So, first things first: Bon Iver is not a “he.” It’s the stage name adopted by solitary Eau Claire, Wisconsin, folkie Justin Vernon in 2007, after he shut himself into a rural hunting cabin that year to record what would become his band’s acclaimed 2008 debut, For Emma, Forever Ago.
And the reason he’s on everyone’s lips now is that his second pastoral album — a self-titled effort that earned rave reviews for its Beach Boys harmonies-meet-falsetto English folk lullabies — got unexpected nominations for a quartet of major Grammy Awards on Wednesday night.
His gently undulating “Holocene” is up for Record and Song of the Year, and the relatively unknown-to-the-general-public singer is up against such pop acts as the Band Perry, J. Cole, Nicki Minaj and Skrillex for Best New Artist. (He also got a nod for Best Alternative Music Album.)
Yes, Bon Iver debuted at #2 in June on sales of just under 104,000, but his total album sales to date (just over 304,000) equal the units shifted by Adele every two weeks in the U.S.
So here’s a brief primer on the mysterious Mr. Vernon: The former All-State high school football star and World Religion college major began his career playing in the jazzy party band Mount Vernon, which transitioned into DeYarmond Edison, formed with some old high school pals who all moved to North Carolina in 2005 to spread their musical wings. A year later, things fell apart with his band and his girlfriend, just as he was laid low by a vicious bout of mono, driving Vernon back to Eau Claire for some physical and psychic healing.
He holed up in isolation in a deer-hunting log cabin built by his dad in the woods in Northwestern Wisconsin and began writing the high and lonesome songs that would become For Emma. After months spent drinking and watching “Northern Exposure” DVDs, he alighted on the name Bon Iver, which is a French phrase used as a greeting in the show that translates to “good winter.”
The tunes he recorded were intended as a demo, but once they got some blog love, he was signed to indie Jagjaguwar, and For Emma was released in May 2008. The album became an indie sensation, and its mix of acoustic folk and manipulated, Auto-Tuned vocals not only landed him on the “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” soundtrack , but also on a number of songs from Kanye West’s Grammy-nominated My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Even as his star was rising, Vernon kept collaborating with a number of other artists, lending his voice to the indie supergroup Gayngs, playing in the side project Volcano Choir and hooking up with English singer James Blake recently on the song “Fall Creek Boys Choir.”
Bon Iver continued to be his main focus, so Vernon built his own cabin to record his self-titled project, again just outside of Eau Claire, turning what used to be an indoor pool into a recording studio where he tracked the songs mostly by himself. (The live version of the band includes a drummer, guitarist and bassist.) The denser, 10-track album featured help from a number of collaborators, including renowned session player and pedal steel maestro Greg Leisz, as well as a number of percussionists and horn and string players.
Which brings us to his Grammy triumph. It’s hard to say if Vernon’s nominations are a further example of the youth the Recording Academy is trying to inject into the sometimes-staid awards or if the younger members of the Academy are slowly but surely beginning to pull their weight and check boxes for more of their own. But much like Arcade Fire’s unanticipated leapfrog over Eminem at last year’s Grammys to take the Album of the Year honors, come February 12, Vernon has a shot at becoming one of the biggest outsider artists to ever crash music’s big night.
Do you think Bon Iver will take home some gold at the Grammys? Let us know in comments below.