Return to the River: Justin Vernon Talks Eaux Claires

Eric Christenson, photos by Lee Butterworth, Luong Huynh

Justin Vernon during Bon Iver's closing set at Eau Claires 2015. Photo: Lee Butterworth
Justin Vernon during Bon Iver's closing set at Eaux Claires 2015. Photo: Lee Butterworth

Since he debuted the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival last summer, Justin Vernon has kept busy.

He’s helped shape the vision for a new hotel in Eau Claire called The Oxbow, collaborated on new tracks with big name musician pals like James Blake and Kanye West, and played four unforgettable nights at the Sydney Opera House with Bon Iver – all while planning and keeping the gears turning on Eaux Claires year two.

"We want other artists to see this festival as an opportunity to do something big. Not big, necessarily, but just special. We want to view it as a platform to think outside the box a little bit.” – Justin Vernon

The Sydney shows were especially magical – a collection of tunes with longtime friends and close collaborators going for big sounds, lighting up an ornately designed show, and firing on all cylinders. Maybe it felt like those four shows in that historic place were punctuating everything Bon Iver has become in the last decade, or maybe it was just a moment. For Vernon, it seems like moments like that are happening more and more all around him – moments where people are all in one place. Together. Taking it all in.

“The ripples from those shows won’t be leaving us any time soon,” Vernon said.

It’s easy to see that Vernon and his team of curators want to bring that vibe to their homegrown festival: Bring everyone together for an enormous shared experience surrounded by art, music, and community, and you just might procure something quite meaningful.

And now, on the brink of year two for Eaux Claires, the stage is set for some truly one-of-a-kind performances to resonate in our little Valley.

Photo: Lee Butterworth
Photo: Lee Butterworth

“We realized we created a really huge wave with year one – and I think we’re still on the way up on this trajectory,” Vernon said. “We filled (this year’s lineup) to the brim. It’s gonna be a really explosive year.”

When we finally caught up with Vernon to chat about this year’s festival, all his other responsibilities were behind him, and he was pretty much solely focused on rehearsing for the Bon Iver set on Friday night, where he said the band is playing a set of entirely new music. It’s a cool opportunity to debut these songs in his hometown among family, neighbors, and friends, instead of a crowd of strangers or faceless screen-names on the Internet.

“I know the music will do a good job, but I have no idea what it’s going to feel like,” he said. “But that’s what we want to do here. We want other artists to see this festival as an opportunity to do something big. Not big, necessarily, but just special. We want to view it as a platform to think outside the box a little bit.”

Photo: Luong Huynh
Photo: Luong Huynh

And that’s exactly what’s happening this year. It can’t possibly get any bigger than Day Of The Dead, where some of indie rock’s most elite players come together for a truly epic Grateful Dead tribute set. Phil Cook has big things planned for his Southland Revue, a celebration of the American songbook and its traditional roots with a star-studded lineup of guests and friends joining him. Artists from all over this Earth are taking to the Eaux Claires stages to debut new stuff, experiment, collaborate, play around, and try bigger things. That’s a pretty rare thing.

“We’re at a point of change. We’re changing chemically as a city right now; there’s no doubt about it. We’re gathering momentum, and where that momentum needs to be pointed is an increase in the amount of people allowed to make art in this city and platforms for those things to happen.”

“Every year is gonna be different,” Vernon said. “It’s not interesting if you just stay the same. It’s all about supplying artists with platforms to do amazing stuff.”

With an impressive and massive slate of visual and performance arts to match the vast rundown of groundbreaking musical performances, the experience of being there on the grounds, soaking it all in, is bigger than any one performance alone.

And it’s all happening here, right here. Right in our backyard. Right along our river. And the festival has already resonated in major ways. Eau Claire is a much different place than it was a year ago, and it’ll be a much different place next year, blossoming exponentially year after year.

Photo: Luong Huynh
Photo: Luong Huynh

“We’re at a point of change. We’re changing chemically as a city right now; there’s no doubt about it,” Vernon said. “We’re gathering momentum, and where that momentum needs to be pointed is an increase in the amount of people allowed to make art in this city and platforms for those things to happen.”

Vernon said it takes a little inspiration, a lot of friends, and a sharp willingness to think outside the box to make something like Eaux Claires possible. In the last ten years, he’s done and seen a lot on this crazy musical adventure of his. He’s had opportunities and experiences that a lot of locals could only dream of, and he said if he can bring even a slice of those experiences back to his beloved city through this festival, that could be a significant step in evolving the vibrant culture in Eau Claire into something beautiful, healthy, and one-of-a-kind.

“It’s like taking a little bit of what I’ve seen around the world that I didn’t get to see growing up here, and bringing it here, bringing that into what we have here, our culture,” Vernon said. “Culturally, this is a wonderful place to grow up, but there’s no way we can’t make it better. Art and music are really powerful ways to do that kind of stuff.”

The Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival runs August 12 and 13 at the festival grounds southwest of Eau Claire. For more information and last minute tickets, go to www.eauxclaires.com

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