ABOVE: JUSTIN VERNON AND AARON DESSNER IN EAU CLAIRE, WISCONSIN, FEBRUARY 2015.
Late last year, news broke that Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner would be co-curating a brand new music and art festival in Eau Claire, Wisconsin (the festival itself is called Eaux Claires). The news shook the blogosphere and pre-sale tickets sold out within days, despite no official lineup or even a hint of performancers announced. With organizers from Bon Iver and The National, however, we wouldn’t have expected much else.
Given Vernon and Dessner’s acclaim and status within the industry (while also still being in their 30s), as well as Dessner’s music festival Boston Calling and both artists’ former collaborative efforts with projects like Dark Was The Night, one could easily presume there would be a successful lineup and two days of creatively fueled performances. As of today, we can announce that Vernon and Dessner are bringing together exactly 40 acts from all areas of their musical sphere, including notable talents like their own respective bands (marking Bon Iver’s first performance since 2012), Sufjan Stevens, Spoon, and Indigo Girls, as well as smaller musicians, such as Spooky Black, Haley Bonar, and Sylvan Esso. A week before the official announcement when they were both in Vernon’s hometown of Eau Claire, the two musicians spoke with each other about collaborations, resetting, and how they met many years ago. We listened in from New York.
AARON DESSNER: How did we meet? I think I messaged you on MySpace, didn’t I?
JUSTIN VERNON: It was on MySpace? No kidding. We met a long time ago. You and Bryce were doing the Dark Was The Night project, and you reached out to me to do some songs for the AIDS charity album. Finally, when you did the show at Radio City for the album celebration, we started collaborating and realized we were all midwestern boys with a lot of energy to collaborate and constantly be playing music. We’ve been friends since then.
DESSNER: I think it was the first time I ever wrote a song with someone I hadn’t met in person. I contacted you on MySpace because I was in love with your record, like a lot of people, and we were trying to put this compilation together. You agreed to do it and then you sent us “Brackett, WI,” which was the most stunning, amazing song. Then we were so excited that I sent you some music on a whim. It was this piece I called “Big Red Machine,” after the Cincinnati Reds won the World Series. It was the year that Bryce and I were born. You wrote a song to it and a week later sent it back. Bryce and I were in a hotel room in Finland when I got it. I got it at like 6:00 in the morning, and I was like “Wake up! Listen to this!” It just broke our hearts.
But yeah, the Dark Was The Night concert was the moment where festivals and community started to creep into our brain because it was so meaningful to get everyone together. We were nervous, but somehow it all came together just by the seat of our pants. That night was really special, especially what you did. You ended up jumping on stage with everybody because you didn’t have all the artists there to do it, so you had to, like, sing in Portuguese with David Byrne and pretend to be Ben Gibbard with Feist.
VERNON: That wasn’t hard. [both laugh] Just kidding. It was then that I started realizing that there was this odd inspiration, slash familiar feeling, that you guys had and gave me. It was like, “Wow, these guys are a big time deal putting a lot of big names together.” But it felt like something that would have happened in my own town with my own friends. That community was so familiar, yet it was on such a high musical and professional level. Ever since then we’ve been really close, always looking for chances to collaborate. The MusicNOW festival that you and Bryce do in Cincinnati was a really big inspiration for me. I ended up meeting a lot of my bandmates because of the fact that you and Bryce were encouraging me to work with anyone who was there. It made me realize that the world was more accessible to me at that point and it was everything to do with you guys.
DESSNER: It goes back the other way, because that night, the idea was for you to play new stuff. It was going to be a concert that was different; it wasn’t a Bon Iver concert. Although you did play one or two Bon Iver songs, it was mainly other stuff. We covered Sharon Van Etten’s “Love More.” You sang it and we played with you. The next day Sharon and I started communicating and I produced her record, Tramp. Other than The National stuff and Dark Was The Night, it was the first time I had produced a record and I feel like it came directly out of that experience, really getting close to her music. It’s exactly that kind of energy you’re describing of community, openness, and collaboration. That’s exactly what’s been going on in Eau Claire in your life since you were a kid, and that’s when we started to discover that that is what feeds us musically—these friendships, playing together, learning from each other, being inspired. That’s what I think is interesting about a music festival: you can try to create that.
VERNON: And like you were saying, I think one of the big things for us is this humble, but serious sense of always wanting to learn and get better. We want it to be different for the artists and I think about that. We want the people coming to the festival to be learning too. We have a wild history that will continue to grow in different ways, but the trust that you get from someone’s music—and then having that person also be a very trustworthy and understanding friend—is a big caveat to this whole thing. It’s a hard thing to market or understand, or really even share to a large group of people, but it’s really real for our friendship and our whole act of collaborating. It’s rooted in that.
DESSNER: We’re lucky that we’ve gotten to play all over the world. You get a sense of what works and what doesn’t, what feels good, and something you’d want to do again. We’ve been able to think a lot about that while creating this festival and we’re fortunate in that we can try to create something for the artist and the audience that’s different, but also comfortable and community-oriented. I feel like your community here is the same…it’s such an interesting festival because there are so many brilliant musicians who come from this area.
VERNON: Yeah, when I met you and your brother, it really reminded me of Brad and Phil Cook, who are my best friends and also musical partners and [have been my] mentors since I was in high school. There is a very rich musical history here but it’s never exactly been put on display or talked about. We’re not trying to make it a big hooray, like, “Look how cool Eau Claire is!” I just think it’s a way to signify or celebrate the attitude around here. You go to Minneapolis and you see probably the most diverse music scene that I’ve ever seen in the world, and no one is really hating on each other, but everything is extremely far out and way different from each other. That scene is very much like what we have here in Eau Claire. We’re trying to bring some of it back. It’s hard to be a professional musician in Eau Claire, but yet this strong root system is here—Sean Carey, my sister went to high school with Geoff Keezer who has become one of the best pianists in the world, and stuff like that.
