution to the style Vernon and Cook were working with in DeYardmond Edison with grit and guts, and no shortage of soul.
It’s been clear since high school that music-making is in Justin Vernon’s DNA. It’s in every breath, and every beat of his heart. At every stage of his life, in both good times and bad, he’s found a way to channel his experience into something beautiful. It’s hard to tell where he’ll go next; whether we’ll see another album with any of the groups he’s currently a part of, more collaborations with stars hungry to work with him, or yet another solo project. One thing is sure, though: that next project is definitely coming. Vernon cannot help it. He’s someone that has to create, and his next sounds will definitely be something to look forward to.