On first hearing, Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” seemed an unlikely song to become a pop standard. Written in 2006 by a lonely guy who had retreated from the world, its lacerating melody was originally played on a vintage resonator guitar. The vocals swoop from a heady mumble at the start to venting like an angry hillbilly in the chorus. And what is skinny love anyway? (Amour fou on the catwalk it ain’t.) Overall, you’re never sure if it works as score settling or self-abasement.
Obviously, it’s good — sonically arresting and emotionally compelling. It’s just not the type of composition you expect to figure often on reality-show auditions. Yet that — and what better definition of a 21st-century pop standard is there? — has been its fate, as well as to be covered by Ed Sheeran. It has helped turn its creator, Justin Vernon, into a Grammy-winning, genre-straddling super-collaborator, with a prominent fan in Kanye West. How that happened says much about the mechanics of the music industry over the past decade.
Vernon had “kind of given up” when he wintered in his father’s log cabin in rural Wisconsin. Split from band and girlfriend, he was recovering from a serious illness. Gradually, he wrote songs — wordless melodies at first, guided by falsetto syllables, then opaque lyrics, couched as a “small internal dialogue between me and the microphone”. The resulting album, For Emma, Forever Ago, was self-released in July 2007 then put out by an indie label in February 2008. That April, “Skinny Love” was its first single.
The album was a huge critical success. These were the days before “peak beard”, when most lumberjack shirts were still worn by lumberjacks and YouTube was a fairly new kid on technology’s block. Journalists couldn’t get enough of the log cabin story, which tapped into a strain of American romance and resilience that goes back to Walden Pond. Henry David Thoreau didn’t have Northern Exposure DVDs to watch, but he might recognise the spiritual terrain. Hipsters responded to what they saw as authentic backwoods heartbreak — although Vernon has said: “Emma isn’t a person. Emma is a place that you get stuck in. Emma’s a pain that you can’t erase.”
It was online that “Skinny Love” really took off, becoming a popular choice for people posting films of themselves singing in their bedrooms. People like Anna Scouten in 2009. The tipping point, however, was the 2011 version by 14-year-old Jasmine Lucilla Elizabeth Jennifer van den Bogaerde, better known as Birdy, who already had a record contract. The official video of her plaintive, porcelain-toned, piano-led rendition has now been viewed more than 100m times.
It launched Birdy’s career spectacularly and proved very big in Australia, where perhaps the most famous of those reality auditions occurred: Bella Ferraro’s on The X Factor in 2012. Arguably, that Birdy version also is wrapped up in the trend for winsome female covers of indie classics. Birdy’s marketing team clearly think they can repeat the trick: now 19, she has covered “Skinny Love” for Elle magazine to promote her latest album. Inevitably more nuanced and mature, it does suggest that she is an artist with staying power.
And the definition of “Skinny Love”? Vernon has said that it’s when “you’re in a relationship because you need help, but that’s not necessarily why you should be in a relationship. And that’s skinny. It doesn’t have weight. Skinny love doesn’t have a chance because it’s not nourished.”
So there. Maybe it was destined to appeal to The X Factor crowd after all.
For more in the series, and podcasts with clips of the songs, ft.com/life-of-a-song
Photograph: Rex Features
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published