Bon Iver – Lost in Ether, Lost in Ice

January 13, 2009 § Leave a comment

Published: Rhythms, January 2009.

Bon Iver’s remarkable debut is the stuff of myth and beauty. By Dan Rule.

Three ice-bound months alone in his father’s remote, northwestern Wisconsin hunting cabin, just a guitar, a tattered bass drum, a laptop and a diesel generator for company. The story behind Justin Vernon’s shimmering debut record as Bon Iver has been a story well told.

The stunningly bleak For Emma, Forever Ago – the result of the winter in the woods – has since etched itself, and the young man who crafted it, into indie music folklore. The collection’s nine poignant, skeletal and unabashedly honest sketches are some of the most remarkable and moving of recent years.

But Vernon, speaking over the phone from his parents’ home in the small northern Wisconsin city of Eau Claire, is more than aware of the myth-making potential of his story. “It’s funny, one could sort of blow the whole situation out of proportion,” chuckles the 27-year-old. “Like, ‘Man goes to cabin, man makes record’.”

“In reality, it was more like, ‘Man went to cabin, man got really cold, man became pretty bored most of the time, man went crazy for a couple of months until he broke out of and actually recorded some songs,” he laughs.

That’s not to trivialise the work, nor the circumstances behind its creation. For Emma, Forever Ago emanated from a difficult, heart-torn period for the singer-songwriter. It all started miles from home in North Carolina, where he’d been been living since college. Severed relationships, a faltering band and homesickness left him on the edge. The cabin was a chance for a clean start.

“It was an absolute personal necessity,” he admits. “The cabin is isolated enough to know that nobody would find me. I knew I would be busy, you know. I would actually have to cut wood or whatever just to stay warm… It was kind of the only place I felt I could go at that point and feel safe as a person.”

Vernon spent much of his childhood at the cabin, which his father built in 1979 on their family’s 80 acres. “It wasn’t a place we’d go for holidays if you know what I mean,” he laughs. “It’s a place he’d bring us if he needed help doing some woodwork or hauling trees or deer-hunting in the fall.”

“Over the years it’s just sort of been a place for my dad to tinker,” he continues. “It’s very bare and it’s very simple; it only recently got running water and the only electricity is from a generator.”

With only a few belongings and a skeletal recording rig, Vernon set about retracing his painful recent past. He spent his days collecting wood for the fire and clearing snow from the perimeter of the cabin, his nights on the guitar. The songs that spilled out echoed with both intimacy and vast, glacial atmosphere, Vernon’s weather-worn falsetto revealing a string of stories as personally harrowingly as they were soulful and evocative.

“It was all just memory,” he says, pausing. “The record was a dedication to a person, but also to an era of time that’s sort of been lost. A lot of the record speaks of that – of era and of ‘forever ago’.”

“The memories became so rigid and cold over time that I just realised, instead of running away from them or like longing for them, I just had to write about them in a very honest, very brutal kind of way. And by kind of breathing that last breath of life into those emotions, I was sort of finally able to release them and finally move on from them, and it’s really been a kind of transformative year in a lot of ways because of that.”

But while tracks like Skinny Love, the austere The Wolves and stunning re: stacks peal with such introspective qualities, they inhabit a space that transcends the internal. A pulse of subtle drones and layered ambience entwines Vernon’s vocal and naturally reverbed guitar, resonating with distance and cold and landscape.

“I feel like I’ve always sort of been hyper-aware of my geography and it’s always sort of seeped into my songs over the course of my life as a songwriter,” he muses. “Because I’ve always written songs.”

“You’ve got realise that it’s totally beautiful up there too,” he says smilingly. “It’s just gorgeous up there and it was really special to be able to really just take it all in by yourself. It kind of gives you a really honest way to look at things. So I just needed to get up there and it just kind of happened like that.”

“In that kind of place and in that kind of situation, it’s very sad and very hard, but you tend to figure a lot of shit out really quickly.”

For Emma, Forever Ago is out through Jagjaguwar/Inertia

Bon Iver tours Australia in January. See gig guide for details

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