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José González

Finding His Claws

Feb 01, 2015 José González
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José González wants you to know something—he’s not a preacher. The Gothenburg-based singer/songwriter makes it clear, both in conversation and in his work, that he isn’t one to shout his beliefs from the rooftops any more than he’s about to turn his amps up to 11. (Volume’s a job for his rock side project, JUNIP.)

“When I’m writing lyrics I try to write in a very general way so that when it’s time to do a show or when someone puts on a record they don’t really need to feel like they’re agreeing or disagreeing,” he says from a tour stop in England. “It’s just more about enjoying the music.”

But listen closely—beneath his delicate finger-picked folk is a world of possibility and swarm of ideas, poetically boiled down to a few meaning-heavy phrases ripe for the taking. Well…that is, if you’re into that kind of thing.

“Artists that are very political and art that is political, I really enjoy that and I think sometimes its necessary,” González muses. “Especially in the oppressive states, like Pussy Riot in Russia. It’s weird that you can’t do all the stuff that they’ve been doing and they get thrown into prison for it.”

Born shortly after his parents fled Argentina for Sweden during the dictatorship era of the 1970s, González admits that at 36, he’s led an idyllic experience, especially when it comes to the freedom to express himself. While he might not go so far as to call it a responsibility to translate that into music, liberty is certainly an idea that informs not only his art, but also his life.

“I think it’s important with art and music, if that’s the only way to express yourself,” he continues. “But I also think that for me, living in Sweden, if you have the ability to discuss things in a tranquil and without getting agitated and just go through point by point stuff that you disagree on, I think that’s of course the best way to move forward and discuss things that you disagree with. I’d rather sit down with someone having a coffee or taking a walk and just talking about, what do you think about that and I think this, have you heard about that, have you heard about this. It’s so easy to fall into us versus them and into tribal mode.”

In the past, González has covered dance tracks from The Knife and Kylie Minogue, soundtracked Ben Stiller’s epic adventures in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and (along with Sia) joined up with UK downbeat electronic duo Zero 7 for a spell. But on his third solo album Vestiges & Claws the musician aimed for a much more modest goal: to record and produce tracks alone in his kitchen. It was a long time coming—some of those songs had been sitting on his hard drive for almost seven years, since the release of his previous solo album, 2007’s In Our Nature. (“I’m very patient, stubborn,” he jokes of the gap between releases. “There are more negative words but I think they all fit my personality.”)

It’s a haunting, self-produced collection of music, its sparse guitar and bucolic vocals an extension of the intimate sound González has been perfecting since his 2005 debut, Veneer. Accompanied only by the lightest of percussion and his own Alhambra classical guitar, González weaves together songs that play like the vestiges of 1970s folk and float like half-remembered dreams. The press release, however, aimed a bit higher, claiming that the release explored nothing less than the human experience.

“Other people write that,” González laughs; dismissing the lofty idea that he has some inside track on what it means to be alive. “But I am touching on subjects that relate to humanity in some of the lyrics, like ‘Every Age’ and ‘What Will.’” But explore is a big word. I like to read books about people exploring the human condition. I couldn’t claim that I’ve been able to boil it down to some words on an album.”

An atheist who leans towards the liberal side of the political spectrum, González realizes that not everyone will agree with him. Nor should matching ideologies be a requirement for enjoying his music. Someone else can take the pulpit. He’s an entertainer.

“‘What Will,’ which is a very simple lyric, is just asking what will it be,” he says, picking one example Vestiges & Claws, a track that features a percussive guitar line, and a call to rally around those who cannot speak for themselves. “‘Will it be tribal, rivalry, envy or generosity?’ Different words that end with ‘y,’ rhyming wise. But yeah, so I think those types of lyrics are of course more associated with left wing than right wing. I enjoy reading and listening to, trying to figure out what makes people be more right wing or be more left wing and I enjoy trying to step out of the box. When I’m writing lyrics I try to write in a very general way so that when it’s time to do a show or when someone puts on a record they don’t really need to feel like they’re agreeing or disagreeing, it’s just more about enjoying the music.”

The more he talks, the more it become apparent that González’s concern lays, not with protecting his own ideology but rather with people on both sides of the divide. Can anyone be completely right or completely wrong, he wonders? Once again, González chooses the most thoughtful route in answering the question.

“We are the survivors of many generations of violence,” he says. “And it has so many obvious dips in terms of how good or bad we are and it’s still going on today. How people can commit the most hideous crimes. There was a documentary about the rapes in India. This woman from the UK from BBC was mentioning how these boys didn’t seem like psychopaths, the ones that were weird were the lawyers. In that documentary it was the lawyer sort of saying extremely weird stuff about women and how they shouldn’t be out late. So I guess that’s just one of million examples of how people can switch and depending on the culture and depending on the situation. But having said that, it’s interesting with looking at how society sort of seemed to go towards less violent and more collaborative with each descendant. One can be both encouraged and discouraged.”

Despite being a staunch realist (before his career in music he was a PhD in Biochemistry candidate), González considers himself to be an optimist when it comes to matters of humanity’s future—albeit a guarded one. Good exists, he says. But human nature isn’t always to be trusted.

“I think it’s always good to have in mind a slightly better version of what’s going on right now, but then there is this sort of problem with anyone having a very specific view of a utopia,” he notes. “That’s obvious with all the different ideologies that are out there and they’re not always compatible with each other. The word utopia, I like thinking of utopias but I know it’s both controversial and sometimes even a dangerous aim. Much of the violence that is out there in the world is ideologically driven and the ideology is sort of weighing what happens when you’re aiming at a certain utopia and you feel like if only we can get rid of these politicians or these people then we might reach this utopia. So it is controversial and difficult.”

It’s a better world that González sees being built by the masses, not by one single figurehead. It’s an idea he eloquently lays out in “Every Age,” its lyrics featuring the telling phrase, “To each one on their own/But we are here, together/Reaping what time and what we have sown.” We’re all in it together—it’s time we start living that out and supporting each other now.

“It’s weird with the word ‘heroes,’” he says. “I don’t have any ‘hero heroes.’ It’s almost like when you look up to someone so much that you disregard the potential negatives of that person…But of course it’s nice meeting people or hearing about people and their stories and life stories, how they cope with hardships, how they spend their time, or enjoy life. That’s of course good too. Why not copy the good things and avoid the bad things?”


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