On Bon Iver

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“This is for you..?” Justin Vernon’s voice breaks off in a quizzical tone and the audience laughs, before wildly applauding as the band breaks into crowd-favourite, Re:Stacks.

It’s been nearly ten years since Bon Iver produced the acclaimed For Emma, Forever Ago. So the legend goes: Disenchanted with life following a string of personal setbacks, Vernon retreated for three winter months to the seclusion of his dad’s remote cabin in Wisconsin, burying himself in ice, sorrow and music. “I named this band after this TV show, Northern Exposure,” he said last night.  Vernon spent the months in his cabin watching reruns of it, naming his band after a winter-time greeting from the show ‘bon hiver’, ‘good winter’ in French. In a 2008 AV Club interview, Vernon commented on the experience:

AVC: For Emma, Forever Ago is a sad, lonely record. Is that a reflection of how you felt while making it, or was it actually pretty fun being alone in the wilderness?

JV: I don’t think I really had any clue what was going on while I was there. I was just there. There would be days when I would work on music that sounded really happy. Or I’d be really happy to be working on it. I think you can be jazzed about working on a really sad song if you’re into it. But when I left the cabin, I don’t think I felt renewed or “done” or anything. I still felt sick, my liver still hurt. I was going back to North Carolina sooner than I thought, to work with The Rosebuds. It took me months and months to realize what I had accomplished up there musically, personally, all that.

AVC: You had to step back to appreciate what you had?

JV: The enigma of everything, I’m beside it. Yeah, I went up to the cabin in the woods and I made a record. It’s sort of odd to look back and see it as magical, because it felt like a lonely few months at the cabin, where I plugged in the laptop and fucked around.

AVC: There’s already a mythology of sorts around the record, where people talk about the music in the context of how it was made. Do you think knowing the backstory is important to understanding the record?

JV: No. I’ll get e-mails from people saying “I listened to this song and it made me feel this about my life,” or whatever. I think the story pulls people into the music; it gives them a place to enter. But I hope people are reacting to the music.

When Vernon opened with Woods under the multicoloured spotlights, the audience quiet in anticipation, every individual drowning in his haunting autotuned vocals: “I’m up in the woods, I’m down on my mind/I’m building a still to slow down the time.”  

Then the rousing Perth, a favourite of mine off the second album. Written after his video director Matt Amato broke down upon news of the death of his best friend Heath Ledger:, Vernon has said:”And his best friend was from Perth. It just sort of became the beginning of the record. And Perth has such a feeling of isolation, and also it rhymes with birth, and every song I ended up making after that just sort of drifted towards that theme, tying themselves to places and trying to explain what places are and what places aren’t.” According to an interview on Triple J, “the night he recorded the final vocal alone in his studio, [he] listened to the playback, broke down and sobbed.”

I nearly teared as the song ended with powerful, pulsing drum beats. I’ve spent countless nights in the dark listening to this song, drowning in its vitality. Here we all were, people of disparate lifestyles, nationalities, backgrounds, gathered in the dark to share in this experience. For some, like myself, the song held special meaning; others were discovering it for the first time.

The Staves were a welcome surprise. I enjoyed their second album, If I Was, produced by Justin Vernon himself. Minnesota WI, Flume, Lump Sum, Heavenly FatherRoslyn, were all marvellously performed. But the best of the night was undoubtedly Blindsided, Vernon’s excellent bluesy guitar solo, his soft falsetto and the Staves’ ethereal voices melding to sing, “Would you really rush out/ For me now?”

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Skinny Love stunned, every rough facet and sharp barb laid bare in Vernon’s raw scream-singing. The earliest impression I had of him was from his imperfect, yet captivating performance on Jools Holland a long, long time ago, before the bland, lifeless perfection of Birdy’s cover. I recall being stunned by how Vernon wrung every bit of emotion out of the song leaving the audience feeling like they’d gone through the same painful journey with him.

I’ve always associated Bon Iver with ‘that shouldn’t sound good, but it does’, their songs exuding a spark derived from the distinctiveness of their sound, the depth of the emotions, careful construction and lyrical opacity. If For Emma embodies perfection in stripping down to the quiet skeleton of emotions, Bon Iver demonstrates how songs can be decadent without being crushed by their own weight. Above all, I love the authenticity of the music and devotion to the craft. Vernon has said, “I’m just living in Eau Claire, not really leaving for much. I go to the farmers market, go to the studio, go home and play with my cats. I don’t know if I’ve ever been this happy, which is really awesome.” Behind the myth, the plaid shirts and autotune, is just a regular joe hanging with his friends, playing around on his guitar and computer, trying to create some damn fine music.

At the end of the night, we all stood, exhilarated, singing “What might have been lost…” along to The Wolves. A seemingly unremarkable little phrase, embodying profound emotion, nostalgia, and regret, resonating through five thousand souls.

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On Johnny Cash

“How well I have learned that there is no fence to sit on between heaven and hell.”

I have a special place in my heart for Johnny Cash and his American series of albums. According to NPR, these were produced the decade leading up to his death in 2003 and they are some of the darkest, most introspective and evocative songs of his career. He explores religion and sin, reflects on his life, those he let down, those he has hurt and wonders about where he is bound. American holds some of his most potent and sorrowful songs, every single word striking true. Even the covers were carefully chosen and undergo transformation in Cash’s apologetic baritone. In the twilight of his life, Cash continued to enthral us. Remember what he sang in Man in Black: 

Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.

I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me.

True, he might seem mighty preachy at times but American is more of a documentation of Cash’s struggle with his drug/alcohol problems, the moral degradation he saw all around and how he reconciled this with his faith. He bares himself, cuts right down to the bone and the humanity in his voice is truly striking.

Aside from his originals like I Walk The Line, Folsom Prison Blues, Ring of Fire, listen to his legendary covers of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt (absolutely devastating, resignation in every note), Leonard Cohen’s Bird on A Wire, U2’s One, Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down, Sting’s I Hung My Head, Gore’s Personal Jesus, Will Oldham’s I See A Darkness countless others. Traditional folk songs like Wayfaring Stranger, God’s Gonna Cut You Down…

Here is a playlist for the best of Johnny Cash; it’s not supposed to be exhaustive.

I play his songs (especially American III: Solitary Man) in the middle of the night, to hear his gravelly voice cry out into the humid darkness:

Oh like a bird on the wire,
like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.

On another note, his relationship with June Carter remains one of the best love stories in music history, a love that changed the man in black.

“This morning, with her, having coffee.”

– Johnny Cash, when asked for his definition of paradise.