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ASSIGNMENT 13: At Home with the Vernons

FALL CREEK, Wis. (WEAU) -- "We were sitting at a concert venue outside of town and he always said that at that moment I'm going to do what they're doing,” says Gil Vernon, while interviewing with us in the Vernon’s old living room in Fall Creek.

At 16, his parents Gil and Justine say Justin knew what he wanted to do with his life.

"Justin practiced in the garage, practiced in the basement and you know that's where dreams start,” says the father of three.

The Grammy nominated musician and the man behind Bon Iver grew up in his parent’s home with his brother Nate and sister Kim.

"Music was always around the house, we made all the kids take piano lessons,” says Justine. “With Justin, he didn't really like the piano all that much, especially when I was teaching him for a while. That did not work out, but he asked if he could quit piano if he went to guitar. From that point on it was him and his guitar always.”

Gil says he did what he can to make sure Justin had a place to practice.

"We actually partitioned a room in the basement right below us with sound proof in the wall, so we could actually sit in the room where we're speaking now and watch TV and have a full conversation in spite of the fact that we had nine kids down there with trombones, trumpet, two saxophones, three guitars and a keyboard all plugged in,” he says.

Today, Bon Iver is also made up of nine musicians, but the Vernons didn’t always know their now 30-year-old son and his band would make it this far.

"We always thought that he had talent but we're his parents, you have to take that with a grain of salt,” says Justine.

Gil says it's ‘surrealistic’.

Going to the Grammys, they say, wasn’t ever the goal. It was simply, the music.

"He started writing songs since grade six. In fact there's one written on the wall downstairs in the closet,” says Gil.

We walked down to the finished basement, where a closet beneath the stairway had walls covered with handwritten lyrics.

Justine says it began as a middle school dream with a band called Skillet.

Then came Mount Vernon, and a band also born in Eau Claire, Deyarmond Edison, after Justin’s two middle names.

“Deyarmond Edison was the band at the time. We thought they were kind of stuck not getting anywhere when they were here. They didn't' want to go to Minneapolis and went to North Carolina,” says Justine.

From Wisconsin to North Carolina, 2005 marked a period of separation for the Vernons.

"We're a close-knit family so I was sad but I was also happy for him. And in all honesty, I was not aware of all the difficulties,” says Justine.

Those difficulties, eventually led to the breakup of Deyarmond Edison in 2006.

"I knew things weren't going exactly how he wanted things to go. It's not like he called me crying every night to mom, so when he came home I wasn't fully aware of how tough everything was. I knew it had to have been tough after breaking up with the band because those guys had been playing together since middle school,” says Justine.

"He had gone to his dad's cabin, after the breakup of Deyarmond Edison, just kind of come back home from North Carolina to get his bearings I guess. He didn't even know he was going to record but he ended up with this album,” says co-manager of the band Kyle Frenette.

Justine says she remembers going up to the cabin in Dunn County, and visiting Justin.

"Once he said, this is the song, and what do you think? Of course it was in his falsetto which I wasn't used to so I was kind of like, oh I don't know, but it was Skinny Love and I loved that song,” says Justine.

24-year-old Frenette was a fan of Justin’s music in high school. He says him and his friends looked up to the local musicians.

"I was home for spring break and I was just checking up on websites and stuff and I stumbled upon his and he posted two new songs, Flume and Lump Sum from that album,” says Frenette, looking back to his time in college. “I listened to them and they floored me right away. This was one of those moments that happen when it's like, what is this? I want to tell the world about this!"

In spring of 2007, things changed for both Frenette, as well as Justin who spent months alone at his father’s cabin, where he came up with Bon Iver’s first album ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’.

"I asked him what he wanted to do with it and we decided to self-release it,” says Frenette.

Frenette, who had just started his own label, Amble Down Records, used his contacts in the music industry to put out Bon Iver’s first album.

"When he put out his first 500 copies of the For Emma record, we put that together sitting up at the cabin, bunch of us were folding and stuffing,” says Justine.

