The Bon Iver effect: why we can’t get enough of the indie-folk pioneers

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The Bon Iver effect: why we can’t get enough of the indie-folk pioneers

Photo by Graham Tolbert and Crystal Quinn
Words by Greta Brereton

Looking back over the band’s stratospheric rise.

For Bon Iver fans, last month marked a very exciting announcement. After years of agonisingly watching them post tour dates for every country but Australia, our patience was finally rewarded with a string of shows set for 2020.

The announcement of the band’s first Australian tour since 2011 was unsurprisingly met with great fervour from fans. Shows sold out at lightening speed, and extra dates were added for Sydney and Hobart. It was like a wave of Bon Iver mania swept the country, and we’re likely to be riding it out ‘til well past next year’s shows.

This feverish response to the American indie band isn’t an isolated event, and they’ve maintained cult status for well over a decade now. With four albums and a 13-year career, what is it about Bon Iver that we can’t get enough of?

Despite the name, Bon Iver isn’t actually just one guy. Justin Vernon is the masthead, the project leader, and the main man behind it, but the Bon Iver magic couldn’t happen without the whole band. There’s been multiple members come and go over the years, but the current roster comprises Vernon, Sean Carey, Michael Lewis, Jenn Wasner, Andrew Fitzpatrick and Matthew McCaughan.

Bon Iver’s breakthrough brilliance came in 2007, with the release of For Emma, Forever Ago. Written and recorded in an isolated cabin in the woods of Wisconsin, the album became a pinnacle of indie folk music.

Hauntingly sparse and lyrically stunning, it is the kind of music that moves people to tears. ‘Skinny Love’ has been covered by numerous other artists, and the album’s influence is obvious even in the unlikeliest of places. Take our very own electronic pioneer Flume, who got his moniker from the track of the same name.

At the time of the record’s release, Vernon told Pitchfork, “I just knew that what I was doing was extremely honest. It was all the things I wanted my music to be.” This ethos has carried on throughout the band’s entire musical career, which is largely why they have such an endearing appeal.

Four years later, the band released the highly anticipated, self-titled follow up, which again ticked all the boxes. It’s utterly affecting, with folky acoustics carrying Vernon’s echoing vocals. Even the album art, featuring a resemblance to Vernon’s Wisconsin cabin, became iconic among fans. By this time Bon Iver, had also caught the eye of hip-hop legend Kanye West, resulting in a collaboration on his 2010 release, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

In 2012, Vernon and the band announced they’d be taking a hiatus from music making, collectively breaking hearts across the globe. This didn’t quash their significance though, and the legacy persevered while Bon Iver lay dormant.

When they eventually reappeared, it was clear that time away had given them a new lease on music. Swapping folky guitars for eerie soundscapes, synth loops and warbling saxophones, Bon Iver had reinvented themselves with 22, A Million. Rolling Stone said the work had placed them “alongside pop’s top futurists” while the New York Times described it as “ethereally and lustrously beautiful as the best Bon Iver material.”

The record is more distant than their previous work, which Vernon attributes to his journey with mental health, telling The Guardian, “I had mental stuff, stuff I felt needed healing. As morose or self-involved as it is, I felt that the only thing I could do was to go into myself a little bit.”

Veering off in a different direction did little to quell the Bon Iver appeal, and by this time people had been following them for almost ten years. No self-respecting Bon Iver fan was about to jump ship now.

The same could be said for this year’s release, i,i, which propelled them deeper into the world of experimental sound. At times, the record blurs the line between walls of sound and actual music, but then tracks like ‘Hey, Ma’ spring forth and glimmers of the old, original Bon Iver shine through.

Back in 2016, Vernon told The Guardian, “Hopefully, people will understand that I will come and play for you, I will get to you, eventually in your city, but when I get there hopefully, we will play something more special. We won’t just play some gig. We’ll have thought about it.”

This is exactly why Bon Iver shows, and the promise of them, are so widely coveted. It’s like panning for gold or searching a field for four leaf clovers – a treasured rarity. As we all wait with trembling anticipation for their Australian return, we can only imagine what kind of shows they have lined up for us here.

It’s been a long wait, but it’ll be over soon.