Music in isolation: how solitude has sparked brilliance from Bruce Springsteen to Bon Iver 

Isolation has helped stars – from Paul McCartney to Bon Iver and Bruce Springsteen – create incredible, often haunting music

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Single success: Paul McCartney recorded one of his greatest pieces in isolation
Single success: Paul McCartney recorded one of his greatest pieces in isolation

In 2006, struggling musician Justin Vernon packed up his meagre belongings and headed into the Wisconsin wilderness. He had broken up with his band and his girlfriend, and drove through the night to take refuge in a ramshackle hunting cabin built by his father decades before.

Hunkering down for a winter alone, he chopped logs, hunted for food, drank too much beer and binge-watched old Nineties Canadian TV series Northern Exposure. After a few weeks of solitude, he started writing songs again, recording on basic home equipment. Vernon stacked up ethereal choral vocals on top of acoustic guitar, singing lyrics that were as much sound and feeling as actual words, groping his way back to artistic health. The result was an odd, beautiful album called For Emma, Forever Ago, released in 2007 under the moniker Bon Iver (a French greeting Vernon misheard from Northern Exposure, “Bon Hiver”, meaning “Good Winter”).

It’s a record on which you can sense the wilderness all around and feel the wispy, gauzy songs taking shape. It became a critic’s favourite. Sampled by Kanye West for his track Lost in the World in 2010, Vernon’s introspective innovations were absorbed into mainstream pop culture. Today, Bon Iver is one of the most acclaimed and influential musicians in the world, helping frame the downbeat sound of our digital pop era.

The arts are being hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. It’s been a tough week for music lovers, with festivals and tours cancelled, and new albums postponed in their wake. But as we all retreat into seclusion, it is worth considering that isolation can also be a cathartic and creative force. It has certainly been responsible for some incredible music over the years.

While The Beatles were coming to an acrimonious end, Paul McCartney played all the instruments on his solo debut album, McCartney, in an act of creative self-healing. By his own admission, McCartney was depressed, drinking too much and on the verge of a breakdown in 1969 as the band disintegrated. He retreated with his young family to his farm in Scotland for two months, then holed up in his house in St John’s Wood in London, writing and recording in secret with a four-track machine and one microphone, his absence from public life fuelling the weird “Paul is Dead” rumours circulating the globe.

Bon Iver (aka Justin Vernon) wrote his debut album in a cabin

The resulting album, released in 1970, demonstrated that he was very much alive. It may not be a masterpiece but it has a ragged, warm, home-made charm, the gritty opposite of The Beatles’ dazzling productions. And it contains Maybe I’m Amazed, a soulful outpouring of love to his supportive wife Linda, among the greatest songs in his canon. It was one of the first albums to utilise advances in recording technology which allowed a single multi-instrumentalist to create a whole LP by themselves.

Many more have followed this self-isolating path, including Steve Winwood (Arc of a Diver), Stevie Wonder (Innervisions), Prince (Dirty Mind), Trent Reznor (almost all of Nine Inch Nails’ early industrial rock was recorded solo) and such contemporary stars as Tame Impala and Grimes.

Indeed, in the modern era, anyone with a laptop and a microphone has the potential to become a legend in their own bedroom studio time. Some artists just don’t play well with others. There is a quality of intense introspection about the works of one-man-band singer-songwriters Elliott Smith and Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, whose music grappled soulfully with their shyness and depression, and whose lives both tragically ended by their own hands.

It would be foolish to suggest that isolation is always a positive force, but at least their music has brought solace to many wrestling the same demons. At its best, working in solitude can allow an artist to hone their creative vision, distilling it to its purest essence. After a decade spent battling to the summit of rock stardom, Bruce Springsteen took time off and retreated to a New Jersey ranch. There, one night in January 1982, he got out a small four-track cassette machine and recorded 15 songs in a row, by himself, singing and playing guitar, then adding a backing vocal and maybe tambourine or a bit of harmonica. The tape was hissy and lo-fi, just a set of home demos to help remember the songs.

Springsteen hired a big studio, assembled his band and recorded them all again. The sessions went on for weeks, as Springsteen fretted about losing the haunting spirit of his “unself-conscious voice”. Finally, he took the original cassette out of his jeans pocket and announced, “This is it.”  Released in its raw form as Nebraska in 1982, it remains a singular masterpiece, the sound of an artist in glorious self-isolation.