How Bon Iver Wrote ‘iMi’: 5 Years, 28 People and a Piece of Cardboard | Diary of a Song

How Bon Iver Wrote ‘iMi’: 5 Years, 28 People and a Piece of Cardboard | Diary of a Song

“Hello.” “Hey, Joe.” “Where are you?” “In Eau Claire, by the mall,
where I can get reception.” “Cool.” “The fish is amazing, what,
right over your head.” “Yeah, right?” [laughs] “Where are you? You have a nice
pink background. I like this.” “Yeah, we call it red.” [singing] “All my life,
I was … … keepin’ what you tellin’ me,
I know mine.” “I’ve known Justin since
we were 16 years old.” “And what was he like
when he was 16 years old?” “Exactly like he is now.” “[singing] Back in all
those sunny days. Back in all those
days by the water.” “Did you always think
of Justin as the one?” “We didn’t know
any better, but we knew that that was
a crazy voice.” “[singing] I’m gonna suckle on
the hope in light brassieres. My, my, my–” “He’s going to be tinkering
till the day he dies, trying to figure out
what else is a possibility.” “Here we go. Are you recording, Trevor?” “Yes.” “My best friend,
Trevor, and I, we were out up in the bar
in the middle of the winter, making music in
whatever way we could.” “It’s kind of like free
improv performance art work that we do, but
mainly just for ourselves. Right away, he kind
of went to a radio and was messing around
with the different knobs.” “I was turning the
radio on and off. Still don’t know what
song is playing.” “And then I started sliding
on this piece of cardboard.” “Trevor was just dead
on with the slides.” “And do you hear that
as a beat, essentially?” “Yeah, it’s like the— you hear it in
hip-hop sometimes. It’s, like, the chop.” “It’s sort of rhythmic
and sort of melodic, and you can kind of
start to mess with it.” “But it was such a
fragment of an idea, and even then,
he was dead serious. He was like, this is
going to be the first song on the next Bon Iver record.” “The part that I wrote
came about from a jam that we did maybe
four years ago.” “Justin’s really good
at piecing it together in weird ways.” “Maybe a year later,
we were in London. James Blake was in
the neighborhood, and so I had him come by,
and he just improvised.” “Justin invites a pretty
eclectic cast of characters. He loves to be in the
middle of all this but sort of let
the chaos unfold.” “It’s kind of like a little
game that you play with the song, like you try
and figure out what works and what doesn’t.” “I didn’t even
know who Bon Iv— uh, I didn’t know who Justin was. You know, when
he played it, I was like, load me up,
come on with it. And I just threw the
drums on, and then that [expletive] just turned
into a whole ’nother genre.” “God, I mean, I will never
remember all the things we tried to do on this song.” “I made three
trips to Wisconsin, and each time, it was
in kind of a different place.” “We just kept trying stuff. Oh, let’s play new chords. Let’s do piano. Someone play acoustic. Let’s do a bunch of
electric guitars.” “Justin was kind of like,
try anything, anywhere.” “Throughout most of this, Justin had not sung
on it at all. There wasn’t — there wasn’t
even really a scratch vocal for a long time. I think a yearslong time.” “I could never
figure it out, and I think
I was scared for many— I think writing the first
verse of this album, you get scared,
you get in your head, you have little obstacles.” “When we got to Texas,
it was, all right, we’ve got to figure this out.” “The ranch is 40 miles
south of El Paso.” “The property
butts up against the United States-Mexico border.” “There is literally a
wall on Tony’s property, and then on Tony’s property,
there’s no wall. It just, like, stops. So you can just put your hand
over and here I am, Mexico. This is all very [expletive] up. Doesn’t make any sense. A lot of perspective there. While we were at
Sonic Ranch, it was still very, very
unfinished, this song. And I’m still just like,
it’s got to be the first song, got to be the first song. And Brad’s just like, it’s not
a song at all, you know?” “I show up and I
can’t find anyone. And of course, the
first person I run into is Justin, smirking
ear to ear. Bon Iver was my
hero in college. Because of that,
I was really motivated to try some [expletive].” “Justin played on
that song right away, and he looked
him in the eye, and he’s like,
I don’t get it. I want to figure out what
the [expletive] is going on.” “I didn’t see any significance
in doing that at all until, while I was working
on it, I’d just see almost all of them pacing around,
listening through the door, and that if I wasn’t nervous,
that made me very nervous.” “That was a really big
turning point for that song.” “What did you do to it?” “God, I feel like I was
Jackson Pollock-ing it, and you’re asking me,
what colors didn’t I use? I don’t even remember.” “What you would understand
to be a chorus— —he took that little
part, cut it out, and made it sort of this hook,
and then put bass under it and made it feel
like a drop.” “He pulled a form
out of that song that hadn’t been
there before.” “And it was giving me
some new energy.” “He was just like, man,
I’m going to sing on this. I’m going to sing on this. And I think that was it. That was his reaction.” “Brad’s just like, dude,
you got to write this verse. Go write this [expletive] verse. Go [expletive] do this, you know? Like here’s your bars,
do something. Brad’s a really good friend. He produced me as a person,
just as much as a musician, really, in the last few years. He’s just encouraging.” “Justin’s had a
hard time asking for help over the years.” “You get tied up
in knots inside. These knots get so —
so thick and so tight, that you don’t even know where
to begin to unravel them.” “If I’m going to
be honest with you, I think there was some
real burnout going on.” “When I was going through
some tougher [expletive], like battling all
that [expletive], the fame and attention, the inability
to have relationships, the inability — just the
isolation of where I found myself, Brad got me
to relax and just say what I’m feeling.” “As soon as he
sings, I feel like it makes everything right.” “It still makes me cry.” “I like it when
people get inspired, because when they
get inspired, they usually have some sort of
empathetic, euphoric feeling. That’s the idea with
Bon Iver in general. It’s just like a little town
of people trying to be good.” “This song has been
a beast for us.” “I do love that song. I don’t know, it makes
total sense to me. I just hear it and I’m like,
oh, yeah, cool tune.” “It was very interesting
to see that progression from that first recording
into what the song is now.” “One of the guys said
even Frank Ocean might have been
around when James was messing with the song. “Yeah, I think Frank took
his track, though, man. I don’t know what he did.” Classic. “He’s like, yo, like,
some crazy Midwest dude. I’m taking these
tracks out of here.” [laughs] “Fair enough.”


