Local Current Blog

2016 in Review: Justin Vernon and the power of friends

Bon Iver at Eaux Claires 2016. Photo by Nate Ryan/MPR.

Looking back at 2016, the Local Current blog team are putting together a series of features on the year’s defining trends. When we think of 2016 in local music, what sticks out? Here, Cecilia Johnson reflects on the forces behind Bon Iver’s banner year.

Any good Bon Iver mythologist would tell you that debut album For Emma, Forever Ago was born in the secluded Wisconsin woods. The album came to life in a quiet cabin, created and controlled by Justin Vernon only. They’d be right. But that was 2007, and this is now; since Bon Iver’s debut, Vernon has become better known for his collaborative spirit and broad network than for the work he does solo. By working with his friends, inviting collaborators into his world, and putting enormous effect into his music, this year, Vernon is no longer a bastion of solitude but rather a centerpiece — almost a community organizer — of music in the Midwest.

Bon Iver (Vernon, Sean Carey, Matthew McCaughan, Michael Lewis, and Andrew Fitzpatrick) released their third album, 22, A Million, in September, and its lovely brokenness has landed it in many a listener’s heart. Since the album’s live debut at Eaux Claires 2016, it was rolled out via open-air listening parties and finally an international release. The notoriously stringent Pitchfork gave it a 9 out of 10.

But here’s the thing: it’s not just Bon Iver who have enjoyed critical acclaim and wild popularity. Fans will have noticed certain names popping up in connection to Justin Vernon: BJ Burton, Francis and the Lights, the Staves. Each of these collaborators have also generally enjoyed a boost. For example: Francis and the Lights, a man who went from near-anonymity at Eaux Claires 2015 to widespread media coverage. This year, he released a song called “Friends” (spliced from the same DNA as Chance The Rapper’s song “Summer Friends”) with Vernon and Kanye West. His album Farewell, Starlite! came out on the same day that he opened for Chance, Kanye, and various other artists in Chicago. Francis was working with Vernon all along; he helped Vernon and engineer Chris Messina invent an “instrument” called the Messina, melody-splitting software that blankets 22, A Million.

The collaborative groundwork was all laid with Vernon’s previous projects — especially (soon-to-reemerge?) supergroup Gayngs. Masterminded by Twin Cities producer Ryan Olson (Marijuana Deathsquads, Poliça) and Solid Gold members Zach Coulter and Adam Hurlburt, Gayngs brought together around two dozen artists from various backgrounds, culminating in an album called Relayted. “It wasn’t like there was some grand plan to create a 24-piece band,” Olson told Paste in 2010. But the group grew as more and more friends entered the picture.

Also, Vernon has hosted various artists at his April Base studio for years. English band the Staves recorded If I Was (2015) at April Base outside of Eau Claire, commuting from the U.K. to the United States’ Midwest. This summer, after bonding with Vernon and friends and playing both Eaux Claires festivals, they up and moved to Minneapolis. According to vocalist/ukulelist Camilla Stavely-Taylor, “We feel a wild amount of affection toward the Midwest.” They say they never would have discovered the region if it wasn’t for the music within.

Vernon’s work is the lynchpin of this whole operation. He’s collaborated with old friends for many years, working on either side of the curtain to further others’ projects. But the momentum of both Eaux Claires and 22, A Million is what gave Vernon the muscle to take his ethos international. On the day 22, A Million came out, he was in Berlin with 85 other musicians — who Pitchfork notes were also “85 of his closest friends.” Several hailed from the Midwest (Olson, Poliça’s Channy Leaneagh, the Staves); several came from other parts of the U.S. (Shara Nova of My Brightest Diamond, Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National); many were able to go because they lived in or near Germany (Woodkid, Boys Noize, Trever Hagen).

Before he even conceptualized 22, A Million, Vernon tried to return to solitude, embarking on a solo trip to Greece. He told the whole story at his Oxbow Hotel press conference on Sept. 2: “I was trying to find myself. Did not.” He agonized instead, wandering the islands accompanied by awful anxiety. Only Ryan Olson eventually pushed him into finishing the album. In her coverage of the press conference, Andrea Swensson put it best: “This time around, the solitude [Vernon] 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.

For as long as the Twin Cities and Eau Claire have both supported tight-knit music scenes, this friendship-sustained sea change has shifted the way locals think about music — and how outsiders think about the Midwest. Vernon and Bon Iver’s story of 2016 is so much more than a comeback album. It’s an ideology; an art-minded community; a festival when Eaux Claires is in session and even when it’s not. Performing with Bon Iver at Eaux Claires 2015, Vernon said, “If you don’t have friendship, you don’t have anything. Is there anything greater than us?”