It is unusual, to say the least, for us to come to a Covered In Folk feature to take on an artist whose total output officially includes but two full-length albums, a four-track EP, and a handful of appearances on tribute and compilation albums. But love him or hate him, there’s no denying the influence Bon Iver, aka Justin Vernon, has had on the independent music scene and its listeners since the revelation of his 2007 debut For Emma, Forever Ago – a reinvention and rebirth, as if a decade or more of previous artistic output as a bandmate, and as a solo artist under his own name, predated his very existence.
To be fair, no small modicum of Bon Iver’s claim to hipster fame is grounded in its perfectly twee backstory: a three month post-breakup solitude in a Wisconsin cabin, with mononucleosis and a small set of recording equipment, produces an itch to compose, from which the heavily layered album tracks emerged wholesale and complete like a ten commandments of the Indie age. Delicate as a demo, For Emma would ultimately be distributed in a small batch to blogs, who raved Bon Iver’s way to small label distribution, television placement, and best-of-the-decade listings in Stereogum, Metacritic, and other major tastemaker publications online and off. This, in turn, would lead to a second self-titled album in 2011, recorded with others as a band of the same moniker, that received Grammy wins for Best New Artist and Best Alternative Album, became Pitchfork’s #1 album of the year, and cemented the bearded artist’s place at the top of the hipster heart.
Intricate, authentic, deep and enveloping, the music Vernon has composed under the Bon Iver name is deserving of its critical reception. As a songwriter, Vernon favors the poetic, with longing and angst communicated through a litany of observations which come off as something between metaphor or vision; he’s been compared to Robert Creeley, which in this poet’s heart says something about a trend towards clear imagery and a particularly vivid use of figurative language. It is telling, indeed, that our set today includes coverage of almost every Bon Iver song ever recorded; something about these songs catches the heart, mind, and soul.
But although his lyrical authenticity is duly touted and taken on by his indiefolk peers, Vernon’s power as Bon Iver is more truly in the process, and the sound it creates: one that begins with wordless melody, which he listens to and then adds words to to match the syllabic nature of the music. This signature “music first” approach to arrangement and performance grounds his songs deeply in their rhythm and melody, elevating them past the limitations of live solo performance and demanding performance that generally includes a full band and sing-along audience choir.
The sound of Bon Iver – that shimmery overdubbed breathiness, evoking the haze of mono and isolation – dominates the canon, making for lyrics that are themselves part and parcel of the sonic atmosphere. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, to find that sound so often a primary driver of coverage, with that inimitable layered falsetto finding similarly soaring, echoing voice in versions from a score of artists growing up and finding their own success in the indiefolk scene. The merely unadorned solo isn’t rare, but it seems somehow startling, even as it finds and exposes a simpler beauty in the songs and melodies themselves.
Our favorite cases of each populate our 20-song tribute set today. Join us, as the loneliness and heartache of Bon Iver finds voice in the other, and then stick around for a bonus EP-length set of Bon Iver covering his own peers and influences.
COVERED IN FOLK: BON IVER [zip!]
- HATS: Re:Stacks
Scottish indierock brothers John & Garry aka HATS put a driving drumthrum-and-piano heartbeat behind sibling harmonies for stunning atmospheric effect, a gorgeous tension that never truly resolves.
- Passenger: Holocene
A quiet, intimate winter recording from English singer-songwriter Passenger that serves and reflects the snowy, stark layout of its accompanying video.
- Luke Leighfield and Jose Vanders: Blindsided
Tinkling piano, sweet lead vocals and hushed harmonies, and an undertone of cello build to a wash of sound before stripping back again in this EP freebie from tourmates and occasional collaborators Luke Leighfield & Jose Vanders.
- Lotte Kestner: Flume
- Deni Hlavinka: Flume
Cover Lay Down fave lo-fi dreampop cover collector Lotte Kestner lends a morphine tone on a track recently added to the Starbucks playlist; Deni Hlavinka’s Soundcloud-sourced cover is hollow, fragile and frozen, with pulsing piano and a layered choir.
- Enna: Michicant
A glitchy cover, heavy with lead and gold. German musician Enna also covers Flume; of the covers assembled here, it’s closest to the original, but sweet nonetheless.
- Dress Rehearsal: Beth/Rest
Quite lo-fi; retro-primitive, with a hint of grunge guitar bridge lending an edge like the Lemonheads at their lightest. Check out more of Dress Rehearsal‘s living room covers and originals at bandcamp.
- Clara C: Skinny Love
- Orla Gartland: Skinny Love
- Birdy: Skinny Love
Orla Garland‘s take is jangly and sharp, a stark contrast to the lush harmonies of the original; A clear, soaring piano ballad with heart from the teenage sensation Birdy lends a pop feel; Clara C hits the middle ground with sweet soul and a pulsing reverb.
- Catherine A.D.: The Wolves (Act I and II)
A lyrically-driven piano track that teeters on the edge of new age celtic album-closer. From Reprise: The Covers Collection
- Fort DeClare: Beach Baby
Young amateur Fort DeClare stunned us back in 2010 with this delightful bedroom approach to lo-fi indie electrofolk, with thick, layered atmosphere and gentle repetitive elements.
- Juliana: Calgary
Previously celebrated rising star Juliana Richer Daily – who now goes by her first name only – turns in an emotional yet relatively faithful singer-songwriter take on an undersung favorite.
- Duncan Stagg: Blood Bank
- Benjamin Baker: Blood Bank
- Kina Grannis: Blood Bank
Kina Grannis heads right for Justin Vernon’s original layered echoes; Duncan Stagg makes for an altrock ballad; Benjamin Baker’s cover, from his four-album Acoustified covers series, is darker, a campfire hush with harmonies.
- Amarise Carreras: Roslyn (orig. Bon Iver w/ St. Vincent)
New Noisetrade discovery Amarise Carreras plays gentle lo-fi covers as endearing and raw as Karen Dalton or Vashti Bunyan – a perfect fit for this Twilight saga soundtrack original.
- Chamberlain: Lost In The Woods (orig. Kanye West ft. Bon Iver)
An indiecoustic soul number which builds into a jam, as befits this Kanye/Bon Iver collaboration; expect to see this track pop up again on a future Covered In Folk: Kanye West feature.
- Daughter: Perth (orig. Bon Iver) vs. Ready For The Floor (orig. Hot Chip)
A lush, shimmery mash-up that crosses jazz, trance, and dreampop lines – sparse for the genre, perfect for the close of today’s Bon Iver covers collection.
Looking for more Bon Iver? Though he is reportedly reluctant to perform his own songs without the richness of vocal harmony and band, Vernon does some pretty sweet covers himself. Today’s Bonus Tracks feature the Wisconsin artist taking on the folk canon both new and old, live and in-studio – a strong introduction to his original, inimitable style.
- Bon Iver: I Can’t Make You Love Me (orig. Bonnie Raitt)
- Bon Iver: Coming Down (orig. Anais Mitchell)
- Bon Iver & Feist: Train Song (orig. Vashti Bunyan)
- Bon Iver: Come Talk To Me (orig. Peter Gabriel)
- Bon Iver: Bruised Orange (Chain Of Sorrow) (orig. John Prine)
- Bon Iver: Your Love (orig. The Outfield)
Always original and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down offers new themed sets, songwriter features and coverfolk finds throughout the year thanks to the kind support of readers like you. Find us on Facebook for bonus discoveries and streaming multimedia coverage, too!