José González | Swedish-Argentine Folk Charmer

Photo by Johan Bergmark

José González is at home in Gothenburg, Sweden, on a long-awaited sunny day.

“Spring is coming slowly,” says the mesmeric, 40-year-old, folk musician.

In 1976, his parents fled Argentina for Sweden after an ultra-right coup d’état disrupted their university studies.

“In general, I’ve been influenced by Sweden’s humanist values. From my second album on, I’m not just writing about my own personal demons, but looking at our collective struggles and topics that deal with humanity now.”
–José González

“My father was in a left-center political group,” says González. “The junta incarcerated many of their friends.”

April 5 | 8 p.m.
Pioneer Center | Reno, Nev.

After spending half a year in Rio de Janeiro going from embassy to embassy in search of asylum, the young family ultimately found refuge in Sweden. José was born two years later into a bilingual household of five. He listened to Latin American records at home, including works by Silvio Rodríguez and other Tropicália artists from Brazil, as well as West African blues, American folk and British rock ‘n’ roll.

“I’ve been trying to figure out which part led to what with me, culturally speaking,” he says. “We spoke Swedish and Spanish at home, and I think those are both part of me musically. I’m interested in how what we value strongly [in each language] can change with time.”

“In general, I’ve been influenced by Sweden’s humanist values,” he says. “From my second album on, I’m not just writing about my own personal demons, but looking at our collective struggles and topics that deal with humanity now and in the past or future. Although I’m inspired by the skeptic and rational movements that might not have respect for ideas, I’m thinking about the well-being of people. I’m OK with criticizing ideas; I can separate ideas from people.”

According to González, he began writing music as a youth in Sweden: “We were all into English music, so I sort of did what the other guys were doing. We had, of course, the music from Argentina and other places and I was playing and singing in Spanish and Portuguese, but it started to feel natural writing in English.”

That is, up until the point when González’ 2006 debut album “Veneer” went platinum. He was booked on a world tour, which continues to this day.

“I was singing in English, which is my third language,” he says. “I felt very self-conscious, but Swedish still felt too direct. With English, I could hide behind my lyrics. Once in while I try to write in Spanish, but it doesn’t really come naturally.”

His hit cover of fellow Swedes The Knife’s “Heartbeats” became a favorite of listeners looking to dream on catchy emo-folk musings over intricate alt-tuning, finger-styled guitar.

“When I was younger, I wrote songs about relationships, but they were far less intimate,” says the artist. “Singing some other person’s words was definitely easier. I’d pick songs that people already knew and do a stripped-down version that was more direct and heartfelt.”

González is inspired by musicians who seem to possess the uncanny ability to draw their audience into the music. Think of Simon & Garfunkel playing Central Park in NYC or Silvio Rodríguez in Cuba. The trick is to turn up your acoustic volume as loud as possible so you can play and sing really softly.

“Of course, it’s a matter of taste,” he says. “But for me, the more sparse, the better I feel.”

At the Pioneer Center in Reno, Nev., González will be performing with a 21-piece orchestra, The String Theory, allowing the dynamics to swell to even grander proportions.

“Some songs are in the background with beautiful, classic harmonics and others are more dramatic, bombastic and experimental,” he says of the collaboration.

After releasing the expressive “In Our Nature” in 2007 and the expansive “Vestiges & Claws” in 2015, González is presently working on writing material for his highly anticipated fourth album.

“I’m going back to simplicity,” he says. “What I do best is simple songs.”

In Reno, expect a personal, emotional experience of a show with a worldly, yet somehow otherworldly artist.

“There is a switch when the lights dim and I play the first chords on my guitar and, if it sounds good, I get into a meditative mode,” he says. “Listeners are what this tour is all about.” |