This week, Wisconsin native Justin Vernon released one of the best-reviewed and most anticipated indie albums of the year in Bon Iver’s self-titled sophomore effort.
Bon Iver takes the promise of Vernon’s quiet, insular debut For Emma, Forever Ago and adds a number of new elements to the mix: The sound is more expansive without sounding bigger than itself, and Vernon has layered each track with new rhythmic tricks, production twists, and even a guitar solo or two.His delicate, dynamic voice carries it all, and his surreal lyrics paint narratives about the importance of home.
EW caught up with Vernon while he was in town promoting Bon Iver, and he had quite a bit to say about the approach on his new album, his attachment to Wisconsin, and what he learned from Kanye West.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Is it true Bon Iver was recorded in a converted animal hospital?
JUSTIN VERNON: Yeah. It was a residence house. The family lived there and the guy worked out of the clinic that he built. It’s huge, this bi-level ranch house that just goes on forever. So we moved in and we’ve been changing everything around. There’s an indoor pool that we made into a recording room and stuff. It’s become a pretty fun place.
Do you live there too?
My cats live there. I have a little apartment in town that I sort of get to when I can.
Bon Iver is a very cohesive-sounding album, like it came out of one marathon writing session.
It’s interesting you say that. It was written in three years, but it’s all part of the same session. It was like one continuous movement of brain. Like, I had all this s— going on, but this record was always the thing I would return to. I would bring the stuff with me to listen to, and work on lyrics. Just like, “What is this?” We figured it out that way, I think, and it had this flow to it that was mysterious even to me. But it worked somehow.
Which song came first?
“Perth,” the first track.
Which, like a lot of the tracks on the album is named after a city or a specific place. Can you explain that?
The whole record’s about we refer to different places. I might be like, “Where are you at?” And you’re like, “That’s a place.” Like, not just New York. It’s like, I’m thirtysomething. I’m doing this. People have a relationship with a place they’ve never been. You can romanticize about a place. You can dream about a place. So Bon Iver is like a time and a place, or a city and a state, or a state of mind or something.
How did that get to be so important to you?
I don’t know. I always wonder why I care so much about it. I think growing up in the same place, living in the same place, exploring music from the same place my whole life. It’s a little bit of me asking myself, “Couldn’t I also be happy in these places?” Or, “Why am I not happy in any of these places?” You know, just about all my friends and family moved away, but not me. I’m sort of stuck there, but in a good way.
Did you learn anything working with Kanye West that you brought to this album?
I learned a lot from him. Any time you watch somebody that’s talented you learn about how to use your own talent.
What was his set-up like in Hawaii?
I think it was this old Japanese pop star’s studio. Big studio. We never really spent any time anywhere but that. Working every day, all day long. I never went out to a club or anything. Kanye slept on a couch every day. The only rock star thing was that people would go get our food for us so we wouldn’t have to leave, but that was only so we could keep working.
Can you tell me why you put the lyrics to the album online a few weeks before it was released?
The record leaked. And I’d rather have the lyrics out there before people started putting up bulls— versions of lyrics, because they’re really hard to understand. Like, why not, you know? I don’t care if somebody steals the record. But if they want to know what I’m saying, they should have the opportunity to get it right.
There’s joy that comes across on the album that should surprise people, especially compared to For Emma, Forever Ago. Was that conscious?
I think I am in a better spot. The easiest thing to feel is sadness. And it’s a little more difficult to express joy without just being blubbering and stupid, right? And so it took me a while, but I think I’ve made an attempt at making a more enjoyable record. Or at least a breaking-free record. A spring record, if you will.
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