"It just snow-balled, took off, I was fielding calls everyday from interested people in the industry, wondering what was up, what our plans were, if we had signed a deal yet,” says Frenette.

After several offers, that fall Bon Iver signed with record label Jagjaguwar.

"People were watching him and reacting to him with all this admiration and this CD had barely been out. That's when I started to think 'hmm, I think he might be onto something here',” says Justine.

In June 2011, the latest self-titled album, 'Bon Iver Bon Iver' was released.

"When I first heard it, I knew it was the album he was supposed to make and I was blown away,” says Frenette.

The album was recorded at a once-veterinarian clinic-turned recording studio in Fall Creek, just miles from the Vernons’ home. And by then, brother Nate stepped into help co-manage the band.

"He loves it and it's really cool because as a mother I'm just very, watching all the time to see how the brothers are doing because it can be difficult. I would hate to see something happen to their brother relationship but they hang out and do just fine,” says the concerned mother.

In November 2011, Bon Iver was nominated for four categories in the 54th annual Grammy awards, including record of the year, song of the year for Holocene, best new artist and best alternative music album. The band’s sound engineer Brian Joseph also was nominated for Holocene.

"We were sitting there together watching and then he was nominated in the first category and so we kind of ‘whew’ and sat back, you know? And then when he ended up with four for the night, you just can’t hardly believe it. It's just so surreal,” says Justine.

Just days later after the nomination, Bon Iver came back to its roots in Eau Claire, packing Zorn Arena full of hometown fans, in celebration of its return back to where it all began.

“Locally, you know, there was a lot of praise given to him and his bands and everyone involved in that scene and I think a lot of people knew it was rare to have that caliber of talent musically," says Frenette.

The Vernons say if there’s one positive outcome from all that’s happened, it’s this:

"The eye on Eau Claire and other musicians that come out of here, other bands that are coming up, that because Kyle Frenette, that's a great story there," says Justine.

Frenette has signed several local bands onto his label since 2007.

“Meridine, the Gentle Guests, Michael Perry and the Long Beds, Daredevil Christopher Wright, We Are the Willows, Halloween, Alaska,” says Frenette, just to name a few.

"We have a world class university here with world class musicians; they put out top notch, music educators. These music educators lie close to the nest, and enrich the public school system as a result,” says Gil who attributes the local education system for the rich music culture in Eau Claire.

The Vernons say Steve Wells, Justin’s high school band director is one of many who has enriched Justin’s career and the community.

"Homecoming was crazy and Justin was in football, band and after all that hoopla going to Friday nights game, the next day we had a parade and it was hot and it was downtown. I could remember driving down to Wilson park and getting out and the first person I saw in full uniform sweating profusely was Justin and he's ready to go. He wanted to be there, it was important to him,” recalls Wells who remembers Justin’s curiosity for music.

Now the Vernons say Justin is doing what he can to make talent known, through an imprint of Jagjaguwar, called Chigliak Records.

"Objective of that label is to put out unreleased or recorded but lightly distributed local music,” says Gil. “The first music he's going to put out is Amateur Love. I think that's neat to see. There's great fortune and wealth involved. I think he's looking back to music that inspired him or lack of better luck didn't find its way to broader exposure so he's reaching back."

Because who knows, a little exposure can go a long ways.

"What I'm hoping for is to get one of those for the US,” says Frenette, pointing at the plaque that shows Bon Iver went gold in the United Kingdom. “That's 500,000 there. We're at 400,000 something here. It's creeping, it'll get there soon."

As for the Vernons, the reality of it all is just sinking in.

"I think what's even more rewarding then the "fame" or whatever you want to call this that's going on with him is the fact that he's just Justin. I mean when we talk on the phone or when he's at our house or it's Christmas time, we're all just the Vernon family hanging out," says Justine.

Gil says you have to do what you can to make your kids' dreams come true.

"You don't prepare the path for the child, you prepare the child for the path and that's what we try to do and he had to choose the path. It’s hard to say that we saw it coming but it's sort of like a tree growing, you sit and you can't see that tree growing but overtime it's bigger, there it is," says Gil.


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