His haunting music made him a huge star, yet José González is unlikely to shout about it. He whispers a word or two in Jonathan Wingate’s ear
He’s responsible for one of the biggest albums of last year, yet nobody seems to recognise José González as he sits sipping his beer in the corner of a hip London hotel bar. In fact, the Swedish singer-songwriter is so softly spoken that it is almost impossible to actually hear what he’s saying over the barman’s cocktail shaker.
‘People often expect me to be very serious, but it’s not like my record company told me not to smile in photographs, because I was like that anyway,’ González giggles. ‘I guess I am actually quite shy, and I’ve always felt very self-conscious during interviews.’
After earning rave reviews for his strikingly original debut in 2005, González’ music received mass exposure through the Sony Bravia TV ad featuring his version of ‘Heartbeats’ (a song written by Swedish electro-pop duo, The Knife) and 250,000 multicoloured balls bouncing through the streets of San Francisco.
‘I was very concerned about cheapening my music by allowing it to be used in a commercial, so it felt like a big compromise,’ he admits. ‘Looking back, I don’t feel bad about it – it’s not like they’re selling machine guns to kids. Although the exposure was good, I wouldn’t do it again as long as I can pay the rent.’
Having sold millions of albums worldwide, José González is unlikely to be worrying about keeping a roof over his head ever again: ‘Originally we were aiming at selling 2000 albums. I was astonished that people liked it in almost every country that I went to, but it’s enough to know that some people really like what I do. It’s not about the numbers for me.’
His second album, In Our Nature, is a haunting collection that brings to mind everything from Nick Drake to the bossa nova records González’ Argentinean father played when he was growing up in Gothenburg.
‘A lot of the first album was about love and personal struggles, but these songs are mainly about the universal primitive aspects of human beings,’ González explains. ‘I’ve always thought about these things, but recently I became more interested after I read a book called The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, which is very much a critique on religion in general.
‘If you’re not critical about your history, that can be a problem because there are religious leaders, politicians and all kinds of powerful people who can take advantage of a population that isn’t really thinking. Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, but the lyrics are far from biological. I like playing with symbolism.’
Although it may sound strange to hear a pop star talking about such lofty topics, it all makes perfect sense when you discover that González was studying for a PhD in biochemistry at the University of Gothenburg months before his first album was released.
‘In a way I’m just putting down words that sound good, and although the songs are influenced by these subjects, it’s not exactly like writing a paper. Before this I planned to become a biochemist; I can still read books and get inspired by that stuff, but this way I get to travel the world and play music. But just because I’ve read a few books, it doesn’t make me an expert,’ González grins. ‘I just know how to play guitar.’
ABC, Glasgow, Sun 28 Oct. In Our Nature is out now on Peacefrog.