• Seth Van Camp

How Bon Iver Made "For Emma, Forever Ago" (16 Minute Read)

Updated: Feb 6, 2020

Some music floats atop the surface of complexity and asks very little of its listener. Some music requires lyricism, composition, and a keen ear to be in complete symbiosis for it to work. But every once and while, a sound so beautiful; a sound so potent and steeped in emotion comes along, and the rest almost doesn’t even matter. A collection of tones so elocutionary, they supersede the lyrics that are laid over them, because they can hold a conversation all on their own. It is a sound that achieves something that words simply can’t. Instead of inspiring feeling and imagination, it force feeds them to you. Whether it be austerity or joy, these melodies slowly engulf you into a fervor of emotional drunkness, where you stumble around areas of your mind you hadn’t planned on visiting. A world is instantaneously created and laid at your feet, inviting you further immerse yourself. Those then seemingly forgotten lyrics serve to hold your hand and guide you through the environment you were so abruptly thrown into. These sounds communicate a subversive, but familiar, specificity: pain. And it's a pain that most of us have been intimate with. A pain accompanied by an unwavering and haunting emptiness that is always in tow. It’s a weighted blanket of anguish softly being wrapped around your shoulders, simultaneously carrying burden and comfort. This is the feeling of listening to Bon Iver’s pensive and cabin-infused, debut indie-folk album, For Emma, Forever Ago.


After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with a degree in Religious Studies, Justin Vernon took to Raleigh, North Carolina. He left his hometown of Eau Claire behind in search of a more vibrant music scene with his band, DeYarmond Edison. For Vernon, Raleigh wasn’t only a destination, but a sense of optimism for a promising young band. After packing up a U-Haul with everything he owned and a modicum of his Eau Claire roots, he left hom.

In the summer of 2006, Vernon’s sought out sonic resolve would turn out to be a series of debilitating and emotionally fracturing events, and his optimism would shift to lethargy and melancholy. First, his health became a concern. He contracted pneumonia and mononucleosis, which later on developed into a liver infection. This sequence of health issues began to take a toll on Vernon mentally and in order to meet his musical and medical demands, he found himself working at a sandwich shop. A lot. Given the amount he was working, along with the fact that he was juggling another project producing his girlfriends band (Nola), Vernon felt as though he couldn’t afford his art the time it deserved, which left him feeling indifferent and resentful. He found his personal life and his passion begin to deplete. This radiated into his relationship with his band-mates, resulting in conflict and arguments. Creative differences with the members of DeYarmond Edison, many of which were his close adolescent friends, led Vernon to leave the band. Amidst the confusion and stress, Vernon also decided to try and add some clarity by breaking up with his girlfriend.


(on Deyarmond Edison) - “We broke up because I didn’t know why I was frustrated. I was really lost; they seemed to be really found, like they were really sure of themselves about the kind of music they wanted to make. It seemed like, day by day, I grew less sure of myself – less and less sure, less and less confident, and less and less into what we were doing as a band. What contributed to the break-up most, out of all the variables, was me being dissatisfied, and them being dissatisfied with my dissatisfaction. So I left and they formed a new band, Megafaun, which is excellent, if you get a chance to hear it. So it was weird for awhile, but we’d played in a band together for ten years and we’re like brothers. I talk to them pretty much every day.” (15) (Trebelzine, Out of the Bungalow, Dustin Allen, 2008)


Post breakup, he dabbled in a couple of other projects; mixing, engineering and producing for The Rosebuds, and creating his own solo EP, but nothing would give him the fulfillment he once felt surrounded by. To make things worse, he was forced to live on his now ex-girlfriends couch while he finished producing her album throughout the remainder of his time in Raleigh. The final straw hit home when Vernon lost most of his money playing online poker, which was at the time an outlet for his grief. He would leave Raleigh once his work on The Rosebuds album was complete. Vernon, then 25, broke, feeling apathetic, purposeless and defeated, packed up all of his recording equipment - his instruments, computer, four-track and microphones - and drove 18 hours throughout the night back to Eau Claire, searching for solace and reprieve in a quiet, isolated place for an undetermined amount of time. He arrived at his parents house and sat on the couch, with no one there, contemplating his career.

