Our theme for the month of June is “Celebrities and Me.” Writers were asked to select and write about a celebrity with whom they feel some connection.
I’m gonna power through the self-parody that is choosing to write about indie-folk darling Bon Iver this month. As a Midwestern white guy with a liberal arts degree, denim jacket, patchy beard, and phone demos of unfinished songs, it’s a cliché that their debut album For Emma, Forever Ago means something to me. Its origins have become mythology—following the breakup of a relationship and a band, a mysteriously ill musician named Justin Vernon sequesters himself in an old hunting cabin in the Wisconsin woods. After a long winter, he emerges with a cryptic text. It’s a fireside folk album, but insulated with lots of texture—sprinkles of field recordings, autotune, whispery scratchy string noodling and tape machine tricks.
In high school, I was first enamored with folk music by Sufjan Stevens’s Seven Swans, The Head & The Heart, and The Oh Hellos—stories that are heartbreakingly specific, or anthemic, liturgical, or otherwise intimately lyric-forward. In college I wrote a paper about gibberish in music and stumbled on an interview with Vernon following For Emma, revealing an unexpected writing process:
I still had all these things on my mind that had been unexpressed, like un-extracted, I guess you’d say. I’d record a line … then I’d go back and listen to them about twenty times and write down what I thought I heard. It would be different every time. I compiled them and, at the end, it was very interesting for me; it was very freeing. I found all this shit, all this grudge and meaning in what I was singing, these syllables. … Good lyricists are also people who just put words in good order ’cause they sound good together. So I was able to do all that completely unhinged, instead of having to make words that rhyme or whatever, and I was able to get lyrics that were born and meaningful to me in a way that was distant and new.
Mumbling a melody is a basic songwriting practice across all genres, especially rap, but I like how rather than replacing it as a placeholder, Vernon interprets it as a source. The sense it makes then is only in retrospect. Still, by preserving the singable sounds first, the lyrics are consistently rich with internal rhymes, assonance, and homophonic misdirects. A lot of lines sound drunk, or like an almost-there translation. He’s relying on the human compulsion to make meaning and find patterns rather than to articulate. The lyrics aren’t mindblowing, but this particular way of listening and interpreting is interesting to me—especially in a genre typically so dependent on lyrical meaning and message.
Following For Emma’s unexpected success, Vernon could’ve tried to extract more solo folk records. Instead, each follow-up has drastically, almost unrecognizably reinvented the project’s sound. But throughout, the lyrics have retained this same flavor. Recently, cryptic and playful album art and lyric videos have doubled down on a similar approach. But what “Bon Iver” even refers to has grown the most dramatically, from a single man bedridden in a cabin, to a stage-cluttering band, to a fluid and self-effacing art collective. The group’s most recent album i,i is an argument for dissolving self-involved expression into community responsibility. Despite collaging the group’s largest palette of collaborators yet, it also features Vernon’s most straightforward vocal performances.
I guess I’m sorry regarding our month’s theme—I’m not really sure how this connects to me. It’s just some trivia I like to share. For a while now, I’ve similarly been unable or unmotivated to articulate much of anything. Writing, a page or a song, used to be the biggest way I processed. I started writing for the post calvin accustomed to having Opinions and/or Anecdotes for which I desired a Platform. That conceit has become indefensible to me and feels silly, but it’s also become untrue. Music like Bon Iver’s, then and since, provides me with a map when there’s nothing to say: listen to yourself. Then listen to those around you. “Everything that happens is from now on.”