Like any upstart religion, rock ’n’ roll has always propagated and profited off its own mythology, from Robert Johnson at the crossroads to Keith Moon at the Holiday Inn. Now, thanks to the Internet, even a quietly self-released indie album out of Wisconsin can create its own legend overnight. Thus was born the tall tale of Bon Iver, aka Justin Vernon—the man who spent a winter alone in a cabin in the woods and wound up recording the decade’s most haunting folk album. Reviews of the first Bon Iver disc were nearly unanimous in their praise, and almost all of them referred to Vernon’s retreat into wintry isolation to write and record it.
“Well, most things that are romanticized are going to be over-romanticized at some point,” Vernon says. “If somebody gets more out of something because of the context, I’m not going to hate on them for it or anything.”
The story that’s developed around Vernon’s 2007 Bon Iver debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, is rooted in actual events. After suffering break-ups with both his girlfriend and his former band, Vernon left North Carolina in 2006 and returned to his native Wisconsin. He wound up spending a few months in isolation at his father’s cabin, about a million metaphorical miles from the hordes of bloggers who would soon be singing his praises. As the story goes, Vernon simply focused on his music, and with just a collection of ragtag recording equipment and an acoustic guitar he pieced together the powerfully soulful and intimate songs on For Emma.
“I think it’s important that people know that I wasn’t some crazy person who ran off into the woods,” Vernon says with a laugh. “It’s not like I was wearing bear pelts and going hunting every morning. I was just a young person, 25 years old, who was going through a lot of shit.”
Vernon would prefer that his music speak for itself, without the need for any quirky context. Still, considering how relatively accurate a lot of his surrounding fable seems to be, Vernon won’t deny that this particular album may indeed be more than the sum of its parts.
“It doesn’t sound like that big a deal, but to have left my best friends in North Carolina and go out on my own—it was a very difficult decision to make,” he explains. “I was basically starting over, a lot later than I ever wanted to be starting over. It was a really good experience just to find that courage and then to see it pay off.”
For those who had known Vernon from his days as the gruff-voiced frontman for the Americana bar band DeYarmond Edison, his rebirth as Bon Iver had to be especially stunning. Nearly every aspect of For Emma represented a complete transformation, from Vernon’s newfound ghostly falsetto to his strangely subconscious approach to songwriting.
“What I was doing for most of the record was just building these arcs,” he says, “building the songs from very smoky foundations. ‘Lump Sum,’ for example, just started out with a certain feel to it. I wrote all the chords and started to hum melodies, but I wasn’t really singing any words—just syllables.”
The magic started happening when Vernon began layering multiple vocal tracks in this same fashion. As he played back the recording, words slowly started popping out from the gibberish. And soon enough, he’d found his lyrics: “Sold my cold knot / a heavy stone / sold my red horse / for a venture home.”
“That song, in a lot of ways, is about my decision to leave and my experience up north, but I didn’t even write it consciously!” Vernon says. “I just found that a very liberating experience.”
Vernon eventually signed with the indie label Jagjaguwar, which re-released For Emma, Forever Ago in February. By choosing the name Bon Iver (an intentional misspelling of the French phrase for “good winter”), Vernon effectively sealed the legend of his album’s unique creation. But, as a small consequence, he also wound up permanently attached to a rather unlikely alphabetical neighbor.
“Bon Jovi! I know, I realized that afterwards, and I was like, ‘Shit!’” Vernon says. “There’s actually not even that much difference in the letters, you know. There’s a ‘v’ and an ‘i’ in there. Who knows, maybe I am Jon Bon Jovi and this is a whole wicked PR stunt or something.”
Sounds like another good rock myth in the making.