José González: 'When I play solo too much I get lonely'

Singer-songwriter on his new album, Glamour Bar and more

Photo by Malin Johansson
Maybe you know him for his covers, maybe you know him for his solo work, or maybe you know him from the band Junip, but regardless of how you know José González it'll come as little surprise that the Swedish singer-songwriter is a supremely laid-back conversationalist. González's low-key, beautifully bare-bones recordings are reflected in his deeply unassuming demeanour

Ahead of his return to Shanghai, we spoke to González over the phone from his home in Gothenburg.

What do you remember from your last visit to Shanghai?
It was a while ago and I have a bad memory, but I remember they were really good shows, but also a bit weird. We had two in Shanghai, one at a restaurant or club, but the other show was more like a regular show and that one felt really good.

Right. You did a show in a theatre here and the one in Glamour Bar on The Bund.
Yeah, so that second one was a bit weird. I guess it was a case of getting a good economy on the tour, but we also played Beijing and Hong Kong. But yeah, it's been a while and I've been wanting to tour in Asia more, but it's been difficult with Junip because we have less of a following, but finally with this third solo album we've been able to put together another Asia tour, so I'm really looking forward to it.

Those shows were purely solo, but for this new album you've been playing live with more of a band set up; what's the plan for this China tour?
Yeah it's going to be that band that I've been touring with for the last one and a half years. It's a five-piece band so we're able to do lots of percussion and harmonies. The members are a guy from Malaysia who does percussion, and then a friend who does back-up vocals, percussion and some bass, and then two friends from Gothenburg who play guitar and drums. So it's sort of a band that I put together for this album; though I've played with them through Junip or solo shows before, I put them together for this album in particular to be able to play some of the songs that are a bit more produced compared to the previous albums.

Is the band set up now one you prefer for live shows?
Oh yeah, it's great having them. It's great for different reasons. For me, it's nice to change things up; when I play solo too much I get lonely and bored sometimes without having anyone to high five after a show. And the guys that I'm with are best friends from back home so. But yeah, I think it's nicer for the audience too to have a more dynamic show, especially in festivals or places where you might not have a good PA, then it's nice to not be too dependent on the acoustic guitar and to play the songs with back-up vocals and drums. It's really helped me to find a new inspiration for the live tours.

Has it led to you having to reinterpret some of your older songs to work with a full band?
Yeah. I don't see myself as an experimental artist, so I actually discovered something people like and usually I don't rearrange them too much, but there are a couple of songs that have really grown with the band. One of them is 'Killing for Love' and in a very subtle way 'Hand On Your Heart' with extra harmonies. Of course I haven't played that much in Asia, but for people in Europe and the US where I've played a lot I think it's nice to change the versions a bit.

Is that something which you think will then feed back into your recorded material as well? Your latest album already featured a bit more production as you mentioned.
I think it did on this third album a bit, but very slightly compared with other artists who change styles with each album. But yes, just being okay with adding more vocals and adding percussion and not only one guitar but two or three... but I still feel like I have a style that I started with on the first album and it's been fun to try to keep that style throughout my solo work: keeping focus on the guitar playing and most of the time being able to play each song on my own.

What keeps you coming back to that sound and approach?
One reason is that it's what I do best in some sense. I think there are way better producers than me and way better songwriters, but something that I've seen that people find unique with me is the combination of my voice and my finger-picking style on a nylon string guitar. And it's a combination that I enjoy and that people find interesting. Well, of course not everybody - there are some people who start yawning with this kind of music and want to hear something different - but when I did my first album, I did it in part as a reaction to everything else I was hearing on the radio or seeing live where many artists or friends that I knew would do demos that were really stripped down and I liked them a lot as they were, but as soon as they started producing, something was lost.

So I think I follow what some people did in the '60s and '70s - just guitar and vocals and keeping it very simple and I think it became popular again with Kings of Convenience in the early 2000s and they coined the phrase 'Quiet is the New Loud' and I think I was part of that. And it's been partly for that reason that I've not over-produced things and know that a simple Simon and Garfunkel song or Joni Mitchell song can be very powerful on its own.

And presumably Junip and some of your other projects give you an outlet to change things up a bit.
Yeah it's nice to be able to lay down the acoustic guitar sometimes and think in different ways. How to tweak sounds and use delays and play bass - all the stuff I used to do more when I was younger. And of course just by collaborating you're doing things you wouldn't do on your own, so that's been really helping me to learn and to experiment. I do some things just because they're fun, but right now I'm really excited to continue exploring my solo stuff, when I play just me and a guitar on a PA. That's the part that I want to continue exploring.

There was a gap of over seven years between your previous two solo records.
I've been really slow with each album. For me, I've been releasing albums every third year - the first two albums and then the Junip albums were on a writing, recording, releasing, promoting cycle. So I haven't really been taking more time than usual, but it's true that I am very slow. I'm very picky with what I like or don't like. I never felt like the best songwriter or producer and that's always been a hurdle to going faster, but it's not been too much longer than usual - it was just with Junip and not solo.

When I was together with Little Dragon, they were extremely fast with writing and producing songs, so I did get a glimpse from up close how it works and how they did that. And I've used some of the tricks that I've learnt throughout the years to make things easier. I was envious ten years ago, but maybe not so now. I know that I'm slow, but I also know that I'm doing something that's unique - and I think that there's a strength in that too. I'm still sort of struggling to find the best way to work.

Which begs the question how do you work currently?
Sometimes in the studio, but mostly at home. And just working like for an hour or two hours a day, but doing things around that help me to write, to make those hours more effective. So I might play classical guitar or play other people's songs and then sit down to write; or I'll read poetry or watch movies and come up with bits that I like. When I try to write in a short space of time it usually doesn't work - it works best when I have weekly routines.

But presumably that's not the case when you're touring?
Yeah it's very hard to get routines on tour. On tour I've decided not to even try to write. Because usually I try and have a walk around the city or hang out with the band. So yeah, it's more about getting routines when I'm at home.

And those writing sessions, are they about piecing together parts that you already have in your head?
It's all about tweaking stuff that I already have. I might have a riff that I like that needs tweaking, say. The starting from scratch sessions are quite rare moments actually. So the latest album, some parts of those songs go back maybe five years.

You mentioned about playing other people's songs to help with your writing process. How do you choose those songs and what draws you to them?
It's a bit different from time-to-time. One part of it is when I'm doing covers, it's about finding something special that I can redo. But most of the time it's about finding songs that are similar to what I do, so maybe a Paul Simon song or The Beatles... more like the standard singer-songwriter songs.

And the covers?
It's been a while since I did that, but I usually pick a song where the lyrics really talk to me. So many times I would be curious about a song and then I'd look up the lyrics and find it didn't really work.

With Kylie Minogue, I was watching television and I was watching the video and it was an '80s pop song where she's jumping around and being very happy, but I listened to the lyrics and it's actually very heartfelt heartbreak lyrics.

It's a combination of things; finding something that people can get surprised about from hearing a new version, but also the lyrics have to feel real to me.