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.

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Justin Vernon of Bon Iver performs at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Paris.
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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."

The next morning, Vernon sleeps until almost 11. "Man," he says, lumbering into the living room in his red gym shorts. "I haven't slept past 7:30 in forever. I'm kinda jazzed about it." He fixes breakfast – cereal, espresso, yogurt – and heads into town to run some errands.

"I have to warn you," he says as he starts his beat-up Honda CR-V. "May and June, I listen exclusively to Hot Country radio." He turns the dial, and a song about a big green tractor comes on. "Oh, hell yeah!" (He's always had eclectic taste: Growing up, his favorite bands were Primus and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. In eighth grade, he became obsessed with the Indigo Girls, a group he loves so much he has one of their lyrics tattooed on his chest.)

We head past rust-colored barns into Eau Claire proper, driving past the hospital where Vernon was born; past his parents' old house, where he grew up rooting for the Twins (Minneapolis is 90 miles away) and dreaming of being a sportscaster; past the branch of the University of Wisconsin where he majored in comparative religion and lost his virginity in the Towers dorm (there's a song about it, "Towers," on the new record); and past the corner of Third and Lake, where some of his best friends used to rent a house that later burned down, teaching him an important lesson about memories and loss. (There's a song about that, too.)

Everything he loves is in Eau Claire: Coffee at Racy's. Chinese food at Egg Roll Plus. $4 pitchers at the Joynt. He likes that he can be in the woods in 10 minutes, or at the cabin in an hour if it's deer season. He has a little blues-metal band with his buddy Brian, and talks about maybe one day starting his own venue. "It's past comfort," he says of his relationship with the place. "I feel like it knows me."

Sometimes he thinks about moving to the Twin Cities, where his brother, sister and parents all relocated. He has friends there, too, and there's a cool gallery scene. "But I kind of love being in a place where people don't know what's going on. It's kind of cool to see what you create when you live your life in Nowheresville."

After For Emma broke, Vernon toured America, Europe, Australia and Japan. In some ways, the new record is about the places he saw. But in a lot of ways, it's also about right here. "I think it's a lot more personal to him," says his brother-slash-manager, Nate. "I can see him somewhere else, but I think he'll always end up back here."

The first song he wrote was called "Perth," and it was inspired by a death. "We were down at my parents' house shooting the video for 'Wolves,'" Vernon says, referring to one of For Emma's rawest, most affecting tracks. The director, Matt Amato, happened to be close friends with Heath Ledger.

"It was January," Vernon says, "fucking 25 below. We're out shooting, and we come back in, and his phone had been going off." Ledger, it turned out, was dead. "So I've got this guy in my house whose best friend just passed away. He's sobbing in my arms. He can't go back to L.A. because the house is under siege. Michelle Williams is calling my parents' phone. All this stuff." For the next two days, Amato drank brandy, cried and reminisced about Ledger riding horses back home in Perth. The morning he left, Vernon wrote the song's first draft.

When he recorded For Emma, Vernon says, "I was shatteringly alone for a pretty long time." Even though he worked with a band this time, "this was a very quiet record for me too. There were many days I spent by myself." The songs are fuller, with busier arrangements, but the self-reflection and melancholy still come through. Sometimes the themes are hard for him to articulate – they have to do with seasons, and cycles, something lost and something found. "But at least in terms of colors and awakenings," he says, "this record feels like spring."

Back at the house, Vernon laces up his running shoes for a jog. There's a two-mile loop he likes to do, down the road to the yellow sign and back. The fields smell like cow shit; he runs fast. He says he's trying to get in shape for his upcoming tour: Last time all the traveling and craziness blindsided him, but this time he wants to be ready. "It feels a little strange to me," he says, "waiting for a record to come out. I've never done this before. It's exciting."

The next day is Memorial Day, and it's almost comically pretty. Sunlight dawns on golden daffodils. Rye fields wave in the breeze. Vernon and a couple of friends play a shirtless round of Frisbee golf, while Edwards plants tomato seeds and plays with the cats. Later, she finds a nest of baby robins. In the afternoon, Vernon sits in his front yard and talks about his plans for the place. They want to install some solar panels, maybe do some wind power. His brother wants to build a tree bridge off the back deck and install some pontoon boats in the branches, so they can party in the sky, Ewok-style. He also wants to grow some weed. "Not much. Just, like, 10 plants. Give some to friends and stuff. Cut the drug dealers out of our lives."

I ask if he feels settled.

"I feel pretty settled that I can do music as a job," he says. "Personally, though, I feel pretty unsettled. Sometimes I miss my folks. But it's nice to come out here and have my space and share it with other people. I always wanted to live in the country, and it's happening."

Everything seems pretty groovy. So you can't help but wonder, where does all the sadness and melancholy in his songs come from? "It's a good question," Vernon says. "I don't get it sometimes either. I think that's why this feels like a spring record. Because it's not fully evolved yet – but it's on its way to something.

"It's OK to get bummed out, for sure," he adds. "But I haven't been bummed out in a long time."

Related
Bon Iver's 'Bon Iver': A Track-by-Track Breakdown
Why Bon Iver Had to Relearn Everything He Knows
Review: Bon Iver's 'Bon Iver'
Breaking: Bon Iver

This story is from the June 23, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1133: June 23, 2011
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