ONLINE EXCLUSIVE :: In Conversation with José González

Photo by Malin Johansson
Photo by Malin Johansson

By Harrison Samphir

Since the release of his debut album, Veneer, 12 years ago, José González has remained an enduring indie-folk figure, crafting mellow yet affecting compositions on his classical guitar. Born in Gothenburg, Sweden, the 37 year-old has since released three full length solo records – his latest, Vestiges and Claws, dropped in February – several extended plays, and various other works with the Scandinavian band Junip, and London’s trip hop ensemble Zero 7.

Some might recall González for his ultra-popular covers of famous songs like The Knife’s “Heartbeats,” Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” or his more recent rendition of TLC’s “Waterfalls,” performed live on Sweden’s most popular television quiz show På spåret. Whatever the case, his vast array of successful work continues to garner critical acclaim and open the door to new creative opportunities. He wrote three original songs for the soundtrack of the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, lent a track to a massively popular 2010 video game, and participated in experimental collaborations with orchestras from Europe to North America.

Stylus Magazine spoke to González from his home in Gothenburg about his new record, creative inspirations, and the underlying meaning of his most personal songwriting. 

Stylus: Thanks for speaking with me today, José. Are you looking forward to playing the Winnipeg Folk Festival? I can tell you from experience, the atmosphere will most certainly suit your playing style.

José González: Yeah! It’s going to be great. We just rehearsed a bit. Compared to other shows where we have five people, at the Winnipeg and then Newport Folk Festivals, we’ll be doing a dual set, so it’ll be two guitars and two vocals. It feels really good. We will be playing almost exclusively solo songs from my albums.

Stylus: Tell me about your upbringing in Sweden after your parents fled Argentina during the military junta of the late-1970s. Do you have a strong sense of a dual identity, one part Latin American, the other European?

JG: I feel definitely more Swedish than anything else, because of the language and because I’ve lived in Gothenburg all my life. But then I have a strong sense of global citizenship because of all the touring, and because I use English so much, I read a lot in English, and then of course with Spanish, I feel even more of an international citizen. I never lived in Argentina, and the culture that I’ve inherited from there is maybe language and knowing to drink mate (Laughs).

My parents came over with my sister; she was two years-old. I was born here [in Sweden] and my younger brother was born here. We’ve always spoken Spanish at home, and we still do, but we speak better Swedish! My accent is a Western Argentinean accent.

Stylus: Tell me about the title of your latest record, Vestiges & Claws. There are many personal, introspective songs on this album — much like your others — but tracks like “Open Book,” for example, seem particularly intimate. Is the songwriting informed by some recent experiences in your life?

Listen to “Open Book”

JG: I decided to use the title after I had written most of the lyrics. Vestige is a concept I’ve thought about many times, and I think it’s useful to think about in global times, cultures hinging or intermixing and also ideas that become part of ideologies. To me it’s an interesting word I enjoyed having as the title because then I get to talk about it (Laughs)! It’s from the song “What Will” where I’m asking ‘what will it be?’ thinking about global issues and humanity and how to move forward in very interesting times. That’s one of the lyrics where I’m thinking about broader issues. Then I have songs that are more personal, or more relationship-oriented, and “Open Book” is one of those. It’s a song that came about when I was trying to write in a more classical way, using chord progressions that are more traditionally folk, and lyrics that are more personal or at least sound more personal. I was writing in a first-person perspective, not only thinking about myself and my own events but also other people’s events and how I can write about the difficult issues when you have a breakup, unintentionally or someone leaving you. So it’s only partly informed by my own experiences.

Stylus: I’ve heard you describe it as a self-help song.

JG: Yeah! (Laughs) I’ve come to realize that my music is being used like self-help for many people, partly because of the sound, being very soothing and comforting. A song like “Crosses” [from Veneer], I know that a lot of people enjoyed it in that sense. They used it to go to sleep, or to put their babies to sleep, or to just have on in the background when they are studying or painting. I’ve become aware of it, and with my lyrics I’ve thought about it. A song like “Open Book” can be a tool for people to go through difficult experiences.

Stylus: I have to ask you about the video for “Open Book,” which portrays a grotesque, slimy creature of some bizarre sort, following you as you carry your guitar between hotel rooms. Tell me about the imagery there.

JG: It was directed by Mikel Cee Karlsson, who’s been doing my videos for a while long, first together with Andreas Nilsson for “Down the Line” and then also for Junip and some other works. We talked about doing videos pretty early, when my album was done, and we came up with the idea for the Sunday assembly for [the video for] “Leaf Off/The Cave,” and already he was talking about this mechanical worm that could move around. He thought of the idea of vestiges and playing around with the imagery of this thing that was attached to me and that I carried around. I felt it was a good opportunity to use it, especially on “Open Book” since the song is so sweet and harmless; it was nice to stir things up.

