Sunday, 1 February 2015

Interview with José González

José González, 'Leaf Off / The Cave'

After his parents fled Argentina in 1976, at the dawn of the "Dirty War" which saw an ultra-conservative military junta take power in the country, they received citizenship in Gothenburg, Sweden, where González was born two years later. Needless to say, both traditional Latin American and contemporary European music would direct the singer-songwriter's musical path. Hugely popular in Ireland since the release of his hit debut album Veneer in 2005, following which he played shows in Dublin and Galway, González reveals that a return trip to these shores are on the cards again (dates TBC!), to tie in with the release of his third solo album, Vestiges & Claws, which is out on the 13th February here. 

I had a great discussion with José from Gothenburg by phone yesterday evening, sadly I couldn't quell my inner Irish disposition to talk about the weather and ask him was it cold in Gothenburg as well. Surprisingly, we spent the first two minutes of our chat talking about the weather, and wondering why people were always shocked that it gets cold in winter, thankfully we progressed to more relevant topics after that, and I found José to be a strikingly modest and intelligent individual.

Needless to say, I was curious how González's dual cultural backgrounds had shaped his musical path. How had the South American musical heritage of his parents, alongside growing up in Sweden, (a country with a rich tradition of music that is popular in English-speaking countries) impacted on his writing. 

"I suppose starting off with Latin influences, I grew up with Argentinian folklore (folk music) at home, as well as Brazilian music, and particularly Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez. That was, for me, one of the main starting points when I started writing my own music, but I feel that my sound is closer to U.K. and North American folk music, say, artists such as Simon & Garfunkel, more recently, on the new album, my main influence has been Western African music."

Given the soft nature of his music, many would be surprised to learn that González first started out playing in various hardcore punk bands in his native city. I wondered would he ever make a return to more heavier sounds on future recordings... 

"I think it would be fun at some point to make other kinds of music, I had an opportunity to do that with Junip slightly, and especially live, we were able to explore different dynamics compared to what's on the albums, but I don't have an intention to become an artist who is associated with punk right now!"

2005's Veneer was an introspective and contemplative album, while its follow up, In Our Nature dealt with outward issues, the third album Vestiges & Claws feels like a more carefree and untroubled José; 

"Yeah, I think that's how I feel. I think it comes from when I'm writing lyrics, I'm choosing a type of lyrics that are general, I'm not writing to a specific person or even a specific theme actually, I tend to go toward the general themes that I think a lot of people think about." You're not trying to court controversy like the Sex Pistols say?! "I think I am, but my sound is gentle, I think if people want to find controversy they can, I think for me, as someone who doesn't believe in any god, I don't think it's okay to cautiously approach certain topics the way we do, and I'm sure there are plenty of people who think differently, and if they want to find controversy they can! But ultimately, the sound is gentle."

Between solo releases and albums with Junip, since the release of Veneer there has been an average of three years between albums overall, a relatively slow-moving schedule; 

"Yeah, I've noticed that I'm pretty slow at writing, I wouldn't mind releasing albums more often, because of the time it takes to write and touring a lot of places around the world, I've noticed the cycles for releasing albums becomes pretty long. I've been taking some steps to make it shorter, I've actually been touring less with the new album than I did with the previous ones, it takes almost a year from when the album is finished to when it's released, due to schedules with record labels etc. It's not only the labels that have an impact but also the touring industry, a lot of venues need to be booked half a year or a year ahead, I think both are big factors in this regard."

Junip, 'In Every Direction'

González's debut album struck an immediate chord with Irish fans, and led to full houses at venues around the country during his initial tour, and also a return for three live shows in 2008 in Sligo, Cork and Dublin following the release of In Our Nature. What were the abiding memories? 

"For me, around 2005/6 when 'Heartbeats' became so popular, Ireland was one of the places where I had the best experiences with the crowd, very rowdy (laughs) between songs, but not during the songs, silent and listening. It's been a long time, but I have been missing Ireland." We'll definitely ensure you get a hearty welcome when you return in the future. "Well I'm coming actually, I'm excited to come back, there are dates in mind but they are being finalised at the moment."

