Justin Vernon Talks New Bon Iver Album and Its Heath Ledger Connection

BY Andrea WarnerPublished Jun 15, 2011

Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, hasn't been twiddling his thumbs since the release of his critically acclaimed, self-released 2007 debut For Emma, Forever Ago. He was Kanye West's unlikely accomplice on the hip-hop artist's last album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. He founded Chigliak Records, his own imprint on his home label Jagjaguwar. He's also co-producing Kathleen Edwards's upcoming album with Arcade Fire studio whiz Craig Silvey. And, of course, writing and recording his own remarkable follow-up, the wildly inventive and sonically ambitious Bon Iver, streaming here on Exclaim! this week.

The new self-title album is a gorgeous confluence of '80s influences, from synthesizers to saxophones, with Vernon's trademark falsetto leading the gentle charge through his own orchestrated wonderland.

"It came from building sounds in the studio... It was music and melody and taking it one step further, kind of calling it vocal sound, like vocal sort-of ramblings dictate melody and also which vowel I'd be using. You basically sing until you've written a song in non-English, if you will." Vernon laughs in a recent Exclaim! interview. "And then I sit down and basically try to dictate what it could be, and then I spend a year taking those dictations and trying to make them into something that would work as a piece of lyrics."

But it wouldn't be a Bon Iver album if there weren't a deeply personal story at its source.

"The first thing I worked on, the riff and the beginning melodies, was the first song on the record, 'Perth,'" Vernon says. "That was back in early 2008. The reason I called it that right away, is because I was with a guy that I didn't know very well, but basically, it's a long story, but in the three days we were supposed to spend together -- he's a music video maker -- in those three days, his best friend [Heath Ledger] died. 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."

Every song on the album takes its title from a city or a town, and Canada's represented beautifully by "Calgary." It's a sweetly soaring number, and Vernon admits that the Alberta city has been long-romanticized in his mind, even though he's never been there.

"Just being from the upper Midwest, I think there's an affinity [for Canada] with most folks that I grew up with," Vernon laughs. "I've never been to Calgary, still, and I've always imagined Calgary and, like, thought about Calgary, but the song's kind of like a wedding vow song between two people that haven't met yet, you know, sort of making promises to each other and I think that's what that's about. There's a danger and a beauty to envisioning a form, in this case love, or a place where love exists or can come from."

This kind of sincerity is evident throughout Bon Iver, which is in keeping with Vernon's desire to ignore the trappings of fame and focus instead on making music that makes him happy. Despite the massive differences in his life between releasing his first album and now -- Kanye on speed dial, label support, money -- Vernon had just one goal for himself when he began working on his follow-up.

"I sat down to make it and I was just like, I'm just gonna pretend -- no, not even pretend, I'm going to assume that no one's going to give a shit, 'cause why would they?" Vernon asks. "I'm gonna be making a record that's just for me and my best friends and try to make us happy, because that's all I can really do or experience or understand."

Bon Iver is set for release on Tuesday (June 21) via Jagjaguwar. You can currently stream the record here on Exclaim.ca and view the project's upcoming North American tour dates below.

UPDATE: Bon Iver has released a new video for the track "Calgary," which you can watch below.

Tour dates:

7/22 Milwaukee, WI - Riverside Theatre
7/23 Milwaukee, WI - Riverside Theatre
7/24 Chicago, IL - Chicago Theatre
7/25 Indianapolis, IN - The Murat Theatre
7/27 Nashville, TN - Ryman Auditorium
7/28 Atlanta, GA - Cobb Energy Performing Arts
7/29 Raleigh, NC - Raleigh Ampitheatre
7/30 Richmond, VA - The National
8/1 Washington, DC - 9:30 Club
8/2 Washington, DC - 9:30 Club
8/3 Upper Darby, PA - Tower Theatre
8/5 Boston, MA - House of Blues
8/6 Holyoke, MA - Mountain Park
8/8 Toronto, ON - The Sound Academy
8/9 New York, NY - The United Palace Theatre
8/10 Brooklyn, NY - Prospect Park Bandshell (Celebrate Brooklyn)

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