Bon Iver is the stagename of Wisconsin singer-songwriter Justin Vernon. After the break-up of his band De Yarmond Edison, Vernon retreated to his father's log cabin, out in the woods of north-east Wisconsin to hibernate for three snowy months. There he collected his thoughts and formulated them into a suite of songs. The album was originally self-released in late 2007 in a run of 500 copies and sold out instantly. It was later picked up by Jagjaguwar in the USA and by 4AD in Europe.
In an interview with Weekend America radio Bon Iver explained some of the lyrics in this song: "One of the songs I wrote when I was at the cabin was 'For Emma.' There's a lyric in there where that says, 'I saw death on a sunny snow.' And it was very typical for a day up there in February. I remember there was a day before I left that it was minus 20F, but the sun was shining and it was sort of a brilliant contrast. Whenever I sing this song, or perform this song that's where I am. When I'm singing, 'Running home, running home,' it's sort of this repetitive thing that happens in the song. It's not as much about home, because I didn't know what home was at that point. That wasn't as established for me. My parents had a home. And I grew up at a home. But I was just running. These stories and this song all happen during the winter, because about February every year is when it gets really hard. And I think the starkness and the grayness and the lack of sun, and when the dirt and the salt sort of build up at the side of the roads, I think it's about time for the ground to start thawing and I think it's when people's hearts really start to give out. I think that's when you remember it the most."
Vernon explained to the London Times about Emma: "Emma doesn't really exist. Well, she does, Emma is her middle name but we had split up long before I moved. I called her anyway and she's pretty freaked out. But as I explained to her, it was never about her. The record was me finally stopping a terrible, slow spin that had been building for years. Me alleviating memories, confronting a lot of lost love, longing and mediocrity."
Bon Iver originally recorded the tracks for the album in the log cabin, though other instruments were added later for this song and "Flume." On "For Emma" Boston musicians John DeHaven and Randy Pingrey added trumpet and trombone in a studio.
"Bon Iver" is an artful misspelling of the French for "Good Winter." Vernon explained his name to the London Times April 12, 2008: "I don't speak French, it's from a story about a town in Alaska; people would come out of their houses after the first snow of each year, hug each other and say 'Bon hiver', but hiver, reminded me of my liver, so I dropped the 'h'."
Vernon explained to Uncut magazine June 2008 that the songs on the album are centered "around an ancient long-lost love." He added: "But, as happens in people's lives, old relationships often have plenty to do with new relationships as they come along. A lot of the album is about me trying to grow-up, about trying to grow into new love and failing at it. It's telling a story of one last relationship and how other ones collided with it."