José González Explores Rhythm and Repetition

An established star in Scandinavia, the young, classically inspired guitarist José González is suddenly being discovered by the rest of the world. Born in Gothenburg, the Swedish ace fingerpicker grew up listening to everything from the Latin American music of his Argentinean parents to the Beatles. At 27, González is rapidly winning new fans with his vibrant, magical sound—a mix of hypnotic guitar and hauntingly serene vocals. After performing the beautifully introspective “Heartbeats” from his debut album, Veneer [Mute Records], on NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien, González and his trusty Alhambra 5P cedar-top nylon-string are drawing rave reviews from U.S. listeners and critics alike.

“Music was around me from when I was born,” says González, “but I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 14. I was really into Silvio Rodríguez, the wonderful Cuban singer and guitarist. He was probably the main reason I started exploring music. My father really encouraged me, and gave me a Beatles book and bossa nova sheet music.”

Picking up his dad’s guitar, González progressed quickly. “When I was young, it felt fun to try everything. I actually wanted to learn how to play jazz guitar, but I could only find a classical teacher. So I studied Spanish guitar, playing pieces like Asturias [Isaac Albéniz] and Canarios [Gaspar Sanz].”

For many years, music remained a hobby for González, who was focused on his studies to become a biochemist. He explains, “I was working on my PhD when I released my first EP, Crosses, in 2003. It started to bring me a lot of attention and gig opportunities, and soon I didn’t have time to do any proper research for my degree. So I decided to put studies on the shelf for a while.”

González was stunned when his music career took off and felt a little awkward at first playing his songs live on TV. “I never felt my music would do well with audiences,” he admits.

With interest in his music growing, González is already working on a follow-up to Veneer, armed as usual with a Dictaphone recorder. “I have half an album ready, and my plan is to have it finished by autumn. These songs are similar in many ways to those on Veneer, which are all down to rhythm and repetition. But I have a new one I often play live—it doesn’t have a name yet—that’s really percussive and very energetic. There’s another song I recorded with a Swedish hip-hop producer for his album, and I’ve been playing it live using a very simple guitar accompaniment based on an African or Central American rhythm. Also I’m recording ‘Teardrop’ by [trip-hop pioneers] Massive Attack.”

Between tour dates, González still makes time to play in the band Junip with Elias Araya and Tobias Winkerton. “I try to spend as much time with them as possible. We released an EP, Black Refuge, and we’re now working on a full-length record. They’re actually in the studio right now mixing two songs for a seven inch. There’s acoustic guitar in there, but it’s not the main instrument. Junip is more about creating a drone effect with organs and a Moog.”