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Why Bon Iver Had to Relearn Everything He Knows

'Somewhere along the line, I forgot how to write songs,' he says about making his new album

March 23, 2011 7:45 AM ET
Why Bon Iver Had to Relearn Everything He Knows
Drew Kaiser

In the three years since Bon Iver released its critically beloved 2007 debut For Emma, Forever Ago, frontman Justin Vernon earned thousands of new fans – including Kanye West, who invited the sensitive singer-songwriter to appear on six songs of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

But when Vernon sat down to work on Bon Iver’s follow-up album, he discovered a problem. “Somewhere along the line, I forgot how to write songs,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I couldn’t do it anymore with a guitar. It wasn’t happening.”

So Vernon – who wrote For Emma while holed up by himself in rural Wisconsin – changed gears, working with studio musicians, trying to build sounds rather than songs. “I brought in a lot of people to change my voice — not my singing voice, but my role as the author of this band, this project,” says Vernon, who hired well-known players like sax man Colin Stetson, who plays with Tom Waits and Arcade Fire, and pedal-steel guitarist Greg Leisz, who recorded with Bill Frissell and Linda Rondstadt. “I built the record myself, but I allowed those people to come in and change the scene.” The album, which is still untitled, is scheduled to come out sometime in June.

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He says it was liberating to recognize his own limitations and move on. “I always had a dream to be that sort of student of Neil Young, one of those people who can sit down and write a song and have it be this full statement and sound good,” he says. “I just don’t think I’m as good at it as those people, frankly, and over the last few years, I’ve adapted.”

The result is a lush 10-track collage in which each song represents a place. The first, "Perth," grew out of a rejuvenating experience Vernon had in the Australian city (which, he points out, sounds a lot like birth, “but better, because it doesn’t sound as ugly”), and features a marching drum beat, a childrens’ choir and wailing guitars.

“It’s a Civil War-sounding heavy metal song,” he says. “It’s sort of chaotic, dense, jarring.” “Minnesota Wisconsin” deals with Vernon’s childhood and features finger-picked guitars, double bass drums and distorted bass saxophone. The album ends with horn-heavy “Beth/Rest.” “I’m the most proud of that song,” says Vernon, who is cagy on the details. “It’s definitely the part where you pick up your joint and re-light it.”

Photos: Random Notes

As he gets ready to release another album, Vernon continues to be happily surprised that so many people appreciate his weird, sometimes other-worldly music.

“I saw an old friend the other morning and he’s like, ‘Hey man, congrats on everything. I’m just really happy and weirdly, wonderfully surprised that the world gets it,’ and I’m like, ‘Me, too,’” he says. “I don’t know how else to say it but that.”

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