“I felt really claustrophobic. I knew just because I left a place I knew I didn't want to be, I wasn't heading toward a place that meant something to me, or was going to be good for me. I felt really super-empty, and was like, "I don't know if I can be here. For the first time in my life, I don't have a real musical identity, and I'm really worried about that. Maybe I need to take some time and do nothing." I had some music that I started to think about in the back of my brain, but at that point, I was still sort of depressed. It wasn't that I was sad; I was indifferent. It felt really odd to feel that indifferent and lost and unsure.” (13)


His expedition ultimately led him to his father’s hunting cabin, an hour north of Eau Claire; an 80 acre plot of land that he and his father once called “The Land.” It would be here where Vernon would first don the Bon Iver cape and create For Emma, Forever Ago.

In the Cabin

"The cabin's like a little alpine-style, timber-frame cabin, used to just have a dirt floor, but the last few years my dad's made it ... maybe too nice."(2) “The reason I went up there, first and foremost, was really out of necessity. It was kind of a rushed decision. I didn’t go up there thinking, ‘Alright, I gotta make a record.’” (15)(Trebelzine, Out of the Bungalow, Dustin Allen, 2008)

Vernon retreated to the bare-branched wilds of the northwest to be alone. It was only after 2 weeks since he entered the cabin, would the craftsman even retrieve his tools from his quaint Honda Accord. He didn’t know it yet, but this time was critical for Vernon. He needed time to simply exist and clear his head. He drank beer and watched his favourite show, Northern Exposure. With that time came self-sufficiency and inspiration. He constantly chopped wood, shooed away bears trying to steal his stew, and hunted two deer which were “more than enough” for the 3-4 months he was there.

Within stillness, we typically find reflection. Vernon used this natural relationship to stake the record’s provenance. He pulled upon musings that began in North Carolina and began the process of songwriting.

There are two common processes in penning a song. One usually involves writing the lyrics first and then finding a tone to match them. The other comprises of the inverse. Overall, the lyrics and composition usually feed each other in a collaborative process. Bon Iver took a more subconscious-based approach. Vernon felt tiresome in his approach to writing, so in creating Emma, he began by mapping out the songs melodies. He would then play the melodies back individually and record himself speaking syllables he felt would fit to each melody. After which, he would play back the recordings of these spoken syllables, some 20-odd times, and transcribe the spoken syllables into the words he thought he was hearing. Something different would come back with each listen. He would then compile the words he heard and embark on the task of decrypting and combining the words that his subconscious excavation suggested. The result of this emotional extraction was the interpretation you hear on the album.

“I compiled them and, at the end, it was very interesting for me; it was very freeing. I found all this shit, all this grudge and meaning in what I was singing, these syllables. It was weird to put them together and match them up to the sounds that I was hearing. I was able to get every sound and nuance of the voice on a musical level, with phrasing and the way words sound natural going after each other. Good lyricists are also people who just put words in good order ’cause they sound good together. So I was able to do all that completely unhinged, instead of having to make words that rhyme or whatever, and I was able to get lyrics that were born and meaningful to me in a way that was distant and new. It wasn’t like I was pulling them out of my heart and putting them on a piece of paper. It was a roundabout way of doing it and I ended up writing some of my favorite songs that way.”

This method carries an essence of translucence which cuts through some of the bias and external influence in storytelling. This was the way in which he would escape the noise and truly discover his own sound, eons different from the voice he had used in DeYarmond Edison. He likened the experience to “shedding skin.” It's a much more raw and visceral translation of Vernon’s ora from his suffering in Raleigh. The authenticity truly glimmers, showing that you can be indebted to the past without being beholden to it. It carries an incredible weight in its ability to impact people due to its tacit, but tentative nature. The Spanish have a word for this; Duende. Duende refers to the mysterious power art possesses in deeply moving people. To put it simply, For Emma, Forever Ago is duende.

The layered and delicate falsetto, which would become his musical signature and come to define his sound for the following decade, was developed purely from experimentation. Before heading back to Wisconsin, Vernon had been listening to a lot of the Vienna Boys’ Choir.


"I love that sort of high, glassy, it's really painful sounding stuff," he said. "About a year ago, I started making choir arrangements just on my recordings, with my four-track, and it's sort of infiltrated into the songs.” “With the other band, I sang everything in a pretty low voice ... very confessional, very obvious. I was never really able to sound authentic, in my own ears, singing with that kind of voice before. It's not that I do now; it's just that I felt more comfortable singing certain phrases and certain painful combinations of notes with that voice. It wasn't a conscious decision at all. It just sort of happened." (10) “But I feel so much more comfortable being able to access painful melodies. I feel freer singing the high stuff.” (13)


On many of the tracks, there would be a minimum of eight vocal layers. The labour-intensive process of mixing, mastering and smoothing out this much strata by yourself takes time. Luckily, Vernon wasn’t going anywhere. His goal was to stack vocals to imitate a choir. He then wanted to use methods of auto-tune as an instrument itself to supplement it. Almost as if a team of Vernon’s were standing together, eclectically belting and intoning this spectral atmosphere and textured sound we’ve become familiar with. The effect is something unheard of. The layered voices, in combination with Vernon’s subconscious word choices, embrace to only further the mysteriousness, blurring the listeners ability to identify the lyrics and their meaning with conviction.

