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Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2009

Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon: Wisconsin Ambassador

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It’s not a particularly extraordinary story, but it’s been repeated so many times it has taken on the air of a myth: a heartbroken Justin Vernon retreated for the winter to his father’s northern Wisconsin cabin to lick his wounds, emerging from his three-month exile with a self-recorded album. The same way Blood on the Tracks owes nearly as much of its mystique to Bob Dylan’s divorce as to its songs, the tale of Vernon’s hibernation lent context to his inaugural album as Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago. Though the record stands on its own, it’s hard to imagine it resonating with so many people—and emerging as one of last year’s most celebrated albums—without the kindling of that poetic back-story.

“I guess some people embrace the story and relate to it, or at least recognize something in it that they want for themselves,” Vernon speculates. “Or maybe it’s just something that makes the record real for some people, something that brings it out of the music industry and down to earth.”

Either way, For Emma, Forever Ago will always be inextricable from that creaky cabin. Vernon’s challenge, then, is to make sure he’s not forever typecast just as That Guy From the Cabin.

He’s already made great strides in proving his range this year, releasing in January a Bon Iver EP, Blood Bank, that expands For Emma’s sonic palette to greater emphasis on electric guitar and keyboard, and this fall a project that more aggressively casts him against type: Volcano Choir’s Unmap, the debut from the group that pairs him with the Milwaukee post-rock ensemble Collections of Colonies of Bees.

With nothing close to resembling a traditional folk song, Unmap juxtaposes Vernon’s harrowed croon against the band’s looping, ambient clatter. On some tracks, the voice that anchored For Emma is distorted beyond recognition; on others it disappears for long stretches amid the digital patter. The lyrics that are decipherable aren’t particularly bucolic, either. “Island, IS,” for instance, evokes images of hard drives and mechanical sex.

The fixation on technology may stem from the album’s recording process. It was pieced together from three years’ worth of sketches Vernon and Collections of Colonies of Bees traded back and forth over e-mail.

“I’ve been a giant Bees fan for years,” Vernon says. “There just can’t be a bigger fan than me, so the chance to get to work with them was really enticing. I’m excited that it shows another part of me and what I do, and particularly what the six of us can do together.”

Collections of Colonies of Bees are just one in a long list of Wisconsin institutions that Vernon feels strongly about. He’s also sung the praises of The Daredevil Christopher Wright, a chamber-pop band from his native Eau Claire—he produced their debut album—and in general he carries himself like a walking Visit Wisconsin billboard (he literally wore a Badgers T-shirt on his “Late Show with David Letterman” appearance).

“There are a billion things I love about the state,” he says. “The weather here is just perfect for me; I love the seasons. I think mostly it’s an untouched, untapped sort of natural habitat, with the North Woods, the lakes, the state forests and the river. It’s all really beautiful. I’ve been all over the world, and of course I’m biased, but I don’t want to be anywhere else but here … Wisconsin is just where I’m from; it’s given to me, and I feel I should give back to it.”

This weekend Vernon continues giving back by serving as the honorary chair of the 2009 AIDS Walk Wisconsin, performing and participating at the walk on Sunday, Oct. 11, before headlining a post-walk concert at the Riverside Theater later that night.

“It’s just such an honorable thing, being able to help a cause this good,” Vernon says. “We’re just doing our best to spread the word, trying to do whatever we can to help get people to come out.”

For information on AIDS Walk Wisconsin, visit aidswalkwis.org.