An Interview with José González

The word ‘vestige’ has two meanings. There’s the biological term of an organ or organism which through time has lost its function, and there's the cultural definition, referring to a remnant of something that is disappearing or no longer exists. The word loosely ties together the songs on José González’s new record Vestiges and Claws, the Swedish singer/songwriter’s first solo album in seven years, on which he holds on to something almost forgotten.

The album envisions a brighter future than we’re normally faced with, of people coming together “for a common cause” and “shaping the winds”. The large-scale perspective, carried high by optimism and a core belief in the slow but steady progress of human thought, is brought into focus by José’s minimalistic musical style. The guitar is in the foreground, entwined with soft vocals and percussion, often just a steady background hand clap. But in all its artistic subtlety, the songs carry moments of clear political ambition. José’s intention, which he described to me in the corner of a Gothenburg café one slow winter day between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, is to create a universal sound that has the potential to appeal to anyone, regardless of your ideology or cultural identity. The message travels far back through history, and into the future. It's the faintly familiar sound of acceptance and hope.

Since his last album, In Our Nature, José has played with the band Junip and worked on the soundtrack for Ben Stiller’s film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. But he has also spent a lot of time in his kitchen, once again getting into the routine of solo songwriting.

Photo by Charlotte Söderberg

Photo by Charlotte Söderberg

Tell me about your simple musical style.

I have used this type of expression since Veneer, my first album. I wrote the lyrics in a very rushed way and I didn’t know what to write about, so I usually ended up with very few words. I also enjoyed the repetitiveness of club music and techno - the rhythm and repetition and the mantra-like type of singing. The first song, With the Ink of a Ghost, was my big ambition. I wrote it for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but Ben Stiller thought it was too moody, so I kept it for myself. I noticed the song was very long. I needed four verses, which meant a lot of lyrics. That was a new way of writing for me. More classical and less ascetic, less simple. But in general I still want to grab the essence of a poem, song or sound.

What do you think the essence of this album is?

The essence of each song is different, but it’s an optimistic view of humanity. We have our luggage, but we also have our ideas and tools to help ourselves.

Every song has a different theme, but there are some common ideas. Let It Carry You and Open Book try to find ways to use art, poems and culture to bring us forward on a more personal level. The lyrics are a little naive. It’s about taking a break from everyday routines and making sure you do something that’s valuable in the long run once in a while. It’s using a working class type of character.

It’s interesting how you, in terms of content, have made quite an epic album exploring humanity, yet your sound remains minimal and your vocals are soft.

I want to make something that is easy to grasp. The lyrics are usually pretty short and simple and I don’t use difficult words. I want the music to be something you can listen to and enjoy whatever your age, ideology or culture.

Photo by Charlotte Söderberg

Photo by Charlotte Söderberg

There’s been a while since your last album, but you’ve also been working with the band Junip. What’s it like doing your own solo stuff again?

I have been thinking about this album for a long time, but I hadn’t set aside time to work on it properly, so it was great to make time, sit down with all the demos I’ve been gathering since 2007 and listen through and find the interesting ones to build upon. It meant I wasn’t touring. At home, I felt more free and had a schedule, like normal office hours.  It was a conscious effort of mine to try to have a life aside from my artistic life. It hasn’t been easy sometimes when I’ve been touring, doing a show every night and interviews during the day. I have been very… what do you call it? Full of myself. In a negative way. So it has been good. I’ve been using my kitchen as a studio and office, where I’ve set up everything. Then I sit down with a coffee and get going.

Does it get lonely at all?

Sometimes, but usually not. I enjoy my loneliness because I choose it myself. The big difference for me, compared to working with Junip for example, has been having complete control over the artistic side. I can use my own ideas to create a full thing. I don’t need to explain to anyone else what I’m thinking about. The times it has been hard is when I get stuck on the lyrics or with the mixing. I’ve had those moments. Loneliness is one way to put it, but it’s more in terms of needing help. Then I have to call my studio friends.

Are there certain things you do when you lack inspiration?

I haven’t waited for the inspiration to come this time around, which has meant I’ve been working with the lyrics in a more structured way. The melody is usually not a big problem for me. It’s the lyrics that I get stuck on. Yukimi Nagano [frontwoman of Little Dragon] showed me some tricks when we were together. She used to just write down words she liked on a piece of paper, while having the melody on loop. Another one is to have three or four recordings with a guitar melody and pretend lyrics, like spontaneous vocalising and fake words. Then I listen to them while walking. Suddenly you discover sounds that are similar to a certain word you can use.

What can you tell me about Every Age?

It was a very simple demo, no variation. I had the idea that the song was a sacral song. The ambition was that I wanted it to be felt by anyone, anywhere, at any time. I wrote the lyrics thinking of songs like Imagine and how it would be good to have a song that people could sing at charity events. The video was a happy coincidence. Simon Morris, who’s a tech artist, sent up a balloon with cameras on it. In a way, it’s pretty simple. What becomes important when you zoom out? Is it still about drawing lines between countries? Or do you focus on other issues? The video highlights the theme of the song.

This interview was originally published on the Oh Comely blog.