Anywhere from Here

Bon Iver's Justin Vernon is championing the Chippewa Valley with every climbing step.

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by Ken Szymanski photos by Drew Kaiser

We’re on the map. Local singer-songwriter and 1999 Memorial High School graduate Justin Vernon hit pay dirt with his Bon Iver (pronounced bone-eee-vair) debut, For Emma, Forever Ago. With a landslide of critical acclaim, international tours, late-night talk shows, and splashy magazine spreads, Bon Iver is a homegrown success story that’s just beginning to unfold. From his days in local bands Mount Vernon and DeYarmond Edison, Justin’s roots here run deep, and he’s championing the Chippewa Valley with every climbing step.

    Every time I interview Justin Vernon, we both have the same flashback. In 1999, I was excited to be interviewing a band for the first time, to take the step beyond concert reviews and explore the mysterious inner workings and group dynamics of musicians. It was my way of getting closer to the music I loved – kind of like the way I tried working my way to the front row at my first concert. This was the kind of article I had in mind ever since I joined my junior high school newspaper. Even though Mount Vernon was “only” a local high school band, it was a popular draw for adults like myself at The Metro (even though none of the nine members, including Justin, were old enough to enter the place as patrons). With ten of us crowded in the Vernon family living room, I hit the “record” button and tried to lower expectations with a disclaimer. “I’ll be completely honest,” I confessed. “I don’t really know how to do this. I’ve never interviewed a band before.”

    They all laughed and shouted: “We’ve never been interviewed before!”

    So there was a lot of grinning going on. I was a 28-year-old South Middle School English teacher moonlighting as a journalist; they were high school seniors moonlighting in a band. All of us were treading excitedly into the modest dream of making the local paper.

    Now with worldwide critical acclaim on his debut CD with his Bon Iver creation and the cross-continental tours, I almost didn’t expect Justin to have time to talk to a local rag anymore. I was assured – through his manager this time – that he was excited. It took awhile to set up a time, but we worked out a meeting for late October at Racy D’Lenes Coffee Shop.

    Justin showed up looking scruffy and happy – different than the road-bleary/interview-weary touring musician I was expecting. Over an hour-long chat, we discussed touring life, his past in Eau Claire, the search for his artistic path, the fine lines involved with licensing his music, and future plans. It was our fifth formal interview, and they’ve all had the same ease about them. Showing no signs of interview-fatigue, Justin still likes to talk about music and wrestle with questions. As much as I’ve enjoyed watching him grow as an artist and receive so many accolades, I was relieved to find him still the same.

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