Interview by Parisa Eshrati
Before his show at the Rialto Theater in Tucson, José González and I had an in-depth conversation about his new album Vestiges and Claws. He delved into the themes of the album, influences from evolutionary biology to Brazilian artists, and the notion of being carried away by music.
There’s a overlying theme on your new album, Vestiges & Claws, of attempting to understand ourselves and celebrating life. It’s a more zoomed out perspective compared to your previous works, which are more introspective. What caused this shift in perspective?
For me, it was partly the type of songs that I had been writing. The songs were a bit more major-oriented and not as droney and introverted in the sound. “Leaf Off”, for example, is pretty open. I felt like I wanted to switch on a personal level from being the one who sits and moans to the one who sings about something that could work better in a group setting. It’s also that I’m a bit older, and I’m not as grumpy or as melancholic as I used to be.
I’m not sure if you had any role in the “Let It Carry You” music video, but the director Malin Johansson explained that the theory behind the video is “what it means to be carried away by something, and how that then transcends from a mental notion into a physical sensation”. Was this a feeling you experienced while writing this album?
It’s definitely something that I think about when I listen to music and how it can really change my mood on a personal level. It is amazing that music can have that function and really take you from one emotional level to somewhere completely new. For the “Let It Carry You” music and lyrics in particular, I was not just thinking about music but arts in general. It made me think of the normal person who works 40 hours a week and that type of lifestyle. I feel like we could do better as we progress with technology, but for some reason when we get new technologies we manage to still work our asses off…most of humanity, at least. So, “Let It Carry You” is an ode to the working people who might not take the time to reach for their moments that are worth much more in the long run. It’s a reminder to let the music carry you away. It’s a bit naïve, but it’s a reminder nonetheless.
Last year, you did a great cover of Arthur Russell’s “This is How We Walk on the Moon”. I want to tie this into the theme of your album, that states how we all live with traces of other people. What are Russell’s legacy and traces for you personally?
I got to know his music through one of my good friends in Gothenberg. We did a version of “That’s Us/Wild Combination”. It’s not that I love all of Russell's stuff, but since I saw the documentary on him I’ve felt a strong connection to his music and to him as a person. There is so much in his music that is left unpolished, and the type of writing he had was very fragmental. It feels like the way I write when I’m in the demo stage. My way of singing is very similar to his, so much that his ex-boyfriend comes ot many of my shows and tells me that I remind him of Arthur. There’s definitely a special connection that I feel to him and his music.
How did you end up picking this song out of his discography?
The Red Hot organization contacted me pretty early and they mentioned that the other bands hadn’t picked out any songs yet, so I had a free range. I asked my friend what song she liked and she mentioned “This is How We Walk on the Moon”. I hadn’t paid attention to it much, but I saw it as a fun challenge to pick that song. It’s a bit quirky and it makes sense to me – the first part of the song is sort of artistic and filled with random thoughts.
You stated how there’s another theme in this album of questioning where we’d headed as a group of primates on this planet. How did your interest in evolutionary biology develop this idea in your music?
With my second album, I got interested in evolutionary biology through Steven Pinker and others, reading about religion, and the idea of how information is spread from person to person. This album was continuing on that those themes that were explored with my second album and partly in the Junip albums. It’s a continuation but these songs also work a lot better in charitable situations. I’ve been asked many times to sing at charities where they want artists to participate partly to draw attention, but I noticed that I didn’t have that many songs to sing at those type of events. So I wrote songs like “Every Age” with that in mind.
Having the we’re-just-primates type thinking in mind and knowing that we’re here still played a more direct role. When we all aim for something together and make a collective effort, it can bring out a lot of group energy in people – similar to what you see in sports or games. It we focus on the planet or the people who have it the worst off, that could be the better aim instead of being on the other side of the spectrum and so nationalistic. Cabalistics has been one of the main interests in the lyric writing.
I think it’s great you have such a positive attitude towards that topic. Some people may get really defeated in thinking that we’re just another primate, but it can actually be quite a great revelation.
Yes! That’s where “Let it Carry You” comes in, where I wonder about the amazing fact that we’re here. Sure, we are just a collection of molecules and atoms but a really amazing collection of molecules and atoms if you compare us to other things that are around. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword…yeah, we’re just primates, but very amazing primates. We can talk and invent things…like coffee makers [laughs].
There was a conscious decision to work without a producer for this album. What are some tricks you’ve learned to find that balance of sounding audible but at the same time not overly polished?
I was using a laptop the whole time and plugins that mimic analog recording, so a lot of distortion and tape evaluation. That’s stuff I had been using since my first album, so I’ve continued with that. Also, the fact that I record myself makes it sound less polished and a little more muddy. The way I choose the takes is probably different than what a producer would say is a good take as well.
I read that you found inspiration in 70’s Brazilian productions. What artists/albums specifically were influential, and what did you take away from them?
Milton Nascimento, João Gilberto, Caetano Veloso, and Gal Costo have been big inspirations. It’s stuff that I’ve been influenced by since I’ve been younger but I still feel inspired by them. Many of them have nylon-string guitars and the way they choose their harmonies are often times in that mystical range. I don’t think my music sounds like theirs, but it certainly is influenced by them.
You’ve stated how you waived the principle of having all the songs on the album reproducible in a live context. Are there certain songs that you’ll completely skip out on live, or have you come up with clever ways to go about playing them?
For this tour, I’m now traveling with five musicians and four crews. I brought along as many musicians as I needed to be able to sing these more produced songs like “Leaf Off”, “Let It Carry You” and “What Will”. They play on other songs, but it was especially important for those three. For me, it’s also a nice way to switch from the solo music and being completely alone. Now I feel like I can start looking forward to doing solo versions of these songs.
You’ve done a great variety of covers, everything from Massive Attack to Kylie Minogue. So my question to you is - are you ever going to go back to your roots and put out a Black Flag or Dead Kennedys cover?
[laughs] Yeah…I’m gonna stay clear from those. It would be fun, though.
Finally, if you had to pick between tofu, tempeh, or seitan as your favorite vegetarian protein, which would you choose?
I like seitan the most. I heard tempeh is most nutritious, but I’m not sure. I didn’t like tempeh for a long time but now there’s a restaurant in Gothenburg that makes this amazing spicy, Chinese pickled tempeh. I get hungry just thinking about it. But yeah…seitan is cool, mostly ‘cause of the name. [laughs]