By the time I caught up with Justin Vernon last month, he was in London and about to catch a ride to Glastonbury for the town’s massive annual music festival. Vernon played Glastonbury with his band, Bon Iver, in 2009, but this time he insisted he was going strictly as a fan and the proprietor of the Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival, which launches its inaugural edition July 17-18 at a 20-acre farm not far from Vernon’s home in northwestern Wisconsin.
“I want to look at Glastonbury — which is sort of like, the best of the best — be able to observe that, and then come observe our festival when it’s happening in a couple weeks,” Vernon, 34, said.
What Vernon didn’t mention during our subsequent conversation was that he was also at Glastonbury to sing “Lost in the World” with Kanye West during the rapper’s highly publicized headline set. West also mentioned from the stage that he and Vernon (who he called “one of the baddest white boys on the planet”) have recently been making music together. Should any of that music end up on West’s next LP, it would be Kanye’s third consecutive solo album — after 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and 2013’s Yeezus — to feature Vernon.
Perhaps the most unlikely pop star of the last decade, Vernon rose to prominence on the strength of two successful albums, 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago and 2011’s Bon Iver. Both records went gold in the U.S., elicited tens of millions of streams, and anchored an ungodly number of sad bastard playlists. They were accompanied by a seductive media narrative — Vernon recorded For Emma by himself at his family’s cabin while nursing heartbreak stemming from a failed romantic relationship and a cratered music career. When the album became a sensation on music blogs, the backstory added to the enigmatic beauty of Vernon’s songs, distinguished by his heartrending falsetto and elliptical lyrics. Vernon rarely spelled out his pain directly on For Emma — he instead hinted at a deeper feeling that couldn’t quite be articulated.
After the LP became a hit, countless sensitive singer-songwriter types attempted to similarly sequester themselves in search of rural-bound, stripped-down catharsis. Meanwhile, Vernon moved in a grander direction, expanding his musical palette dramatically on Bon Iver. Locating an unlikely sweet spot between Steve Reich and Gordon Lightfoot, Vernon embraced an epic prog-folk sweep that suited the increasingly large venues his band was filling.
By 2012, Vernon was arguably the most famous indie-rock dude in the world — Bon Iver won a Grammy for Best New Artist, and Justin Timberlake parodied Vernon on Saturday Night Live. (Timberlake later told Vernon that he and Jessica Biel fell in love to Bon Iver’s music.)
Since then, Vernon has kept busy, juggling numerous groups (including the Shouting Matches and Volcano Choir) and passion projects like Eaux Claires with the occasional Kanye collaboration. Bon Iver, however, remains in a state of flux. When we spoke, Vernon admitted that the popularity of Bon Iver made him recoil, and recently he’s looked elsewhere for artistic fulfillment. While Vernon is reviving the group for the first time in three years for a festival-closing performance at Eaux Claires, there are no plans for a Bon Iver album or tour after that.
For now, Vernon is content to work on projects like Eaux Claires, which is co-curated with his friend Aaron Dessner of the National, the festival’s other big headliner. The lineup is diverse and idiosyncratic — indie-rock mainstays like Sufjan Stevens and Spoon will share stages with metal (Liturgy), rap (Doomtree), soul (Charles Bradley), gospel (Blind Boys of Alabama), and country (Sturgill Simpson) acts. Indigo Girls will also perform 1994’s Swamp Ophelia, Vernon’s favorite album, in its entirety. Vernon is encouraging the performers to step outside of their comfort zones — he wants the artists to jam, play unusual sets, and experiment. A similar anti-show-business philosophy is guiding Vernon’s own career.
“I definitely care about the Bon Iver thing a lot,” Vernon told me, “but it’s kind of my thing and there’s only so much time you can spend with yourself before you just become an asshole. So you gotta push it.”
What made you want to start your own music festival?
Bryce Dessner and his brother [Aaron] do the MusicNOW festival. I did it a few times and I just enjoyed that it was on a relatively small scale, [and] that they were just curating what they wanted to see. And people responded to it.
I think our strong suit is that our lineup is not of a genre or a faction. It’s not targeting an audience, so to speak. I want everyone to be comfortable. I would be willing to bet we’re putting a higher percentage of our budget into the aesthetic feeling of [the festival] — when you walk into our spot on the river in the woods, it’s just going to look different. And it’s going to feel different.
