review and interview by Meredith Tucker
photos by Susana Meza
Singer songwriter Jose Gonzalez visited Engine Studios in Chicago IL for day 2 of KEXPâ€™s live broadcasts from the windy city. Gonzalez, hailing from Sweden, produces a lo-fi solo set of heartfelt, gorgeous folk songs. Gonzalez and John Richards discussed his favorite venues to play taking into account the challenges that acoustic guitarists face in big spaces. Gonzalezâ€™s smooth, classical guitar riffs offer a warm sound if even with a somewhat muted energy. Itâ€™s evident that Gonzalez doesnâ€™t rush anything â€“ his kinship with modern day folk singer-songwriters is familiar, but what sets him apart is his timelessness. His brand of indie folk seems stripped down, bare bones, and organically produced. Though backed on the record by a few vocalists and instrumentalists, his stunning simplicity is what provides a ghostlike, haunting energy behind his melodies.
I sat down with Mr. Gonzalez to discuss the challenges facing modern singer songwriters, his new album, and more.
JOSE: I was fourteen years old when I picked up the guitar and came from a not-so musical family so I was kind of like on my own, but my dad liked singing and learned guitar basics, playing Beatles, etc. Around the same time I started playing bass also and in a punk band at first and then a hardcore band, from like 93-98. Started studying at the university and kind of laid off all the music except acoustic.
JOSE: First band was called Back Against the Wall. Inspired by like the Misfits. A year later a couple of other friends and I started a hardcore band called Sweet Little Sinister. This was all in Gothamburg Sweden.
MT: What do you think is different between playing shows in Sweden vs playing shows in America?
JOSE: I always thought that the differences in Sweden are just as big as the differences in America. Some sort of show is always the same anywhere you go. I donâ€™t know if itâ€™s the music that attracts similar people, but I donâ€™t see any sort of big difference. Itâ€™s more like if itâ€™s a Friday or a Tuesday and if they sell alcohol or not.
MT: Does your music attract a certain crowd?
JOSE: I think itâ€™s a pretty diverse crowd. These days itâ€™s usually the people who know the music already and the people who are ready for a kind of quiet show. When I first started playing there were lots of talky type young people. Now itâ€™s really mixed actually. Even style wise I see people from different subcultures. Itâ€™s not like one style.
MT: Is this because of any philosophically folk generational type of thing? Do your lyrics have an influence?
JOSE: I donâ€™t think itâ€™s really the lyrics that has anything to do with it, but just the style of the music that can just sort of suit hip hop kids to grandmas. A friend of mine who was in to noise and punk and stuff, even punk kids have to have music to make out to.
MT: Tell me a bit about your new album.
JOSE: Yeah, itâ€™s the similar style as the first one, all guitar and vocals mainly. Maybe half the songs have additional percussion and some backup vocals pretty much similar as the first one. I feel like the singing and the guitar playing is a bit more â€“ on my scale â€“ more intense. The lyrics are less self-centered.
MT; Do you have any sort of method for writing lyrics or composing songs?
JOSE: Iâ€™ve been really conscious about that because I feel itâ€™s very difficult. I consciously try to read stuff and write down ideas and form sentences. I think that much of the stuff that I was reading ended up in one way or another ended up in the lyrics, philosophy, religion or nature. Basically, itâ€™s about having usually I have almost finished songs with guitar and melody and I fit in the words so I would have something.
MT: Who have been some of your biggest influences?
JOSE: When I started back in to write the first songs for the first album, it was Simon and Garfunkel, and Cat Power, Songs: Ohia, that type of thing. Now itâ€™s been the same format but itâ€™s music from other genres, like Fela Kuti, Amadu and J Dilla.
MT: Why do you do primarily singer songwriter acts now? Do you prefer it over playing in an electronically infused sort of genre like hardcore?
JOSE: It was awhile ago that I was playing in the harder bands and I noticed that I really enjoy playing on my own because I am a bit of a control freak, and on my own, itâ€™s only me, I can choose the tempo and change it whenever I like. Itâ€™s easier to carry the backpack everywhere.