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Thursday, Aug. 14, 2008

Dispatches from a Wisconsin Cabin

Bon Iver records up north

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It's a stirring story, one that wraps Justin Vernon's album into a neat package. It starts when Vernon's first band breaks up, and it ends in the Northwoods.

Jobless and sick, with nowhere to live and a desire to be alone, Vernon stayed (rent-free) in his father's hunting cabin through the winter. He chopped wood, brooded for a while, and then created a spectacular solo debut. Vernon's For Emma, Forever Ago doesn't merely capture a desperate Wisconsin winter, it captures a man resigned to its snowy, woodland loneliness.

That's the true-to-life legend of Bon Iver-the dreariness of life expressed through an album full of dreary optimism, written by a man whose stage name is a play on the French words for "good winter." At least, that's the true-to-life legend that people keep telling. Vernon seems pretty nonplused about the season's effect on the album. He is not a fan of analyzing the past for meaning.

"I always try to keep it in perspective," Vernon says. "You should write a song and hope that you've put all your heart into it and examine things that are hard to examine and approach them with as much dignity as possible. But when it comes out, it's just a song. It can be extremely special for someone, but it's just a song."

In the recounting of Vernon's trip up north, most have glossed over the upcoming EP he'll be playing music from when he performs at The Pabst Theater on Thursday, Aug. 14. To hear him describe it, the release documents the hard rock and avant-garde work he recorded during those same in-cabin sessions-not exactly the acoustic folk he's best known for.

So does that mean that cabins in hard rock and avant-garde places (Australia? Germany?) could repeat the process in reverse? In some other world, could an album as blanketed in snow as For Emma have come from a different climate?

"I never really thought about that kind of stuff," Vernon says. "You can honestly get stuck in that way of asking questions. Like, 'What if I was a girl?'"

Vernon, who refuses to speculate about what might have happened if he was a girl, is remarkably comfortable leaving his Thoreau winter in the past. He doesn't seem to have been overly self-aware of his experience at the time, and he prefers it that way. Vernon's goal is to be surprised by the process.

"My objective, if anything, is not to have an objective and just sit and write," he says. That Zen form of songwriting lends a simultaneously detached and inexorably connected quality to his songs.

"The stories," he says of his songs, "were written in the utmost personal way, but I think they're written in a way that they're accessing subconscious material. In that regard, they are extremely personal and remain mysterious to me and still teach me lessons a year and a half later."

During a recent tour of Europe, Vernon came to the startling conclusion that For Emma's title track was a joyous anthem despite its lyrics. It's a lesson he promises not to have brought back to the states. He wants the song to stay volatile. He wants to let it be more than one thing.

He didn't always have this detachment. Vernon also admits to not always being able to live up to his ideal. But he's trying, and he began to succeed as soon as he started trying, during that winter he spent at his father's cabin.

"Just having the courage to move into the middle of the woods by myself and gain that confidence changed it for me," he says.

Bon Iver plays an 8 p.m. show at The Pabst Theater on Thursday, Aug. 14.

 

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Bon Iver at the Pabst
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