Bon Iver: From the Wisconsin Woods to Grammy Favorites

Daniel Kreps
Amplifier (NEW)

Going into tonight's Grammy Nominations show, no one could have predicted that Lady Gaga, the biggest artist on the planet and the singer who both opened and closed the nomination concert, would receive fewer nominations than Bon Iver, a bearded pack of folk rockers from rural Wisconsin. Entering this evening, the biggest honor ever bestowed on the band was when Milwaukee named July 22, 2011 "Bon Iver Day."

However, a look at the final scoreboard reveals that the Fame Monster only scored three nominations, while Bon Iver nabbed four: Song of the Year and Record of the Year for "Holocene," Best Alternative Music Album for 'Bon Iver' (called it!), and Best New Artist, even though 'Bon Iver' is the group's second album. So here's the question every rock fan's mother will be asking them tomorrow: Who are Bon Iver?

Bon Iver is the brainchild of Justin Vernon, who first recorded under the moniker as a solo artist before it blossomed into the band that appears on the self-titled disc. Following a breakup and an illness, Vernon retreated to the desolate woods of Wisconsin, where he lived in a cabin and recorded Bon Iver's first album 'For Emma, Forever Ago'.

On the album, Vernon showcased what could be the most unique male voice the rock music scene has heard since Radiohead's Thom Yorke. The LP, which was first self-released before indie label Jagjaguwar scooped it up, spawned NPR hits like "Skinny Love" and "Flume," and then it began drawing the attention of TV dramas, and the snowball just picked up speed from there.

'For Emma, Forever Ago' was a critics' favorite and a year-end list stalwart, but Vernon's stock really soared when Kanye West was introduced to Bon Iver's "Woods." The rapper was so enamored with the song, he asked Vernon to come to the Hawaii studio where Kanye was recording 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy'. "Woods" turned into West's "Lost in the World," and Vernon ended up lending vocals to that album's "Monster" and "That's My B----" on 'Watch the Throne'. Ironically, a year later, Bon Iver is now in the Song of the Year category against West's "All of the Lights."

After an album with his side project Volcano Choir, Vernon and his now-fully formed Bon Iver entered their studio in Wisconsin to lay down the tracks for their self-titled second album, which arrived in June 2011. Once again, the LP was welcomed with universal acclaim, and all the 'For Emma' word-of-mouth helped 'Bon Iver' sell 104,000 copies in its first week, good for Number Two on the Billboard 200. As we inch toward the end of 2011, the album is a favorite to reside in the upper echelon of most major music site's Best Of lists; It's already topped Paste's list, and it'll be somewhere high on The Amp's.

The one accolade that Vernon was missing: Grammy recognition. But after tonight, that's all changed. "Whats the difference between song and record?! ahhH! super weird butterflies! thank's y'all," Vernon tweeted after the nominations. Always a Wisconsin boy, he added to that same tweet, "The [University of Wisconsin] Badgers are playing UNC. Don't forget!!" The Badgers ended up losing to the Tar Heels, but even that probably couldn't damper Bon Iver's big night.