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    Kristen Rogers

    Cool video as always, Joe. It would be awesome if there was a "Diary of a Song" for the some of the songs on his self-titled and For Emma, Forever Ago albums but I understand that's a lot and untimely 😂

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    Goofy Gabs

    Holocene is my favorite song of all time. I’m not too crazy about this folktronica stuff they started doing since 2016. But they’re all right. It’s just that Justin has a great voice and shouldn’t lay it to waste.

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    J G

    I like there's a visual aspect to the concept, but the concept itself for this series seems 100% lifted from the podcast Song Exploder. (Who also recently featured a different Bon Iver track.)
    It would have been cool to at least acknowledge the inspiration (or coincidence) even to the point of making it some kind of media collaboration.
    I feel like mass media (NYT etc) has gotten into the habit of ripping off ideas from independent producers, in their desperate attempt to stay relevant. NYT even reviewed the Song Exploder podcast in 2017 and gave it a glowing review. And now in 2019 we get their "take" on the concept. Without (seemingly) any credit or participation of SE.
    One great thing about SE is the removal of the "journalist/podcaster" from the process – we don't hear Hrishikesh or Thao interviewing the artist, we just get the artist's voice and sounds. This video "version" of the (exact same) idea, not so much. (I could really do without seeing the little nodding head in the upper right corner, just bobbing his head in constant agreement with Justin the entire time. Is it just a loop of the dude's head nodding? It's extremely irritating and distracting, and just emphasizes how superior and innovative Hrishikesh's groundbreaking podcast really is.)

    Happy to entertain any counterpoints to this, but it seems like Song Exploder has such a rich history over the years of exploring the creative process of recording artists and their songs that this NYT youtube series really needs to pay a tribute or tax to Hrishikesh.

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