By Jacob Katel
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José González is happy to headline a world beat concert for Miami's Rhythm Foundation and Poplife, but the Swedish-Argentine folk rocker is not so content to discuss the intricacies of his "Hiscandic" heritage. It is what it is, he implies, and only a minimal reflection of how he chooses to express himself.
"I'm more of an introvert. I'm shy, but I have Swedish friends who are quite the opposite. I always feel it's strange to try to draw conclusions from countries who are made up of millions of people," the 29-year-old says firmly. It's the first decidedly passionate statement González has made during a short phone interview from his native Gothenburg, Sweden. He really is shy, sometimes laughing nervously, even apologizing for his English grammar, which is darn close to impeccable, and with an endearing Nordic accent to boot.
But his latest album, appropriately titled In Our Nature, reflects various forms of human expression. It offers the kind of melancholic harmonies you'd expect from, say, Simon and Garfunkel; however, a closer listen reveals deeper, darker, more mysterious layers.
"I always have the intention to try to do something slightly different than what I'm hearing," González explains, and this is where he's willing to give a little credit to his cross-cultural heritage. "Just the fact that I've been living in Sweden and have the inspiration from Latin American music gives me a slightly different touch in the European market."
González grew up speaking Spanish and interacting with other worldly children in a suburban immigrant community outside Gothenburg, but at the highly adaptable age of seven, he moved to the city. From then on, he ate, drank, spoke, and breathed as a Swede. What remained global throughout his development was the music. When González was 14 years old, his Argentine father gave him a Beatles songbook. The combination of melodic pop and edgier rock would help the teenager build the foundation for all kinds of musical exploration.
His father also introduced him to Cuba's Nueva Trova and Brazil's bossa nova, while Swedish friends showed him bolder, ballsier stuff from the Misfits, Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, and Public Enemy. He says Swedes have had a longstanding interest in hardcore, indie rock, and hip-hop from the United States and the United Kingdom, but ironically their country has an above-average number of singer-songwriters.
Like many teens touched by a driving backbeat, González always hoped to be a rock star. He played bass for several Gothenburg hardcore bands, and later tinkered with experimental music in his own trio, Junip, but none of it was mind-boggling. "I would spend a lot of time trying to make things happen with my band until I realized it would be okay to do it as a hobby," he says.
For the next few years, González put his musical musings on the back burner to work on a doctorate in biochemistry at the University of Gothenburg. In the meantime, he recorded some seven-inches and played a couple of big shows a year with his bands. Then out of nowhere it happened. In 2003, a couple of Stockholm-based producers discovered González's demos and launched him straight into the limelight with his first solo album, Veneer. Its simple, honest style won González the 2004 Swedish Grammy for Best Newcomer, the 2006 European Border Breaker, and the Swedish government's 2007 Music Export Award. In fact it was so good it kept getting reissued in other countries, its popularity bolstered by his acoustic cover of "Heartbeats," by the white-hot Gothenburg electro-pop duo The Knife. Veneer eventually went platinum in Sweden and Great Britain, double platinum in Ireland, and gold in Australia and New Zealand.
The immediate success made it impossible for González to remain locked up in academia's ivory tower, so the artist freed his mind of biochemistry in order to wonder about life's more emotional but nonetheless organic tendencies — religion, love, death, war-mongering, peace-making. The lyrics, he says, "are sort of vague, just words that I put on the music."
His own vague statement is, somehow, right on target. In song, González's words are philosophical enough to convey their general intent but loose enough to keep the listener focused on his mysterious voice and the trancelike rhythms of his guitar. And although there's nothing overtly "Latin" about the music, his fast string-picking, socially conscious thoughts, and melancholy voice hold a distant resemblance to Cuban troubadour Silvio Rodríguez.
Still, González's style strikes a balance between modern aesthetics and primitive human experiences. "In Our Nature," for example, rolls like a mantra. "Put down your sword/Send home your dogs/Open up your doors/Let down your guard/It's in our nature," González chants, his vocals intensifying slightly with a tempo shift. "Abram" criticizes religious hype and blind obedience, "Teardrop" compares love's fragility to a feather, "Killing for Love" pushes for passion without violence, and "How Long" tells the imperialists to drop their selfish ways before the darkness eats them.
If you consider the amount of time people in González's neck of the woods spend sheltering themselves from cold and sunless days, these intense contemplations are hardly surprising. He makes you want to pull the covers over your head, crawl into your own mind, and massage those dark, knotty thoughts into smoother, freer ones.
It's all rather Zen, as is González. He laughs as he reflects on how the path of least resistance took him straight to the road he'd always hoped to find. "When I was okay with just having music as a hobby, then all of a sudden I got all this attention. My first album was more than I bargained for," he says.
And what of the awards, the international tours, and the ability to rouse others to consciousness? As always, he keeps the answer simple: "It's fun, something I didn't expect."