As music fans, did we expect the most talked about singer-songwriter to come along in the past couple of years to hail from Sweden? Probably not.
Jose Gonzalez breaks the mold when it comes to acoustic folk music. No visions of coffee houses on a Thursday night and no elaborate explanations behind every song. Simply put, Gonzalez is able to plant scenes in your mind with expert Spanish guitar playing, delicate vocals and lyrics that speak to the mind and heart.
His debut album, Veneer, was released last year in the U.K. and recently was re-released in the U.S. on Mute Records. Gonzalez also has a side project called Junip that has an E.P. available called Black Refuge. Come September, he'll open for and play with Zero 7 on their U.S. tour.
I talked to the soft-spoken man before his Bowery Ballroom show last Thursday. I would like to welcome Jose Gonzalez to this space.
I was hoping we can start by having you describe what Gothenburg, Sweden, is like as a town.
It's a very small town. It has about a half-million people living there. It's a pretty good music city by the ocean. It rains a lot there, but it's beautiful in the summertime.
You grew up in a fairly musical household. Did you find pressure to pick up the guitar or just be aware of various types of music?
Not at all. My father wasn't a musician and nobody else in my family plays an instrument. It was totally my own decision to play guitar.
It's well-known that your family is from Argentina. Were you the only kid in school with that kind of background in Sweden?
Well, I was born in a suburb outside of Gothenburg. At first, about a third of my classmates were from Latin America. Then we moved into the city when I was eight, and mostly everybody was Swedish. It wasn't bad at all. In fact, I don't really think about the difference growing up.
The strange thing about Sweden is that it is overrun by this weird form of pop music. It's this teenage-oriented, Ace of Base, EuroPop, Max Martin sound. Did you resist that kind of music growing up?
Yes. [Laughs] It's easy to ignore it. Basically, it's the music that doesn't make you proud to be from Sweden.
That's a good way of putting it.
It's funny because there's a lot of music coming out of Sweden now. It's like the third most productive musical country after the U.S. and the U.K.
What led you to join a Black Flag tribute band and other heavy metal-hardcore bands?
I started making music when I was 14. I picked up the bass and I joined bands because my friends were doing it. We were listening to a lot of Black Flag and the Misfits, so we started playing that type of music.
At what point did you decide to become a singer-songwriter?
Well, I started making my own music while I was in these bands, so I was doing both for a while. It wasn't until 2003, when I released Veneer that I saw the opportunity to make music and nothing else.
Did you have the songs on the album floating around in your head while you were in these hardcore bands?
Yes, many of the songs date back to 1998 to about 2003. Around that time, I stopped playing music with other people because I didn't have much time.
Explain the songwriting process for you. Can you write anywhere or do you have to isolate yourself in a room and concentrate on writing?
I need to be isolated, but I can't force it. It's pretty important for me to be in a room where no one hears you. It's been a big thing for me to be on tour and not finding a enough time to write new songs or to find an isolated room.
It is nice to be out on tour. I've realized that I can't write when I'm on tour, so I it just frees me up to have more fun.
I know you recorded most of the songs on the album by yourself in your apartment. Was that just out of necessity or it was just more comfortable there?
At first, it was just that I recorded at home because it's what I wanted to do and I didn't have the money to go into a proper studio. Now I feel that I don't really need a producer or a sound engineer. It's just me and the guitar. I like the fact that I'm doing it myself.
How I found out about you was through the band The Knife. They make this wonderfully, strange electronic goth music. So the first song I heard of yours was your cover of "Heartbeats." What did you find in that song that made you want to strip it down and make it your own?
Basically, it was my favorite song at the moment. I was listening to that album a lot. I just had that song in my mind for a long time.
What does the band think of it?
They liked it. I played it for them before the album was released and they gave me their blessing. I was kind of nervous playing it for them because I'd only met them a couple of times, but they told me they liked it.
I think the strange thing is that it is your song now and not there's anymore.
Yeah, I don't know what they think of it now, since the song has been out for a while. I do think that some people don't know it's their song.
"Crosses" was the first single and EP you released. Did you feel that it was the best example of what you were trying to accomplish?
Yeah, that's a good way to think of it. I think that has some of the best songwriting I have done.
Is "Lovestains" about anybody in particular?
No, it's about a lot of people. It's more about a feeling than anybody. It's just about a feeling in people that happens quite often.
Do you feel differently about your songs now since you recorded them a while ago?
Actually, yeah. Since I've been playing the songs a lot lately, I'm more comfortable with them. When I first released them, I felt quite awkward about them. Now I kind of embrace it as a document of what I was thinking and doing back then.
Being that you speak English, Swedish and Spanish. Did you ever try performing and recording the songs in different languages?
Once or twice I tried but it wasn't properly done. That might change because I would love to sing in Spanish at some point, but not in Swedish.
You've sort of inspired a cottage industry of animators, graphic designers and video directors making art from your songs. I'm sure that's flattering.
Yeah, it's really cool.
The one I like is people throwing balls of light onto a building.
Oh, yeah. That one was really neat. I'm glad to see that people are creative with the music.
At the same time, your music has been used on TV shows and commercials. Do you have a criteria in licensing your songs to commercials and such?
Basically, I think it has to be something special. It should be tastefully done and not controversial.
Let's talk about your Zero 7 collaboration. Henry told me that he was quite nervous having you into the studio being that it's usually just you and a guitar. How do you find that experience of working with so many different electronic sounds around you?
It's pretty fun just seeing them work. I didn't mind that much. I just added vocals on top of their production. It's nice to work outside of your comfort zone. It makes you look at your own stuff in a different context. It's one of the reasons I like working with Junip.
Since you've lived with these songs for such a long time, are you anxious to get to work on new material or are you focused on touring right now?
I'm ready to go home and lock myself in a room [laughs]. A lot of people are starting to like my music now, so it's good to be out on tour and see people enjoying my music. But, I'm looking forward to going home.
Final question, I'm seeing you tonight at Bowery, you think you can dedicate a song to me?
I usually don't do that, but you never know [laughs].
It was worth a try.