GUY RAZ, host:
Frozen cabins in the woods of Wisconsin aren't normally places where legendary music is born. But in the middle of winter two years ago, at one such cabin, the spirits of folk-rock somehow came together to help Justin Vernon record a masterpiece.
(Soundbite of music) (Soundbite of song "Stacks")
BON IVER: (Singing) Everything that happens from now on, This is pouring rain, This is paralyzed...
RAZ: Fans of his story and his style have been clamoring for new music, and Justin Vernon is ready to oblige. A four-song EP by Bon Iver comes out later this month. It's called "Blood Bank." And Justin Vernon joins me now from WHWC in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Welcome to the show.
Mr. JUSTIN VERNON (Folk Singer-Songwriter): Thanks for having me.
RAZ: When did you write these new songs? Were they outtakes from your last album "For Emma, Forever Ago?"
Mr. VERNON: Yeah, actually, the title track, "Blood Bank," was actually completely recorded and written during that same time, kind of amongst all those tracks that made it onto "For Emma." But it just didn't seem to fit the story and the lineage, I guess. And so I had this tune that I really liked and that felt right. So I just sort of surrounded "Blood Bank" with three other songs that were very different from one another. And they all kind of came together as this giant palette cleanser from the last record. And I'm really excited about it.
RAZ: Well, let's hear a new track. It's the title track called "Blood Bank."
(Soundbite of song "Blood Bank")
BON IVER: (Singing) That secret that we know, That we don't know how to tell. I'm in love with your honor. I'm in love with your cheeks. What's that noise up the stairs baby? Is that Christmas morning? And I know it well...
RAZ: You sing, "I know it well, that secret that you know that you don't know how to tell." Justin Vernon, what are you singing about here?
Mr. VERNON: I don't know. I think this is a fictional kind of love story, I guess. And I think that when people are falling in love or when people are experiencing magical things, I guess, in their life, I think that that secret is the answer to all those questions, you know, why is this sacred and why does this feel like larger than myself and larger than what I can even put into words, this experience like, here on earth, if I can say that. I think that that's the secret. I think it's the connection that we have to each other.
(Soundbite of song "Blood Bank")
BON IVER: (Singing) When the snow started falling, We were stuck out in your car. You were rubbing both my hands, Chewing on a candy bar. You said, ain't this just like the present, To be showing up like this? There's a moon waning crescent. We started to kiss...
RAZ: There are parts of this EP that are somewhat experimental. I'm thinking of a track called "Woods." It's a capella. And I think it uses an auto tune machine to sort of warp your voice. Let's listen to some of that.
(Soundbite of song "Woods")
BON IVER: (Singing) I'm up in the woods, I'm down on my mind, I'm building a still, To slow down the time...
RAZ: And in that song, we hear some of the same lines repeated over and over. And some of the voices are added and subtracted, and a number of effects in the song. How did you decide to sort of come up with this piece?
Mr. VERNON: It is kind of a piece more than it is a song, I guess. And it was just - those words were just sort of a general incantation or repetition or meditation, if you will, on my experience being away from everything. And so, after I left the cabin, I sat down to finish this idea. And I think it was an example of experimentation turning into something musical.
(Soundbite of song "Woods")
BON IVER: (Singing) I'm up in the woods, I'm down on my mind, I'm building a still....
Mr. VERNON: This, for me, was a way to extend my voice or to experiment with different techniques or just sounds. And it sort of was really freeing for me to do, and I'm really happy that it's the last song on the EP.
RAZ: We're talking with Justin Vernon. He's with the band Bon Iver. His new four-song EP is called "Blood Bank." Justin Vernon, let's go back a little bit to when you recorded your last album, "For Emma, Forever Ago."
(Soundbite of music)
RAZ: What was happening in your life at that time?
Mr. VERNON: Well, I had been living in North Carolina and sort of born and raised in Wisconsin. And I moved down there with all my band mates. And basically, about a year into living down there, I had broken up with a girlfriend and I got really, really sick with this - basically this kind of mono that attacked my liver. And it was really bizarre. I was in bed for three months.
And during those three months, I sort of took toll on the last five or six years previous in my life. And kind of a long story short, it was kind of telling me that I needed to leave there and to kind of become myself. And it was really difficult, like basically leaving a marriage of a band that I had been in for nearly 10 years. And I just sort of cut all ties and I returned to Wisconsin, but to a new place, being my Dad's cabin.
