In recent years, the man whose solo guitar work originally brought him to the spotlight has since branched out to make two records with JUNIP and then go on to do the soundtrack for a major motion picture. JOSÉ GONZÁLEZ returns full circle to his essence with a new record, Vestiges & Claws, arriving on February the 17th. Before revisiting Berlin for a sold-out show in the dead of Winter, NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION sat down with this incredibly down-to-earth, ambiguously Swedish singer to discuss his work, being a reluctant hippie in an imperfect world and dork-out over podcasts.
Are you excited to be back on tour with the new album?
JOSÉ GONZÁLEZ: Yes, there will be five of us on stage so we’ll be able to play these songs with all the harmonies, two guitars and percussion.
You’ve been really busy these last couple of years with other projects – the band JUNIP and a major film soundtrack. What kinds of things have you come away with during this phase and brought back to your solo work?
Being able to work in a group. Producing harmonies and rhythms. Playing different instruments, or sometimes not playing but talking with someone who plays and trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. The producer role for me has been a new thing. Something that came together especially for the movie and also the Arthur Russell Red Hot Compilation – Number Nine Dream and This is Our Walk on the Moon, these were two songs that I started from scratch and did the production and mixed it myself, so that was a new experience. On the new album even though I didn’t produce in that style I still took a lot of things that I learned through harmonies and mixing tricks.
If you have such a long period of time where you are involved in so many other things, does your solo work become the side project at that point?
The way I usually see it is that when we are working on JUNIP I don’t have time to develop my solo songs, so in one sense it is a side project but it’s not like right now I am thinking that Junip is a side project. Things take time in the schedule, but right now it is solo time.
If you could go back seven years in time would you have been surprised to know that you’d go on to do two albums with your band before putting out another solo record?
Yeah, I remember releasing and touring with In Our Nature in 2007 I knew that I was going to go and record JUNIP and at the time my plan was to do a JUNIP album then do another solo album, so it didn’t end up as planned, but in a nice way because after releasing the first one we felt like: let’s just continue!
If there is one core thing you would like your listenership to walk away with from the new album what would it be?
I do have ambitions with certain songs and in a way also with the album. If you take a song like Open Book it is meant as a sort-of self-help type of a song, it could help people relate to a breakup or a loss. Usually the idea is to have a certain emotional level in the starting point in a song and leave with another emotional level – usually from low to high. I see my music as sets of tools that I know doesn’t work for everyone but maybe – hopefully – for someone somewhere.
‘One world one love’
In terms of the sorts of content for this album – where does it come from? The message?
Humanism. The ethics of globalization. One world one love. Hippie. (laughs)
Dangerous territory perhaps? Some people can pull it off.
Same with cheesy relationship songs – some people can pull it off. I’m allergic to a lot of the songs that are out there. Not in the strong sense, but just that it is not my style – that I’m not feeling touched about this or from this music, but when it works is it so powerful. The aim of having a song like Every Age where I sing about ‘we don’t choose when we are born, we don’t choose what pocket or form… Build a place where we can all belong’ – it IS a hippie thing to say but it is also coming from a very practical point of view, too. There are so many issues regarding people in need having to move from their homes and so many people being discriminated for their gender or sexuality so it is not only in this sort of hippie – you mention something it and just leave it as a vague I wish everybody could get along. It is meant more as a call to action.
To me it is very interesting how ideas can lead to such very different practical endings. It is difficult to talk about ethics when you are on a very vague level when someone might mention ethics and God or ethics and a vague sense of mother earth feeling vulnerable – those for me are problematic stances that I think are worth discussing.
That is nice to hear. JOSÉ GONZÁLEZ could just be an indie musician and say: Well, screw that!
It is easy to wave off sometimes, actually, but what does it mean in practical terms? That is something I wouldn’t want to mention too much when I am talking about music but whenever I am off-mic I enjoy discussing with friends the practicalities of economics or taxes or food in a global sense. It’s fun.
Do you know Marketplace – the economics podcast from Los Angeles? It is on NPR – just under 30 minutes a day. Really hits the spot.
I listen to a lot of podcasts. I know NPR. I was on a show called Fresh Air. The woman was really nice.
Terry Gross! They manage a LOT of interviews – pretty amazing. There are actually so many good podcasts out there now it is terrifying. Ok, for our grand unified question: What do hope and passion mean to you?
To hope something means to wish something, to imagine something and then wish for it to come true. It is something that I am involved with in writing lyrics – I hope – in aiming or articulating a utopia – even if it is not possible to reach. The idea of hoping something could be picturing yourself as an individual in a utopic, euphoric place – or just a comfortable place, whatever that means to anyone. Hope is nice. Depending on your utopia that could be a very strange or even a very negative thing when put into context with other people’s utopias… that is the interesting thing. Passion is the idea of engagement – of pursuing something in a positive move. Nice words. I like the combination. Nothing but hope and passion…
It is interesting that you mention utopia. Being born and raised almost anywhere in Northern Europe I’d think: you’ve got such a good basis for understanding a sane, designed society that could almost be perceived as a sort of utopia when compared to other. Has growing up in Sweden affected the way you have encountered engaged the rest of the world?
I think so. Living in Sweden there are lots of things that are great – especially when compared to many other countries, but it’s not like you feel that things are great. Growing up playing hardcore or playing punk music there is always something you can scream about. There is always something that feels bad or that is bad. Now – especially with the Swedish elections it is clear that it is very far from utopia. I have grown up in this part of the world where – in terms of health an economic stability it is very different from the reality of many people but still not perfect at all.
‘The music reflects introvertedness’
Some of these questions were asked by the readers of NBHAP. One of them wanted to know what is going on in your mind before and during the show since you seem to have an almost shy and humble demeanor onstage.
It can be very different from tour to tour, and makes a difference if it is the tenth show in a row then I am able to think about anything and go from a certain mode to the stage mode. Sometimes if I have a new song that I have been rehearsing and haven’t tried out-loud then I’m very nervous, but sometimes I listen to music or watch an interesting YouTube video or something before going on.
You were ‘louder’ in your youth. Has that affected you? Has made you quieter now that you are grown up?
I am a quiet person in general. Not always. When there is a group of people I’m usually hanging out more as an observer not like heywhaddayaknow! (imitates bear) But yea, wit the type of singing that I do and the kind of guitar playing that I do – it is something that has been the most successful of all the styles that I have been trying out over the years.
Your quietness or introversion must come up as a regular interview question.
Yep! (laughs) The music reflects introvertedness. Especially ten years ago, I changed depending on the circumstance. I enjoy getting drunk on the weekend and getting drunk at a party and talking loudly. Once you start comparing people I guess I am in the ‘shy’ category but not in the ‘super shy’ as I was in my teens.
Was it extra difficult for you to get your music out there or to even get on stage because of that – to present yourself. or is it just like a different way of functioning altogether?
We found ways for the acoustic guitar to sound loud AND good but it is still difficult for me to switch between play mode and talking mode. I still find it difficult to find something interesting or appropriate to say during my shows, so I am still sort of quiet. As long as it sounds good and I am comfortable playing in my chair on stage I am not shy in that sense.