I've spent many days of my life pondering and living with the music of New Orleans: The Meters, Professor Longhair, Clifton Chenier, Dr. John, any no-name compilation I could find. When I was 14 years old, I finally made the pilgrimage south from Wisconsin. My mother and my college-age sister took me to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Mom and Dad had been many times, but this was my first. It was the beginning of my life.
Surprisingly, it wasn't the music of New Orleans that marked this very singular turning point back in 1994. The year before, my sister, Kim, began listening to the album Swamp Ophelia by the Indigo Girls. I knew nothing about it except that she and her housemates at the University of Wisconsin-Madison shared a large love for the music. She never sat me down and made me listen to it. It just made its way into my mind. Now, 15 years later, from 1994 until 2009, through the many divergent phases of music love, from Steve Reich to Bowerbirds, I can't lodge Swamp Ophelia loose from my list of favorite albums.
On the third night of the festival, Mom, Kim and I ventured away from the main grounds out on some sort of bus shuttle with flocks of festival goers—women holding hands, men sitting alone, me, Mom and Kim—to see Joan Baez, Joan Osborne and the Indigo Girls. The evening is still so vivid to me. The power the music onstage exuded and the strength of spirit it showcased deeply affected me. I sat in my chair and spoke to myself. "I was put on this world to do something with music. As long as I live, I will remember this as the moment when I decided no matter how hard it is, I can never give up."
The 15 years that have passed feel like an epoch for someone who is only 28. What's more, the last two years have spun me from a struggling musician working doubles in a kitchen on Glenwood South and living in a crowded Raleigh house on Everett Avenue to a musician who now gets to tour, come home to a farm and not have to work another job. In fact, our band's music has done well enough that the Indigo Girls asked us—likely unaware of my story with their songs—to open for them at three shows this week. The fact that they have even heard my songs is astonishing. That I am physically going to share a stage with them... That's just indescribable. It's so silly but so obvious, like it was meant to happen, as if it were willed.
I have started to understand that belief is a formative phenomenon: Remembering the ride back on a New Orleans city bus that got lost for two hours, I was gazing from the window and knowing that something changed in me forever. This week might do the same: When I meet Amy Ray's hands with my own and hear her speaking voice, something I know only by listening from afar, there will be palpitations, earthquakes where the plates of my past will shift—perhaps, finally, into place.
Justin Vernon founded Bon Iver in North Carolina and Wisconsin. He opens for his heroes, the Indigo Girls, this week in California.