“I’m a little uncomfortable up here,” Justin Vernon admits, glancing down sheepishly at a notecard under the bright lights. The world can tell. Over five years after recording his folky debut LP, For Emma, Forever Ago, largely in an isolated Wisconsin cabin, he’s suit-clad in a Los Angeles sports arena with an international audience watching him stammer — like a first-day public speaking student living out a nightmare. Vernon is accepting the Best New Artist award at the 2012 Grammys — a moment of recognition many musicians dream about. But it looks like he wants the stage to swallow him whole.
It was a pivotal moment for the Eau Claires native, but not for the reasons some might expect. Vernon — who also received Best Alternative Music Album (for 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver) and nods for both Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year (“Holocene”) — wound up becoming a sort of Twitter punching bag that February evening, with dozens of TV viewers wondering “Who the hell is Bonny Bear?” (a butchered pronunciation of the project’s moniker, phoneticized “Bone-ee-vare.”) And the ceremony was already clouded with industry controversy even before his name was called: Many questioned how an artist who broke out in 2007 could even be recognized as “new” in the first place, and Vernon had openly criticized the very organization that honored him in the weeks leading up to the show. “I kinda felt like going up there and being like: ‘Everyone should go home, this is ridiculous,” he told The New York Times. “You should not be doing this. We should not be gathering in a big room and looking at each other and pretending this is important.'”
Within the indie world, that Grammys ruckus feels like a goofy blip on the headline radar. But it’s wound up coloring Vernon’s career in a broader cultural sense: For many mainstream pop fans, even eight years later, he’s still that mysterious, bearded dude who won an award over an awkwardly smiling J. Cole. In November, when the Recording Academy rolled out its 2020 nominees — including Bon Iver’s fourth LP, i,i, for Album Of The Year — Twitter once again lit up with hot-ish takes: There were more puzzled responses (“Who is Bon Iver?” wrote one annoyed Taylor Swift fan), people confusing Vernon with Beck (“Is it the same white man that stole Beyoncé’s album of the year award from her that year self titled came out?”) and, most perplexing, suggestions that Bon Iver has now become some kind of obligatory establishment pick. But if you look at the actual music, not the chatter, you’ll realize how quickly that last argument disintegrates. That Grammy anointment may have expanded Vernon’s profile, but it also emboldened him to take more musical risks. After being welcomed into a club he felt uncomfortable in, the Artist Falsely Known as Bonny Bear fully committed to one of the most surprising, artistically satisfying arcs in modern music.
There was no Grammy debate over 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago, a mega-acclaimed record full of heart-crushing acoustic ballads (“Skinny Love,” “Flume”) that wound up establishing Vernon as the figurehead of a new indie-folk movement. But fans who dug in into the deep cuts and engaged beyond Vernon’s weepy, wondrous falsetto encountered some experimental shit: the tension of the arrangement and tempo shifts on “Creature Fear,” the out-of-nowhere auto-tune on the slow build of “The Wolves (Act I And II)” and mysterious lyrics that seemed to fall between glossolalia and a misfired Google translation. (“Only love is all maroon / Gluey feathers on a flume / Sky is womb, and she’s the moon” sounds like poetry coming out of Vernon’s mouth. But when covered by art-rock icon Peter Gabriel, who’s penned his fair share of strange phrasings, “Flume”‘s chorus tumbled out of his mouth in clumsy bundles, as if he was trying to decipher it in real time.)
Vernon all but shattered that woodsy acoustic image on his follow-up EP, 2009’s Blood Bank: “Babys” hinges on an atmospheric piano chime, the title-track on a muted guitar strum; and then there’s the defining moment, “Woods,” which towers his voice into a multi-octave, auto-tuned choir of chirping and rumbling Vernons — a sound so striking, Kanye West cleverly repurposed the hook for his 2010 banger “Lost In The World.”
But when Grammy time rolled around in 2012, the boundary separating Vernon and Bon Iver became blurrier. His self-titled album expanded his music into a flowing, malleable full band sound that touched on art-rock (“Perth”), soft-rock (“Best/Rest”) and heavier, headier updates of For Emma folk (“Holocene”). As Bon Iver’s popularity grew, so did the liner notes: The album’s arrangements are loaded with detail—from dense woodwinds to synthesizers to double-drums. The starkness of his debut became a relic from a simpler time: Of the 17 songs he played during a headlining set at Bonnaroo 2012, only five were plucked from that LP.
But just as Vernon’s future felt limitless, he disappeared — unequipped to deal with his newfound celebrity. “I feel both blessed and cursed by the fact that I can do whatever I want at this point,” he told The New York Times in 2016. “I have more recognition than I had ever wanted to deal with.” In the same interview, he insisted that his expanded fame “didn’t change anything” about him, though it “did make [him] realize that there are people out there that really care about monetary success and recognition for the commodity that is music, like way more than I do.”
He battled anxiety, canceled a tour, and discovered a clearer mind through therapy. And during a hiatus from the Bon Iver brand, he reflected on his own reasons for writing music. Naturally, Vernon tore down the sound he’d organically built and started from scratch. The result was 2016’s 22, A Million — a radical about-face full of chopped-up electronica, wobbly hip-hop beats, left-field samples, loads of warped effects, and melted sax sections — if not for that unmistakable voice, fans may have wondered if Vernon had disappeared into that Grammy night stage after all.
But that difficult album, with its symbol-infused song titles and jarring production methods, felt like Vernon’s attempt to be born again — freed from cheap reference points, even within his own catalog. He’d shed old skin, and his latest project, i,i, is the culmination of this zig-zagging journey, tugging equally at all corners of his catalog: from tear-jerking anthems like “Hey Ma,” essentially a folk-soul tune remixed with blobby electronics and pitch-shifted samples, to the artful mess of “iMi,” a sprawl of folky fingerpicking, fractured white noise, sax chaos, and scrambled voices beaming out like sun rays.
The latter track defines Vernon’s evolution: It took five years, 11 writers, and over a dozen musicians (including James Blake and The National’s Aaron Dessner) to design its labyrinth latticework. He founded Bon Iver as a heartbroken dude in a cabin — now he’s more like a wise storyteller at a family reunion.
“When I started to make songs, I did it for the inherent reward of making songs,” he noted onstage at the 2012 Grammys. And that noble ethos has guided him up through this point. He could have pushed in his commercial chips and cranked out 100 more “Skinny Love’s” — maybe even landed an advisor spot on The Voice. But after that legendary Twitter moment, Bon Iver pivoted entirely. Vernon was “a little uncomfortable” up on that stage, so he vanished and, bravely, scurried somewhere new. The spotlight just happened to find him.