After a couple of breakups, Justin Vernon headed into the woods of Wisconsin for three months and came out as Bon Iver, a songwriter gaining national acclaim.
EAU CLAIRE, WIS.
With the sun bouncing off the icicles and snowbanks along the Chippewa River, Racy D'Lene's coffeehouse feels like a much warmer environment than the isolated hunting cabin where Justin Vernon spent last winter.
You can sense the sharp contrast between this winter and that one just by the number of people around him.
"That's my girlfriend Lizzie over there in the white cap," Vernon says. He also introduces his guitar player (seated with him at the counter) and his 20-year-old manager (working behind the counter), and he chats with others here and there.
Sporting a beard and a vintage Emmylou Harris T-shirt that shows off the row of Navajo and Buddhist symbols tattooed on his forearm, Vernon says with a gregarious grin, "You can see why I'm more comfortable in Eau Claire than anywhere else."
Just off the college bar strip that is Water Street, Racy D'Lene's lies just a block away from the Joynt bar where Vernon's parents met, and where -- an apparent point of pride for the 6-foot-tall former high-school football captain -- tap beer is still just 40 cents at happy hour.
Five more blocks away sits the $76,000 house that the songwriter bought the day after Christmas. A good chunk of the down payment came from the nine songs he recorded out of life-saving desperation last winter, music that now seems poised to change his life forever.
The album is called "For Emma, Forever Ago," a haunting and starkly personal collection of experimental, fragmented, loopy folk music that Vernon self-released under the pseudonym Bon Iver last April. It caught fire over the summer on the indie-rock blogs without any record-label support, and now it's due for a national re-release next month.
The record is as good as the story behind it.
Vernon, 26, made "For Emma" after breaking up with his girlfriend and his band, DeYarmond Edison, in Raleigh, N.C. More lost and confused than he was depressed or dejected, he packed his things and headed to his dad's 80-acre spread in a remote, woodsy part of Dunn County in western Wisconsin in October. He didn't emerge until February.
"I never intended to make a record," he said at least a half-dozen times during an interview a week ago. "I got up there to the land, and I had no plan to do anything except to just be there, eat venison, work outside and do nothing."
He lived in a puny (but winterized) cabin built after his father, a labor-law arbitrator for the National Hockey League, bought the land in 1979. Except for when his dad came every week or two for his "usual tinkering around," plus a few stray visitors, he was there alone.
Among the gear he brought back from Raleigh was some vintage four-track recording equipment plus a few guitars. His brother later drove in from St. Paul to drop off a drum kit.
After a week or two of going down a list of chores, he said, "The quiet really set in. And that's when it all started unrolling."
The songs "mostly all started with the sounds, and I pulled lyrics out of the sounds. Those lyrics are still vague to me in a lot of ways."
'That's not her real name'
Delivered in an eerie falsetto that sometimes edges on a miserable moan, many of the songs on "For Emma" are indeed hard to decipher lyrically. The element that's all too clear, though, is the emotional outpouring on the album.
Like a cross between Thoreau's "Walden" and Nick Drake's "Pink Moon," the record sounds as isolated and icy as the setting where it was made. Also echoing modern-day lonely-hearts-club folkies like Iron & Wine and the late Elliott Smith, Vernon sings most of the songs with a simple, off-tuned acoustic guitar. He repeatedly overdubbed his voice to create layered, often shimmering choruses.
Starting with the album opener "Flume," the songs come off like search parties for a light at the end of the tunnel. The most fractured among them offer pure catharsis, like the gorgeous final track "Re: Stacks" and the still and sullen "Wolves (Acts I and II)," which burns into the lamenting refrain, "What might have been lost."
Vernon described the pent-up anxiety behind the album as "six years dealing with ancient relationships and pain that just sort of kept building."
In "Skinny Love," a song earning steady airplay on the Current (89.3 FM), his voice rises to a fevered pitch as he sings, "I told you to be patient/And I told you to be fine/ And I told you to be balanced/And I told you to be kind." It sounds like Vernon is singing to an ex-lover, but like a lot of the album, he's actually singing to himself.