The new album, Vestiges & Claws, is the first one not to feature a cover version, something that González has been able to master on previous albums and in live shows, from Kylie Minogue to Joy Division he's traversed some interesting choices, my personal favourite being his version of Massive Attack's 'Teardrop' from Mezzanine

"Yeah, it's a great song. I don't really have any intention to record another cover right now. With the first album I didn't have enough solo songs, so I reached for a good song to cover which was The Knife's 'Heartbeats', on the second album it was a case that I'd be playing 'Teardrop' live for many shows, and it was a real crowd pleaser, as was 'Love Will Tear Us Apart'. 'Cello Song' by Nick Drake was chosen for a compilation, I didn't really choose to do it. I look forward to playing more covers in the future, and I do have a list of covers that I would love to learn how to play, i.e. learning the chords and song itself. For albums and especially live shows it's nice to do something unique with a cover song, not only for my own pleasure but also the audience. With Junip we discussed the idea regarding covers, but very quickly we decided not to do them, and it's become a bit of a tradition to stay away from them since then in terms of recording."

In the knowledge that González's focus has shifted quite a bit from his early work, and the new album is, in many ways, more relaxed in it's sound, what motivated this new outlook; 

"Yeah I think that's a reflection of how I feel, I know the type of music that I want to do, I've been feeling many times that when I've been on tour that I've been uncomfortable spending all this time playing very introverted songs, which might appeal to many people, but I want to have more songs that are energetic or more extroverted". Were you starting to feel like the main character in Inside Llewyn Davis? (laughs) "Yeah! I actually couldn't finish watching that film, I felt so similar to him, it was like watching a mirror image, I liked the movie but yeah, it was hard to watch."

The new single from Vestiges & Claws has just been released, 'Leaf Off / The Cave', and between the song's lyrics and the video (above) it seemed like an observation on the place of religion in the modern world and an encouraging message to embrace this life in its immediacy; 

"Yeah I guess there's two things, one is the video, where we invited Sunday Assembly, which has the ambition to create a godless congregation, but also invites anyone who wants to join in, whether they are religious or not, are very keen to avoid criticism of religion, and be a place where people can come together and spend a good time together, as part of a community. The song itself was slightly different regarding the lyrics, I was playing on the ideas of the Enlightenment, which is slightly connected to the idea of salvation, and the sense of finding the truth, and how that makes you feel in terms of psychological well-being. For me I'm very eager to try and help promote this idea, I wouldn't mind if there was more enlightenment in societies, but having said that, with all the songs I write, I try to choose the words in such a way that if someone doesn't agree with me, or if you listen to the lyrics as a believer, you can still interpret them in a way that is relevant to you. On a personal level, I'm not necessarily critiquing religions, but with music I think it's good to let interpretations be open and bearing that in mind, I'd prefer to have all types of people, regardless of their views, come to my live shows." 

It does feel funny sometimes that the Enlightenment happened hundreds of years ago, a radical change in thinking, and today we can often feel as if it never happened, particularly with recent events that are unfolding around us, and given the fact that knowledge has never been more readily available at people's fingertips, it can be frustrating;

"We talk about enlightenment, and you know, every person needs to learn about how to live, and learn about the world and about history, and that process starts within every person, I feel pretty optimistic about the ideas of the Enlightenment, even though one can get pretty pessimistic by looking at the news, but I think, as you mentioned, that the spread of information has never been easier, a lot of people are getting to know more about the world, and that's a good thing."

Vestiges & Claws

Before we concluded our interview I wanted to find out if José felt there were any past musical influences which may have contributed to the sound on Vestiges & Claws, and also, enquire about contemporary artists which he was enjoying listening to recently; 

"For the new album I took my demos away with the guitar, and at that point I was initially influenced by my first two albums, then when it got to the production stage, and the vocals and harmonies, I felt a reference to Crosby, Stills & Nash, and with the guitar, 'Open Book' was Simon & Garfunkel, and 'Ink of a Ghost' could have been a Silvio Rodriguez song. But with this album I wasn't particularly listening to other music, I just started writing without looking for other influences." "With regard to new music, I love Jessica Pratt's albums, I love her sound and her voice, and also Ólöf Arnalds, who I will be on tour with, I really recommend those two artists." 

Vestiges & Claws will be released on the 13th of February in Ireland and is available for pre-sale on his site along with tour dates

José González, 'Every Age'

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