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The Solitary Fame of Bon Iver's Justin Vernon

He's traveled the world and partied with Kanye. But now he just wants to stay home.

June 23, 2011 10:30 AM ET
justin vernon bon iver
Justin Vernon of Bon Iver performs at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Paris.
Kristy Sparow/Getty Images

As you drive north from Milwaukee on 1-94, past the Wisconsin Dells, the landscape starts to change. Rolling pastureland gives way to craggy hills, the leaves red and autumnal even in May. This is the land the glaciers didn't reach during the Ice Age – rocky bluffs unsmoothed by the massive ice sheet that moved through the state like a geological steamroller when the long winter ended and spring finally came.

A couple of hours and several deer later, at the edge of the left-hand oven mitt that is Wisconsin, you reach a town called Fall Creek – where, at the end of a cherry-tree-lined driveway, atop 10 of the tallest acres in Eau Claire County, lives Justin Vernon, the man behind indie-rock heroes Bon Iver. Standing in the doorway in jeans, a white V-neck and mismatched socks (stripes on the left; a moose and ALASKA on the right), he stoops to pick up a longhaired rescue cat named Melmon. "Welcome!" he says, extending the non-cat hand. "I'm making dinner. Is there anything you don't eat?"

Vernon, 30, steps over the pile of muddy boots by the door and into the house. He's six feet three and Norwegian-broad – he played tight end and power forward in high school – with dirty-blond hair and a woodsman's beard. Inside the house, there's wood everywhere: wood walls, wood ceiling beams, chopped firewood on the floor. The silhouette of Wisconsin is inescapable (on maps, plates, a spice rack), and the light fixtures have an antlerish theme. Downstairs is Vernon's studio, where he recorded the band's new album, Bon Iver, and whose basketball-court floor he bought from a middle school in St. Paul for $200 on Craigslist.

It's a step up from the digs he had last time. The first Bon Iver (pronounced Bon Ee-vair) record, 2007's For Emma, Forever Ago, was a stripped-down masterpiece recorded with a laptop, a few guitars and a couple of mics. Vernon had been living in North Carolina, playing with his friends in a rootsy band called DeYarmond Edison and working a soul-sucking job at a sandwich shop, when he caught a frightful case of mono, lost all his money playing online poker, broke up with his band-mates and his girlfriend, and bailed back home to Wisconsin, where he retreated to his dad's North Woods hunting cabin to drink and watch lots of Northern Exposure. (He's a big Northern Exposure fan. "If I had to decide on a religion," he says, "Northern Exposure would probably be it. I'm not even kidding.")

Eventually he started recording songs. They were spare and mysterious, sung in a falsetto he layered into a ghostly choir. In both content and mood, they felt like winter. They were supposed to be demos, but they caught fire when he posted them online; the subsequent album went on to sell more than 300,000 copies. The record's backstory has become central to its mythology – part Into the Wild, part Basement Tapes, part Walden, part Unabomber. "But people romanticized a lot of shit," Vernon says. "They think I went up to the cabin and drank maple syrup and shot animals and wrote a record and saved my life. But it wasn't this crazy wildlife situation. I mean, I did hunt deer. A bear did steal my stew. But I had my laptop. There's a phone. There's electricity. My dad had just put in a toilet. Sometimes I would drink four beers and go to bed at 8:00."

When the record took off, crazy things began happening. He got to be pen pals with Gillian Anderson, which, for an X-Files fanatic who named his new studio after an Air Force compound that was featured in the show (April Base), is kind of a big deal. When Bushmills found out how much he loved Irish whiskey, he says he was offered $100,000 to be in an ad campaign: "First of all," Vernon says, "me? And second of all, no way." Then again, he said the same about writing a song for Twilight, which he ultimately ended up doing. He says the money he made will someday send his kids to college. At a show in Minneapolis by one of his other bands, Gayngs, Prince showed up with his Strato-caster and wanted to sit in, but Vernon was too drunk to figure out how to make it happen. "I was like, 'You picked a hell of atimeto show up, dude. Can't we just jam in a different sitch?'"

But by far the craziest encounter began one day in January 2010, when Vernon got a call saying Kanye West wanted to fly him to Hawaii to help with Kanye's new album. Vernon's awesome response: "Can you see if he wants to come here?" ("I don't know why I said that," he says with a laugh. "It was kind of dickish.") Even more awesomely, Kanye said yes. But then there was a snowstorm, and his flight got canceled. "He called the next day and said, 'Why don't you just come here? It's, like, nice.'"

Vernon had been a Kanye fan since his first record, and he says the feeling was mutual: "I think he liked I had kind of a similar emotional approach to music, and that I used Auto-Tune as an instrument and a texture. It made sense." Over the course of three trips, Vernon sang on about 10 songs, of which four – including the posse cut "Monster," and "Lost in the World," which samples Bon Iver's "Woods" and which they performed at Coachella in April – made the record. In his downtime he ate breakfast with Nicki Minaj, played basketball with Kanye at the Y and smoked the finest weed in the Pacific Rim with Rick Ross. Kanye walked in and said, "This is the craziest studio in the Western world right now!"

But tonight is just another quiet evening in Fall Creek. After dinner – grouper, portobello mushrooms, a salad from the local farmers' market – Vernon washes the dishes while his girlfriend, the Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards, brews some tea. "This fucking tea is good!" he says. "Is this the pomegranate raspberry?" Afterward, everyone, cats included, retires upstairs to watch The Song Remains the Same. Vernon and Edwards sit on the couch holding hands and playing iPad Scrabble. Vernon seems to be losing. "He's sold more records," Edwards says. "But I've won more Scrabble games."

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