Reverb Interview: José González, Not Just Another Whiny Singer-Songwriter

Incorporating liltingly beautiful guitar parts that range from percussive to atmospheric, singer, songwriter and guitarist José González nonetheless makes music that transcends the singer-songwriter trope, partly by trying his hand at film soundtracks and fronting a five-piece Swedish folk-rock band.

“Right after releasing my first album [Veneer] and touring, I remember having issues of trying to avoid being another whiny singer-songwriter,” González laughs. Since that album, released in 2003, González has released two more full-length studio albums that showcase his mellow side, In Our Nature in 2007 and, most recently, 2015’s Vestiges & Claws.

But during the enormous gap between his second and third solo records, González took the opportunity to work on a series of horizon-expanding projects, releasing work with his band Junip, in which he plays guitar and sings, and developing music for Ben Stiller’s feature-length film “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” in 2013.

José sat down with Reverb to talk about the aesthetic of his sound, his growth as a producer, where he gets lyrical and musical inspiration, and, of course, his gear.

Can you tell us a little bit about your guitars and recording rig?

I’ve been recording with Universal Audio, and they were friendly enough to let me use all their plug-ins. So, basically Logic and Universal Audio. I use a couple of different guitars, some from Cordoba and one Alhambra, but they are all classical nylon-string guitars. No electrics.

I’ve been switching between the AKG 414 and the Neumann U67. Usually when I do demos, it’s with a Zoom stereo dictaphone. That’s usually what I use when I’m at home. I was recording so much at home and in the studio with headphones that I’ve got lots of different headphones but ended up using the Beyerdynamic DT880s.

AKG C414 B TLII

Neumann U67

Beyerdynamic DT880

Oh, I have a pair of those!

Yeah, there’s a good low end on those. That’s basically my setup for at home and in the studio. And live it’s basically different guitars and pickups, but I bring my sound engineer. We use the Fishman Prefix Pro Blend. I use the EQ with lows on maximum and the treble on minimum and let my sound engineer do the rest. It’s all about finding the feedback frequencies and taking them out. And I usually use a Radial Firefly, which is a tube preamp DI. To make an acoustic guitar sound good live, it’s about taking away certain frequencies and making the sound loud, but warm. So using tubes and removing the high end helps. It’s the same for Junip and when I play solo.

Your music is very mellow; do you find that the kind of music you play affects the vibe of your shows?

Yes! When I perform my solo work, I play with a five-piece band. Most of the people who come to my shows are eager to hear “Heartbeats” and “Crosses,” maybe a couple other songs that are mellow. I think that’s what they’ve been expecting. But with this five-piece band, we’ve got lots of percussion and two guitars and sometimes even a bass. It works pretty well to mix the stuff that has very mellow guitars and low volume with something more energetic.

It’s the same when we play festivals. We still sound very mellow compared to everything else, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t if someone else is playing loud on a stage nearby.

Listening to your music, it seems like you’re drawn most to songs that are just guitar and vocals.

Yeah. When I record, it’s just guitar and vocals, and usually we add some percussion. On the latest album, I was hitting the guitar and adding some plug-ins. That’s my niche sound. I stick with sounds that I’m familiar with from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I usually avoid adding lap steel and other traditional instruments.

What about this combination appeals to you?

When I was younger and listening to different types of music, and also playing hard-core and indie rock, I was inspired by the very soft albums by Chet Baker and Nick Drake. And what I noticed particularly was when it was very sparse, when it was only piano and vocals, only guitar and vocals.

And many times, these artists would add bass, maybe drums, and it sounded good but I thought that when they added more, something was lost. So that’s been part of my aim, to not add too much and maybe leave it for another time, another album, another tour, and actually just focus on how to make one guitar and one vocal sound as good as possible.

Jose Gonzalez

José González

Does that ever feel restrictive?

Yeah, it is restrictive, but I think that there is so much music out there that, by restricting myself, I’m going to add to something that I feel is missing. I know it’s a matter of taste so I think some people will yawn and fall asleep. But I know that many people like the style as I used to do, and I guess I still do. But by now, it’s more like a niche where I feel comfortable.

So it’s a matter of taste, and the restriction, I think, is fun. I still feel like, whenever I sit down with the guitar, I always come up with something. And then there’s always new ways of playing, usually rhythmically. It’s fun to find a new way to play. And I usually tune a bit differently from album to album.

So yeah, it’s still fun that by changing things slightly, it feels fresh. And I get to do other things like collaborations or DJing and then I get to not feel restricted and just enjoy music.

There was an eight-year gap between your second and third albums, and you spent some of that time releasing music with Junip and working on the soundtrack of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” How has writing for your solo work differed from writing with a band or for other projects?

When doing stuff with Junip, it’s always been about getting a certain groove or getting chord progressions together, and then I go home and write my lyrics. It’s so similar in the order of doing things: jamming first, gathering demos, collaborating on those and then finding vocal melodies and then writing lyrics, then producing.

And just the fact that I’ve been working and producing with other people, I’ve learned more and more tricks over the years. How to produce, how to mic, how to use EQ and distortion. So I feel like I’ve learned a lot through Junip and through different collaborations.

Did you take on more of a role as a producer in this album?

I mixed it and recorded it myself, but I did send it over for mastering.

You mentioned you do a lot of recording at home. Did you record Vestiges & Claws at home as well?

Jose Gonzalez - Vestiges & Claws

José González - Vestiges & Claws

I did some of it in my studio-studio, which is a part of a studio complex with lots of bigger rooms and lots of other people. But since I was recording on my own, it’s similar to the way I record at home because it’s just me and some headphones. So I ended up recording most of it at home, mainly in the kitchen of my previous apartment with a nice microphone and these new, very good-sounding preamps and plug-ins.

Do you feel like recording it at home and producing yourself affected the final outcome of the album’s sound?

Yeah, yeah, I think that I aimed at making it sound similar to my first album. I’m pretty sure that if I recorded somewhere else, that would make it more open, louder. So just me not being an expert on producing and mixing, I think that adds to the “demo” type of feeling. We were talking about restriction and I think, for me, that’s been a part of my aesthetic that I actually like in other people’s recordings. I’ve been inspired by other loners, like Mount Eerie/the Microphones. So yeah, just giving someone the feeling that they’re listening to something that isn’t polished or maybe isn’t recorded in a huge, well-equipped studio with perfect gear.

You seem to have turned your lyrical focus from looking inward to looking outward between albums. What shifted your focus on Vestiges & Claws in terms of lyrical content? Where do you find your inspiration?

With my second album, I already decided to write about other issues that were more generalized and more directed towards humanity, and not necessarily just about me and my feelings. Even though I remember writing my songs in a personal manner, they were still not necessarily about me but about that particular feeling.

I sort of changed a bit and with each new album, with Junip’s albums and now this solo album, I’ve been switching back and forth between similar topics. Topics like how to move forward when you’re in a place where you have to choose, or in a place where you lose something, like a relationship. Focusing on issues of anger, frustration, redemption, love; so usually with a sort of dark side but moving towards light.

So it’s ending up in a place of hope.

Yeah, with almost every song, I always try to turn the lyrics towards the light.

José González is currently on tour supporting his third album, Vestiges & Claws. You can find Vestiges & Claws on iTunes, vinyl and CD now.


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