Jess Gitner is a producer with Morning Edition and frequent contributor to NPR Music. She recently spoke with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon about the band's new album, Bon Iver.
Jess Gitner: The new album is a new sound. Jimmy [Fallon] called it spring as opposed to winter. What was the starting point for you?
Justin Vernon: I think the starting point came really, really early. Kind of before For Emma was even out on a record label. I had kind of finished the record and then a few months later, I'd started working on the riff and some of the opening music to the album, which is the song "Perth." And it had a really long sort of birth. It kind of just continued to form itself over the course of three years. So it's kind of hard to say when did it start, because it happened so metamorphously, if that's even a word, if that makes any sense. And it just sort of was really slow. But slow and steady. It was all at once and all over the course of three years at the same time.
See Bon Iver perform on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon:
JG: How much songwriting did you do for the album?
JV: I did all the songwriting, I guess. I involved a lot of other people in the sort of second phase, as I call it, and coming in to make musical colorations. But the songwriting was sort of a part of some subconscious ramblings and attempting to discover new sonic space. I don't how to say it without sounding like a totally uppity artsy guy. But just trying to explore some new sonic space with different instruments and different ways of recording those instruments and seeing what I could come up with that way. And then bringing other people in really helped me take the songs to another place.
JG: So did you start out writing, just you and your guitar?
JV: No, I kind of couldn't do that. It became impossible for me to just sit down with the guitar and start writing a song. So all the songs on this record were written as they were recorded. And I think that gave me this unique opportunity to make sure I was recording the guitar or keyboard or whatever instrument I was using in a particular song to set it up to be something interesting sonically that was going to be fun and interesting to write around in the studio setting. So the writing process was sort of intertwined with that.
JG: Your rough draft, your demo version of the songs — you eventually had other great musicians you brought in to play the parts for the record. But you were playing, like the keyboard and slide guitar?
JV: Yeah, I mean, I played some keyboard and I played some drums. A lot of the songs were pretty fleshed-out by the time I brought in a lot of the people. Matt McCaughan and Sean Carey, I think, were there more in the beginning for me to help flesh out some of the drum parts. But I was playing some drums; I was playing some bass and keyboards and things like that, and also just experimenting with vocals the whole time. And then they kind of came in when I was ready to add that second layer of color.
JG: The album is more musical than For Emma. Was that a conscious aim for you?
JV: I guess so. There wasn't too much aim in general for this record. I think it ended up being a record that was very musical because I think in many ways, as a musician growing up listening to a lot of different music and being influenced by different types of recordings, I was really ready to make a record that involved a lot of that color. But I didn't want to think about it. I didn't want it to be an idea. I wanted it to be an expression rather than an idea. And it ended up becoming an expression that is an idea, which is a nice place to end up.
JG: Expression versus idea. Can you elaborate slightly?
JV: I think an idea... we can all sit around and say, "Wouldn't it be cool to get two rhinoceroses to stand upside down and then paint them red and then everyone would look at it because it would mean this or that" or some kind of artistic for art's sake, or art for art's sake, or improvisation for improvisation's sake. I think that's cool, and there's been plenty of people that have furthered the envelope in art and music because of their experimentation. But I think for me, the music that has always resounded with me — and art as well — is when it feels a little bit like it's coming from a person. And it's coming from a visceral place. A place that is maybe trying to explain something that isn't explained yet. And I guess that's what I was trying to do, and by trying to write songs in a subconscious way, I've ended up with something I'm pretty proud of that I didn't know I was capable of doing.
JG: And that carries over to your lyrics. You chose a lot of interesting words.
JV: Yeah, it was fun. I spent a lot of time on these words on this record. I kind of miss writing songs the way that I used to write songs, in the sense that I would just sit down and all these words that told a story would come out. There's one Bon Iver song called "Blood Bank" that is more representative of an older lineage of songs, which I like and I sort of miss. But it just doesn't happen anymore for me. It sort of gets stuck in a good way into this other subconscious zone. And I think I just sit down and sing sounds and sing melodies on top of whatever music is going on until there sort of sounds like there's a form, even if the words don't make any sense. And then I just listen for weeks and months and jot down what those sounds sound like. And then I type them up and see if they make sense and what it could mean. And how these certain images sort of bend and refract into certain things. I end up with meaningful songs about things I didn't know I needed to be writing about. I don't know. It's just a process I'm kind of getting addicted to because of how fun and discovery [sic] it is.
