Bon Iver is the name singer/songwriter Justin Vernon chose for his solo project when he retreated to a cabin in Wisconsin during 2006. He emerged from the isolation with an album — For Emma, Forever Ago — that became an indie folk touchstone. The gentle strumming of acoustic guitars, subtle arrangements, and Vernon’s swooning falsetto combined to create a mood that felt like backwoods Radiohead recorded by candlelight. It was a sound that resonated with a great many people, and Vernon became something of a bearded sensation — feted by outlets as diverse as Mojo and Late Night with David Letterman, and collaborating with Kanye West (the first of many hookups with hip-hop artists through the following years). For 2011′s Bon Iver, Vernon swung away from the hushed intimacy of the first LP in favor of a bigger, near-orchestral sound that had elements of late-night R&B as well. He then took a detour into jagged electronica on 2016′s 22, A Million before blending the various streams of the Bon Iver sound into a cohesive whole on 2019′s I, I, an album that featured almost 50 musicians.
The Bon Iver story begins with the breakup of Justin Vernon’s indie folk band DeYarmond Edison. Although formed in Wisconsin, the band had decamped to Raleigh, North Carolina before dissolving due to artistic differences. Vernon moved back to Wisconsin, setting up camp in a remote cabin in the north woods for three months. It was a hugely generative period for Vernon; he wrote and recorded introspective and emotionally wracked songs in 12-hour bursts and found himself with a nine-song debut album by spring. He dubbed the project Bon Iver (an intentional misspelling of the French phrase “bon hiver,” meaning “good winter”), and the disc, For Emma, Forever Ago, was released on Jagjaguwar in early 2008.
Joined in his live shows by Sean Carey, Vernon toured the eastern U.S. and Canada throughout the remainder of the year, sharing the stage with like-minded singer/songwriter Elvis Perkins. As the year progressed, the album became quite popular with both the buying public and critics, eventually landing on a number of “best-of 2008” year-end lists. In January 2009, Bon Iver returned with an EP of old and new songs titled Blood Bank. One of Vernon’s fans turned out to be Kanye West, who brought him to Hawaii later that year to add vocals to a couple tracks on West’s 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. When it came time to return to Vernon’s own music, he continued stretching his legs by composing orchestral, lushly arranged folk songs that turned their back on For Emma’s intimate sound. The new tunes were released the following summer as Bon Iver. It received generally positive reviews, topped the album charts in several countries, and hit number two in America. In February 2012, Bon Iver won two Grammy Awards: Best Alternative Album and Best New Artist.
After a year of touring, Vernon dropped a bombshell, stating in an interview that Bon Iver was “winding down” and he’d be working on other projects instead. The first of these was his blues-based group, the Shouting Matches, who played a set at 2013′s Coachella Festival. Later that year another of his bands, Volcano Choir, released their second album, Repave, and Vernon appeared on Kanye West’s Yeezus. It turned out that Bon Iver wasn’t as wound down as it seemed, and the project sporadically surfaced over the next couple years, with the band providing a cover of Peter Gabriel’s “Come Talk to Me” on the singer’s 2013 album And I'll Scratch Yours, and landing the new song “Heavenly Father” on the soundtrack to the 2014 film Wish I Was Here. After yet another statement saying that Bon Iver wasn’t working on anything new, the band appeared at the festival Vernon co-curated with the National’s Aaron Dessner, Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival, and performed two new songs.
Finally, in early 2016, Vernon went on record saying Bon Iver was actually still a going concern, and a new album was in the works. He also showed up on James Blake’s album The Colour in Anything in March, co-writing a song. At the 2016 Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival, held in August, Bon Iver played a set made up of all-new songs and the next day announced a new album, 22, A Million. It was released on Jagjaguwar in September 2016 and mostly eschewed Vernon’s beginnings in favor of a chopped-up, dramatic indie folktronica sound. 22, A Million was nominated for a 2017 Best Alternative Music Album Grammy Award.
Vernon and the Bon Iver live group (which consisted of Sean Carey, Matthew McCaughan, Mike Lewis, and Andrew Fitzpatrick) began introducing new songs into their concerts in 2018. They played a variety of festivals and shows, often accompanied by the dance troupe TU Dance. Meanwhile, Vernon and a very large cast of musicians and singers — who included Moses Sumney, Jenn Wasner, Bruce Hornsby, and James Blake — worked on an album that incorporated some of the electronic feel of 22, A Million while also reaching back to the full sound of the second Bon Iver album. After a short promotional run-up that included surprise releases and striking videos featuring members of TU Dance, I, I was released in August of 2019. It received Grammy nominations for Album of the Year and Best Alternative Music Album, as well as Record of the Year for the track “Hey, Ma.” 2021 saw Vernon team up with composer Nicholas Britell for the song “Second Nature,” which appeared on the soundtrack for the Adam McKay-directed film Don’t Look Up. ~ Tim Sendra