Concerts

Jenn Wasner of Bon Iver Talks About the Creative Collectivism of the Band’s ‘Extended Community’

Jenn Wasner (left) perfroming with Bon Iver in  2019.
Jenn Wasner (left) perfroming with Bon Iver in 2019. Ben Gabbe/Getty
Repeat after me: Bon Iver is a band. Ever since the Grammy for Best New Artist in 2011 went to a tall, lanky bearded man who accepted the award on behalf of "Bon Iver," the misconception has persisted that Bon Iver is the solo moniker of that man, singer-songwriter Justin Vernon (a rumor cemented by one of the most amusing SNL impressions of the last decade via Justin Timberlake).

While it is true that Bon Iver started out as Vernon’s baby in 2007 upon the release of Emma, Forever Ago, his first album under the band name, Bon Iver has grown into a six-person band.

That band is returning to DFW on April 3 with a new member for their first North Texas show in four years with a performance at the Pavilion at Toyota Music Factory in Irving with special guest Dijon.

That new member is none other than singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Jenn Wasner, of Wye Oak and Flock of Dimes fame, who was invited to join Bon Iver after she contributed to the recording of the band’s most recent album i,i.

Wasner says that Vernon’s singular "mad genius" being the driving force is a misconception and that Vernon’s musical mission statement is much more of a collectivist one.

“He likes to think of Bon Iver not as a person, but an extended community,” Wasner says. “It’s just a way to sort of acknowledge that not one person is the singular source of all creative expression, genius or whatever you want to call it. Obviously, he’s the leader, and rightfully so — the vision is the thing that ties it all together — but making space for others and actually accepting and understanding that’s part of what keeps the engine running.

"People really want to have that 'mad genius' or singular person, but the reality of creativity is that it’s the collective. It’s about being inspired by other people, other sounds, other songs, other styles, other musicians, other thinkers. So, if you just sort of shut yourself away, then the well runs dry pretty quickly.”

As her previous musical projects have been extensions of her sole, or near-sole musical expressions, Wasner says that contributing to a greater whole was a refreshing experience. “It’s a thing that I never really imagined for myself because I never thought of myself as acquiring and developing the set of skills that most people would want someone in my role to have,” she says. “Like, I’m a multi-instrumentalist and I can do a lot of different stuff, but I’m not super exceptional at any one thing. Which, maybe that is the skill! I beat myself up a lot for not being better at things, but I’m a big-picture person.”

That big picture was, in fact, what Vernon seemed to be sculpting with the recording of i,i. Wasner and the band were holed up in the remote desert studio of Sonic Ranch, literally within walking distance of the U.S.-Mexico border outside of El Paso. Wasner speaks fondly of her time at Sonic Ranch with Bon Iver, saying that the isolation helped her bond with Vernon musically and personally.

“We both talk in metaphor a lot,” Wasner says with a laugh. “We’re both really comfortable with that. We’re both just kind of slippery weirdoes, and I think we’re both really sensitive and introspective. We love people and also love and care about music. That’s the beauty of [Bon Iver], too, is that everyone brings their own thing to the endeavor. It wouldn’t be the same without any one person. Everyone’s musical presence or general presence is unique and yet it creates this thing that’s bigger than any one person.”

Anyone familiar with Bon Iver’s post-Grammy successes will attest that some of the sound emanating from records like i,i, or its predecessor 22, A Million shows the band has a knack for generating soundscapes that lean away from the band’s folk-y genesis and toward the Rothko-like shades of the avant-garde.

"That’s the beauty of [Bon Iver], too, is that everyone brings their own thing to the endeavor. It wouldn’t be the same without any one person.” – Bon Iver's Jenn Wasner

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“A lot of what is challenging about being in this band is part of what’s fun about it,” Wasner says. “Taking these things that were initially designed or created as soundscapes and trying to bring them into reality with six people and no tracks ... To try and take something from that space and you can just sort of like, build this sonic world and then to try and recreate that live as humans can be really challenging. It sort of takes that producer’s brain to kind of figure out how and what the parts should be and how they all fit together.”

Whatever Wasner, Vernon and co. are fitting together, it seems to be working. The band’s prepandemic shows received rave reviews, with UPROXX going as far as to declare Bon Iver “the best live band in the world right now.”

“We haven’t yet — not since I joined the band — done any sort of playing together and reverse engineering songs from that,” Wasner says. “I think that’s partially logistical because obviously there was, is, a two-year global pandemic, but I certainly think there’s interest in doing more of that in the future, building the songs that way. That sounds like something that would be really fun to be a part of. At the end of the day, who knows?”

Regarding whether Justin Vernon or any of the other members of Bon Iver plan on contributing to any of Wasner’s own projects, she says she’s leaving the door open, but doesn’t have anything lined up at the moment.

“I think like with a lot of relationships, things that happen separately are the things that make working together feel special,” she says. “If any one of those guys asked me to do anything, I’d do it. I love them to death, but I think it’s nice to have things that are separate. They’re separate for a reason. It’s healthy to have these different spaces that I can inhabit in different ways, for me at least. Fire needs air, desire requires space. It’s life advice and creative advice all at once.”
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Vincent Arrieta
Contact: Vincent Arrieta