Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon returns home to the Wisconsin town that raised him.
Walk into The Joynt in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, at happy hour and a beer will set you back just 30 cents. Signs nailed to the walls read “Give Cheese a Chance,” “No Light Beer” and “On the Eighth Day, God Created the Packers.” A half ziggurat of aged cans with labels now extinct rests atop a bar as old as the bandanna-clad lifer falling asleep at his stool. His blue eyes open only to focus on another sip just as a new song starts spinning on the jukebox. Right now it’s a slow number, but not by any luminary who visited this place when it was a jazz dive in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s a song from local boys DeYarmond Edison, former roots rock band of Justin Vernon, the falsetto and strumming hand behind Bon Iver. The Joynt, a signless institution on a drag chock with faceless college hangouts, is the very same bar where Vernon’s parents met for the first time in 1978. It’s where he snuck into shows as a high school student and where he continues to share pitchers with strangers and friends who wheel him out when he’s done. He calls it the “last great American Bar,” and even if there are hundreds of places all over this country with patrons who would beg to differ, it’s hard to argue with him. You might go in alone, but chances are you won’t stay that way.
Eau Claire sits 90 minutes east of the Twin Cities and 250 miles northwest of Milwaukee. It’s a regional center in the Chippewa Valley and home to a satellite branch of the University of Wisconsin, which helps swell its population to 65,000 residents, though downtown feels deserted most of the time. Victorian homes sit on tree-lined streets, the stars and stripes flapping from their front porches. There’s an old drive-in movie theater, a Walgreens and a Wal-Mart. There’s a mall where a family-owned and operated dairy farm once stood. And there’s a stadium shared by the high school and university where Vernon, a jazz band standout, captained the Memorial High School football team to a respectable number of victories. Eau Claire is, in many ways, just like other small towns in America. But as the world connects and cities expand, many communities like this are in danger of becoming less like individual places and more like locally-themed links between urban sprawls. Chain stores, homogeneous homebuilders and uninspired local leadership are at the forefront of this identity theft, but it’s hard not to believe the fabric of towns like Eau Claire remains intact and unique. And though it’s by no means a major trend, some of the young people who left smaller towns in search of greater economic opportunity or wilder adventures are coming back, or not leaving in the first place, to make their mark right where they started. Justin Vernon is just one.
In November of 2006, 14 months after migrating south to Raleigh, North Carolina, with a girl and the DeYarmond bandmates he’d grown up playing with, Vernon returned home to Wisconsin all alone. He’d broken up with the girl and the band, and when he arrived at his parents’ house, there was no one there. Desperate for solace, Vernon gunned it to his father’s hunting cabin, an isolated spot in the North Woods now forever tethered in popular imagination to the wound-licking and self-discovery that galvanized his breakout album For Emma, Forever Ago. He spent several weeks holed up there, sifting through emotional wreckage, wrestling with chores, camping in front of the television set and, slowly but surely, recording folk music unlike anyone, even those closest to him, would have expected. Made of just a newly found falsetto and guitar, each song was more still than quiet, simultaneously lucid and totally opaque. As many fans and followers as it has gained Vernon, For Emma is still the sound of a young man alone in the woods, sweating out his sorrows while the world around him freezes.
The mythology of Vernon’s voyage back to Eau Claire, and subsequent creation of his solo debut, has been endlessly retold since kids everywhere started singing along with him last year. He is the bearded and passionate poet who found himself in the picturesque place he’d left behind. The romantic appeal of it is as easy to grasp as that of Norman Rockwell’s covers of The Saturday Evening Post. Whether you’re familiar with them or not, the small town’s ideals of simplicity and steadiness, family and hard work, god and country will always in some way be fascinating to most Americans. The postcard scenery around Eau Claire—vast, rolling tablecloths of emerald green; barns of peeling crimson, the fresh aroma of cowshit that thwaps its way in and out of your car—and Vernon’s homespun philosophy and diehard commitment to Wisconsin do nothing to dissuade such romance.
When Vernon appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman in December 2008, Eau Claire’s local newspaper, The Leader-Telegram, finally took notice. Since then, every Bon Iver movement has been monitored, the coverage reaching its zenith when a local news network followed Vernon into a tattoo parlor as he had the outline of Wisconsin inked across his left upper chest, Eau Claire and its surrounding counties dyed deep red. Shortly thereafter, Nick Meyer, editor of Volume One, a free alt-weekly whose influence among young people in town seems to have grown exponentially lately, published a call-to-arms of sorts, saying that if Eau Claire is on the map now more than ever, let’s show the rest of the world why it should have been all along. Have pride. Think local.
