With its soft rhythms and melancholy melodies, José González’s music invites you to step into a space that is intimate and spellbinding. Born to Argentinian parents in Gothenburg, González began playing classical guitar aged 14, and has gone on to release three studio albums as a solo performer and to collaborate on several others.
His European tour this summer brought him to Malta, where he performed at City Theatre in Valletta on 5 July in an event organised by TAO Productions. We caught up with him at The Phoenicia’s Club Bar the morning before the show. ‘It’s my first time here in Malta,’ he says, ‘and I’m very excited.’
González is a brilliant and versatile live performer, accustomed to adapting his songs to different formats and with varying accompaniments. For this performance, however, he strips things back to their roots, with only himself and his guitar on stage.
This is where he is most in his element. ‘A guitar was the only instrument in our home when I was growing up,’ he explains, ‘and it creates a soft and bassy sound I feel comfortable with.’ He has built his idiosyncratic sound out these stripped-back, bassy overtones – a sound he describes as ‘natural but bombastic’.
Over the years, he has crafted a unique soundscape that also permeates his acoustic versions of popular songs, including ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ by Joy Division, ‘Teardrop’ by Massive Attack and ‘Hand on Your Heart’ by Kylie Minogue. These covers are entirely consistent with González’s musical universe. ‘My covers are meant to be serious,’ he says. ‘Even the heartfelt lyrics of Kylie Minogue; from my part it’s about conveying the serious emotional element.’
González describes how the guitar is also the main inspiration for his song-writing. ‘My compositional process is music, – always guitar – melodies, then lyrics.’ He likens his slow, thoughtful creative process to ‘marinating’ – ‘I like the word “marinate”; you set it up and wait for inspiration.’
Song-writing is ‘a bit of a puzzle. The melodies, finger-picking, the rhyming words, the meaning behind the sentences…sometimes you can have almost all the puzzle parts, but some are just missing, and you know when you find them.’
Where does he get his musical inspiration from? ‘I am inspired by Nordic musicians and minimalism,’ he says, and there is evidence of this across his oeuvre. Less obvious, perhaps, is the influence of punk and hardcore – bands like Misfits, Black Flag, Cirillo Rodriguez from Cuba, Nick Drake and Paul Simon.
‘I’m very aware of being unpunk in my sound,’ he admits, ‘but my Trojan Horses, soft melodies, the themes I sing about are about art being used to convey a message and go against the grain. I am critical of much through music, that’s the punk in me.’