I saw Sasha Frere-Jones interview Justin Vernon of Bon Iver as part of the New Yorker Festival last night. After the interview, Vernon played a brief solo set of the following songs. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my MiniDisc recorder with me, and I have yet to acquire a Tascam DR-1. So, I recorded the set with my iPhone, which sounds just about as awful as you would expect. Listen via the player below or download his set here. I’m not sure I got the title of the second song correct, and I couldn’t fine the lyrics online anywhere.
I have to admit that I wasn’t as taken by Bon Iver’s album as most people I know were. However, I’ll certainly give it another chance after hearing him live. What I found fascinating was how Vernon talked about moving back to Wisconsin and doesn’t really have any interest in living anywhere else. Even after making several declarations of allegiance to the place that I’m from, I’ve left it three times this decade. And even though I intended to return each time, I still always left hoping that I would come back and never leave again. Vernon’s comments about place aren’t anything new, but given my personal history and my recent reading of Wendell Berry’s essay “A Native Hill,” hearing someone consciously commit himself to the place where he’s from, even as his work is expanding the possibility to be elsewhere, was valuable. Berry returned to Kentucky after studying at Stanford and moving to Manhattan, and he writes about his home, “Before, it had been mine by coincidence or accident; now it was mine by choice.”
It’s often bothered me than I don’t know many people who lived away from their hometowns after college and then returned to them. And I think Berry and Vernon are getting at something that I haven’t heard much among the young professional set—the value in having your geography be a set place that you serve rather than a place that simply serves your ambition. For Vernon, returning home to write the Bon Iver record For Emma, Forever Ago made geography almost invisible; place became a given, not a distraction. The artistic freedom that allowed Vernon to write a record unlike any other could only come from geographic restriction. And you can really only limit yourself to a place and know you’re not leaving if you love it, if you commit to and are responsible for it. Back to Berry: “…I never doubted that the world was more important to me than [New York]; and the world would always be most fully and clearly present to me in the place I was fated by birth to know better than any other.”