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Justin Vernon shares the stories behind Bon Iver’s new album ’22, A Million’

Justin Vernon speaks at a press conference at the Oxbow Hotel in Eau Claire (Photo by Graham Tolbert)

22, A Million is an album that did not come easy for Justin Vernon, the self-described “maker” of the latest work from Bon Iver. When the relentless promotion, touring, and general hoopla surrounding the band’s last album, 2011’s Grammy-winning Bon Iver, Bon Iver, finally died down, Vernon found himself burnt out and paralyzed by anxieties. The process of making another Bon Iver album required him to not only re-evaluate what he needed to center himself amid the tumult of the hype machine; it also gave him the push he needed to figure out a whole new way to make music.

In a wide-ranging, hour and 40-minute conversation with members of the press on Friday night, Vernon dove deep into the frustrations, trials, and triumphs he’s experienced over these past few years, and the epiphanies that led to the challenging, complex songs on 22, A Million. Seated at a table on stage at the soon-to-open Oxbow Hotel like a basketball player at a post-show press conference, Vernon fielded questions from 26 journalists who had traveled to his hometown from Germany, Japan, Australia, Mexico, Canada, Minneapolis, and throughout the Chippewa Valley.

“I’m so nervous. The most nervous I’ve ever been, maybe,” Vernon said, laughing to himself. Before the event began, his team handed out hand-written notes from Vernon explaining that it was a chance “to try something different with us, maybe even a little better.”

“Sitting in a room and talking to journalists for so many weeks on end throughout the years, it just didn’t work for me,” he explained on stage. “And I couldn’t hear myself talk that much about something like a music-song. There’s so many things going on in the world, and these are just the music-songs I made. Why do we have to talk about it a bunch of times?”

He often refers to his art in this way: music-songs. Like they are just little bitty things, not to be taken too seriously. One gets the sense he’s been thinking a lot about where he fits into the larger world, as many of us in our mid-thirties are wont to do. “I think I’ve become more and more aware how minute our existences are,” he says at one point, unprompted. “We are in a room right now talking about music, and that is both ridiculous and amazing. It’s so ‘unnecessary’ and yet so necessary.”

Try as he might to diminish the importance of talking about his work, the fact is that Bon Iver’s new album is feverishly anticipated.

No one could have predicted the breakout success of Bon Iver’s debut, For Emma, Forever Ago. I still remember getting the cardboard promo copy in the mail along with a dozen other things, then watching in awe when only six months later he was selling out the Turf Club and then First Avenue and rendering audiences silent with his spare arrangements and holy, hair-raising falsetto voice. Bon Iver, Bon Iver was a natural progression both in terms of musical evolution and acclaim, and soon Vernon was being called upon to collaborate with one of the biggest names in hip-hop, Kanye West, and was being impersonated by Justin Timberlake on Saturday Night Live. For better or worse, he had gone mainstream.

With a five-year gap between albums, fans have been clamoring for something, anything new from Bon Iver. At its essence, 22, A Million is Vernon’s way of grappling with the endless gulf that exists between the place he’s carved out for himself in Eau Claire, making music-songs, and the nameless, faceless sea of fans that are out there grasping for more, more, more.

Help me OP-1, you’re my only hope

Every artist needs a muse. Vernon’s just happens to be a robot.

To be more specific, it’s a tiny all-in-one synthesizer, sampler, and sequencer called the OP-1. Because it’s so small, Vernon has gotten into the habit of bringing it everywhere, and he uses it to capture and mix up little segments of songs he loves, the sounds of his local radio station, snippets of melodies, and other random noises that might make their way into his songs.

When he was at a particularly low point a few years ago, riddled with anxiety and fluctuating between panic and boredom, it was the OP-1 that helped to capture a small spark that would eventually ignite 22, A Million.

“Don’t go to the Greek Islands off-season, by yourself. I was trying to find myself. Did not,” he says, scoffing. As he roamed the streets of a deserted island town alone, fending off another bout of panic, he found himself humming the phrase ‘It might be over soon’ — “like this feeling might be over,” he explains. “And I got back and sang some improvisation into the OP-1, and when you chopped up part of the sample it sounded like it was ‘two, two,’ and 22 is my favorite number. I’ve always thought that it reminded me of a duality, like a paradox.”

“So that was kind of the beginning of that. And really it was still months until I had any other song ideas, so it was really annoying to have to listen to those 11 seconds of sampled music for that amount of time, but that’s when I figured out that the album was going to be numbers, and 22 is my thing, and it kind of grew from there.”

You can hear the alienation and loneliness that Vernon describes on 22, A Million. Even the title paints a picture of the few vs. the many. “Honey, understand that I’ve been left out here in the reeds,” he cries in the confessional “715 (Creeks),” pleading for his subject to, “Turn around, you’re my A Team / God damn turn around now, you’re my A Team.”

As Vernon tells the story about his Greek island meltdown, I can’t help but think back on all the mythology surrounding his debut album and the story of him retreating to his cabin in the woods to confront his sadness and crystallize it in song. This time around, the solitude he sought only caused more anxiety; finding a way forward was going to require a more proactive approach — not to mention calling on a whole bunch of his talented friends.