JG: You put a lot of thoughts into the words. Is there, to you, a clear meaning that you know of, or are you letting that be up for debate?
JV: Well, for me, a good example for me to reference from For Emma, which is "Flume." It's still the song that I enjoy playing every night, because it's got these images that I can sort of be in. There's things that happen in the song that I can go to and be in. It can sort of be changing every night. I think I got really into that thought that a song could change and breathe and bleed. And so the lyrics on the new record, I used "Flume" as a lyrical inspiration or jumping-off point. Because I think the songs on the new record, they all mean something to me. But they all can kind of change and trick me and trick people. Not "trick." But the song isn't trying to say something so obvious that it's like law. Like all things, those kind of boundaries need to change.
JG: Relating to your lyrics, your song titles. I want to say they're all places. But what is "Holocene"?
JV: Yeah, yeah. Holocene. Holocene is a bar in Portland, Ore., but it's also the name of a geologic era, an epoch if you will. It's a good example of how all the songs are all meant to come together as this idea that places are times and people are places and times are... people? [Laughs.] They can all be different and the same at the same time. Most of our lives feel like these epochs. That's kind of what that song's about. "Once I knew I was not magnificent." Our lives feel like these epochs, but really we are dust in the wind. But I think there's a significance in that insignificance that I was trying to look at in that song.
JG: You have a strong attachment to Eau Claire, Wis. It's reflected in your music, yet your music is sort of what takes you away from it. And you're going on tour soon. Is that sort of a contradictory thing, that your music has led you away in some ways?
JV: It is sort of weird. I get kind of homesick. And when I was a camp counselor growing up, when a kid would get homesick, you kind of wanna tell him, 'Hey, just buck up and try to be a little more present. Look around and see how lucky you are.' So I think my relationship with Eau Claire is really good, and I love it here, but I wonder if I'm just a soft country kid who doesn't know how to fit into the larger world sometimes. But I love going on tour. I'm excited this time. I think I've got, personally, a lot more ready. It's a little daunting to be like, I'm leaving for how long? How many weeks will I be away from home? I think it's just like growing up and spending the first 25 years in the same place basically, just not really knowing anything different. It's an adjustment, but one that I'm willing to look at.
JG: You're a country boy, though, that hangs out with Kanye West.
JV: [Laughs.] To be honest with you, I'm really happy that I'm able to be successful and things. But I've kind of learned from having good friends early on that you can't really believe anything they say — especially the good stuff, because it can be just as distracting. And I'm just happy and proud to be playing music every day. Recognition is really cool, but it can also be kind of scary.
JG: Your album, For Emma, Forever Ago, it was on virtually every "best of 2008" list, and on the top of so many. Did you feel a ton of pressure going into your next project?
JV: I really didn't. I was just so excited, and felt that I deserved it for so long. But that I was happy that one of my earlier projects hadn't been the thing to spring me, because I felt proud of For Emma; that it made sense. Part of what For Emma meant to me was that it was an element of change. An autumnal sort of recycling of spirit or something. And I knew that what I had to do for the next album was simply make a record for me. And that it would be successful even if it sold five copies or no copies and I just gave it to my friends. That would've been successful to me.
JG: When you were writing For Emma at your dad's cabin, I've read that you were at a lower point in your life. What was your state of mind over the three years you spent writing these songs?
JV: Well, I think it's interesting about the time at the cabin and the months prior and the months after. Yeah, it was low. But it was more like an opportunity. It was sort of like an apex being like, there's choices you can make. You've grown up, 25, 26 years old. And now you have to realize you're kind of in control of most of the stuff happening in your life, and if you're not happy about them, you have to actually do stuff about it. And there were dark times during the For Emma tour where I was homesick, or I was not figuring stuff out or whatever. But I think the last three years has been mostly about getting patted on the back every time I make a decision that is good; that isn't based on some bad set of points. That's good for community or music. And not based on any other decisions. And I think trying to get healthy and treat myself better and treat people around me better, it's much healthier now. And I have [For Emma] to thank for that, but not because of the success that it brought. But because it was my last chance to do something, to actually step out and be myself and not edit anymore. And I think the metaphor for the rest of my life is kind of everything keeps growing and glowing at the same time.
