Like [artist id=”1802187″]Arcade Fire[/artist]’s surprise Album of the Year win at last year’s Grammys, Bon Iver taking home Best New Artist on Sunday night (February 12) over more established artists like Nicki Minaj was bound to raise a few eyebrows. When you asked “Who are Arcade Fire?” in 2012, we had you covered, and we’ve been following Wisconsin singer Justin Vernon (the man behind Bon Iver) for quite some time — long before he snagged BNA and Best Alternative Album at this year’s ceremony.
Quite the pleasant surprise for the under-the-radar folk singer, who recently became the face of a Bushmills whiskey ad to boot. Bon Iver’s second, self-titled disc was released in early 2011 but is still clearly getting the attention it deserves. He may have made a few public derogatory comments about the Grammy Awards ceremony itself, but that didn’t sway the voters or the singer from showing up.
To put his “underground” status into perspective: Bon Iver debuted at #2 in June 2011 on sales of just under 104,000, but its total album sales to date (just over 357,000) are nothing compared to a powerhouse-seller like Adele’s 21.
A helpful primer on Justin Vernon/ Bon Iver: 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.