The Times recently spoke with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, whose 2011 album “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” was a critical favorite and won Grammys for Best Alternative Music Album and Best New Artist. Bon Iver plays Riverfest Amphitheatre at 7 p.m. June 3, with opening act The Staves.
How would you describe Eau Claire and the surrounding area to someone who’s never been to Wisconsin?
I think the longer you live in a place, the less equipped you are to accurately describe it. There’s 65,000 people, there’s a university, there’s a lot of music education, and it’s not big enough to have a continuing thriving music scene, but it pops up and down. It’s just a lot of hills and lakes and rivers. I don’t know, it’s home for me.
How has that place informed your art?
In every way imaginable I’d say. I grew up in the country and my studio is only two miles from the house I grew up in. I think there’s a general stillness out there. There’s no mountains or oceans, it’s just lakes and hills and small features, and I think there’s a sort of subdued Midwestern thing that perhaps my entire life has been engaged in.
You live there now, correct?
Are people cool about it or does it ever get weird? Do you get recognized around town?
I’ve been there long enough that it’s mostly cool. There might be some college kids that move into town that aren’t used to seeing me at the coffee shop or something, but it’s almost never weird, it’s pretty chill, and everyone doesn’t give a shit, kind of. They’re excited, but they know that it’s not some celebrity thing.
What was the first song you remember hearing that gave you goose bumps?
“Hello in There,” by John Prine.
You covered “Bruised Orange” right?
Big Prine fan?
Humongous. He’s the beginning of songwriting for me.
What was a song you heard recently that floored you?
Good question. All I’ve been listening to is like metal and shit lately. I’ve been listening to this band Liturgy, which I think is a really creative and emotive band. They’re probably my most listened-to band of late. And then a lot of strange Minneapolis bands, you know, Albert [Elmore], Moonstone Continuum and a lot of Minneapolis stuff I’m into. Poliça is probably the most listened-to of other bands.
They were here recently. I dug their tunes quite a bit.
Yeah, they’re fuckin’ awesome.
This is a variation on a question that a friend of mine asked when he was interviewing the chef Anthony Bourdain. He asked him if he would rather cook a great meal or eat a great meal. Would you rather play a great show or see a great show, and why?
Wow, that’s almost an impossible question. I would say that, being a musician, and now that I’ve realized that my life is sort of destined to create, I get that gift, to create. So I’d have to say that for the most part I’d rather be creating. But they go hand-in-hand. You don’t get to create if you don’t get to be taken aback by something or inspired by something. But if I had to inch out, I’d answer that I’d inch that way.
Does an artist owe anything to his fans?
I’m not sure. What do you mean?
It could be anything. Do you owe them another album? Do you owe them access? Honesty? Artists now can be more readily available and accessible by their fans than ever before, so maybe we could look at it from that angle.
I think the only thing that you truly owe a fan is to create what you want to create for yourself and if that overlaps with what the fans want to hear, great. But the death of art is that first step taken in that direction of trying to appease — and it’s true of anything in life, really — I think your first step toward appeasing a situation and appeasing something that isn’t necessarily bold truth or destiny, you’re headed in the wrong direction and it’s very hard to return the other way. So I think that’s the only thing that you really owe anybody. It’s hard with autographs and pictures and stuff. I’ll oblige somebody, you know? But it’s hard because I don’t really understand exactly what’s going on there. Do you know what I mean?
Sure. You feel like you’re just a dude?
Yeah, for sure. And I don’t feel that way, I am that. So that’s a strange thing to navigate.
You’ve said in the past that you learned a lot from working with Kanye West. What’s one specific thing that you learned from that experience?
Well, I think that the thing I’ve recognized about what skills I have most readily accessible is the ability to find good in other musicians. And working with Kanye and working with this producer out of Minneapolis, Ryan Olson, I think being around people like that, who are bringing people in that they not only enjoy but that they can steer in a direction of discovery of new music and help them down a creative path and creating camaraderie that way. I think that’s the biggest thing I learned from Kanye, is that the folks he had out there were all working on a Kanye record, but they were all being asked to give up themselves and express just what he liked about their own shit.
When you were recording the last album, what were you listening to and did any of it influence the record?
It’s kind of hard, whenever I was working on the record, because it was on and off for quite a long time, I find it hard to listen to stuff. But I would go off and do a Volcano Choir thing [Vernon’s collaboration with Collections of Colonies of Bees] or I’d go off and record with Kanye and on long plane rides and stuff, I guess I was mostly listening to James Blake. That was mostly what I listened to that winter. But the record took two and a half years to record, and so when I was working on it, I was in an insular space for a couple weeks at a time, so I wasn’t really listening to a lot of stuff.
So when you’re in that process, do you kind of shut out other things to focus solely on your own stuff?
Not on purpose, I just think it’s hard to jump out of that space and transition.
Outside of music gear, what are some of your tour essentials?
My iPod, that’s the obvious one. And then… I don’t know, that’s a good question. It’s mostly just shoes and pants and underwear and T-shirts (laughing).
Just the essentials?
Yeah, just the essentials. The rest is just sort of whatever. I just like getting to the gig early and starting to play the guitar or fucking around with something. It’s kind of like a constant vacation.
The iPhone helps, you can figure out where to go to eat and drink good coffee. That’s pretty essential.
Along the same lines, there’s often a lot of drinking that goes on on a tour. Do you have any unconventional or novel hangover remedies you’d care to discuss?
Usually it’s just eating as much breakfast/brunch style as possible. If it’s really bad, some bitters and soda.