Isolation Sparking Inspiration: “For Emma, Forever Ago”


James Retigg

Photo of Justin Vernon (Bon Iver)

Brinly Johnson, Editor

Isolation is a lifestyle we’ve all become acquainted within recent times. Isolation could be considered a great punishment for some but for one singer-songwriter, it saved his life and career. Justin Vernon was born in Eau Clare, Wisconsin with music always accompanying him. Seeing the folk group “Indigo Girls” in his adolescence sparked the artist within him and proved to be the most significant moment in his life. As the years passed, Vernon attended the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire, joining a band where he would meet his muse for his upcoming breakthrough album. 

Joining band after band, Justin Vernon ended up joining the band “Mount Vernon”. The band consisted of 10 members including a talented saxophonist named Sara Emma Jensen. Justin and Sara had a whirlwind romance ending in both of them going their separate ways. The couple decided to stay friends. Though that decision was made, Justin never truly got over her. The unresolved feelings Vernon had for Jensen began forging the downward spiral he was about to experience. 

Joining a new band, DeYarmond Edison, Justin, and the band relocated to the vibrant city of Raleigh, North Carolina. Vernon’s time in Raleigh was not the quest he thought he would be partaking in. Frustration was endless in Justin’s life. Working in a local sandwich shop, he lost every ounce of inspiration and motivation he had left. Contracting pneumonia was a maelstrom he was not prepared for. Strong pneumonia then turned into mononucleosis which developed into devastating liver failure. Being bed written, Justin was not able to contribute to his current band which ended in him being kicked out. Vernon then tried one last time to survive in an already formed band, The Rosebuds. After contributing to the band’s third album, Vernon eventually left the band. The twenty-five-year-old had felt his life had spiraled into extreme mediocrity. On impulse, Vernon broke all ties and drove eighteen hours through the night to his hometown. After feeling lost and claustrophobic in his childhood home, Justin hit the road in search of isolation. 

Justin Vernon drove almost an hour northwest of his hometown to his family’s hunting cabin. Three weeks passed filled with drinking and watching television. He also constantly thought about his relationship with Jensen, which he still was not fully over. Growing tired of his self-pity, Vernon decided to express his emotions the way he knows best, music. Dragging all of his equipment out of his car through the snow, he began creating what would become a critically acclaimed album. 

Justin began working in 12-hour bursts. He recorded songs layering vocals on top of vocals, imitating the sound of a choir. Vernon has said these days had blended together at the time and would only wake from the shine of the snow. February came sooner than later and Justin Vernon had left the so-called “mythological” and “magical” cabin emerging with nine songs. Vernon did not feel renewed from his catharsis. Breaking out drinks with his closest friends, he finished the brass and the vocals for his tracks. 

“For Emma, Forever ago” was originally self-released on the social media platform Myspace in 2007 under the name Bon Iver. Gradually, it became a hit. Positive reviews were coming in from every angle, with “Skinny Love” and “For Emma” becoming the most popular tracks from the album. Record labels were offering Vernon deals left and right, desperate to sign him. Justin ultimately decided to sign with the independent label Jagjaguwar in October 2007. 

Though “For Emma, Forever Ago” is considered a smash hit to everyone else in Justin Vernon’s life, he considers it a victory for his mental health. Vernon wrote this album in a place where he was in deep mental instability. This album allowed him to express emotions and ultimately get on the road to recovery. Though Sara Jensen was an inspiration and namesake, Vernon describes Emma as a sentiment and a closing of his history. Justin elaborated saying that Emma isn’t a person, Emma is a place you get stuck in, Emma is a pain you can’t erase. “For Emma, Forever Ago” is available to listen to on all streaming platforms.