Late November, 2019 in downtown Eau Claire, Wisconsin and lines of well-wrapped people snake through the cold night, stretching from the Masonic Ballroom on Graham Avenue to the Unitarian Universalist Chapel on Farwell Street. This is Eaux Claires Hiver, an event that hovers somewhere between a festival and an artistic residency. Musicians and artists have spent several days experimenting and working with one another and are now presenting their collaborations to small audiences in intimate locations across the town. The event’s curators, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner, have stood on the Ballroom stage and welcomed us. There have been sets by Jon Hopkins and Shahzad Ismaily and a Q&A with Ani DiFranco.
Later, there will be a tribute to Prince. On the third night, meanwhile, Big Red Machine take over the main hall at the Pablo Center – a large, modern arts building on the Chippewa River. The band, made up of Vernon and Dessner, play as if they are not so much performing as deep in conversation with one another. This is not a set of crowd-pleasers – only one track appeared on the band’s first album. The rest are new works, semi-formed, their edges still sketchy and blurred. Still, the audience is rapt.
Next month, many of those songs appear, fully fledged, on Big Red Machine’s second album, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?. It is an extraordinary record: contemplative, tender, strikingly vulnerable, pulling in collaborations with Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, Taylor Swift, Sharon Van Etten and Anaïs Mitchell among others. “I can’t think of another record like this, where it’s not really a band, but tons of lead singers,” says Vernon.
The album is the product of four years’ worth of recording sessions, live shows, dabblings, half-thoughts and conversations. “At some point, Justin and I got in the habit of getting together and bouncing off each other,” Dessner says, down the line from Long Pond – the studio in Upstate New York where he’s recorded everything from The National to Swift’s two lockdown albums, Folklore and Evermore, and where Big Red Machine songs are largely put together. “We were talking a lot about community and collaboration and the fabric of voices, about music that is meaningful. But we’ve never had a master plan. It’s kind of like we just kept making things.”