Journeys into the spotlight don’t come much stranger than that of José González, a Swede of Argentinean descent who gave up hardcore punk and a career in biochemistry for spare, Latin-tinged folk. His enchanting 2003 debut Veneer raced off shelves in Sweden from the get-go, but it was exposure gained from a TV commercial (you know: that one wherein 250,000 coloured balls bounce down an empty street in slo-mo) that turned international audiences on to José’s talent.
Airing from January 2006, the Sony Bravia ad featured González’s wistful cover of the Knife’s “Heartbeats.” The soft-spoken Swede has also filed idiosyncratic takes on songs by artists as diverse as Joy Division and Bruce Springsteen, but it is his own songwriting — as brilliantly showcased on Veneer and his new album In Our Nature — that really warrants our attention. Chatting on the phone, I spoke with González just prior to his new record’s simultaneous release in 35 countries. Our conversation took in Argentinean dictatorships and the primitive side of human nature.
In Our Nature is only 33 minutes long. In these days of short attention spans, do you think it indulgent of artists to make records that go on for over an hour?
Yeah, the way I listen to music I don’t really need 18 songs on one CD just because there’s room for it. I like the old vinyl album format, 30 or 40 minutes at the most. Plus I didn’t have more than ten songs for the new album (laughs). It’s something that I learned back when I was making Veneer. I’d been listening to Pink Moon by Nick Drake, and that’s short and quite sparse. He can hold your attention with just guitar and vocal, and I like to try and do that too.
“Killing for Love” is one of the new record’s many attention grabbers. If I read it correctly, it seems to be about those who declare war on people of opposing religious beliefs.
It’s not only about that but that’s part of it. It’s questioning what kind of love could make somebody kill for the sake of an object or an idea. But I’m talking about political ideas and dogma too — not just religion.
Near the end of “Time to Send Someone Away” there’s a little noise on the vocal track like a laugh.
I thought it would be fun to keep that in. It’s actually my friend [and fellow Swedish singer] Yukimi Nagano who’s laughing. Yukimi’s a great talent [in her own right]. She co-wrote “The Nest” with me. That’s one of my favourite songs on the new record.
Your finger picking on “Cycling Trivialities” is wonderfully hypnotic, and the song makes for a great closing track. What is it about?
It’s about getting stuck in your own little world, and all those little habits and thought patterns that can stop people from getting on with their lives. It’s about me I suppose, and maybe some of my friends as well. I wanted to write less about love on this album, and more about other themes that are just as universal. There’s a lot of stuff about the more primitive side of human nature, the darker side and the things we do without thinking.
Your background is interesting. How did a boy with Argentine parents come to grow up in Gothenburg, Sweden?
Well, my parents fled Argentina in ’76 because of the military dictatorship. They were at university, and my father was a member of a youth political group that was slightly leftist. They ended up in Sweden, and that’s where I was born. I’ve lived there all my life. My parents told me coming to Gothenburg to escape persecution was a great relief, but they had to start from scratch and learn a new language. It was tough for them, but I was too young to know anything about it.
Despite your Scandinavian upbringing, you can still hear the South American influence on your records.
Yes, to some extent. When I was started writing songs I was basically copying the finger picking style of [Cuban singer / guitarist] Silvio Rodriguez. Plus, because of my parents, I grew up with some folk music from Argentina and Brazilian bossa nova. Joao Gilberto influenced my vocals quite a lot. I like the intimacy of singing softly. It’s the same with Chet Baker. That soft sound is much more inviting than when you scream super-loud (laughs).
You played in hardcore punk bands before turning to Latin-influenced folk music, and your music has been sampled by the likes of LA-based producer DJ Dert and the young British hip-hop artist Plan B. Do you listen to all kinds of stuff at home?
Yes. As a kid I would listen to Public Enemy and NWA, but at the same time I was learning classical guitar. I’ve always been open to any music that is good without being too picky about the genre. It’s funny that you mention Plan B, because I only found out a couple of days ago that he used my music in his song! Was it a pleasant surprise? I don’t know about that [laughs]. I guess it’s fun that kids like my music, but let’s just say I prefer other hip-hop artists.
When you released Veneer, you were still studying biochemistry at University in Gothenburg, right?
Yes, I was mostly looking into the structure of DNA, and how viruses can affect it. Up until May 2003 I was trying to do music and continue my studies, but then the music took over. I had these cell cultures in the lab and one has to be there each day to take care of them. I wasn’t and they were suffering, so I stopped my studies. It was a pretty easy decision in the end. The biochemistry was very interesting, but I feel like I’m done with it now. At least until I’ve made a few more records.
The Sony commercial — was that the big breakthrough; the cash injection that helped you move things forward?
Yeah. It was a real promotional catapult. Suddenly people seemed to know who I was.
But it also meant you became known for covering someone else’s song, despite being an accomplished songwriter in your own right.
Yes, there were times when I felt, “Oh, why can’t people get as excited as that about my songs,” but it’s not really a problem these days — that was just me being childish. I choose the cover versions that I do very carefully. They feel a part of me in a way, because they have to have qualities that I can relate to. It seems to me like it’s a bit of a modern pop phenomenon to even mention that someone is covering a song. With old soul music and Jamaican music people just covered each other and it wasn’t a big deal. Elvis Presley, too — he did loads of other people’s songs and it didn’t do him any harm!