José González: The Bare Truth
Ahead of his India debut, the Swedish folk artist discusses why he’s not “trying to be cool,” his love for ragas and Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia
As much as José González pours his heart into his guitar plucking, soul-searching music, the Gothenburg-based singer-song writer comes across just as soft-spoken—reserved, even—off stage. Whether it’s his simplistic take on his own musical preferences (“I think what I do best is just guitar and vocals, and other things I do more for fun”) or his almost endearing description of his eclectic style (“…I’m doing a style that doesn’t really lean too much on trying to be cool, it’s more about nice harmonies and playing soft”), González is a poet of few words.
But for all his sparse responses (and sometimes lyricism), González, 38, is far more erudite than he lets on. Notwithstanding an as-yet incomplete PhD in biochemistry, the folk musician is an active follower of podcasts and online lectures, that range from integrated information theory and Mexican blind cavefish to more general philosophy. González, who makes his India debut next month with shows at the Pune leg of Bacardi NH7 Weekender and The Humming Tree-hosted event Backdoors in Bengaluru, says, “For some years now, I’ve been listening to lectures about philosophy or politics and I just decided to start retweeting [them]. If there is a theme, it’s about things that have to do with humanism and the humanistic view.”
It’s the same sense of humanism that González touched upon with his sophomore release In Our Nature (2007). This followup to his 2003 debut Veneers saw the singer-songwriter depart from addressing (more or less unrequited) love towards reproaching war and religion over the barest of guitar melodies and most vulnerable of vocals. So while the mellow title track is an unmistakable call for peace (“Put down your gun/Ignore the alarm/Open up your heart,” sings González), “Abram” is a subtly sardonic request to religion to “go to sleep” (“Cook up some myths/ Then ask for obedience,” he mumbles over minimal strings). But In Our Nature also contains more recognizable lyrics—those of British trip-hop trio Massive Attack’s ethereal 1998 hit “Teardrop,” which he reimagines as a pulsing acoustic ballad.
Covers are, in fact, what first brought González into the indie limelight before he was recognized for his own delicate folk tunes. His 2003 rendition of fellow Swedes’ The Knife’s “Heartbeats” was a humble hit back home (apart from being sampled in various TV commercials and popular shows), while subsequent covers like Kylie Minogue’s “Hand On Your Heart,” and Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” furthered his now-trademark style. “Usually, I like it when the lyrics mean something but when you play them in my style, you get to hear them in a different way,” explains González. “With The Knife, it was one of those songs that I was listening to a lot at the moment, so it felt pretty natural to play it.” By 2013, González’s music was regularly featured in TV show and movie soundtracks—Ben Stiller-starrer The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, medical drama House and crime series Numb3rs, to name a few.
Last year brought even more commercial success with the release of his Western African-inspired, third full-length Vestiges and Claws, which scored an IMPALA Album of the Year Award. Acclaimed as his solo music might be, González is also recognized for his work with folk rock duo Junip and more prominently, avant-garde Gothenburg/Berlin-based The Göteborg String Theory, which he describes as “basically two buses filled with musicians.” An orchestral and art collective with whom González first toured on a sold-out European tour in early 2011, the 24-odd member Göteborg String Theory reimagine his minimal guitar-and-vocals arrangements with production that marries the elegance of classical music with alternative—at times electronic—sonic experimentation. González will return with the collective next year to tour Europe and the US.
And although he isn’t bringing an orchestra to his India shows next month, González is plotting a setlist that includes music from his solo albums. Says González, “I’m very excited. I listen a lot to Hariprasad Chaurasia—his Raga Bhupali—I listen to it at least once a week; that’s a big inspiration… It’s been 13 years of touring, so I’m happy that I’m finally coming over to that part of the world.
Listen to José González’s “Leaf Off / The Cave” below: