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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recollections

12, Flinders’ Ranges, the Outback: Huddling around a lonely fire, dogs slinking about at the edge of darkness. We skewer sausages and roast them, with the dusty land, the infinitude of stars as companions. In the morning, I wake early and with the rising sun, trek out to see the kangaroos grazing amidst the bush.

15, Sabah, Malaysia: Chased by a storm at dusk, we stop at a deserted prawning farm by the river, the smell of marshland and rain heavy in the humid air. We pull at our lines to draw the prawns and the water bubbles as fish surface briefly. Then the skies break and rain batters the zinc roofs, vestiges of a fading era. A great peal of thunder and for a brief second white lightning illuminates the entirety of the marshes as the building shakes. Plunged into semi-darkness as the electricity goes out, we wait, a little shaken, for the lights to come on.

17, Yosemite, California: My brother and I step out onto the ice and it cracks ominously. He throws a stone, breaking the placid surface of the lake where it is yet unfrozen. I can see bubbles, tiny and fragile, in the clear ice beneath my feet.

19, Bagan, Myanmar: We sit outside a temple on flimsy chairs, sipping sweet coconut juice through pastel plastic straws. The dusty ground is the color of burnished copper, as is everything in this sacred region. Behind us, miniature wooden puppets hang spookily in a tree, the late afternoon sun casting strange shadows. Later, we cycle by starlight over treacherous dirt roads past fields of dry, uncut grass and the sensation of flight, of freedom, is exhilarating.

In the Midst of Such Paradox

How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.

Sage advice by Barry Lopez.

On Gingerbread Terrariums, Christmas Wreaths and Robert Frost

I dream of a white Christmas with mugs of hot chocolate by a warm fire. Meanwhile, these gingerbread terrariums by yeh on mynameisyeh are so delicious and pretty to look at.

If you’re inspired by the smell of cinnamon and cloves and fresh pine when you make these terrariums, why not make your own Christmas wreath with the people behind Treasures and Travels.

Not for the first time, I wish I lived in a place with winters and christmas tree farms so I could do Christmassy things like hunting down an innocent tree and asking my imaginary sweater-clad husband to get it into the house, as inspired by the following image from Kinfolk:

Or I could be paddling down half-frozen rivers and watching the snow settle across the land, like David Lindwall below.

What would (imaginary) winters be like without Robert Frost?

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Thanks Mom

We don’t appreciate our mothers enough, and I definitely don’t. She feeds me fantastic home cooked meals everyday, she cleans the house (with my occasional help), she makes sure we get our vitamins, that we don’t spend too much time on the computer. She can’t sleep until we get home, often very late from parties or outings. She used to wake up at 5.30am just to wake us up for school, when she could have just thrown an alarm clock at us (which probably wouldn’t have worked well). She nags at us, but behind our backs she sings our praises to strangers and family. She’s apologised so many times for us. She doesn’t say ‘I love you’ much, in the typical Asian method of parenthood, but I feel her love every moment of every day. She brought us up right, and it’s because of her that I know that it’s important to be kind to everyone, to thank waitstaff, to help the elderly, to not judge, to live and let live, that character is a the measure of a man, not his successes or his wealth. Thanks Mom. I don’t know how I ever deserved a mom as good as you, but I’m thankful everyday.

we’re all in our private traps

This week, I’ve been catching several wonderful films. I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Gravity, and 12 Years a Slave.

Psycho really delivers in terms of directing style (it is my first Hitchcock film, I am ashamed to say) which is dramatic, a little crazy and in your face. Is it strange that I found Norman Bates handsome? The Bates House was also fantastically creepy, silhouetted against the night sky. Interestingly, the Bates House was inspired by a 1925 Edward Hopper painting, House by the Railroad, below. I do love Edward Hopper’s paintings which are so depressing but unforgettable.

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You can clearly see the shadow of this building in the Bates House. It’s such a haunting structure. Granted, the killing scenes in Psycho were pretty hilarious, but Norman Bates’ final, manic grin, when the last vestiges of sanity left him…classic. Another Hopper painting I love is Nighthawks:

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Painted in 1942, it’s like these people in the diner are frozen in time, like spiders encased in amber. And you wonder, what was life like for them? Was the red headed woman a demure wife? Was she a spitfire? What were her hopes, her dreams. What is that lone man thinking of? Is it midnight, or is it late evening? I can look at it forever.

My favourite conversation from that film, apart from the one where Marion is being interrogated by that freaky, Stephen King worthy policeman (Tak from Desperation, anyone?) was this:

Norman Bates: What are you running away from?

Marion Crane: Why do you ask that?

Norman Bates: No reason. No one really runs away from anything. It’s like a private trap that holds us in like a prison. You know what I think? I think that we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.

Marion Crane: Sometimes… we deliberately step into those traps.

Norman Bates: I was born into mine. I don’t mind it anymore.

Marion Crane: Oh, but you should. You should mind it.

Norman Bates: Oh, I do…

[laughs]

Norman Bates: But I say I don’t.

Gravity was a real spectacle, an exhilarating immersion in space.  It was pretty realistic except for the sounds of debris hitting the satellite…there is no medium for sound to travel in space, which means we shouldn’t be hearing anything.  My big issue with the film, visually spectacular as it was, was its characters. Character, specifically. Question. Aren’t astronauts supposed to be the cream of the crop, rigorously trained, shouldn’t they be able to keep relatively calm and think? Ryan Stone must be the most useless astronaut in film history. I could forgive her the first part where she floats away and is too panicked to answer George Clooney (I’ve forgotten his character’s name; give me a break, it’s George Clooney, I was too busy listening to his honey smooth voice and admiring his perfect hair). But god. How helpless and panicky can she get? I was actually rooting for her to die, so we could get on with watching George Clooney spacewalk till he asphyxiated.

I wish they hadn’t killed off George’s character, who was the star of the show to me. He is the epitome of a astronaut you see? Calm, collected, experienced. His character was a little one-dimensional, no one can keep his head that well under such pressure, especially when floating away into the vastness of space. I don’t blame Sandra Bullock, she did a great job bringing out the anxiety and fear of being helpless in space. But I do blame the director and the writers. Tension is good in a film. It’s what keeps audiences on the edge of their seats, what drives plot. However, to create tension by making your character slip up so many times, by making her a helpless, clueless individual who clearly would never have gotten the OK for going into space is a cheap and lazy move. My wonderment at the visuals was almost overshadowed by my distaste and frustration with Ryan.

The star of the 3 films was undoubtedly 12 Years a Slave. It is entirely deserving of its awards. Many people have gushed over it and offered great reviews, so I shall not speak further except  to declare my unending love for it. It was superbly acted, the victims, heroes, villians were well fleshed out, the filming was impeccable. The hanging scene where Solomon desperately holds onto life is one that shall remain with me for a long time. I loved how drawn out it was. Brutal, revealing, unflinching, beautiful, gorgeous film. Steve McQueen, kudos to you. I have always wanted to visit the South, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, with dark, lush willow trees, haunted forever by the spectre of cruelty, blood and America’s original sin.

(this gif just gives me chills)