Interview by Pauline Pechin Photos by Dorothy Hong
For the man and his guitar, there is something refreshingly simple about the soft-spoken singer/songwriter, Jose Gonzalez. The balladry of his debut album, Veneer, and recently released Stay In The Shade EP are just a taste of the thoughtfully moving clashes and ripples that have individualized him as an artist who's so subtly keen on his craft that it re-affirms the romanticism of the genre.
On a warmer, comfortable afternoon, I caught up with the "Argentinian Swede" on his third visit to New York to chat about the music that has awarded him such critical acclaim, a commercial with balls, his band and some downtime.
T: So have you recovered from SXSW?
JG: Yeah, but not from last night.
T: How'd you feel about the show last night?
JG: It was really good. I played at Joe's Pub a couple days ago and yesterday was good.
T: I understand it was a more intimate setting than The FADER space in Austin.
JG: Yeah, definitely, Joe's Pub is kind of cozy, a lot of red and sorts...and The Fader space was a festival...people are there drinking, a lot of noise. So yes, it was good.
T: You were scheduled next to louder acts and your show was a bit softer?
T: How did you feel about that? How did you accommodate? Was it difficult to get in the mood?
JG: I've done a lot of shows where I've played for an audience that doesn't know me and they kind of just want to hang out basically. And since it's acoustic it's difficult to get up the volume. And if they talk it's even more difficult. But, yeah, it's nothing that I get super angry about. It's just that the music doesn't come out good, and I try to forget it. [laughs]
T: You've done a few covers like the Knife's "Heartbeats," for example. What inspires you to do such cool covers?
JG: Many of the covers that I've done I've tried to pick the covers that I like...like "Heartbeats," George Bishop...and Massive Attack. Then I try to pick songs that aren't that obvious...like inspired by the way that Cat Power's done covers of Johnny Cash in past albums.
T: How has it been writing songs in your third language? Has it been difficult?
JG: Yeah, yeah. But sometimes I just take a sentence from a movie and what I come up with usually I think in Swedish and then translate. So it's a bit difficult but [English] is also the most natural language to write in. I don't know why but it's just the way it feels.
T: What was the songwriting process like for Veneer?
JG: I always start just playing guitar and I usually play the same chord progressions over and over again and the melodies just come out pretty easy. Then the lyrics are the last thing that I write... usually one or two sentences at a time.
T: When is your new album due?
JG: I want to have it done by autumn and so it can be released by spring or something.
T: Is there anything you can tell us beforehand?
JG: Yeah, I'm trying to focus more on just guitar and vocals.
T: Is there a certain theme behind your new album?
JG: Last time I was doing songs that were scores but this time I wouldn't mind. I haven't set up any roots for myself. I'm thinking if it sounds good it sounds good. So I'm trying not to have any restrictions except that string guitar plays.
T: We all love that Sony commercial that uses your cover of "Heartbeats." How did that come about?
JG: This Argentinian director had come up with the idea of releasing these balls in San Francisco.
T: As an artist, what are your boundaries regarding companies using your music in advertising?
JG: I would say it needs to feel not controversial and I think it's aesthetically good or nice. I think it's very important how you present your music and I'm thinking if some people already know my music and all of a sudden there's a toothbrush. I think it's important to stay true to the ones that find your music through shows or friends...not selling out that much.
T: What persuaded you to commission your music for Sony's concept?
JG: You have to weigh different things...like if it looks good, and if it's controversial. Does it pay your rent for a year or not.
T: That is a big factor I would imagine.
JG: It is a big factor because I want to do music and I could just keep on touring and touring and touring you know, but it's also nice to be at home and do music without time pressures or economic pressure. So it's a good way of spending some time at home.
T: Musically, how did you arrive at where you are now in that process?
JG: I've always done acoustic songs since I was 14, 15. Already I kind of did finger-picking, singer/songwriter songs but I'm guessing that around the year 2000 I kind of found this bit darker style and really enjoy more and more the more repetitive guitars.
T: What convinced you to sign with Mute, considering that it has traditionally been an electronic label?
JG: I think Mute the last couple of years has started to release very different styles of music. I think it fits well. All the bands seem to have similar aesthetics, not similar, but they're all arty and dark I guess [laughs].
T: What is your long-term vision for your music?
JG: I have a lot of visions. One is to keep on doing this, but also I have a band called Junip. That's where I get to play more and try different things. Eventually I'd like to have a laptop and play different programs, but just for fun. I think what I do best is play guitar. It's what I want to stick with.
T: Do you crave more downtime? Touring must be exhausting.
JG: Definitely. Yeah, we were talking about it yesterday...touring 'til August or something, probably try to have a break for a couple of months and then probably start [up again]
Touring is nice. Sometimes you drink too much and then it's really excessive [laughs]. I mean, it's up to oneself to get sleep and all of that stuff.
T: What do you usually do in your downtime?
JG: Hang with friends and watch movies. I've been touring since 2003, like back and forth. When I get home I don't do that much, just answer mails, watch TV and hang out with friends.
T: Personally would you say your personality reflects your music?
JG: Yeah, sometimes. Percentage wise I wouldn't say more than 5-10% [laughs]. Usually you do a song, you have the music and you fit in words to the melodies...it would feel strange to sing about traffic jams. [laughs]
T: You mentioned your band Junip. What's going on with that? How are you guys doing?
JG: We try to do the new songs whenever I'm home. Eventually we'll end up doing a full-length but we don't know when actually.
T: So that's in the works?
JG: Yeah, in the works and it's kind of like we want to do the record before signing a deal. So it'll probably take a while before something happens.
T: Have you known each other for a long time?
JG: Yep, yep. The drummer, we've known each other since we were 7. And the organ player since '97...that's 10 years now. And me and Elias, the drummer, we've played in local bands. He's doing my artwork and is one of my best friends.
With his organically repetitive guitar chords and penetrable vocals, the man, like his music, exhibited a light-hearted contemplation full of multiple shades that mimicked black-white snapshots. Though the songs can be dressed darker, they are neither lonely nor meek. Rather, the deeper he goes, the more light he sheds.
Seated on a wooden stool, I watched Gonzalez serenely strum his guitar to "Heartbeats," amazed. "One night to be confused/One night to speed up truth/We had a promise made/Four hands and then away/Both under influence/We had divine scent/To know what to say/Mind is a razorblade..." The remarkable charm of his music emerged introspectively, with sepia conversations permeating from the songs, carrying re-invented words that transcended the moment.