Justin Vernon founded the band Bon Iver in 2006. Bon Iver’s released four albums and won two Grammys, including Best New Artist.
The most recent album i,i came out in August 2019, and in this episode, Justin breaks down a song from it called “Holyfields,.” He’s joined by producers Chris Messina and Brad Cook. We spoke to him in July, from his studio in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where the song started. They finished it at Sonic Ranch studio in Tornillo, Texas, on the border between the US and Mexico.
Chris Messina figured out the perfect combo of software and hardware that lets Justin Vernon sound the way he does. “But here’s the thing,” Messina says. “It’s not a thing.”
A few days after the Pioneer Works show, Chris Messina was on the phone; he was willing to offer a simplified version of what goes on with his machine. “Onstage, Justin is singing a song, and he’s playing a keyboard that can create harmonies simultaneously,” he said. “Normally, you record something first and then add harmonies later. But Justin wanted to not only harmonize in real time, but also be able to do it with another person and another instrument. The result is one thing sounding like a lot of things. It creates this huge, choral sound.”
When I asked Messina to describe what The Messina looks like, he responded, “Here’s the thing — it’s not a thing. There’s a laptop running software, and then that software is run through a physical piece of hardware, that is then doing another thing,” he explained. “It’s many things working together and none of them are ours, but the product is. Basically, we used things the way they’re not normally intended, and we put them together. That’s how we get the sound.”
For six weeks, everyone worked in different little studios, bringing ideas in and out to main rooms, auditioning riffs, futzing with samplers, pedals, gear, and synths until something genuinely surprising emerged. More than ever, Vernon was letting the band dictate the sound of the record: psychedelic and warm, dense and open. Even though there were plenty of false starts and dead ends, Vernon attests, “They’re all seeds—a mood that you can build around. I didn’t want to be worried about being the author of everything, it was more about trying to find something I can cruise on.”
The record presents many vocalists alongside Vernon, including 64-year-old piano man Bruce Hornsby, genre-busting contemporary crooners Moses Sumney and James Blake, rapper Naeem (fka Spank Rock), and the Brooklyn Youth Choir. “There is a certain quality that happens when you have all these different timbres and textures,” says Wasner, who also sings on the album. “It’s a sonic representation of what he was trying to achieve with the project itself. When you get comfortable with yourself, you start to realize the thing that brings meaning to your life is actually other people.”
Even so, Wasner admits that, more than anything, it’s Vernon’s singular voice, a multi-octave tear-jerker rooted in gospel and blues, that holds i,i together.