This entreaty was surely motivated by the local movement already set in motion by Vernon. His manager, 21-year-old Kyle Frenette, is a Chippewa Falls native who founded Ambledown Records, an Eau Claire-based label modeled after the Saddle Creek blueprint sketched out by Conor Oberst in Omaha, Nebraska ten plus years ago. The Bon Iver live band is entirely Wisconsin-based, and Vernon’s younger brother Nate, with whom he recently purchased a home outside of town, manages his tours. Together they form what has become jokingly referred to as the Bon-tourage.
Last November, Vernon invited Milwaukee/Madison post-rock band Collections of Colonies of Bees up to Eau Claire to record a sort of follow-up to For Emma, Forever Ago in his new home, a spread he’s in the process of outfitting with a home recording studio. They mysteriously named the collaboration Volcano Choir. The Bees’ experimental compositions are miles from anything Vernon’s laid to tape before. If Bon Iver was all things frostbitten and solitary, the Reich-ian layering of Volcano Choir’s Unmap represents something truly communal, in concert with all ranges of season and motion—the lone man becoming one with the world. The best evidence of this shift is the song “Still,” a seismic restyling of Bon Iver track “Woods,” originally released on the Blood Bank EP. If “Woods” was the vocodered howling of Vernon hitting bottom, “Still” is him emerging, a sprawling coda to a record that signifies something bigger than its many parts, not the least of which is Vernon’s clear intention to use his new home here to do more than just heal his broken heart. These songs, like those on For Emma, couldn’t have been made anywhere else. They seem impervious to time, but not space, firmly rooted in this one corner of Wisconsin and shared by its favorite son.
Do you ever feel like the story behind For Emma, Forever Ago eclipsed what you were trying to do or where it came from? There were times when it definitely got bent out of truth. I try to concentrate on what’s good about it. People like the music because it’s honest and strange or whatever. I just try to feel lucky and not question it too much. Once you’re done making a record, you’re done making a record. You put it out there and you tour to support it. One of the freeing things is that the band became a whole new thing. The live band was a different experiment. It was a new creative challenge. I think that’s what kept me sane. I’m past the record, but I recognize that somewhere in the world, someone is hearing it for the first time. But if you spend all your time thinking about that, you can’t look forward. I’m already working on stuff that’s going to piss some people off because it’s not going to sound anything like that.
How have you been received in Eau Claire since things took off? Do people stop you? Yeah, there are always strangers, maybe they’re not from here or I’ve never met them before, but 85 to 95 percent of the time I get stopped it’s because I haven’t seen a friend in the three months while I’ve been away or on the road. I’ve lived here my whole life and in a way, our band is well-known in this town to begin with. Nothing really changed. People know me or they don’t know me. If they do, they don’t give a shit about anything. They might ask a question, like, “Dude, how is it? What the fuck? I heard you’re going to have a song on the Twilight soundtrack. That’s fucked up!” And I’m like, Yeah, it is fucked up.
Is that one of the reasons why it’s nice to come back? Yeah. Because I am who I am here and I’m used to it. I sink into the whole scale and sea of—just the perspective of what the town is. I have my place in it, no more, no less. It feels good.
You said earlier that you would die here. That seems distinctly small-town. I don’t see myself moving somewhere else, for any reason. I’ve noticed that’s a bit selfish. But I can’t see myself giving up the serenity that I feel when I get here. This is where I am. It’s simple. Don’t question it. You’re happy. How can you fuck with that?
For me, it’s hard to really even look at America as one place. I feel like I’m at the center of the earth. It’s almost like when you’re on the outside of a sphere that’s spinning, you’re spinning really fast. But if you’re right at the axis, things seem to be slowed down. When you’re driving up from Milwaukee, once you go past Wisconsin Dells, the geology really starts to change. South of Madison feels like rural Illinois to me, which I don’t really enjoy that much. Or I don’t feel a part of it. But anywhere in northwestern Wisconsin or eastern Minnesota, it all makes sense to me. I’ve got a relationship with it, a real relationship. It’s hard to have a relationship when you’re not present, so it’s hard for me to have a relationship with America or even know what it is, or frankly, know what good you can do for it. I just have to scale it down. That helps me concentrate.