"Skinny love is basically a metaphor for someone you like a lot but you're not all the way there; the love is frail," he explained. "That song was written about all those girls I was with, and I sabotaged the relationships because I realized I wasn't as in love with them as I was with my first true love."
Would that first true love's name happen to be Emma?
"That's not her real name," Vernon answered, coyly adding, "but it kind of is."
Girl trouble is hardly all that fuels the album's fire. The end of DeYarmond Edison, a group he formed while attending the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire, was also a huge deal. The band relocated to Raleigh to be in a bigger music town, but the move wound up splintering them musically and personally.
"They were my best friends for many years," Vernon said of the Americana-flavored rock band, whose other members would later form Megafaun (currently on tour as the Akron Family's backing unit).
"DeYarmond Edison represented all the years of me being an imitator, borrowing other people's sound rather than borrowing the emotion or the introspection of the songwriters I liked," Vernon said.
In the cabin in the woods, though, "I was able to let go of that for whatever reason. Probably because I thought I was gonna quit music altogether, and so I was just making the music for myself."
'Some rough demos'
The early recipients of "For Emma, Forever Ago" all have a similar story.
Vernon's girlfriend Elizabeth (Lizzie) Powell got a copy of the album while her band, Montreal-based Land of Talk, was on tour with the Rosebuds, a Raleigh group that recruited Vernon as a guitar player in 2006. He rejoined the Rosebuds last spring after his hibernation.
"Justin handed me this CD and was like, 'Oh, it's just some rough demos I put together,'" Powell said. "I listened to it nonstop when we had like this 18-hour drive. I was mesmerized by it."
The nonchalant way he delivered the music, Powell said, "was so Justin."
Cloud Cult bassist Shawn Neary -- en ex-member of Tapes N Tapes who has tasted the blogger buzz now facing Vernon -- got a similarly unassuming handoff of the CD during a chance meeting on tour.
"He mentioned that he was working on a solo record and we agreed to swap records," Neary said. "I didn't anticipate getting one of the best records I'd heard in a long time from someone I'd only just met."
Vernon's former Eau Claire grade-school mate, Drew Christopherson, who now performs in the Twin Cities bands Digitata and Mel Gibson & the Pants, saw some of the songwriter's earliest musical endeavors. Even with the forgettable acts, he said, "Justin always poured his entire self into whichever band he was fronting.
"Its not at all surprising that the first project he got to write and perform by himself ended up being the most obviously gifted and original," Christopherson said.
Pressed by friends like these to issue his recordings as-is, Vernon printed up 500 copies of "For Emma" and settled on the moniker Bon Iver ("bone-eevair"), which he took from an episode of "Northern Exposure." It's French for "good winter" -- technically spelled "Bon Hiver," but he figured Americans would mispronounce it.
To this day, only 500 people have a copy of the record, but many more heard it when it was streamed for free over the summer on the website virb.com. Influential music sites such as My Old Kentucky Blog and Brooklyn Vegan picked up on it first, as did Twin Cities-based ReveilleMag.com. Then the big one, PitchforkMedia.com, gave the album an 8.1 out of 10-point rating in June. "That's when I knew this was really gonna happen," Vernon said.
In the fall, he gave a well-received performance at the CMJ Music Festival in New York. After talking with record labels big and small he settled on the medium-sized Jagjaguwar, based in Bloomington, Ind. It's the label for such burgeoning bands as Okkervil River and Sunset Rubdown.
With the record now set for a Feb. 19 release on Jagjaguwar, Vernon is going on a 15-city tour with a three-piece band starting Thursday at the Turf Club in St. Paul. He is thrilled by the opportunity to play these songs in public, but he's sticking to the story that it was never his intention when he headed to the woods last winter.
"I just went up there to turn my [life] around," he said. "When I was there, I was happy to be there, but it was lonely and sort of like, 'What am I gonna do tonight? Well, drink a half bottle of whiskey, I guess.'
"The opportunity to create something like this, for a lot of people, only comes when you have nothing but time and you're by yourself. The longevity of the ideas -- the way they came out in an intact manner -- I probably only could get from being isolated."
Sounds like someone might be headed back into the woods before his next album.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658