JG: Let's talk about specific songs. We talked about "Holocene." Now, a song that's getting a ton of attention: "Beth/Rest." Did you expect people to zero in on this one?
JV: You know, I might've messed up not expecting them to latch onto it. I think that it makes sense that people are latching onto it. People are latching onto that one because it seems like a statement, or it might seem like I'm trying to pull the wool over somebody's eyes, or they're just plain not into keyboard sounds like that. And I don't feel defensive about it. For me, I didn't think about it that much when I made that song. When I made it, I was like, 'I love this song. I really needed to write this song. And I need it to be last on this record.' And I need to close out the record with this song and what it's saying and how it relates to "Perth," musically and lyrically.
JG: What is it saying, and how does it relate to "Perth"?
JV: Well, "Perth" is this awakening or this birth. And to relate it to some of the conversation we've been having, it's sort of that moment when you have decided to wake up and take control. And "Beth/Rest" is the death, but it's a good death. It's good winter. But it's a rest; it's not this final thing. "Beth" seems like this really cool name for a place you just go to be in paradise forever.
JG: So that's what you associate with that? It's not a real place?
JV: And it's a lady's name, too. Rest, it's this ongoing thing. "Beth/Rest" the song, it just sounds like forever. It's kind of like timeless, and you can be lofted up into these very high places during that song. And that's what it sounds like to me. And I don't blame people for having their opinions, like, "It sounds like Steve Winwood." But I think for me, it's kind of silly to judge something based on some production facility. It's like my favorite song. It's the last thing I want you to go away with. It's like innocent. And I don't want it to be some '80s throwback song. I want it to be a current, I-get-lost-in-this song, and I love everything about it. And it has nothing to do any sort of collective social reason.
JG: And you said it's your favorite song on the record?
JV: Yeah, sometimes. Most of the time. It's just like, "Gosh, this feels so good." It's just happy, and I want to play this song all the time. "Beth/Rest" was more just for that certain someone, you know. "Calgary" sort of introduces that idea. The whole album, man, I could go on for so many hours. It's sort of silly.
See Bon Iver perform "Calgary" on The Colbert Report:
JG: That's good that you can, because I'm sure that total, cumulative, you have in all these interviews.
JV: [Laughs.] But it's the whole thing. It's the whole story. Eventually, you start waking up to the fact that you might be ready to spend your life with somebody and still feel good about who you are and what kind of changes you're going to go through no matter what. And "Beth/Rest" is that reward. It's that place you get to be in for the rest of your life.
JG: Is that related to anything personal that's going on?
JV: Well, it's weird. It is, but what's weird is that the record was imagined before any of this new personal relationship stuff had happened. I'm in a really good, loving relationship right now. It's really rewarding. But what's weird is that the songs kind of came as this predecessor, as an invitation, to tell myself that I was open to it and knowing that there wasn't going to be somebody coming along who's going to change me and want to change who I was. And they were going to let me be who I want to be and like me for it. Then it sort of just happened as soon as I finished writing the song.
JG: Next, write a song about winning the lottery.
JV: There you go. [Laughs.]
JG: You've really emerged to me as a singer. You're one of those few guys who's willing, like when you were on Jimmy Fallon, you just took the stage and sang.
JV: Sort of.
JG: Has that been a change for you? Are you feeling more confident about your voice or more in tune with it?
JV: Yeah, for sure. I am. I've been singing since I was 12. And I think that all the information is finally starting to chill out. And I don't have to be fancy. I can just kind of do things and simplify things and try to be the best singer I can be. I had a lot of voice problems on the For Emma tours, and I think my voice isn't hurting as much. And I know how to take care of it better. I like it. I try to get better at it and be able to know when I'm in control and out of control and work on the periphery where I'm not so good.
JG: And you said you used to have a Hootie voice? I can hear that potential.
JV: Oh my gosh. It was like Eddie Vedder meets Hootie and the Blowfish, Dave Matthews situation, forever.
JG: It would've been a very different album today. Thank you so much for talking with me and for taking a break from rehearsing.
JV: Oh, no worries. Not at all. It was a pleasure talking to you.