Bon Iver: Working On A Dream

Yes, he is a business owner, and has a team to support. “But when we’re putting together our shows,” he says, “we’re spending more money on musicians and gear and ways to make it sound good, and less and less on the lights and projections and the – I don’t want to call ‘em gimmicks, because I’ve been to great entertainment shows before – but we’re trying to build something that’s musically interesting, and pushing boundaries that way.”

Videos by American Songwriter

In fact, his whole songwriting process is based on what’s “musically interesting,” rather than trying to get a particular point across. Unlike most wordsmiths, Vernon isn’t writing verses derived from snippets scribbled in notebooks or built around statements he feels compelled to make. He calls his method “a subconscious excavation for the lyrics.”

“It starts with the sound of the words,” he says in his rich, rather deep voice. He regards language as an art, and says he consciously avoids narrative storytelling.  “There are songwriters out there that have done that very well and have served us listeners with really beautiful ways of doing that,” he explains. “I was finding deeper meaning in my songs by allowing the words and the sounds to dictate where I headed with what I wanted to talk about. And I didn’t know what I wanted to talk about until I spent that energy, allowing the subconscious stuff to come through just by experimenting with sounds and words. I end up getting really meaningful stuff that way.”

This helps to explain why he might be the first person ever to use the word “soffit” in a song.

“They come as a sound,” he continues, “and then I sort of realize what’s happening around that and build it up, around that sort of dreamland, I guess you could say.”

Citing John Prine and the Indigo Girls as major influences, he speaks admiringly of their “emotional tactics” and quest to understand themselves via their music.

“I know what those songs are about,” Vernon says, “but there’s also a mystery to them, and I think that’s sort of where I’m headed.”

One could indeed say that the ethereal songs on Bon Iver most named for places real, imagined or composited, are filled with mystery. Even the titles – “Minnesota, WI,” “Michicant,” “Hinnom, TX,” “Calgary” – have multiple meanings, he says.

“Calgary, for instance, is an isolated capital city, much like Perth is, but Calgary’s a place I’ve never been before, and that was the point,” Vernon says. “Things that you dream about that you’ve never experienced, they can be really powerful as models in your brain.”

The song, he notes, represents isolation and dreaming – “projecting your future and stuff like that.”

“They’re not just place names, but they’re also names of places that you go in your brain. Or if a friend comes up to ask you, like, ‘Where you at, man?’ or ‘How are you doing?’ They’re asking you where you are, like where are you at in your thought process, where you’re at in your week. How are you feeling?’ Those are places to us, too, whether or not that happens on a map.”

Now we’re heading into a discussion of the time-space continuum. Deep thoughts.

“Not to get too deep on you,” he says with a laugh, “this record’s about cyclical time. About how we’re going around as we’re going forward.”


Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Lyric Spotlight Q&A: July/August 2011

Neil Young And The International Harvesters: A Treasure