If you watched the Grammys last night you probably noticed that Bon Iver won for Best New Artist. But here’s some breaking news: Bon Iver is hardly a new artist. As someone who’s been listening to Bon Iver since the release of their debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago in 2008, I’m hear to tell you not only are they not new, but they’re phenomenal.
Justin Vernon is pretty much the mastermind behind Bon Iver (pronounced “bonne hiver” which is French for “good winter.”) It was after a breakup (isn’t it always?) and while sick with mononucleosis that Vernon left Raleigh, NC where he was living at the time to hide out in the woods of northwestern Wisconsin. While recuperating from the events of the past year and watching too many DVDs of Northern Exposure, his first album evolved. It was not his intention to record an album at the time, but as he tried to mend his broken heart and sick body, the lyrics and music just poured from him. He played all the instruments during the recording and wrote every single word, then released the record independently in July of 2007.
Between July and October of that year, Vernon gathered up fellow musicians Michael Noyce, Sean Carey and Matthew McCaughan so he could play live performances. After playing several venues during the CMJ Music Marathon in New York City that year, Bon Iver eventually signed to the independent label Jagjaguwar. It was re-released in February of 2008 under the Jagjaguwar name and became critically acclaimed by music critics and fans alike.
From 2008 to 2011, Bon Iver toured endlessly and made appearances on most of the late night shows. Their music was popping up on TV shows and in 2010 Vernon even worked on a collaboration with Kanye West. In June of 2011, they released the eponymously titled Bon Iver, which again was heralded as a work of art, with some critics saying it was even better than the first album. Then last night Vernon and his buddies won for Best New Artist. Leave it to the Grammys to be totally clueless about music that extends outside of commercial radio.
Vernon’s writing is a glimpse into a complicated relationship that drove him from his home and forced him into a cabin in the middle of nowhere just to come out the other side a better person for having experienced that loss. With each perfectly placed word that’s wrapped in a gorgeous melody, he is honest and compelling in the way he goes about evoking emotion from his audience. Similar to Adele, Vernon is proof that sometimes your heart needs a good trampling if you’re going to grow and create something that others will remember.
Watch Bon Iver play “Skinny Love” at Glastonbury in June 2009. I dare you not to get teary eyed.