Not known to be a cocky rock star — even his Best New Artist acceptance speech at the 2012 Grammys was awkwardly humble — Justin Vernon sounded surprisingly sure of himself when talking about the big festival he's bringing to the little metropolis of Eau Claire, Wis.
"I just know it's going to do well, and I don't know why I know that," said Vernon, the Eau Claire native behind the city's almost-namesake Eaux Claires Music & Art Festival, debuting July 17-18. "I just believe in it, and it's not like blind faith."
Fans of Vernon will probably agree after the full Eaux Claires lineup was announced Wednesday morning.
In addition to his own act, Bon Iver — playing its only show on the books since November 2012 — the two-day, 40-band event is like four Rock the Garden bills in one. It will also feature fellow indie-rock big-wigs the National, Spoon, Sufjan Stevens, Boys Noize and Tallest Man on Earth; veteran acts the Indigo Girls, Blind Boys of Alabama and Low; buzzing newcomers Sturgill Simpson, Sylvan Esso, Hiss Golden Messenger, the Lone Bellow and Phox, plus a bevy of Twin Cities favorites such as Doomtree, Poliça, Lizzo, Haley Bonar and Marijuana Deathsquads.
Vernon laughingly described the lineup as "all selfish" selections.
"I vaguely just picked a diverse cross section of my favorite music — my favorite live music, specifically."
Some of the lineup picks were also made by "co-curator" Aaron Dessner, guitarist for the National, who also organizes the innovative Music Now festival with his brother/bandmate Bryce in their native Cincinnati, Ohio. Vernon said the initial inspiration for Eaux Claires (pronounced just like the city) came when he performed at Music Now in 2010.
"I learned from Aaron how you can shape opportunities for friends — ways to show off artists to people, and to use the power you have when you have a recognized name to do something like this," he said.
As much as Eaux Claires is about showing off some of his favorite performers to his Upper Midwestern homeys, Vernon also hopes to show off his home town and the Wisconsin countryside to fans from all over. The festival site is just outside Eau Claire on a woodsy section of the Chippewa River, where the popular Country Jam concerts are also held.
"What I like is that it feels like a blank canvas," he said of the setting, talking Tuesday via phone 4,000 miles away at his musician friend James Blake's pad in London.
"Our town is changing a lot. I've lived there my whole life, and I don't like that it hasn't changed more, but I love it there."
He said a small but surprising amount of the 2,500 pre-sale tickets that quickly sold out last month were buyers from around the globe.
General-admission two-day passes go on sale Thursday for $135, with camping passes costing another $100-plus. "Enhanced" admission passes will also be available for $250, offering access to a respite area and free beer (from nearby Leinenkugel's and Summit in St. Paul). Vernon was adamant about not calling the latter passes "V.I.P.," though.
"We're not doing the classist thing," he insisted, going on to list off other ways he hopes Eaux Claires will differ from the ever-widening array of festivals around the country.
"Basically, almost every festival I've been to with the exception of a very few were mostly bummers."
"A lot of time festivals are grouped together by genre. They want to call it a rock festival or folk, country or hip-hop. We're doing everything that's interesting. And we're not just doing music. We're doing art and film."
He also promised "performances in non-traditional performance spaces — unique, intimate stagings, perhaps not even with a stage."
Perhaps the biggest question on fans' minds is what to expect from Vernon himself on stage. That really won't be known until July. He said he's not even sure which other musicians will make up his band. He disbanded the old Bon Iver performance lineup in 2012 and has been working on other music projects since then, including his other bands Volcano Choir and the Shouting Matches.
Some speculated that he walked away from Bon Iver after souring on his first taste of mainstream success and fame. He says now it wasn't quite that black and white.
"It wasn't about anything other than it just seemed like it was time to set it down. That project was for me, and there was too much of 'me' in my life because of it, if that makes any sense. It didn't need to be on display anymore, or it didn't need to feel like I was being taken for a ride. I didn't feel like I was in control."
Working on this festival has actually helped him gain control again.
"It's given me the gateway to start thinking about [Bon Iver] again in a very healthy way," he said. "I'm not exactly sure if I'm ready, but, I mean, if there's a place for Bon Iver to play, it's at this festival."
Here's the full alphabetical list of music acts announced Wednesday for the inaugural Eaux Claires lineup:
Blind Boys of Alabama
Francis and the Lights
Hiss Golden Messenger
Indigo Girls performing Swamp Ophelia
No BS! Brass Band
Retribution Gospel Choir
The Found Footage Festival
The Lone Bellow
The Tallest Man On Earth