Bon Iver’s manager on his unexpected run for Congress
“I know now what my artists feel like when they release an album.”
Kyle Frenette has spent most of his career on the road, but today is different. As the artist manager for Justin Vernon, best known as the mastermind of the trendsetting chamber pop project Bon Iver, Frenette has spent the last decade traveling the world for shows and appearances. When FADER spoke to Frenette on Tuesday morning over the phone, he was on his way to Tomahawk, Wisconsin to attend a snowstorm makeup meeting of the Lincoln County Democrats. This time, he would be the one standing under the bright light.
Frenette, a born and raised Wisconsin native, formally announced his campaign to represent the 7th Congressional District of Wisconsin last week. Republican Representative Sean Duffy, a former star of The Real World: Boston, has held the seat since 2010, and the district firmly supported President Trump in the 2016 election. (According to the Cook Political Report, Trump took 57 percent of the vote, to Hillary Clinton’s 37 percent.)
But Frenette, who is running as a Democrat, thinks there’s a fighting chance for Wisconsin to flip that seat blue, and come November, he hopes to be the one sitting in it.
Let’s start with some basics. How old are you?
I’m 30. I’ll be 31 on November 20. I had been thinking about getting into politics for a long time, and it was actually around my birthday this last year that I was like, “Okay, well, no one is stepping up on the Democratic side in my own district, so I guess now that I’m 30 years old, I should do something.
How long have you been Justin Vernon’s manager?
I’ve been Justin’s manager since 2007, [when] I was 19 years old. Currently I’m taking, I guess you could say, a [break].
You’re a little busy now, I imagine.
Ha-ha, yes. This is a full-time job. I’m quickly learning how much of a money game politics is. The district is extremely large, which is why I’m on the road right now. From where I’m stationed in Chetek, it’s about a three hour drive to the furthest part of the district Northeast. [Wisconsin’s 7th District] is almost 2/3rds of the state. When you hear any Wisconsinite say, “I’m going up North for the weekend,” that is my district.
So you’re from Wisconsin originally, right?
Yes. Born and raised. Eau Claire is not in the district, and that is where Justin [Vernon] is from. I’m from the town of Chippewa Falls, which is about 15 minutes north of Eau Claire. The 7th District has been my home district since I was a kid.
The incumbent Sean Duffy — who [will be my opponent] if I win this primary — was elected in 2010 on the Tea Party wave right after Obama was elected. Before him, though, the seat was held for 42 years by a prominent Congressman, Chairman of Appropriations, Dave Obey. So he was my Congressman for my entire life up until 2010. I canvased for him in high school. He was a well-respected Wisconsinite and still is.
What made you initially want to get into politics?
Managing an artist like Justin takes up a lot of time, as you might imagine. My entire adult life has been consumed with career, and making sure he’s taken care of. [My interest in politics] started from a place of wanting to volunteer more, wanting to be more of an activist. I wanted to join Indivisible, or one of the leftist groups that are working to flip Congress.
I started doing some research, and I saw that a Democrat hadn’t declared in my District. I just started making some calls, and the more and more I talked to folks, the more I felt comfortable about turning my life upside down and doing this.
You’re running as a Democrat. Are your parents democrats? Is that the party you grew up with?
[Laughing] My parents voted for Trump. That was part of [my decision to run]. I had never really talked politics with my family. It wasn’t a huge part of my upbringing. I was paying attention, but, to be honest, even as a young adult I wasn’t that involved. I became an adult during the Obama years. I was focused on my career and my business. I was paying attention to politics, but not nearly as much I am now, not nearly as much as so many of us are now.
After the election, I hadn’t really spoken to my parents about it. When it came out that they had voted [for Trump] it was the only time I’ve ever been able to say to my parents, “I’m not mad. I’m just disappointed.”
Were you able to talk to them about it?
Yeah. They heard me out. We had a really great conversation about it. They weren’t understanding that they were voting for someone who was the complete antithesis of who they raised me to be. It wasn’t about Hillary. It wasn’t about party. It was just that they voted for a bully. In my book, that wasn’t cool.
Why run for federal office and not for a state chair or even county?
It’s in my nature to shoot for the stars, my parents will tell you that. I’ve been extremely lucky in my life and career with Justin. When I made this decision, my dad — who is a very cautious individual — he said, “Maybe this is good for you, maybe failing is good for you.” [Laughs]
But it just comes down to, I did the research and saw that no one had stepped up, and so I stepped up. Congress is a huge step up. I’ve never held office before, and this is national. But I thought, Why not? If I lose, then I’ll focus on a state election, or run again; maybe I’d run for another office, or work for another candidate.
Are you nervous? I know you have a bit of time before the Democratic primaries where you’ll find out if you get the party nomination.
The primaries are August 14. I feel good about that. It gives me more time. I have to raise money to do this. It’s a business. It’s a startup. The main source of income is donation. My campaign manager moved here from New Jersey, and in order to stop working at coffee shops, and get an office and hire more staff, we need to bring in the money.
Do you think you have a chance to win the Democratic nomination?
It’s going to be tough, but my main objective is just to take this seat back from Sean Duffy who is a complete representation of everything I feel is wrong with this country. He is completely in line with Trump. He is a former reality television star. He has turned his back on my family and our friends, and on all who call up North home. He’s let greed and the corruption of politics get the best of him, and it’s time for change. I’m working with the [other] primary candidates as best I can to make sure that we’re a unified front against him.
This is such a change for you. How does it feel to step into the spotlight yourself after so many years offstage?
I know now what my artists feel like when they release an album. Putting yourself out there is very vulnerable. Especially in politics, [where] you are scrutinized from both sides. Even people who want to help you are coming at you with an iron fist. You just can’t win. You have to have thick skin and you have to know that you’re doing the best you can. That’s been uncomfortable for sure.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous putting myself out there. The encouragement and support that has come in has been absolutely incredible. I’m doing this because I saw a need, and saw that I had an opportunity, and took it. I’m doing it for everyone who can’t. It’s not about me. It’s about Wisconsin. And it’s about the future of this country. And I want to have children someday, and it’s about giving them a better world.