Ten years ago Justin Vernon earned an All-Conference honorable mention for the Eau Claire Memorial high school football team. Now, performing as Bon Iver, he's become the leading Wisconsin music story of 2008. The Boston Globe, New York Times and Spin have all written about him. Pitchfork heaped praise on his debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago.
You might think an Eau Claire native who suddenly achieves indie rock stardom would be tempted to move to Brooklyn, Seattle or at least Minneapolis. But Vernon just bought a modest house in his hometown. He has said he loves Wisconsin and has no plans to leave it.
In fact, the setting that inspired Bon Iver's acclaimed debut was his father's rustic hunting cabin located in the northwestern Wisconsin woods. It was the place where Vernon took refuge after spending nearly two years in Raleigh, N.C., with his previous band, DeYarmond Edison.
Vernon left Raleigh physically and emotionally depleted. He'd just broken up with his girlfriend and contracted a form of mononucleosis that attacked his liver. As fall turned to winter in late 2006, Vernon holed up alone in his dad's cabin for three months.
He spent time splitting wood and making sense of his feelings in song. He meant for the songs to be demos. They ended up being his album.
Vernon's passionate vocals, sung mostly in falsetto, are the signature feature of For Emma, Forever Ago. They frequently transform this set of sparse acoustic folk into soul ballads.
Bon Iver sometimes weaves the influences of folk and soul into a single track. You can hear it on "Creature Fear," where delicate verses give way to a high-volume chorus filled with high-pitched singing.
The album is private and meditative. The lyrical search for meaning that runs throughout "Blindsided" is set to a repetitive, single guitar note.
It's easy to see why the indie press is enamored of Bon Iver. The song "For Emma" takes influences from the best alternative artists around right now. It has vocals that sound like TV on the Radio, pedal steel riffs akin to M. Ward and horns reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens.
Vernon's lumberjack looks and flannel shirts recall another alternative era - grunge. His music may be delicate, but it's Nirvana-style angst all over again.
Part of the Nirvana mystique was the band's rural hometown of Aberdeen, Wash. Could Eau Claire be the next unlikely home to a pop culture legend?