It’s immediately apparent that this lineup was picked by a person rather than a professional promoter. Other than the National and Bon Iver, you don’t have any conventional headliners. I’m guessing Coachella wouldn’t invite the Indigo Girls to perform Swamp Ophelia in its entirety.
Yeah, man, fuck that. I mean, I really don’t ever want to cross the line into hating on stuff or judging other people. [But] fuck Lollapalooza. That isn’t rock and roll.
I’m not going to sit and pretend that we aren’t charging people money to get into our festival. But I don’t know, man. You can see it every year: Coachella, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo — the lineups are the fucking same. It’s about numbers, it’s about bottom lines, it’s about measuring groups and cultures of people and the numbers that they represent on a bottom-line agenda. All the lineups are becoming more and more the same, the same fucking headliners.
Ours is a different outlook. We’re not crushing ticket sales. But guess what? The people that end up taking a chance and seeking us out and coming to have an experience I think are going to be getting the best experience. We’re not cutting any corners on the PAs that we’re getting — we’re getting the best in the world. It’s going to sound really good. We’re not cutting any of the corners that diminish the experience that people are going to have. Picking music for music’s sake seems like the obvious choice, but it doesn’t seem like the obvious choice when you look at a lot of the other festivals out there.
Has the ideal of “music for music’s sake” become more important to you in recent years, in light of Bon Iver becoming really successful?
It seems to be, yeah. I don’t know if I’ve ever sat down and been like, Hey, you know, it’s important to me, keeping it real or whatever. I mean, it’s a natural reaction. I guess I have to pat myself on the back for at least having instincts that aren’t completely fucked up by an industry’s standards or expectations or something. And a lot of that has to do with people like my friend Ryan Olson, who’s in Minneapolis — he’s the leader of Marijuana Deathsquads and Poliça. It’s just people that inspire you and bring you back down and make you want to do fun shit. Shit that’s expressive, not just, like, You’re out here, you’ve got a popular band, you should probably go play the world and hate yourselves and put yourself in harm’s way.
Was there ever a point where you felt that Bon Iver’s success was overwhelming you and you thought, I need to maybe scale this back?
Constantly. Constantly, man. I didn’t really have a chance to really have a full-blooded, wide-eyed perspective on what was happening to me and my squad with the Bon Iver stuff. And I think we made a few mistakes, as far as, like, bending. At the same time, I don’t have any regrets. But I think we made a few mistakes as far as letting it, they, them, the world, the pressures, the pattern, the subscribed thing kind of spoil certain aspects of it — i.e., enjoying playing music.
What were those mistakes?
We did a photo shoot for Bushmills. To be clear: They gave us a bunch of money and we were able to finish [my recording studio] without borrowing. It was great for us, and everybody that worked at the company was great, and I love Bushmills and wanted to do the deal because my dad loved Bushmills — we bond over Irish whiskey. But the problem is that it isn’t just Bushmills. It’s run by a corporation, and you kind of forget that they’re not interested in you or really what you’re doing. They’re interested in your popularity and your reach, and it felt really sickening after a while. Not badmouthing Bushmills the company, but I regret it. I regret it because it wasn’t us and they put my face on a fucking billboard, even though it was a cool billboard and I was with my brother and my sound engineer and we’re buds and we got drunk while we had the photo shoot. I just missed it. I missed the mark on that one and I let it all kind of get to me. It just doesn’t feel right after the fact, you know?
The celebrity aspect of what you do — have you reconciled that or do you still find it awkward?
It’s awkward in the sense that people want to get a picture with me and I’ve never said no, except when I can tell they’re just eBay-ers. Because there’s those people that just hang out, they take their picture with you to prove that they got your signature and [then they] want to sell everything on eBay with your signature on it. I just don’t want people to get some idea that I’m on their clock — like, I’m not working because I’m at a show, I’m just a person.
It’s my fault for having my picture taken and having my face be recognizable. I played that game. I didn’t realize how my life would change so significantly, but I don’t give a shit about being a well-known person. I love and am very proud of my fans. And I’m proud that the music spoke for itself and continued to do so. But I’m not going to pretend that I’m some important person who deserves bar specials because of that. It gets awkward just because sometimes I don’t feel normal and I sure as shit am.