But it’s mainly because of Mikel, he and his brother came up with the visual ideas and, actually, this mechanical worm didn’t have the face when we were first talking about it – when I showed up for the video shoot and I saw the face I thought ‘Okay, nobody will watch this video twice!’ It’s a bit disturbing, but if you enjoy talking about ethical issues, then this could be a discussion-opener: what do you do if you have this other thing that’s attached to you and dependent on you, but you have to take care of it? It takes the relationship part of the song to a new level. Mikel also did a video recently for Calexico’s “Falling from the Sky.” For me it’s one of their best songs ever. I have to say I’m a bit sorry for them because I’m not sure they got the attention they deserved for that video.

Stylus: You’ve done some producing lately, working on a motion picture soundtrack (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) and mixing songs from scratch. Tell me about that experience, and the track you contributed to the Red Hot + Arthur Russell Compilation for HIV/AIDS awareness last year.

JG: It was a new experience. I had been mixing a bit with Junip but very seldom doing the mixes from scratch and taking them the whole way. So I was excited to learn more. For the movie I started doing demos to come up with ideas, and then also when I was asked to be part of the Arthur Russell collaboration, I experimented with different productions styles. Through those experiences I felt more comfortable with mixing and producing my own album. I do feel like other people do it better, but it is fun to have creative control and the ability to keep things a certain way without someone feeling like one should add something or change something. That’s part of me being stubborn but also enjoying learning about all the plug-ins that are out there.

Stylus: You also wrote a song – “Far Away” – for the video game Red Dead Redemption in 2010.

JG: [Red Dead Redemption] got the 2010 VGX Award for Game of the Year. It was also part of a trend of video games becoming more like interactive stories. I’m happy I got the opportunity to be a part of that. It’s always nice to do other things that aren’t just albums, too bad in this case it’s all related to violence! (Laughs)

Stylus: What is your relationship with nature? Many of your original songs touch on naturalistic themes, referencing the wild environment surrounding us. Do you consider yourself an environmentalist?

JG: Only partly. I haven’t been out in woods too much. I enjoy the sea, but I don’t sail. I’m more of a city person, but I really enjoy going out in parks when I go to cities that have them. I’m interested in environmental issues, but I don’t think I’m in the camp of those who want to conserve the environment at every cost. I’m more in the camp of making sure sentient beings get to live a good life. And part of that good life is having biodiversity and access to nature. But it is one of the main topics of our time, and I’m super interested in it. Yesterday I was actually looking at videos from a conference in Stockholm called EAT, led by Johan Rockström, a professor talking about global issues and the environment. I can also really recommend the article series in National Geographic on the Future of Food that’s in the upcoming issue.

Stylus: What about spirituality? Though the topic might be considered cliché, it has profound meaning to many. What about you? I know you’ve been influenced by some atheist texts.

JG: Yes. I’ve been interested in the word spirituality because I think many times, people are talking about the same thing but using different words. I like to start things off by saying that I’m spiritual but without ghosts or goblins, and I see a point in talking about meditation, or when someone takes a hallucinogenic drug or dances all night – these are experiences that are important and are very powerful. The word spirituality comes in there as one way to describe these feelings and experiences. I think one can talk about them without believing in God, or Gods, or spirits. I can really recommend “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion” by Sam Harris, it’s one of the books that addresses this issue of how one can talk about spirituality without believing in God.

Stylus: Who influenced you when you were first learning to play classical guitar?

JG: I was very interested in learning, and not so much listening. I started playing classical guitar with a private teacher and started learning old Spanish tunes. It was mainly through one album, John Williams Spanish Guitar Music, that had a big influence. Later I learned “Asturias” [Leyenda], “Canarios” [Sanz], and a Japanese folk song “Sakura” [Yocoh].

Stylus: What are you working on currently?

JG: With this show at the Winnipeg Folk Festival I’m starting my dual and solo shows with the new album. I’ve been rehearsing solo versions of songs like “Leaf Off/The Cave” and “Let It Carry You.” Later I’ll be touring and recording with yMusic, an ensemble from New York. We’re trying to set up shows with an orchestra I toured with a while ago, The Göteborg String Theory, and that will happen next year.

Don’t miss José González at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. He will play the Main Stage on Saturday, July 11 at 9:30 pm CST.