The backstory on For Emma, Forever Ago, Justin Vernon's debut album under the name Bon Iver, reads like a musical version of Jon Krakauer's Into The Wild. Singer-songwriter Vernon holed up in his father's cabin in northwestern Wisconsin for several months after a series of personal setbacks, including breakups with his band and girlfriend, and a lingering bout with mononucleosis that attacked his liver and kept him in bed for three months. Vernon whiled away the days recording lonely folk songs, radically altering the way he approached songwriting and singing, and subsequently producing a hauntingly beautiful record far removed from his previous work. After Vernon sent out copies of For Emma to blogs and websites and streamed the record free online, Bon Iver (a bastardized version of the French phrase for "good winter") became an underground hit, prompting indie label Jagjaguwar to pick up the record for a proper release in February. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Vernon about becoming a blog sensation, living in the musical hotbed of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and the upside of being a musical hermit.
The A.V. Club: How did For Emma, Forever Ago go from a small, self-released record to a blog and music-site favorite?
Justin Vernon: I don't know, man. I've heard a lot of records I thought were brilliant that never sold more than 50 7-inches. I've made three or four records in the past, and we've sent a billion out to different people. And they just don't land. I'm really glad none of my shit from the past has gotten out there, because I'm embarrassed by it now.
AVC: Were you confident this would be the record to break big for you?
JV: I didn't know I made a record. I thought what I had was demos for a record I might want to re-record. I brought it down to Ivan from The Rosebuds, and he was like, "Dude, these aren't demos. This is your record." I never had an opportunity to give it my own spin. People were spinning it already. In a lot of ways, I'm still in spin mode. Whatever it is people say the record is, I believe them.
AVC: Before you made this album, you moved from Raleigh back to your hometown of Eau Claire. Does living in a small, secluded town influence you as a songwriter?
JV: Growing up, all I did was write about the fact that I'm from where I'm from. I was a big champion of where I was from and Wisconsin in general, and the Midwest. And I still am, to some degree. Just in general as a person, not necessarily as a songwriter, being in cities wasn't the right fit. I couldn't escape and be in the woods in 10 minutes if I needed to. I like that in Eau Claire, I can walk to a bar or a coffee shop and there's city-ish things, but I can also drive and in eight minutes be at my parents' land outside of town.
AVC: It sounds like your stay in Raleigh was pretty disastrous. When you returned home, did you feel like your music career was over?
JV: Certainly. I drove home 18 hours from North Carolina, and I sat on my parents' couch, and nobody was there. I felt really claustrophobic. I knew just because I left a place I knew I didn't want to be, I wasn't heading toward a place that meant something to me, or was going to be good for me. I felt really super-empty, and was like, "I don't know if I can be here. For the first time in my life, I don't have a real musical identity, and I'm really worried about that. Maybe I need to take some time and do nothing." I had some music that I started to think about in the back of my brain, but at that point, I was still sort of depressed. It wasn't that I was sad; I was indifferent. It felt really odd to feel that indifferent and lost and unsure. I basically left that afternoon. I went straight up north to my dad's cabin because I needed to be alone. I needed silence. It was a necessity more than a conscious decision.
AVC: For Emma, Forever Ago is a sad, lonely record. Is that a reflection of how you felt while making it, or was it actually pretty fun being alone in the wilderness?
JV: I don't think I really had any clue what was going on while I was there. I was just there. There would be days when I would work on music that sounded really happy. Or I'd be really happy to be working on it. I think you can be jazzed about working on a really sad song if you're into it. But when I left the cabin, I don't think I felt renewed or "done" or anything. I still felt sick, my liver still hurt. I was going back to North Carolina sooner than I thought, to work with The Rosebuds. It took me months and months to realize what I had accomplished up there musically, personally, all that.
AVC: You had to step back to appreciate what you had?
JV: The enigma of everything, I'm beside it. Yeah, I went up to the cabin in the woods and I made a record. It's sort of odd to look back and see it as magical, because it felt like a lonely few months at the cabin, where I plugged in the laptop and fucked around.
AVC: There's already a mythology of sorts around the record, where people talk about the music in the context of how it was made. Do you think knowing the backstory is important to understanding the record?
JV: No. I'll get e-mails from people saying "I listened to this song and it made me feel this about my life," or whatever. I think the story pulls people into the music; it gives them a place to enter. But I hope people are reacting to the music.
AVC: But do you understand why people find the idea of homemade music romantic? It's part of what makes Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, Bob Dylan's The Basement Tapes, or the early Elliott Smith records so appealing.
JV: Those records you mentioned are huge influences on me. On an aesthetic level, it's really important that I make the records. I engineer them, I mix them. I shouldn't downplay that there is a romantic backstory to this record. There's a very deep core to the songs that's personal to me; the characters are very real to me. There's a lot of people that wish they could move to the woods for a few months. The fact that I actually did might be exciting for some people.
AVC: The vocals are very striking on the record. The lead and overdubbed backing vocals are falsetto and ghostly, much different from the gruffer style of your prior bands. Why did you start singing this way?
JV: I don't have an answer for that. I've tried to answer that question before, and I realized I was just making stuff up to have an answer. But I have no idea. For the most part, I've been influenced by black singers and singers I couldn't sound like. Whenever I tried to do a dark note or a bent note, I would just sound like Hootie And The Blowfish. [Laughs.] I was really insecure about it, so I just ended up writing rock 'n' roll songs where I didn't have to do that. But I feel so much more comfortable being able to access painful melodies. I feel freer singing the high stuff.
AVC: What's your approach to writing lyrics? They seemed based more on how they sound than any literal meaning.
JV: I've always been into the Springsteen thing, writing pretty literally and trying to tell stories. With these songs, I was creating sounds first. I would create a space for the vocals, then transcribe vocal sounds and listen to what it sounded like. I would get lyric ideas from the sound of the voice. And I was actually able to pull out more meaningful stuff, personally speaking, because of that. I would surprise myself by what I was singing about, just all these weird, subconscious melodies and sounds. I had no proper idea of what I should be doing. It was a great release, actually, to break up with my band and not have that support system any more. I was alone, I had no rules, I had no band, I had no sound I sounded like, I had no one to answer to. I just felt a little freer. I went back to those days as a 14-year-old, working on an 8-track.
AVC: Do you see yourself writing songs that way from now on?
JV: I still listen to those confessional-style songwriters. But when I sit down now and work on stuff, I'm drifting toward the place that allows me to be more honest. And I think I the way I did this is The Way—it's like a path or something. I don't want to re-create this album. I just want to re-create the path and get into a place where I feel comfortable, and not think too much about what the lyrics sound like, or "I better make this record sound very Bon Iver!" So many people's sophomore records sounds like that.
AVC: You're already thinking about your second record?
JV: Yes. I think I'm going to take three or four weeks and just start a new record, and as I tour through the spring, listen to it in the car and finish it by the summer. I don't want to rest on these songs. I know too many musicians that have to tour on the same 10 songs, and they burn out. They get back to their house and they have no reason to write new music. They are music'd out.