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Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on Recording Kanye’s Dark Fantasy

The most unlikely collaborator on Kanye West’s new album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy also ended up on nearly half the songs. This meant Bon Iver’s bearded singer-songwriter-producer Justin Vernon would spend more time onstage than any other guest at last night's New York concert. His voice is the first thing you hear on the album’s first track, "Dark Fantasy” and the closer, “Lost in the World,” is based on Bon Iver’s “Woods." We spoke with Vernon about how he and Kanye hooked up, and life in the studio.

How’d Kanye find you?
The first person who reached out to me was Kanye himself. I got a phone call. I’d heard he wanted to use a sample of “Woods,” and we were talking on the phone for 30 to 45 minutes about music and life in general, where the record was at … He was interested in my aesthetic in a recording and production standpoint. He invited me out. I said, “Oh, cool, I’ll come out to Hawaii, it sounds fun.” Hawaii, in February.

What did he say he liked about Bon Iver specifically?
He was pointing out lyrics from “Blood Bank” and said he was a fan of For Emma and really wanted to talk to me about the vocal techniques I’d been using in the studio. I use Auto-Tune in a different kind of way, and he was into that. It was just sort of a very open artistic vibe: fourteen-hour days of having fun and being really creative.

What was your first day out there like?
I first got there a little jet-lagged from Minneapolis. Before I went to the studio, he picked me up and we went to play hoops. He likes being in Hawaii — he doesn’t get bothered by people bothering his shit. In the studio, he played the songs: "Can you do something here?" We were going back and forth, listening to songs a couple times, just kind of going back and forth, me and [producer Jeff] Basker and Kanye and a couple of his friends.

What was it like in there?
Very spontaneous. Kanye slept like three hours a night, at the studio. He was the only one who didn’t sleep at his own house. He’d work every day all day long and fall asleep in the middle of a sentence at four in the morning. All the other stuff it was just packaging. It’s just about whatever sounds good to him. In the sense of raw talent, people were just rolling in. I’d never heard Nicki, then I got to watch her destroy that verse in the studio [“Monster”] before I even knew who she was. And it was encouraging. We were listening back to “Lost in the World” and Kanye said, “That’s Justin singing that thing.” Nicki just looked at me, like, "Him? Right on … " It was a really rad thing.

Kanye’s known to be pretty demanding.
Yeah, he’s on top of it, he’s the executive. But he gives you room to explore yourself and to express whatever. Whatever’s the best for the song, he’ll get to that. By any means necessary, however it happens, he’s down for it, and that means sometimes he’s steering, and sometimes he’s letting go.

So “Lost in the World” was directly related to what he’s been going through this past year?
He’s obviously been in an emotional spot in the last couple of years, but he’s firing on extremely positive cylinders right now. It’s inspiring to himself and others. He says he’s just one person. He likes being a star and he’s good at it, but I think he doesn’t enjoy that people try to make him more accountable for something just because he is a star. Everybody is a contradiction of themselves and not only is that not a problem, it’s a beautiful thing. People should be contradictions. If you’re not, it means you’re not evolving or becoming a better person. We talked about, as people, just about trying and becoming a better person. It comes through in the music. It’s just unapologetic: Don’t apologize for being whoever you are, whoever you are.

Michael Jackson pops up repeatedly on the album. Was he talking much about Michael?
Yeah. It was still semi-fresh. We talked about how what he went through in the media changed who he was. About how he was so talented and really just a musician, but he was made into something else — and how it literally killed him by the end of his life.

Did you see the Today show? Did you think he brought in that media consultant because he was afraid things would spiral out like the Taylor Swift debacle?
I know for a fact the reason why the Today show had Kanye is to see if he would do something like that. Prodding a person in the limelight is what they do. So, like he said, why go anymore? Man, I could go on a whole rant about fame in general and how people project themselves onto the famous so they don’t have to deal with their own shit … I wish people could forget the tabloids and paparazzi and just be into music for music’s sake.

And what are you doing with your own music now?
I’ve been working on my stuff for three years, and I’m finishing up by Christmas this one thing. It’s really different: bass saxophone, pedal steel guitar, a lot of drums and recording techniques. It’s been a giant discovery. Every one of my side projects I’ve done — Volcano Choir, Gayngs, this Kanye thing — they’ve all fed in different ways in the exploratory sense. But I’d be hard-pressed to see this new stuff come out before summertime.

Will you work together again?
I already worked on a bunch of tracks that didn’t make the record. I’m down for it. You know, I didn’t know "Monster" was going down, and then my name is on single art with Rick Ross and Nicki Minaj and Jay-Z …

Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images