There’s energy from Melt-Banana [Mueller], a band I saw when I was really little, when I was 14 or 15 years old, from Japan that made my face come off. To have them be coming, and then also the Indigo Girls playing. Swamp Ophelia is, like, my favorite record of all time, number one. They’ll be playing the record in its entirety. That’s fucking awesome. We have friends and strangers on the bill, but that’s kind of how it always goes. You have to put a trusting foot forward into unknown territory for collaboration to continue to grow. We’re sitting here looking at the lineup that we’re dealing with and the grid and when people are going to play. It’s kind of insane. Of course I’m biased, but this is a pretty diverse, bizarre group of acts, and art, and expression.
DESSNER: We can do things here in this beautiful place in the summer. To have Sturgill Simpson and Melt-Banana, Liturgy, or Doomtree, all juxtaposed with you and Sufjan and The National playing, and then having new music and film and some various installations and things going on… You won’t want to go to sleep, basically.
VERNON: Yeah, I’m worried about being super tired the whole time.
DESSNER: [laughs] Part of what is also interesting about this is having to be organized and deal with the logistical production stuff and we are fortunate that we have partners who help with that…I don’t know, how do you feel having to get on a conference call occasionally?
VERNON: It’s been like a new job. I think it was like two years ago when you put me on the phone with the Crashline team and we had a conference call. I was on a family vacation in Lake Tahoe, actually. We just had a two-hour call. I’d never met these guys before, but if you trust someone, then I trust them. Now, the whole Crashline team has been flying to Eau Claire. It’s been cool to see that, to have people coming to our community and interweaving with the sheriffs and the city council and the towns. The other festival you do, Boston Calling, my band was supposed to play there and there was a fucking tornado that hit through Boston and they had to evacuate 15,000 people. We ended up being the only band that got cut, which I was very pissed off about, but they did it in a manner that was relaxing and safe. If something goes wrong I feel very trustworthy towards those guys to take care of it all.
DESSNER: Their heart is in the right place. Also it takes a lot of work to do something like this and they’re people who can do it. I don’t know, what else should we discuss?
VERNON: I think it’s interesting, you can talk about this a little bit too, the whole curatorial thing and how it’s really different than creating music. For me, the last six months—or the last 12 months really—I started to hit a spot where the weight of all the years of touring and being busy hit a weird point where I proved to myself I could make music 365 days a year if I wanted to. That much output and that much creative work has been kind of weird. It’s nice to shift gears to a festival where it’s more about bringing people together and watching art happen in front of you, rather than just concentrating on yourself so much.
DESSNER: I think it’s the same for me. Even if you don’t feel the anxiety of being creative and writing music, finishing songs, finishing albums, performing, all that stuff…it does build up inside of you. I think Bryce and I took off some of that anxiety, since we were born collaborators; we were staring at each other and had the same room for the first 18 years. We kind of always vet off of each other creatively and were always finishing ideas. Something about bringing a community of musicians together disperses that anxiety because you’re sharing this big wave of creativity. At MusicNOW in Cincinnati, there is something about that place where you feel free. You’re like, “I’m going to go play in the lobby right now because I don’t know what else to do.”
VERNON: That’s what happens to musicians. It happened to me and it happens to almost everyone. There is this odd love of doing music, you yearn to make it your profession, and then when it happens, you realize it’s eating you up somehow. When it becomes a scheduled thing, when it becomes not a thing where you get to be vetting your expression every day to alleviate certain anxieties, the patterns of the industry can break those down and make them very square. When you come here you should feel that freedom. We will have a place for you to go up in a tree and play a song to 10 people if that’s what you want to do. We can tell you to just get on the stage and loose your mind and improvise for an hour. You and I have kind of agreed on these ideas for a whole lifetime, but we’ve just become friends in the last little while. It’s kind of insane.
DESSNER: I feel like once you find an audience, you’re just buried in your own music and it’s this obsessive passion; there’s a rabbit hole you go down for a long time and generally a great record comes out of that, and it’s very dear to you and you perform these songs. Then slowly, over like two years, the business of performing it and doing all that work that starts to distance you from the inspiration and creative feelings you had.
VERNON: It feels like over sharing or something.
DESSNER: Yeah, so to come together for two days and have a lot of new things happen and a lot of exciting things happen, it can be just a different way to experience the music industry. Some people [on the set list] are still struggling to find an audience and they’re making amazing music. It’s frustrating that what gets out there and what sells isn’t always inspiring and interesting, to put it lightly.
VERNON: In the same regard, I know it excites me when I play in a couple other bands—we just showed up to a bar in Eau Claire with our B3 and like 10 guitar amps and just lost our minds. There was like 80 people there. It’s such a different energy and was important for me to have that to be able to even think about making another Bon Iver record. If I wasn’t going to feel good about playing music, how can I feel good about doing something like the Bon Iver project that I’m so indebted to? It needs to be good. It needs to be real creation. If you don’t do all this stuff, you’re just in a one-dimensional zone.
DESSNER: You reset. I feel that in The National. You play when there’s, like, 80,000 people watching and you feel like that’s an insane thing happening but as soon as it’s all done, you try to write a new song and it’s as though you’ve never written a song before. You have to reset and figure out what was important about it in the first place.
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