Writer/videographer/YouTuber Evan Puschak said the following: “The mind is made out of language, but it's not always, or even usually, lucid language. It is mostly a vast reservoir of gibberish.” It’s Vernons ability to tap into this reservoir and curate the extracted content that the song is comprised of that makes it so compelling. It's a peculiar thing to not know exactly what's being said, but feel perfectly understood at the same time. Its because in building the world that is Emma, Vernon affords you the freedom to choose your own characters. Instead of relating to his story, he creates an atmosphere in which all of our stories can exist together. It is this element that makes listening to this album so ethereal.

From the moment the album opens upon a group of lightly strummed minor chords on an acoustic guitar, we know exactly where we are. We are visiting a place of hurt; a place of pain; a place of anguish. Joined by the rattly whirring of an e-bow, vibracious metals, and a ghostly echoing voice, the first track, Flume, comes together to set the tone for the push and pull of the record. Similar to that of contemplation in navigating loss and heartbreak.

We jump from Flume’s isolation in lost love, up to the elation and acknowledgment of recovery in Lump Sum, back down to Skinny Love’s struggle in letting go of toxic and malnourished love, over to the voiceless instrumental on Team, back around to the conversation-devolved-into-breakup on For Emma, and closing with the excavation and release of Vernon’s past in Re: Stacks.


After emerging from the forest, Vernon worked on a few minor components for the album, and shortly after headed back to North Carolina to go on tour, playing guitar for The Rosebuds. He viewed the songs he had created back in Wisconsin as demos that he would eventually re-record. After sharing the songs with Ivan Howard of The Rosebuds, Howard would go on to say, “These aren’t demos. This is your record.”

At that point, I thought the songs were just demos. I was only trying to mix them really, really nice to send out to a few labels to see if they would give me money to record a “regular” album. But I handed my couple buddies a copy of the CD, and literally, after handing those out, it never slowed down. It started an avalanche and I had no choice but to put it out as a record.


Vernon self-released the homemade album on MySpace in 2007. After the blogosphere catapulted Emma into infamy, Vernon was signed to Jagjaguwar records and it was re-released in 2008. When asked if he would keep the album the same way, Vernon said:

“I think so, if for no other reason than when you try to re-record something, it’s like trying to re-acclimate yourself to a certain mood after the fact, and you just never get it again. I’m a pretty worrisome dude, so the only reason I thought [the originals] were demos was because I was insecure.”


Being social animals, we naturally long for connection. For Emma, Forever Ago represents both the fragility in our spirit once those connections falter, and our resilience in bearing the scars from our pasts. It’s chilling and sparse nature is reflective of the Wisconsin ground it grew in and the Eau Claire native that planted it. Vernon’s experience developing the album as both woodsman and musician has been mythologized and made prophetic, and maybe for good reason. Speculation on the title of the album is common amongst fans. The titular ‘Emma’ is said to reflect the middle name of one of his former lost lovers, but Vernon shares a different sentiment: “Emma isn't a person. Emma is a place that you get stuck in. Emma's a pain that you can’t erase.” (11) There’s something seductive about a small town Wisconsin boy retreating to the woods to write love songs, and that seduction has endured over the 12 years since the album was released. In part due to the fact that we love to live vicariously through others, but also because we too one day hope to tap into something that honest and true. Although the story of how an album was created shouldn’t impact how we judge it, it's hard not to romanticize the journey and take it with him. The fable of that Wisconsin cabin adds an additional layer to Vernon’s plentiful harmonies.

The name ‘Bon Iver’ comes from a letter Vernon sent to his friend in North Carolina after the album was completed. He attempted to use the French phrase “Bon Hiver,” meaning ‘good winter,’ as a greeting (This was commonly done on his favourite show, Northern Exposure), but he misspelled it. The friend wrote back suggesting he use it to name the project, and the rest is history. Despite Vernon’s humble resolve and attempts to downplay the experience, I think that's exactly what he had in that cabin so many years ago; a good winter.