José González Is Quietly Hardcore
José González is truly a study in contrasts. He was born in Sweden to Argentinean parents and sings in English; he grew up listening to a fair bit of Latin folk and often cites Cuban protest singer Silvio Rodriguez as his favourite artist, but his first experience playing music was in a Gothenberg hardcore band influenced by Black Flag, the Misfits and the Dead Kennedys. After gigging around the hardcore scene, he picked up his nylon-stringed acoustic and developed a barebones, Nick Drake-ian style that would be the hallmark of his debut album, Veneer.
After its release in 2003 and subsequent success in Sweden, he dropped out of his doctoral program in biochemistry to focus fully on his music. A North American re-release of the album followed in 2005, along with the Stay In The Shade EP. But In Our Nature is only his second full-length proper, and has clearly been a long time coming.
"I’ve thought about it a lot because I’ve been struggling with trying to write,” says González of the delay. "I guess I get too self-conscious and I don’t really allow myself to brainstorm. I recognise this from when I was in school and was supposed to write essays in Swedish and I would feel like I didn’t really want to write and I forced myself to write and thought it was crap. I guess I’m just very self-critical.”
Even over a phone across the Atlantic, his self-consciousness is glaringly evident. He’s not much for the spotlight and it’s easy to picture him perfectly content plucking strings and singing softly to himself in a hollowed out oak somewhere in a Swedish forest. Yet underneath that shy demeanour, he exudes a quiet confidence, exhibiting candour, unassuming sincerity and self-awareness."I felt like I didn’t really want to end up as a cheesy singer-songwriter,” he says as he’s describing his approach to In Our Nature. The album doesn’t represent a dramatic change from Veneer; rather it seems to be the result of incremental evolution. The sound is darker, peppered with subtle rhythmic intricacies, with González occasionally applying delay atop the meditative, almost droning interplay of strings and voice.Those with an affinity for González’s Latin tendencies will be pleased to know that he hasn’t abandoned them on this release. The sinister theme of "Time To Send Someone Away” is made easy for consumption with a lilting soca melody. First single "Killing For Love,” meanwhile, represents quite a different direction for González, looking to African artists like Ali Farka Touré and Amadou & Mariam as indirect inspirations for the song’s syncopated rhythms.
Lyrically, González applies a clear political tint to the album. Album opener "How Low” is effectively a pot shot at overbearing heads of state, yet González is as understated in song as he is in conversation. This approach is reflected in the recording of the album, which has an uncluttered, unrehearsed feel to it. "It was more interesting to continue on this path with just one guitar with elaborate picking. None of that electronic stuff and looping pedals that everyone is using nowadays. I felt like it was cool to be more dogmatic and use this primitive recording style.”
That he accomplishes dogmatism without any awkwardness despite singing in his third language is remarkable and there is proof aplenty of Gonzalez’s increasing lyrical sophistication on In Our Nature. On "Abram,” he uses allegory and dry wit to pillory organised religion: "Cook up some myths and ask for obedience/ Even though you mean well/ Well, most of the time.”González allows himself a chuckle when he describes this song. "It’s about mostly the Abrahamic religions — the ones that are biggest and dumbest. They come from the same root and that makes it even more curious. Why do people cling to them so hard?”
González is definitely in his element with this subject matter, and it is clear he is a lot more confident when he’s not the focal point. He talks about the influence that reading books like The God Delusion by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and Practical Ethics by ethicist Peter Singer had on the writing of the album. "And also of course current events in the world — people are still killing each other for stupid reasons,” he says. "I remember writing similar lyrics for the hardcore band actually.”Humanism and musical evolution aside, one of the things that will get people talking is his reverb-heavy take on Massive Attack classic "Teardrop.” In fact, González’s covers may have actually gained him more notoriety than his originals. One of the reasons Veneer took off internationally was due to its winning, intimate cover of the Knife’s "Heartbeats.” Other covers in his arsenal include Joy Division’s "Love Will Tear Us Apart” and Kylie Minogue’s "Hand on Your Heart”; the latter was released as a single in the UK and got an official stamp of approval from Kylie herself. Despite all the accolades for his adaptations, González remains skittish about his version of "Teardrop.”
"I felt awkward with the part where the percussion comes in because I felt like it was becoming too much of a power folk ballad,” he says. "I still feel like the original is way better. The only reason why I feel comfortable having it on the record is because so many people have heard it live and a lot of people were asking for it to be on the record.”
It’s interesting that such an outwardly shy guy would be drawn to covering songs that are, by and large, extroverted, heart-on-your-sleeve testimonials starkly at odds with his own style. But there’s the rub: González’s music seems to be just as much a clash of contrasts as he is; a product of his insecurities, upbringing and likes in the most literal sense, moulded through continual self-criticism into a cohesive and compelling vision. After listening to his records, it’s hard to shake the sense that he’s being completely honest — that there’s no other way he could have possibly written those songs, coyness and all. As it is, when asked about his reluctance to use himself as a subject, he retreats into his shell."Maybe in the future I’ll be more open and extroverted. Maybe I’ll be singing about love in that kind of open way like ‘Hand on Your Heart’ or ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart.’ Right now I feel like I don’t really want to expose myself and my feelings that much.”
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