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