José González has been many things in his 43 years-and-counting on terra firma. Not that you would know it from the way he plays, sings and conducts himself on stage.
With a number of well-received albums and high-profile work on the soundtrack to Ben Stiller’s 2013 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the Swedish indie-folk performer has a sizable following in Israel, evidenced by his three sold-out shows in 2017 at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv.
When he returns to the shores for the first time since then, audiences at the Tel Aviv Opera House on Saturday, May 21 (doors open 8 p.m., show starts 9 p.m.), and the Barby on Sunday, May 22 (doors open 8:30 p.m., show starts 10 p.m.), will get a soulful, emotive solo acoustic show that tends toward the mellifluous minimalist end of the octave and wattage output spectrum.
But it wasn’t always like that. A couple of decades or so ago, the Swedish musician was into sounds of a far more feral nature. Even so, González has never been a one-trick genre pony.
“I had my teenage years with punk and hardcore, and playing classical guitar and writing my singer-songwriter songs,” he recalls. There was also more to his life than music. “I went to university and let go of my band.”
At the time he was doing a PhD in biochemistry. Presumably, by the time one gets to their third-tier degree they are pretty serious about the chosen field of study. However, in 2003, González’s musical muses won out and he left science to its own devices for good.
“I think about that many times,” he says, “about how you can change as a person with time. With my friends, when I was younger, it was important to stay the same,” he laughs. “Anyone who changed was a sellout, and wasn’t true.”
Life can do funny things. There you are, doing your gigs, writing your songs and, somehow or other, making ends meet. Then someone flips a switch. Today, González finds himself in a long-term relationship and, more tellingly, has two small children. That, he says, has been a game-changer for him, on all sorts of levels. “It’s okay to change, and it’s something I’ve done, especially with becoming a dad and getting settled in my relationship and knowing this is going to be a long while,” he chuckles.
Naturally, with musicians, timing is of the essence in their work. But parental duties have shot that one down.
“With the kids, there is noticing how time disappears from your calendar, and weeks and months and years just pass by super quickly.”
That, he says, has been a challenging learning curve for him, but he seems to be handling that pretty well, and drawing and embracing the requisite lessons.
“There is letting go of your ego and I would say in very good ways, mostly. I think it’s good to try, for me, to know what my core interests are in life. So I am okay with change but I also try to focus on what I want to steer toward, and that is more and more learning, and good times with family and friends, and I am becoming more nature romantic.”
All of which filters into his musical outpourings. His most recent album, Local Valley, which came out last September, has quite a few references to individual existential issues and Mother Nature’s gifts, and how we should relate to all of that in the hurly-burly of 21st-century life.
The uncertainties we now inescapably face, in this post-pandemic era of ours, all come through. Consider the following lines in “Visions” from the record: “Enslaved by the forces of nature. Elevated by mindless replicators. Challenged to steer our collective destiny.” That’s pretty heavy-duty thought-provoking stuff. The closing stanza reads thus: “No we can’t know for sure what’s next. But that we’re in this together. We are here together.”
That message hits home even harder, with its clarion call for action tempered by an upbeat inclusive observation, with González’s velvety delivery. I put it to the Swede – of Argentinean parentage, in case you were wondering about the patently non-Scandinavian surname – that, perhaps, with him less is more.
Instead of screaming out his inner thoughts and emotions, augmented up by lashings of wattage, he opts for the seemingly laissez-faire approach and leaves us to do some of the work. His vocals put me in mind of Scottish bluesy-folk guitarist-vocalist Bert Jansch of Pentangle and, later, solo fame. There is something alluringly understated about the González onstage and recording studio way.
The man is clearly not of the strutting superstar type, and tends to take the softly-softly route to expressing himself, verbally and musically. That does not detract from the clarity of the sentiments. You get the sense of a less is more equation.
“Yes, I think that’s a matter of taste,” he posits, “and a lack of creativity when I was doing the writing,” he adds a little apologetically.
For now, at least, he is keeping his vocal arsenal under wraps.
“My [vocal] range is pretty wide,” he declares. “When I was in a choir, when I was younger, they did this test in the choir to see the range everyone has, to choose which one will be bass, tenor, whatever. I was almost reaching the lowest notes and almost reaching the very highest notes. The choir leader used me for different positions depending on the songs.”
González is spoiled for choice, and simply has to tailor his vocal expression to suit the project in hand, taking the instrumental underpinning very much into account.
“So, for me, it has been a matter of homing in on which timbre is the one that suits my guitar better,” he says, noting a couple of giant musical role models, typically from very different areas of sonic pursuit. “I was inspired by [Brazilian singer, guitarist and songwriter] João Gilberto and [jazz trumpeter-vocalist] Chet Baker, how they would sing very quietly and softly, and in a way that is not forced. I think that is my main thing.”
He doesn’t take an aggressive approach on the public profile-marketing side, and is in no hurry to grab our attention, or our hard-earned cash. Local Valley is only his fourth solo album, a full 18 years after his debut release, Veneer. Mind you, he has racked up the sales in the process, with his 2007 offering In Our Nature selling over a million copies and he has achieved global fame.
Although he generally takes the stage, these days, on his lonesome, González has done duty with combos, such as the Göteborg String Theory experimental art ensemble, which had more than 20 members, and the Junip band, which comfortably straddles the soft rock-folksy divide. I wondered whether synergies tend to inform the way he goes about his solo work.
“Ever since I started playing solo I have been thinking how can I make my music sound like it is more than just me. I am inspired by classical pieces when you have one guitarist who sounds like two. And when I play acoustic guitar in a certain range you get the sense of other instruments, like a cello. I am partly aware of that and also noticing when people come up to me after shows and tell me I sounded like more than one person. It is something I have been pursuing since the first album.”
His Tel Aviv dates will incorporate all that, and more.
“I’ll be playing stuff from my solo albums. It’s still quite nice to mix things from all four albums. It’s not going to be all originals, but it won’t only be about them [songwriters] but also about me. And it’s really fun to play the new songs.”
González says he is looking forward to coming back here.
“I had a really good reception in Tel Aviv before. I’m looking forward to the food too,” he laughs. Bete’avon!