Have you or your roommate ever shut themselves in a room after a breakup, listening to the same indie-folk album over and over again? If so, then you’ve probably heard of Bon Iver, and that album was most likely For Emma, Forever Ago.
For those who don’t hang out in smoky hipster bars in Brooklyn, Bon Iver is technically a band, though only one person is most associated with it. Singer and songwriter Justin Vernon is the voice and brain behind Bon Iver, and works with several musicians to fill out the sound.
Since the release of Bon Iver’s debut album, the aforementioned For Emma, Forever Ago in 2008, the band and its vocalist Vernon have won Grammys, including one for Best New Artist. (Nicki Minaj has something to say about that, posted at Consequence Sound.) He has become the poster child for the strength of an isolation album. Several albums later, Bon Iver remains an indie favorite with mainstream credits.
And it’s not just Vernon. Rounding out the band is Jack Johnson, S. Carey, Matthew McCaughan, Mike Lewis, and Andrew Fitzpatrick.
Inspired by Northern Exposure
Vernon had been in several bands before the conceptualization of Bon Iver. He recorded under the name DeYarmond Edison, named after his two middle names, with buddies from Eau Clare, Wisconsin. After that band broke up, Vernon attempted to record under his own name, but ultimately wanted to hide behind another character.
For many bands, choosing a band name can be a fraught experience. For Vernon, it was a matter of picking up a TV remote. According to Pitchfork, the name came from an episode of the ’90s comedy-drama series Northern Exposure. "Bon Iver" is actually a misspelling of the French phrase bon hiver, which means "good winter." In the episode, the characters greeted each other in French as the first snow in Alaska started to fall.
While isolated in a cabin, Vernon had nothing but time, and spent a lot of it watching Northern Exposure. He came across the phrase and decided he liked it, The New Yorker wrote. It reminded him of snow, which recalled his home. Vernon first transcribed it as boniverre, removing the h because it looked like the word liver.
(In case you’re wondering, it’s pronounced "bohn-ee-vair" not "bone-eye-ver.")
Man of the woods
If there’s anything that people most remember about Bon Iver, it’s the process of how For Emma, Forever Ago was made.
As the story goes (recounted by The New York Times), not only did Vernon’s old band DeYarmond Edison break up, but he ended a long relationship with his girlfriend, who was not named Emma. This, and a bout of mononucleosis, forced him to drive back to Wisconsin. Vernon holed up in his father’s old hunting cabin, writing music and watching TV. His dad would drop by with food and beer every once in a while.
Isolation brought out raw emotions for Vernon. It surprised him that those emotions resonated with fans. For Emma, Forever Ago became the template for an album made in seclusion, something that future collaborator Taylor Swift took to heart as well. Vernon first self-released the album on Myspace before signing with indie label Jagjaguwar. The album has since been named one of Rolling Stone‘s 500 greatest albums of all time (ranked 461 out of 500).
Wisconsin, especially the town of Eau Claire, holds a special place for Vernon and Bon Iver. Not only did Vernon grow up in Eau Claire, but it was in its woods that he wrote the album that changed his life.
And Vernon is determined to put his hometown on the map, said Pitchfork. He runs a recording studio called April Base, where Bon Iver has recorded many songs. April Base sits on a property that also houses dorms, gardens, rehearsal spaces, and a basketball court for visiting musicians. Kanye West even stayed at April Base while working on The Life of Pablo.
Since finding stardom, Vernon has set up a music festival called Eaux Claires, along with The National’s Aaron Dessner, and supported performing arts centers in the city. Vernon’s Eaux Claires festival set up a voting initiative to get more people to register to vote in the latest elections.
They got their first Billboard hit in 2020
Despite being known for an album done in isolation, Bon Iver has dueted with some pretty famous friends. In 2010, West tapped Bon Iver to collaborate on several songs on the rapper’s album My Beautiful Dark Twister Fantasy, including the song "Monster." Bon Iver also worked with St. Vincent for a song that was featured in the second Twilight movie.
Bon Iver, and Vernon, got his first top 10 hit on the Billboard hit with "Exile," a song from Taylor Swift’s first surprise pandemic album folklore. The song also earned Bon Iver a Grammy nomination. Vernon returned for Swift’s second pandemic album, evermore, for the title song. Swift even mentioned him during her acceptance speech in the 2021 Grammys, saying she would love to meet Vernon in person for the first time.
Rolling Stone reported Bon Iver enlisted other musicians for his new song, "AUATC," which stands for "ate up all their cake." The song features Bruce Springsteen, Jenny Lewis, and Jenn Wassner, a touring member of Bon Iver.
New songs are coming
Bon Iver’s latest album I, I came out in 2019, but the band released two new songs in 2020.
NME said the first song, "PDLIF" ("Please Don’t Live in Fear"), released in April 2020, was meant to ease anxieties during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Proceeds of the song also went to Direct Relief, an organization to aid those in poverty or emergencies. The song also paid tribute to frontline workers.
The band also came out with "AUATC" in 2020. In announcing the song (per Rolling Stone), Bon Iver called attention to the fight against capitalism and asked fans to support groups that work for equal justice.
It’s not clear if Bon Iver will come up with a follow-up to I, I, especially when the band said each of its four albums represented a season, and well, there’s no fifth season. But it seems that the band, and Vernon, are still ready to make more music. Tell your roommate they’ll have something new to listen to after a breakup.