If cocooning yourself in a woodshed in the middle of Wisconsin’s nowhere just to write heart-on-sleeve songs about a lost relationship is any indication of Justin Vernon’s proclivity to solitude, then his self-exile from the music scene in 2012 shouldn’t come as a surprise. Four years later, though, and the lead singer of Bon Iver is back.
The indie folk band are launching into an Asian tour this year – and Singapore is one of their stops (we should be so lucky). Before he takes The Star Theatre stage, we speak to Vernon about his hiatus, winning a Grammy and getting the band back together.
This is your first time playing in Singapore. What are you most looking forward to?
Well, you tell me! We’re very excited. I’m from a really small town in Wisconsin so I’ve never been to that whole half of the world. Everything is going to be really new to us. We’re really excited to come play for folks who have wanted to hear our music for a while.
And what do you expect Singapore to be like?
Man, I don’t have many friends who have been, so I’m the one being asked what everyone back home should do in Singapore. We’re going to have some people bringing us around the place and I’m looking forward to it.
'Everyone knows each other and works together really well and I’m able to go from one band to the next.'
Why did you take a break and what was your main take away from it?
I haven’t taken away too much from it, to be honest. It turns out I’d rather be busy. I needed to take a break because I’m not so keen on all the attention. I really like my music but it started to build up on me. I needed a break from that, but I’ve been really hungry to play again.
Your latest release was five years ago – when’s the next one?
No plans right now. I’ve been in a non-planning zone for a couple years. [I’m] just putting the planning shoes back on.
How do you split your time between your other projects, namely Volcano Choir, The Shouting Matches and Gayngs?
All my bandmates, my bands, my labels and my managers, they’re all very flexible. Everyone knows each other and works together really well and I’m able to go from one band to the next. Everybody takes care of everything and the scheduling is pretty easy. Like, ‘Do you guys want to spend a few weeks together here? Great, do that.’ It’s very organic.
'I think that the Grammys is a disconcerting effort at vanity. It’s a little bit self-important, but I was very honoured because people have to vote for those things.'
All your bands are based in Wisconsin, and there’s a strong sense of place in For Emma, Forever Ago. How much of your music is inspired by the state?
You think about a song, and for me, so many different things inspire it. It’s kind of hard to say. But I’m very inspired because I grew up in the countryside that’s a part of it.
Do you consider Bon Iver winning a Grammy for Best New Artist in 2012 a win for indie music in general?
Yeah, I think it’s cool, but [music doesn’t] necessarily have to come up on the radio and through the big companies [to be] successful. In general, I think that the Grammys is a disconcerting effort at vanity. It’s a little bit self-important, but I was very honoured because people have to vote for those things. My friends have told me that I should be proud, and I understand that.
How did things change for you after winning the Grammy, and is that why you went on a hiatus?
We were steadily growing as a band in terms of how many people were checking us out, but nothing really changed. Nothing really blew up. Maybe it’s [because] for the past seven years, things had been steadily blowing up for me, in very small steady explosions, and then all of a sudden, I realised what had happened. The Grammys was at the end of it when I was like, I don’t know what is going on here, I never thought these things would happen.
You’ve said that the attention around Bon Iver can be distracting. What about the attention surrounding you as a person – does that ever affect your music or your performances?
Oh yeah, it’s hard when you’re working on music. It definitely affects [me] when you’re not sure – you love music, you love people, you even love playing music for people. Have you ever been at a birthday party for you and there are too many people talking to you and they all love you and are important to you? But they are all talking to you about you the whole time. It feels out of balance.
You launched Chigliak Records in 2012, and you initially said you wanted to put out albums that ‘were never commercially released’ or ‘locally released and never put out on vinyl’. Why this direction?
I don’t know how to run a record label, [but] one of my favourite things about records is that it can be the biggest in the world and it can be something shared between friends. Or it can be, like, no one has heard this record. Maybe 50 people have heard it and it changed their lives. I just think that not enough people are talking about the records that have changed their lives.
What kind of state are you usually in at the end of your tours?
I can never really put into words how weird it is to be on tour. It’s like time travel. For me, I get kind of sad because I play the shows and meet all these people and they’re there to see the thing that you care about, but you don’t get to hang out with them, and then you’re on to the next city. I feel like the connection to that place is very small. The saddest part of it is that you can’t be everywhere for everyone. You want to just hang out with people, y’know?