Justin Vernon is an accidental rock star. The shy, scruffy brain behind indie darlings Bon Iver (psst, it's pronounced BON-EE-VAIR) doesn't like interviews or limelight. He sings not of wild West Coast nights or Big Apple decadence but of out-of-the-way places like his wintry home in Eau Claire, Wis.
Yet when Vernon & Co. — think Robert Frost fronting Radiohead — play the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa tonight, Bon Iver will come to town riding an electric current of buzz. It's the sort of pop-cultural oomph reserved for more demonstrative artists (for instance the swaggering rappers who dig Bon Iver as well).
How does something like this happen? Vernon, 31, is a contemplative, secretive man who looks like an underfed farmer. Yet the leader of Bon Iver has achieved star status mainly because of other societal forces (and, um, Justin Timberlake). So while the It Band whispers out psychedelic folk-pop ditties Hinnom, TX, Lisbon, OH and Holocene, critics and obsessed fans alike do most of the shouting.
Herewith, five ways Bon Iver, despite the reluctant fame and low-key approach, has become a buzzworthy, must-see act:
1 THE GRAMMYS
One of the unlikeliest Grammy champs of all time, Bon Iver caused a stir this year at "music's biggest night" when it trumped megahot rapper Nicki Minaj and country wisps the Band Perry (If I Die Young) for the lofty mantle of best new artist. But wait, it gets better: Bon Iver won best alternative music album, beating out heavyweights Radiohead, Death Cab for Cutie, Foster the People and My Morning Jacket. The single Holocene also competed against fare from Adele and Katy Perry for both record of the year and song of the year. Keep this in mind: The Grammys are peer-based awards dictated by the industry. That means it's not just lonely indie kids worshiping Bon Iver; it's music-biz vets as well. And the morning after the awards show, the rest of the world was wondering: Who in the heck is Bon Iver?
Talk about strange bedfellows: One of the Grammy peers who no doubt voted in Bon Iver's favor was motormouthed rapper Kanye West. It seems the "Louis Vuitton Don" was such a fan of Vernon's work, on both the new album and debut LP For Emma, Forever Ago, he enlisted his help on the rapper's 2010 project My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. On paper, the duo is a head-scratcher, yet one listen to Vernon's cameo on the haunting song Lost in the World (a phrase that applies to both of them), and the hybrid "Kan Iver" makes beautiful sense. West may be a braggart and a head case, but he's also a music fan; he made sure to trumpet Bon Iver's mesmerizing talent in interviews.
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE
You know you've made it when SNL starts ripping on you! On Feb. 18, in a sketch about Jay-Z and Beyonce welcoming "pop stars" into their home to serenade new baby Blue Ivy, Justin Timberlake portrayed the slightly dazed Vernon. "I was just wandering barefoot in the woods of Wisconsin," he monotones. "I fashioned this guitar out of a canoe." Maya Rudolph as Beyoncé then says, "Bon Iver, we were just about to put our baby to sleep." "Trust me," Timberlake deadpans. "This'll help." He then picks out a spoof of Holocene before, as a final dig, falling asleep himself. By Sunday morning, from the Huffington Post to YouTube, the SNL spot had gone viral.
Usually it's only the mightiest of pop culture icons that get the fan-fiction treatment: Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter. But Entertainment Weekly reports that Bon Iver fans are making up stories called — are you ready for this? — "Bon Iverotica." Here's a sample: Bon Iver heard me cough from the other room. I heard the door slam, and moments later he returned: with armfuls of lemongrass, humanely terminated free-range chickens and fresh greens, and he whipped up a soup to cure me. Eat your heart out, Capt. Kirk! For more Bon Iverotica, go to boniverotica.tumblr.com.
For as lush and lovely as Bon Iver is on record, the band's stock soared when it scored a headline gig at arguably the most influential music fest on the planet: the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., just outside Palm Springs. Vernon and his touring mates were just another name on a massive, multiday bill that included Radiohead, the Black Keys, the Shins, and Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. But with the exception of a hologram Tupac Shakur, Bon Iver stole the headlines, and dominated social-media sites, for a spellbinding desert set. Later, when the band announced summer dates in the United States (including the Bonnaroo fest in Tennessee, which runs this weekend), music wonks roared when their lucky 'burg was called. A jubilant Tampa was no exception. Bon Iver is a big deal, whether Justin Vernon likes it or not.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.