The Secret Life of José González
When an artist hasn’t released an album in eight years, the first question is pretty obvious: What took so long?
Of course, José González has been anything but idle.
Since his last “proper” album — 2007′s In Our Nature — the Swedish singer-songwriter has released two full albums as the lead singer of Junip, contributed original and reworked material for the soundtrack to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and recorded tracks for three compilations from the acclaimed Red Hot series, Dark Was the Night (2009), Red Hot + Rio 2 (2011) and Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell (2014).
Between 2009 and 2011 González participated in the the Göteborg String Theory project. Pairing up with classical composer and 20-piece orchestra, the project reinterpreted songs by non-classical artists from his Swedish hometown. Even without hearing the result, anyone familiar with González’s music can acknowledge the agreeability of the combination.
“We did one song and I thought it went so well that I wanted to do more,” he says. González let the orchestra rewrite 11 more of his songs, and together, as José González & The Göteborg String Theory, they performed 19 dates throughout Europe in 2011.
When he finally got to make time for his third solo album, Vestiges and Claws, he was as anxious as anybody to get started.
“I was really looking forward to it. I’m just really slow at writing,” he laughs. “I’ve actually released an album every three years: 2003, 2007, 2010, 2013. Now we’re in early 2015, so for me this is actually faster than usual.”
Though it took until last year to start recording the album, González had been setting aside demos and lyrics to use on it since his last record. He started by fleshing out that old material into finished songs, much of which ended up on the album. Those song in turn inspired fresh compositions like “Let It Carry You” and “Leaf Off”.
The finished product is less of a new direction and more of a subtle augmentation of the his earlier albums, both sonically and thematically.
Where his earliest work had a more stark, folky minimalism, with a potent resemblance to one of his idols — the great Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez — Vestiges and Claws finds González widening the scope of his worldly folk influences. In particular, he says “Stories We Build, Stories We Tell”, “What Will” and “Afterglow” are inspired by the desert music of West African artists like Tinariwen and Ali Farka Toure.
This worldy influence is largely representative of González’s own multicultural upbringing.
After all, González is not exactly a common surname in Scandinavia. Two years before he was born, his parents and infant sister immigrated to Sweden to flee the ultra-conservative junta that was ruling Argentina at the time.
“I’ve lived in Sweden all my life, so of course the Swedish language and culture have affected me most as a person,” says González, “but I have a strong connection to Argentina. I grew up speaking Spanish at home and listening to Argentinean folklore told by my Grandma. Especially in my solo music – with the percussion and rhythms and usage of the nylon string guitar - that’s something I’m really inspired by.”
And by his own description, being a Swede means being a sponge for many other influences.
“I think nowadays you can almost live anywhere and get inspired by other cultures because it’s so easy to get access to media from other countries,” he says.
“I think that’s what happened to me growing up in Sweden. I got inspired by North American and British folk, and I started writing in English. I think I have that in common with many other musicians in Sweden, and Nordic countries in general. We have our particular cultures, but we’re like chameleons in terms of imitating other styles. I think you can see that in the Nordic music exports, from the metal scene to electronic to folk artists like me and Ane Brun.”
He adds, “I’ve been inspired by [more traditional] Swedish artists too, like Monica Zetterlund and Jan Johansson. But it’s definitely a mixture of many things. At this point I don’t feel connected to any culture in particular, but rather many.”
On Vestiges and Claws, as he’s demonstrated in his previous work, González has a proclivity for asking the big questions in life.
“In a lot of songs I mention the short stay we have on this planet, trying to make the best of it so let carry you,” he says. “I write about how one should take the time to not let one’s self get carried away.”
One his sparse, existential single “Every Age,” González meditates, ”We don’t choose where we’re born / We don’t choose in what pocket or form / But we can learn to know ourselves / On this globe in the void.” Paired with the accompanying video, shot from the perspective of a camera as it’s launched from the earth into space, one is irrevocably reminded of the microscopic area mankind occupies in the known universe.
“In ‘Every Age’ I’m singing about humanity sharing this space and using your time wisely,” he says. “Every age has its turn to make the best out of it.”
And though González is never explicit about his personal dogmas, preferring to ask open ended questions, he certainly knows what he believes.
An outspoken atheist and vegetarian – not to mention a former biochemistry student – González previously stated that In Our Nature was inspired by Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics, two books loaded with anti-religious teachings and secular philosophies.
On Vestiges’ closing track, “Open Book,” he sings, “Lately I found myself in doubt / Ask myself what it’s all about / What am I doing here? What’s this leading to? / What’s the point of all? I found you!”
Explaining the line, González says, “’Open Book’ is about religion — the idea of living within this life, and not necessarily waiting for another one.”
Similarly, on “Leaf Off / The Cave,” he sweetly sermonizes, ”May the life lead you out,” then advising, ”Now that you have the facts on your side / Take a moment to reflect where you’re from / Let reason guide you.”
The passive aggressive preaching of González’s songwriting may be largely due to his own genial nature, as an incomplete conviction in the uselessness of practicing a faith.
“I don’t believe in any god or religion, but I know how people relate to them,” he says. “It’s interesting to explore the spiritual parts of faiths that don’t necessarily have to be related to religion and the spirits. The ability to get together and sing and wonder about life, that’s something that religions have done well at.”
Appropriately, the video for “Leaf Off / The Cave” depicts a congregation of the Sunday Assembly, an actual secular gathering of non-religious people who are attracted to the community experience of a church. Their motto: Live Better. Help Often. Wonder More.
“It was nice to invite the assembly for the video because they’re so authentic about getting together as a community, celebrating life and making sure to have a good time,” says González. “We made the video in Gothenburg, but they gather in many parts of the world and it looks pretty much the same; except they’re usually singing David Bowie and Beatles songs instead of my mine.”
As sensitive and delicate as his music is generally known to be, he has a more motley musical foundation.
Music became González main interest between the ages of 15 and his mid-20s.
“When I started playing music around the age of 15, I sort of got into everything at the same time. So it started out playing bass in a punk band called Back Against the Wall, then later in a hardcore band called Renascence,” he says. ”But in those same years I played acoustic guitar, learning how to play Beatles and bossa nova, and later classical guitar by going to a private teacher several times a month.”
It was toward the end of that period, around the time he was putting out his debut, that he found his now-identifiable José González sound.
And for such a demonstrated songwriter, González has never been shy about covering other artists’ material.
“I try to choose songs that are different from my own style,” he says. “I got inspired by Cat Power and Johnny Cash, they way they would make records around recording other people’s songs.”
One of his most well-known songs is a gorgeous rendition of “Heartbeats” by electronica outfit, and fellow Swedes, the Knife. The cover gained many people’s attention after it was used in an artfully produced commercial for Sony televisions, where 250,000 colorful bouncy balls were dropped down a steep street in San Francisco.
“When I covered ‘Heartbeats’ I was recording for my first album and I needed more songs. At that time I was really slow at writing lyrics, I didn’t actually enjoy writing lyrics, so it was a way to make sure the album sounded good,” he laughs.
José González may not be breaking any land speed records, but he continues to make music and enjoy the ride.
Ever-modest, and subtly self-effacing, he says he’s looking forward to begin rehearsals for his upcoming tour in support of Vestiges and Claws, even if he’s never completely confident in his own abilities.
“I’m starting to be able to play my guitar parts again,” he says. “It’s pretty difficult to play guitar and sing at the same time, but now I’m starting to get it together. It feels good.”
(Photos: Malin Johansson)
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