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Justin Vernon is reclining in a pink chaise longue, a splendidly garish piece of furniture that once sat in a hallway at his parents' house in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and now resides at his brother Nate's loft in the Warehouse District of Minneapolis. He has only a few hours of downtime before he heads to New York to perform on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and The Colbert Report, and he and his brother are taking full advantage of the momentary lull in the promotional furor to chain-smoke cigarettes and joints and crack open bottles of beer between episodes of Party Down.
Though his band's debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, blew up the indie sphere, it's Bon Iver's self-titled latest that is pushing Vernon into the mainstream. Since its release earlier this summer, when it debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard charts right under the new release by Jill Scott, Bon Iver, Bon Iver has caught the ears of critics nationwide and earned lavish praise from outlets like The New York Times, Spin and Rolling Stone, whose reviewer Will Hermes called Vernon "one of our era's defining singers." Since the launch of the group's tour in Milwaukee, Bon Iver have started looping the United States for a journey that will eventually take them overseas to headline the Pitchfork Music Festival Paris in late October.
When he is asked how he manages to stay centered despite the swirling activity around him, Vernon smiles wryly. In addition to hiring his brother and his longtime friend and colleague Kyle Frenette as co-managers of Bon Iver, Vernon has surrounded himself with a large circle of friends and trusted professional companions who tour as a pack with him from place to place — think Entourage for the down-home Midwestern set.
"They just make you remain who you are and who you were," he says. "By being good friends they hold you accountable, I guess, and they always have. I think it's really easy to see a lot of — and I don't want to be negative about it — but a lot of falsities about how things actually are. Like the whole fame thing, and how there are famous people talking to famous people. There's the industry, even at an indie level, and that can just be not real sometimes, even though it pretends to be. Not in a negative way, it's just not aware of itself. I just feel like by knowing that, you kind of remain far away from some of that and know that you're not a part of something that's weird."
His point takes something of a hit when, after he grabs another American Spirit out of a wrinkled pack, his brother Nate appears out of nowhere to help him light it. And his headstrong insistence on maintaining complete control over his creative output could just seem like a Midwestern trait rooted in humility. But it also speaks to Vernon's unique position at the forefront of the music industry's "indie" movement. In an era in which Arcade Fire can win a Grammy and major labels are continuing to implode and crumble under their own greed, artists like Bon Iver are able to debut records at No. 2 on the Billboard charts despite being signed to a modest-sized independent label like the Indiana-based Jagjaguwar. Even the fact that Vernon managed to blip on someone like Kanye West's radar and collaborate with him on his smash 2010 My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy release speaks to just how level the playing field has become.
But, even so, when Vernon's career with Bon Iver and his now-celebrated lush, gorgeous folk-rooted music are placed in context with his lifelong musical evolution, it's clear that he's been in it for the long haul since the very beginning.
It's this workmanlike approach — not to mention his seemingly nonexistent desire for fame — that has allowed him to maintain total control of his art even while achieving widespread success.
"I talked to Ian MacKaye [of Fugazi] on the phone yesterday for this Under the Radar magazine interview thing," he says. "I was asking him a bunch of questions, and long story short, he comes around and says, 'I'm not an expansionist.' I've thought about that word for the past three days, and thought that you can just choose to do what you want, versus what there is this magnetic pull in the industry for you to do. It's not like somebody's fault or some conspiracy. People just fall into knowing they should make money, and they do forget about a bunch of other stuff."