By Tom Lynch
While the pieces surely add up on paper, it’s difficult to categorize Jose Gonzalez simply as a singer-songwriter.
With just a classical acoustic guitar and his soft, humble voice, the musician creates a tidal wave of sound that’s as affecting—viscerally and emotionally—as any band. His earlier work drew the inevitable Nick Drake comparisons, but he’s advanced far behind any comparisons now. His haunting, poignant “In Our Nature,” out on Mute Records, comes on the heels of Gonzalez’s recent international exposure, which included him coming from out of nowhere (actually, Sweden) and on to appearances on Conan and Carson Daly and a song entry on the now-defunct indie-rock hotbed “The O.C.”
Born to Argentine parents, there’s a South American influence in Gonzalez’s sound, a worldly, intense delivery that warms the blood. His first record, the brilliant “Veneer,” can make you break into a sweat. Released in the U.S. in the fall of 2005, the record found an audience with both the fierce single “Crosses” and his cover of fellow Swedes The Knife’s “Heartbeats,” a chilling and bittersweet beauty. In the latter, Gonzalez transforms an electro-dance song (a great song in the first place) with stunning accuracy, as if he was the only one in the world who could strip down this fuzzy pop song to its very soul, and bring the most private moments to the surface.
“In Our Nature” is not so much an improvement, but more of a continuation. With more lyrical astuteness and accompaniments (percussion?!?!), Gonzalez expands his sound—kind of. Most of the record sounds equal to “Veneer”’s subtle, graceful content and delivery, while the lyrics careen into darker territories. (A cover of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” makes its way onto the record as well.) Single “Down the Line” comes off as a tragic warning of sorts, Gonzalez repeating in a bold fashion throughout the closing moments “Don’t let the darkness eat you up.” The three songs at the record’s finish serve as a gentle coda, “The Nest” and “The Fold” swiftly passing with a daydream’s reliability, followed by closer “Cycling Trivialities,” which not only shows Gonzalez has developed a gift for melody (in his own songs), but also his tremendously talented guitar playing, as this song drifts off into an instrumental, finger-picked, off-road drive, as if here, at the end of the album, our narrator’s lost his way. It’s superb and unforgettable.
“It’s kind of been a more conscious process in writing the songs,” Gonzalez says. “I made an effort to kind of make the songs more compact. [I wanted] the whole album more compact and more solid in the songwriting and the sound.”
Gonzalez is incredibly relaxed, modest, joking—which is surprising—and he’s also very soft-spoken and brief, which is not. “I think my own pressure was already high, I guess,” he says of his psyche while writing a follow-up to “Veneer.” “I had success in Sweden when [‘Veneer’] came out, but my slowness in writing songs, it’s the same [as it was] before.”
The most interesting part of singer-songwriters—at least to me—is their process, their routines and modes of creation. None are the same. “I always start with guitar riffs, recording, listening back,” Gonzalez says of his. “Eventually, I’ll have song sketches that I’ll have for a long time. This time I spent more time with the lyrics, writing stuff down on the side, so it became more of a puzzle putting it all together.”
He says the lyrics are not only the most difficult part, but the least enjoyable. “I know that has been a part of songwriting I don’t really like doing,” he says. “I know it’s not just a language thing [English is his third], but this time I wanted to express myself.”
He also says he enjoys playing solo and, in contrast, with other musicians, equally. “I do like both. It’s strange for some reason, but when we play as a trio it becomes more soft and more downtempo. When I play solo I tend to change pace, play tighter.”
Gonzalez says he avoided writing songs similar in theme to his older work so, basically, no love songs. Not that he’s given up on the idea. “I know that I tend to think a lot about things, but I’d rather use the word realistic than pessimistic. I’m pretty optimistic about stuff—I usually don’t try to see things like that. But I don’t really fool myself.”
Then, in self-reflection, Jose Gonzalez chuckles.
Jose Gonzalez plays October 4 at Park West, 322 West Armitage, (773)929-5959, at 7:30pm.