In the winter of 2006 and early 2007, Justin Vernon disappeared to the rural woods of Northwestern Wisconsin to live in his family's hunting cabin. A struggling musician who did time in a few bands you have never heard (DeYarmond Edison and Ticonderoga), and toured with one that you might have actually heard of (the Rosebuds), Vernon was frustrated with how his life was going, so he fled. He hunted. He chopped wood. He made a record.
"I didn't really go there to record. I went there with the intention of getting away from some shit," he explains. "There were a couple of weeks of not really doing anything. Unwinding, reading, doing stuff outside in the barn or the woods." But it was then, at the peak of his seclusion, that Vernon made a record.
It's that record, titled For Emma, Forever Ago and released under his nom de plume Bon Iver, which has created quite a bit of a stir recently. Sad songs come and go, but For Emma swells to a highwater mark of despair that is untouched elsewhere. Armed with a voice that is smoky-cool and haunts the sparse songs like a familiar memory, Vernon's tales balance a distinct rural charm with that of the bare isolationism of someone left to confront their discomfort and personal pain. It's a stark and raw documentation of sullen loneliness in the form of rambling folk music, capped by Vernon's woeful voice that lingers like a killer in the very woods where he sought refuge.
Vernon describes his decision to make music at this juncture not as something that he wanted to happen, but as something that just had to occur. "The music just started and it came out of my hands and my mind because it was finally safe to come out. For once, there were no distractions."
After the last cord of wood was burned and the last bit of venison consumed (it was a hunting cabin after all, but Vernon is quick to dispel rumors that he is the gun-slinging, jerky-making Ted Nugent of indie rock. "Fuck that guy," he exclaims), Vernon returned to civilization with a permanent reminder of his time spent in the woods—the record. This audio postcard of isolation, a whispered tale of loneliness and retreat, had no trouble finding a home. After much online buzz from the original self-released recordings, For Emma was re-released by Jagjaguwar just in time for the album to be buried in an avalanche of—well-deserved, but still surprising—rave reviews and hype.
The critical spotlight, while endearing, has begun to wear on Vernon, who it seems is, not surprisingly, happiest when by his lonesome. "It's a bit weird because I really don't like drawing attention to myself," he says while, ironically, driving to the annual SXSW music convention, where his four performances in two days only added fuel to the flames of critical acclaim. But regardless of the praise, and the attention it drags along with it, Vernon is in this for himself. Just like the winter alone in the cabin, this music, these gorgeous textural songs, wield the same amount of power no matter the size of the audience.