- 30 Apr 19
To celebrate Justin Vernon's 38th birthday, we're revisiting his interview with Ed Power, originally published in Hot Press in 2017.
Before the hit records, the Kanye West collaborations, the cabinet heaving with Grammys… before everything, Justin Vernon was just a scruffy American in a plaid shirt flogging mobile phones in Galway.
“I was 19 and I must have eaten at Supermacs every day,” the artist later to become famous as indie pop’s most inscrutable introvert would tell me. “I had a lot of snack boxes. And somehow I managed to lose weight. Man, how exactly did that happen?”
The year was 2001 – a lifetime removed from when Vernon would restyle himself Bon Iver and release his stunning debut, For Emma, Forever Ago. Yet even then, between Supermacs snack boxes and his day job at an Eircom store on Eyre Square, he was deep in the creative trenches and determined to flout the rules.
After work each evening he would slouch home to his modest apartment, retrieve his guitar and write. Passersby would pause as they heard his strumming, somewhere between a chime and a sob, and his low, reedy voice, full of pain and wonder.
“When I listen back to the songs I wrote then, they are very interesting to me,” he confessed when we sat down. “It was an awesome summer, man. I sold phones right there on Eyre Square. I was one hot salesman…”
Vernon is a curious kind of superstar. In person, he is down to earth and rather antsy about the attention directed his way. Creatively, though, he has never shirked the spotlight. He famously rejected alt.pop’s reflexive suspicion of celebrity by hooking up with Kanye West, has received recognition at the Grammys and, with 2016’s 22, A Million reached number two in the US charts – an incredible feat for a record of striking diffuseness.
His status as alternative folk’s highly reluctant leading light is underscored as he returns to Ireland to curate the final evening of Forbidden Fruit on Sunday June 5. Vernon headlines, with hand-picked friends and collaborators such as The Staves and Lisa Hannigan also on the bill. If it’s anything like his previous Irish concerts, a singularly eerie evening awaits.
That he’s even on the road again as Bon Iver might be regarded as surprising. Notoriously conflicted about success, on the concluding date of his last solo tour – at what is today Dublin’s 3Arena – he appeared to pull a Ziggy Stardust by announcing he was killing off the persona.
He would later confess to me that, tired and disoriented following over a year on the road, he’d simply been reaching for a dramatic sign off.
“Who doesn’t say something that, a month later, is no longer true?” he explained. “What I said on stage made no fucking sense to me. You’ve got a mic, you’re supposed to talk to people when you’re not playing a guitar.”
If his unease about mainstream adoration cleaves to a long-standing alt.pop tradition, in his music Bon Iver has thoroughly reshaped the contours of the medium. For Emma, for instance, shouldn’t really have been a hit: it was cripplingly introverted and not above self-pity – a dude-whine for the ages. However, there was truth to its pain and audiences responded. As they did to the glacial throb of 2011’s Bon Iver and last year’s chain-clanking, sublimely bonkers 22, A Million.
The latter, with its electro ululations and epic minimalism, was so far removed from the frosty folk-pop with which Vernon started his journey as to constitute a genre unto itself. Here, Vernon’s voice was suffused in ghost-in-the-machine whirring and warbles, with guitar relegated to the deep background. Closer to Frank Ocean or Flying Lotus than the spirits of indie-rock past, it was a searing achievement – all the more striking because it has kept the 36-year-old’s fanbase onside.
Yet, despite the mystery, Vernon isn’t above the occasional two-footed tackle. Around the release of 22, A Million, for instance, he set the internet on fire by taking a pop at Beyoncé, patron saint of all that is good and wholesome in this world.
“You can never be self-righteous, but it’s okay to be a little righteous,” he told The Guardian. “You have to believe in something. Like, I’d prefer Beyoncé didn’t do a Pepsi tour. Do not take two million dollars from Pepsi and be a role model for young girls. Do not do that. That stuff does anger me. And I feel like I am not afraid to talk about that stuff.”
He was born in Eau Claire, Wisconsin in 1981. The city, with a population of 161,000, is an old logging town, still home to 22 sawmills (perhaps the inspiration for the title of his most recent LP). It is relatively progressive though Wisconsin assuredly is not, with the State voting by a healthy majority for Donald Trump in the recent presidential election.
Vernon is himself obviously liberal – though not at all ashamed of where he comes from, as demonstrated by the fact I once had to postpone an interview with him so that he could go on a hunting trip with his father.
“People have this idea that hunting is something rednecks do,” he told me, when I subsequently caught up with him at a diner in Eau Claire. “To me, that amounts to ignorance and prejudice. Politically, I would describe myself as being to the left of the average American. I’m an Obama supporter. But I grew up with hunting. Where I live, it’s something that’s incredibly important to a lot of people. It’s part of their everyday existence.”
Such forthrightness is allied with a deep melancholy – something that threatened to overwhelm in the years preceding 22, A Million. That record’s star-crossed claustrophobia didn’t drop from the clear blue sky. With acclaim Vernon had become increasingly twitchy in his Kanye-collaborating skin and was soon suffering panic attacks.
“Having people asking to get their picture taken when you’re just trying to get eggs and not having a good day,” he told The Guardian last year. “There are times when it’s just a nuisance, and there are times when it makes me panic. There are people who are straight-up into being famous. And I don’t like that. I think that’s why I had to take a long break.”
“It is strange to talk to a person you have never met but who you have been a fan of and seen on television and stuff,” he had said to me, when asked about his fame in 2011. “That wears off pretty quickly when you are having a human conversation about something. The whole celebrity thing is a mask.”
His “break” metastasised into a Leonard Cohen-style spiritual retreat at a Greek island. “I’m a horrible planner, so I went in off-season and there’s no restaurants open and there’s nobody there. And so I just feel pulverised: dealing with some unrequited love situation-slash-just knowing that that isn’t even the issue, I’m the issue, I need to get my shit straight. “I kept moving hotels because I was, like: ‘Well, this is completely depressing, I’d better go to a different place.’” Inspiration struck when he found himself playing with a melody that would become the basis of 22, A Million’s opening track, ‘22 Over Soon’. “I just kind of hummed that to myself,” he told The Guardian.
“I had a little sampler with me, and I got back to this weird hotel room, and I just sat there and chopped it up. And I had this rare moment of: ‘This is a good thing’, where you create something.”
The circumstances in which Bon Iver was introduced to the world are so well known it feels redundant to dwell on them. Nonetheless, it’s a striking story. Suffering a broken heart and with his long-standing indie band on the brink of dissolving, Vernon spent a winter living alone. Between solitary walks and meditative sessions of wood chopping, he shaped the songs that to this day define him for many of his fans.
“I’ve heard a lot of stuff,” he once told me of the whisperings that he went mad in the For Emma-birthing isolation, even killing a deer with his bare hands. “None of which was actually true. Sure there were moments of intense solitariness and it can get sort of boring after a while. But I chopped wood and read. It wasn’t all darkness and tears.
“It was a remarkable chapter in my life. Initially, we pressed up something like 500 copies of For Emma. Then we started getting good reviews and all of a sudden it took off. The pressings kept selling out. I was overwhelmed with emails. It all happened so fast, I’m still trying to come to terms with it.”