The one and only José González will be stopping through DC and NYC this week with the String Theory; the larger than life collab puts a sweeping, orchestral spin on González’ catalog of moving yet minimal songs, and the live performance is not to be missed! The 22-piece orchestra will accompany González at DC’s Lincoln Theatre tomorrow (Wednesday, 3.20) and NYC’s Apollo Theater on Thursday 3.21 and Friday 3.22. Not able to make it out to the shows? (Rest assured that you can purchase a copy of the live album, which was recorded during the 2017 tour.)
I was fortunate enough to get caught up with González over the phone a few weeks ago to talk about his involvement with the String Theory, as well as about the influence of language over lyrics, his songwriting process, the forthcoming solo record and more. You can internet-eavesdrop on our full conversation below:
BYT: So we’re super stoked about the shows you’ve got coming up here! I guess let’s kick things off by talking about how you got involved with the String Theory in the first place?
José González: They started up in Berlin; they were called the The Berlin String Theory, and they were a group of musicians, a collective, that invited different artists to do arrangements. One of the artists was Sebastian Gäbel, who moved to Gothenburg and later redid the same collaboration but in Gothenburg with Gothenburg artists. I was one of them. They did a version of “Cycling Trivialities” that I really enjoyed. I didn’t expect that much, but I liked it so much that I asked them to do the full show with me. Somehow it’s been ten years together. We did one tour in 2011 and had a big break, and then in 2017 we got back together, and now we’re finally releasing an album with live music and doing this tour.
BYT: I know you gave them a lot of freedom to put their spin on your music. How did you find a balance between giving up some of the creative control while still maintaining your ability to have the final say?
JG: They asked to choose the songs and do the arrangements however they liked, and I think they were pretty sensitive to my style. They’re used to doing things with funk and noise bands, so with me, they changed the style for each song, basically. So when we got together and did the first show, we actually didn’t sound that good. I just reread the review we got, and it was like a 2/5 in front of thousands of people in Gothenburg. But then we did the actual tour in Europe, and things just clicked. I hung out a bit more with them, with the arrangements and the tweaking, and having this backseat position I just once in a while would ask if we could change something. But it was nice; I haven’t been the dictator this time around, compared to other groups. [Laughs]
BYT: Has your relationship to any of the songs changed, especially regarding some of the older ones? And does having the String Theory come in and rearrange them make you think about them in a different way?
JG: Yeah, I guess most of the songs, but there are some that stand out. I feel like “Far Away” has had a huge change in style. The one I think about the most is “Every Age”, because I’d made the song so simply, and the new arrangement really sets the stage for the ambition of the lyrics in that song. And also there’s an outro that’s very bombastic. Also, “Let It Carry You”, partly with the groove in the song, and then the middle instrumental part is very dreamy and brings out the essence of the words in a way that I didn’t expect. The album that I originally did now feels very simplistic.
BYT: It must be so cool to have that experience! Do you listen to covers of your songs that people have done?
JG: Yeah, it’s fun once in a while to look through them. There’s been some artists who’ve done covers, and fans. It’s nice, it’s fun to see the variations.
BYT: Totally. And I know you’re no stranger to covers, so I’ll ask if there are any new ones we can expect with this run of shows?
JG: Well, this tour is kind of special, because it’s such a big project that we’ve got these arrangements from the live album. No surprises in terms of songs, because they’re all from my three albums, or from the covers I usually play, like “Teardrop” by Massive Attack and “Heartbeats” by The Knife. For anyone who’s used to these, though, they’re going to feel like there are a lot of surprises in terms of the arrangements and the 22-piece orchestra on stage.
BYT: Speaking of which, what do you feel you get out of shows at really big venues vs. some of the smaller spots? Do you find your connection to the music and/or to the audience changes depending on the size of the room?
JG: The vibe really changes from venue to venue, and sometimes it’s not so much the size but the way the people are seated so they can see everything. What’s nice with the orchestra is that we’re able to play theaters, venues with so much history. That’s exciting in and of itself. It’s almost like going to the opera; there’s something special going on. That’s very nice. Musically, we have a few songs that really take advantage of the acoustics, but some of the songs work really well in club shows, too. So we have different vibes depending on the venue. Some of the takes we chose for the live album were actually from shows in smaller clubs.
BYT: Cool. And what about your family? Will they be joining you over here at all on tour?
JG: Not this time around. My daughter is one and a half, and she just started going to kindergarten. My girlfriend works at Monki, so it’s going to be part time for our mothers. They’re really excited to have more time with her.
BYT: How has being a dad changed (if at all) your creative process? Has it increased the structure of your day, for example?