You said your parents live just down the hill from your new place. Did you grow up in that house? We spent two years in a house in town that my parents originally bought. We moved outside of town as soon as Nate was born. But other than four months in Ireland and 14 months in Raleigh, I’ve never lived anywhere else.
How has this placed changed over the years? It hasn’t changed much. We have three roundabouts in town now. It’s pretty fucking huge. A lot of people complained about that. But I’d say the biggest thing to change is Volume One, the alt-weekly. It’s a pretty humble magazine. It’s not super self-aware and sometimes it would help for it to be more critical, but that’s also the vibe here. They reviewed the Arby’s here. As a restaurant. But that’s because Arby’s is a restaurant people eat at. It’s culture.
There’s a sense of history in downtown Eau Claire, though, much different from larger cities that have modernized more rapidly and fully. It’s the longer arc of time. I could drive you out to this church about 45 minutes south of here where my mom grew up in these hills. It’s a place called East Bennett Valley, which isn’t even the name of a town, just a hilly area. There is a church there where my grandparents were baptized, married and buried. To go out there, there’s a highway, and then there’s a smaller highway and then you get on a smaller highway and then you have a feeling that, Holy shit, going to Eau Claire is like going to New York for these people. They live in a different time. It’s so enjoyable to see that out there. I feel very attached to my mom’s side of the family. They’re very Norwegian. There are Norwegian graves out there from 1896 or something. I’ll go out there with my mom sometimes and my mom will tell me, “That was my grandma’s aunt and that’s her grave.” I like that kind of thing. I wish I knew more about it.
That Scandinavian influence has a lot to do with what people might call the Midwestern sensibility, a pragmatism and reserve that juxtaposes weirdly with the expressiveness or even romance in your singing. Yeah, I think it’s what gives Midwestern art its vibe. I think it’s impossible for people from around here to express themselves dishonestly. That also means they might not jump at the chance to express themselves every day to everyone they meet because they might not feel like burdening someone with really honest shit. That’s where the reservation comes from I think. But it’s rooted in kindness. My brother says sorry a lot. We’re at McDonalds and he’s saying sorry to everyone. I just notice it and I’m like, Why are you saying sorry? You didn’t do anything wrong. But I think it’s about not leaving a mark or trying not to leave a mark. Trying not to take up too much of someone’s time or space. It’s inspiring. It’s about loving each other and togetherness. At the end of the day, a little bit of it is about not sharing your own troubles. I guess that’s why people drink beer here.
A lot of kids decide to rush off to bigger cities after high school or college because they just feel a need to explore and grow up. Was the decision to come back more difficult than that? I never really had that itch like anybody else who left. One of the reasons why we did leave was because we all realized that if we didn’t leave now, we wouldn’t leave at all. We left because we felt we ought to. It was more a feeling of “we should get out of here.” I think it’s a notably different feeling. But coming back, it was super weird to be making that drive all alone. I knew I was out of money and I knew I had to get out of [Raleigh]. But I didn’t have much of a plan. I remember getting home in November and it was dark at maybe 4PM. I got to my parents house and nobody was there, and I sat on the couch and felt really icky to be there. That’s when I went right to Dad’s land. I didn’t want to go to the coffee shop, I didn’t want to see anybody and have them see that I had given up relatively quickly. I was embarrassed about it. That’s why I went up there and I stayed there for three or four months. It wasn’t until this year that I’ve been able to really feel like I was back. I’ve been here and there and gone so much since then. In the last six months I’ve really started to feel like this is home and I’ve returned to it.
Were you afraid of being seen as a failure? I look at the list of reasons to stay away [from Eau Claire], and there was an intrinsic fear of, if I go home, I won’t grow. If I go home, my life isn’t going to move in interesting ways. You’re going to stop the motion of some romantic pathway that you’ve imagined. I’ve accomplished the things I’ve wanted to accomplish. I have the opportunity to be an artist and be free as an artist for the rest of my life. I have the opportunity to serve and be part of a community that’s still developing. I definitely would like to do something with my life and give back to this place. This
is strong language maybe, but I want to prove this place. Not to anyone, but to itself.
How so? It’s not about giving back. I think it’s about getting on your hands and knees and digging out what it already has. It’s in us. It’s in the town. It’s in the land. It’s in the people. It’s in the music. I think it just needs breathing room.