RAZ: You didn't plan to write an album. You were really planning to just sort of hibernate and recover from the things you were going through.
Mr. VERNON: Yeah. It wasn't - I mean, I brought my musical gear with me because I thought, you know, it would be a smart idea to have it with me. But I think I was so confused, it was at a point in my life that I think everybody goes through where something needs to budge and then something needs to change, and you just - you can't really be aware of that because you're so within it, you're so in the present moment. And that present moment seems to be constantly fleeting at the same time.
And so it was just an attempt to still my life, I think. I think you can lose track of your inner voice because there are so many people around, there are so many distractions, there are so many voices and influences. And for me, it was really beautiful to sort of reconnect with this person that I felt like I hadn't really had that much quiet time with since I was a little boy.
(Soundbite of song "The Wolves (Act I And II)")
BON IVER: (Singing) And the story's all over you, In the morning I'll call you, Can't you find a clue, When your eyes are all painted Sinatra blue.
RAZ: You recorded this album yourself in a basement of your dad's cabin in northern Wisconsin in the middle of winter. When you work in such a, sort of, an isolated environment and very few people to sort of bounce ideas off and to get feedback from, were you able to get a sense that you are really putting something remarkable, really special together?
Mr. VERNON: You know, it's hard to discuss that when you're in that moment. The whole thing was just sort of at an excavation site and just sort of digging and digging and building and building. I couldn't really be aware of any of that during that time.
RAZ: Now the critical reaction to this album has been extraordinary. I mean, you were just named Album of the Year by the British newspaper the Observer. Did you expect this kind of reaction?
Mr. VERNON: I mean, it would be silly to have thought of any of this happening. And it was almost silly to think anything would really happen. You know, my plan with the record was to make, you know, what I would usually do with records prior to that, make 500 to a thousand copies, play shows, and do that. And I never really even had that opportunity by the time the record was done and I put it up on MySpace. The wheels were already moving. And that's beautiful and scary all at the same time.
RAZ: You mentioned MySpace. And this is very much of a fan-driven story, as well. Is it sort of scary to have fans come up to you and really sort of talk to you about the relationship that they have with this music that you wrote?
Mr. VERNON: That part is the beautiful part for me. I don't know if I could give you a reason, you know, on a list of why I make music exactly, but that's definitely part of it. When somebody has an experience with something that you've done and they share it with you, and it's important for them to share it with you, I think that's the circuit that you're looking for. You know, at that point, the circuit becomes complete and you're no longer the songwriter and they're no longer the listener. It's like this work has been done. And I really like that. And that's kind of what you live for, I guess.
RAZ: There, of course, have been, you know, plenty of artists who receive massive critical acclaim after their first album. And then there's all this pressure to produce a, sort of, a second album. Do you feel like you sort of have to live up to that first album?
Mr. VERNON: No, I don't. I feel fortunate in how this has all happened because I think I've learned some valuable lessons in how to really just operate your life, not even including how to operate a career in the music industry, so called. I think that by writing this album and the "For Emma" album in the way that I did that was so kind of free of any influence - and I wasn't doing it for anybody but myself - I think that is something that I felt connected with when I was very young, when I first started playing music, why you first fall in love with rock music and what it does to you and the sort of unlatching and the freedom of it. I'm very, very still in knowing that all my job is to do is to sit down and to write songs. And I don't need to write those songs for any other reason than the good reasons.
RAZ: Justin Vernon records under the name Bon Iver. His new EP comes out later this month. It's called "Blood Bank." And he joined me from WHWC in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Justin Vernon, thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. VERNON: Thank you so much. It's an honor.
RAZ: You can hear plenty more of Bon Iver's music, including two entire live concerts at nprmusic.org.
(Soundbite of song "Skinny Love")
BON IVER: (Singing) Come on skinny love just last the year, Pour a little salt we were never here. My, my, my, my, my, my, my, my, Staring at the sink of blood and crushed veneer. I tell my love to wreck it all, Cut out all the ropes and let me fall. My, my, my, my, my, my, my, my, Right in the moment this order's tall.
RAZ: Our parting words tonight come from legendary inventor Nikola Tesla who, by the way, had a huge role in the early days of our medium, radio. He said, "The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone, that is the secret of invention; be alone, that is when ideas are born."
(Soundbite of song "Skinny Love")
BON IVER: (Singing) Come on skinny love what happened here, Suckle on the hope in lite brassiere. My, my, my, my, my, my, my, my...
RAZ: That's All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Have a great week.