You were probably at the peak of your notoriety in 2012 — you won the Grammy for Best New Artist, and Justin Timberlake lampooned you on Saturday Night Live. You had lots of fans, but there were also plenty of detractors who seemed to be projecting whatever issues they had with white-guy indie rock onto you. Were you able to block that out?
Well, it’s really hard not to be affected by that. To reach the level of being parodied, you just have to be like, Yeah, all right, you guys got me. And you know what? I got to meet Justin Timberlake after that and he was like, “I hope that wasn’t a problem; my wife and I really love you, and I fell in love with my wife to your music,” and all this stuff. And I was like, “Hey man, don’t worry, it’s all good, man.”
He was really nice about it, and I’m not going to let that stuff get to me. But at the same time, it does accumulate. I enjoy talking to strangers, but I get less of a chance to have real, honest exchanges with people when the first thing is, So what was it like having Timberlake do that? I don’t know what it was like; I was just on the couch and happened to be watching SNL for the first time in, like, five years. There’s really no way to talk about it. You’ve just gotta keep close to your friends, the people that know you. And never pretend for a second that you’re hot shit.
You recently tweeted about Apple Music, and it became a story on music websites. When you’re on Twitter, does it dawn on you that whatever you say can be construed as news?
I was a little surprised by that one, because it seemed like I hadn’t been noticed for a while. Like, my name is not on my Twitter. The news outlets out there — their motivation and need to cover this, and what’s good for their brand — I’m not worried about that. I’m not thinking about that. It’s not in the driver’s seat of that attitude. I need to be aware of it sometimes more than maybe I am, but I ain’t worried about it.
What’s the current status of Bon Iver? Have you been writing songs?
I’ve been taking it really slow. I don’t mean to get all cerebral about my art, but I’ve been trying to collect improvisations and collect moments. Like, real moments, [and] put them in a pot and serve them up. I’m thinking more, I guess, like a painter or a sculptor, like Andy Goldsworthy or something, in the way I’m putting songs together. To be clear, I’m not doing that to try and be fancy. I just think maybe I ran my course with being able to come up with new moments on the guitar.
As far as putting a record together, I don’t really know what’s happening. Our show is our main focus. We don’t have anything booked after this. We don’t have any plans. We’re not being secretive — we just don’t have any plans. It’s just about, Play the show and put all of our energy into one show — for once in my life, let’s just play one fucking show and care just about this one show for a goddamn change. It’s better than, All right, we’re going out on tour and we’re going to hit these markets and this, that, and the other. We might play some new stuff. I don’t know, we’re going to figure it out. I go home next week for two weeks of rehearsals and play with my boys.
In lieu of the guitar, what instruments have you been working with lately?
In the interim, I think the thing I’m working with the most is the OP-1. It’s a sampler-based synthesizer, and I honestly think it’s the most important instrument that’s come into my life since I first picked up a guitar when I was 12 years old. I’m not exaggerating at all. I never leave the house without it. I don’t travel with the guitar anymore. I travel with just my OP-1. It’s been a big deal living with this thing. I love making music with it. I love traveling with it. I like using it as a writing extension. It’s a really special technology, essentially what a guitar is to me.
When you’re doing these improvisations, are you working with a specific project in mind? Do you earmark music for Bon Iver, or is it open-ended?
Well, what I probably do now making music versus three years ago and six years ago and nine years ago and 12 years ago and 15 years ago has changed. So, I’m not exactly sure if I can really answer that right now. I’m less sure now than I’ve ever been about that. I’m trying just to really attach myself to my feeling and what feels good to express and worrying less and less about the brand, I guess. I just hope to live long enough to do as much shit as I can.
When I interviewed you in 2008, you said that when you made the first Bon Iver record, you weren’t consciously making an album. You were just recording music for yourself, and it eventually coalesced into something that you wanted to share with people. Would you say you’re trying to get back to that place?
Yeah, man, I mean you just nailed it on the fucking head. People edit themselves — people walk around with mirrors up to their face. And it’s really hard to be yourself — so fucking hard. And I think that that’s the thing I’m most blessed with, but also charged with the responsibility with not fucking that up and continuing to be just me and not bending to any of that stuff and knowing that it has to be real. It has to be real.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the sculptor Andy Goldsworthy.