A voice as tender as that of José González is as rare as the lineage from which it was spawned.
This half-Swedish, half-Argentine singer-songwriter was reared on bossa nova in Gothenburg, Sweden, a national dichotomy if there ever was one. The warm, passionate Argentines and the cold, distant Swedes are polar opposites on the cultural thermometer, leaving González with a sparse sound that is bogged down with Scandinavian melancholy yet oozes with the sexiness of the Latin classical guitar. Call it “Scandinova.”
If you haven’t heard of González, that wouldn’t be a surprise just yet, but it soon will be. Not many others had, either, until a British-based Sony Bravia television commercial turned the track “Heartbeats” into an overnight sensation (though filmed in San Francisco, the commercial has not run in the United States). That led to intense word of mouth lauding his debut album, Veneer (Mute Records), in critical circles, and suddenly González became a sonic icon of simplicity. Veneer was entirely written, recorded, and produced by González and his nylon-stringed classical guitar, with the exception of the occasional appearance of a trumpet and the odd percussion here and there.
As a result, the starkness of Veneer is very Swedish, but the instrumentation is very Latin. “As a person, I’m pretty Swedish,” says González, in a soft-spoken Latin accent. “But all the music that I listen to is a mixture of all kinds of styles, including the Spanish guitar. But if I had lived in Argentina, I wouldn’t be playing this moody music.”
González’s parents fled Argentina in the ’70s during a military dictatorship that routinely “disappeared” those who dabbled in politics (his parents were forward-thinking students at the time). They spent time in Brazil before making a new life in Sweden. The multiethnic stew turned out to be the perfect fodder for Veneer’s musical melting pot.
But it almost didn’t happen. González made a go at music several years back but had all but given up in favor of a PhD in biochemistry. Then his demo found its way to the right people at Swedish indie label Imperial Recordings; they convinced the tunesmith to dump the beakers for ballads.
If you listen closely to Veneer, there is a subtle anger that permeates the underbelly of the album, something that is no doubt reflective of González’s transcontinental upbringing. “I don’t feel the album is melancholy; the predominant feeling is uncomfortable,” he says. “There’s more anger than sadness. Many of the songs are about not settling down … about moving on.”