“Me and [producer] BJ Burton had this drum loop, and it just sounded broken-down, and messed up, a little bit. And personally, what I was going through, and what I’ve found other people are going through is a lot of anxiety, things like that. And that for me got me up out of my seat and made me want to break it down. And crush something, or do something that was aggressive sounding. So I think that was the moment I knew where I kind of needed to go.”

“We made an instrument”

“I have this friend Francis Starlite, and he was staying at my house for a good year. He’s a really awesome musician,” Vernon says. “I saw him doing this thing with Harmony Engine, it’s a plug-in; I basically saw him taking a trumpet line and playing it, but he was kind of doing it after the fact. Instead of playing and recording it, he made it sound like a bunch more. And I just was like, holy cow. That is amazing. That’s really cool.”

Also referred to as Prismizer, the technology has spread from Francis and the Lights’ solo material to a song Francis created for Chance the Rapper’s red-hot mixtape Coloring Book; the single Francis made with Vernon and Kanye, “Friends”; and Frank Ocean’s new album Blonde.

Vernon was eager to take the tool one step further.

“I was talking with Chris Messina, the man that makes April Base go, and my confidant basically this entire record process — we were just talking about setting up new toys and trying to find new zones, trying not to get stuck in any sort of technological toilet bowl-circling situation. And I was just like, ‘Let’s try that out,'” Vernon says. “And he was probably like, ‘Oh god, now I have to figure out how to do that.’ And he really did. When we figured that out, he got all the gear to make it work, I was like, ‘We’re calling this the Messina!'”

“The Messina” contraption is a rare occurrence in today’s ProTools-oriented production world. Rather than record an instrument or voice into a computer and manipulate the audio file in post-production, Vernon and Messina have figured out a way to split a melody into several harmonies on the fly, giving the player the ability to change the chords and arrangement in real time. The Messina is all over 22, A Million, but its abilities are heard most distinctly in the mind-bending saxophone spinout on “45,” the second-to-last track on the album. Michael Lewis’s free-form sax lines bend and slip in and out of time as Vernon arranges them into gospel chord changes, and it sounds like Lewis’s playing is a ribbon that Vernon is picking up and zig-zagging through the air. The effect is staggering.

“The ’45’ song with Lewis, that’s my favorite,” Vernon says. “We made an instrument. Messina and Francis helped make this instrument, and everyone before that — [talk box innovator] Robert Troutman, who did the most amazing vocoding in the world. We all made an instrument together. And then me and Lewis, the instrument we were playing was only possible to play as two people, and it was just us making music as freely as humanly possible. When we made that recording, I played it for my friend Brad Cook, and he was like, ‘Just put that out. That is the best song you’ve ever made.'”

It wasn’t the last time Vernon would need the help of his A Team to finish 22, A Million.

“I almost quit on it. In January of this year, I kind of hung the album up. Because it was just kind of convoluted. There’s a lot of stuff going on; it’s very dense. [I was] sort of tired of it, and tired of myself, like why are you trying so hard. And my friend Ryan Olson just kind of slapped me and said ‘nuh-uh.’ And he basically sat next to me and virtually held my hand through the entire process of finishing the album. To me, personally, that’s my favorite part of the album – that moment, the last six months, of him coming and picking his friend up.”

Burnout to breakthrough

Now that the album is finished and ready to be released (22, A Million is out September 30 on Jagjaguwar), Vernon is making an intentional effort to stay out in front of the demands of his fame, exercising a new level of control over what corporate types might call his work-life balance.

“Every friend that I have that gets a record deal and gets to go out on tour, they just go. And we went. And almost all of them hit a wall of some kind or another,” he says. “You can’t just go and be everywhere. To be in demand is a wonderful thing, because you get to do what you love for a long time. But if you just go and you’re not replenishing yourself with reasons to make music, or you’re not necessarily figuring out ways to change the music you have, you burn out on that.

“One of the things I’m trying to do is to not go on tour so constantly that I’m like, ‘I’m never going on tour ever again.’ I’d like to liken it to just pushing a ball down a street, rather than pushing a pick-up truck up a hill or going down in an avalanche. And also to understand that there’s other things in life. I like to do the band and the project a lot, but I’d like it to not ever feel like it’s the only thing in my life, because that will make the project better.

“For me, it’s not embarrassing, but the old records are of this kind of sad nature — I was healing myself through that stuff. And being sad about something is okay. And then wallowing in it, circling the same cycles emotionally just feels boring. For this one, there’s still some dark stuff and whatever, but I think cracking things, making things that are bombastic and exciting and also new, and mashing things together, and explosiveness and kind of shouting more — I think that was more of the zone. Shouting. Whispering was the thing, maybe, before. And maybe next time will be [grabs the mic and growls], maybe some black metal sh*t.”

For more on Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, listen to all the songs sampled on the album, from Mahalia Jackson to Paolo Nutini and Sharon Van Etten.

Update: As of October 27, 2016, the Bon Iver team have shared the entire video of the press conference described above.