In February of 2008, Justin Vernon changed the landscape of the indie rock scene with the release of his haunting debut album under his Bon Iver project. For Emma, Forever Ago is a collection of nine songs that explore themes of loneliness, loss, and isolation.
Those themes were rooted in reality for Vernon, who had grown tired of spending much of his time working at a sandwich shop and split ways with his band DeYarmond Edison. After losing most of his money playing online poker, Vernon retreated to his father’s hunting cabin in Wisconsin.
Vernon spent several months hunting deer, watching old movies, and engaging in “self-indulgent behaviour” before turning to the several guitars, microphones and old Macintosh he had to start writing and recording new music. Vernon explored new ways to use his voice, layering his own vocals on top of each other to imitate a choir. Bon Iver was born.
Seemingly deeply personal, For Emma, Forever Ago wasn’t so much about a person, but where Vernon found himself in the Wisconsin woods.
“Emma isn’t a person,” Vernon told the audience at a 2009 live Q&A. “Emma is a place that you get stuck in. Emma’s a pain that you can’t erase.”
Vernon eventually shared the record via MySpace before signing to indie label Jagjaguwar, who would release it in February of 2008. For Emma, Forever Ago became a massive commercial success, peaking at 64 on the Billboard 200 and earning praise from the likes of Rolling Stone, NME, and Pitchfork. The album was a jumping off point for Vernon who would go on to become one of the most influential indie artists of the past decade.
Vernon’s initial Bon Iver success led to him being recruited by Kanye West to help produce his 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, as well as landing him a regular spot on the summer festival circuit. Bon Iver captured Grammy Awards in 2012 for Best New Artist and Best Alternative Music Album for their album Bon Iver, Bon Iver. 22, A Million, the band’s third studio album was released in September of 2016.