JG: Yeah, so my day to day life has really been changed. I find myself listening to music more than usual, humming more than usual, but not finding the time to sit down and rehearse or write. So lagging behind on my writing schedule, but feeling very creative and happy. I’m okay with delaying my album release for that.
BYT: Which leads me to my next question, which is about the next album. Where do you stand with that at the moment?
JG: So the fourth solo album is something I’m still working on. I just have the skeletons for many of the songs, but not the entire thing. I think from now on I’ll have a couple of hours each day where I’m writing and recording, so maybe next year it’ll be out?
BYT: Okay! Now, is there a typical way by this point in your career that you’ll approach song building? Is it the melody that generally comes first, or the lyrics, or…?
JG: It’s always guitar first. Guitar, then humming, then random words, then more words, then lyrics, and then recording and producing. So I always try to have my guitar and find the skeleton for each song, and the style, before I take it to the next level. Which is usually harder for me, where I try to find the words. That part feels more like work and less like fun. [Laughs]
BYT: And how many languages do you speak? I assume three or more, since you’ve got Swedish, English and Spanish/Castellano, right?
JG: Yeah, exactly. And I understand some German, so three and a half. I grew up with Spanish and then Swedish took over and became my first language, and then as a teenager I started writing in English, and now I’m listening and reading a lot in English. Almost exclusively, actually. So I think my vocabulary is probably biggest in English.
BYT: When you’re coming up with words and lyrics, do you ever think of a particular sentiment in Spanish or Swedish that feels spot-on, but then you feel like it feels strange to include it without translating to English?
JG: So when I used to write lyrics, I used to sit down with a word dictionary, and I was thinking in Swedish and translating. But for each album, I’ve been thinking more and more in English. It’s kind of a weird situation where I’m very aware that it’s my third language, and yet I’m still writing in it. There’s something of a habit going on, and it works pretty well in terms of communicating with different cultures. It is a weird situation, though. I actually tried to write in Swedish and Spanish, but it didn’t really work. Swedish felt too direct when I was trying that when I was younger, and I didn’t really find the words in Spanish. But I think with time and maturity, I’d be able to switch to those languages to write.
BYT: It’s funny, I was speaking to Tove Styrke (who’s also Swedish) about what you were just saying; she was talking about how English is a little more nuanced, as opposed to Swedish, which can feel very direct. Like, in English, you can say “I love you” and it can mean different things, but in Swedish, it’s like “I LOVE YOU” and much more intense.
JG: That’s funny. Yeah, that’s exactly it. It feels very direct, and English feels a bit more mysterious. Of course, when I’m touring in the States or the UK, I’m quickly aware that there’s no mystery at all. [Laughs]
BYT: Right, a little more exposed! Now, you’ve stayed put in Gothenburg for many years for the most part, and the music scene seems quite strong there. Was that a main draw for you? Do you interact much with the music community there?
JG: I used to go to shows and hang out with musicians, and artists in general, much more, but the last five to ten years I’ve been more at home and doing my own thing. So I don’t feel as connected, but I always feel very proud when I see the things that are coming out of Gothenburg. It’s very cool. But I admit I’m a bit disconnected. [Laughs]
BYT: That’s understandable! Alright, now I also wanted to ask you a kind of weird question – I know you used to study biochemistry, so I was wondering if you found there was any overlap between biochemistry and music. There might not be, but I just thought it’d be interesting to ask!
JG: Not really, but what I usually mention is how when I get stuck (or at least when I used to get stuck) writing music and the lyrics, I did some methodical work that reminded me of when I was in the lab with pen and paper, doing some trial and error stuff, tweaking and tweaking and tweaking, trying to find out what I was doing wrong until it felt right. So that methodology in the process feels like it overlaps a bit.
BYT: That makes sense! And what’s on the horizon for you after this run of shows? Is it mainly working on this fourth full-length?
JG: I’ll be home more than usual with family, writing, and I feel very excited about the fourth album. When I’m home I’m able to play more guitar, because when I’m on the road I get sick of it. [Laughs] So I’m really looking forward to that, and focusing more on guitar and vocals, which has always been my main thing. I’m combining the orchestra tour with some one-off solo shows, and that’s also very nice, to be able to go out and be able to do these trips and meet nice people. I’ve also been able to focus on Effective Altruism, which I am involved with. It’s a nice thing to have on the side, to collect money for charities and also doing interviews and conferences that are being put out online. That’s become almost like a hobby, to follow the topics of existential risks and how to think about how to do it better.
Featured photo by Malin Johansson