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Jose Gonzalez: sparking heartbeats in the charts

Can you tell us how you got involved with Sony? What were the decisive factors for you to let them use “Heartbeats”?

When they first contacted me, I was given the full details about the product and the storyline. Then I saw the footage, it looked real nice. The other good thing was that there wasn’t any overdub. Then I contacted the Knife to check they were OK with it. It mattered that Sony is a fairly neutral company, even though being a multinational it probably has its flaws. The visual was compelling, and yes, the other factor is, it meant a lot of money!

You are now touring and promoting Veneer, an album which mainly contains songs from 2003. Does it still reflect what you are at musically today?

Veneer is a unique document of what I was at back then. But looking back on the album, I am not 100% happy with it. On some songs I think I would have changed part of the lyrics or some vocals. It is OK to play them live for people who like them, even though it is a bit strange. Fortunately, the ones I like the most are the most popular. “Heartbeats” I am really proud of, and “Crosses”, my next single, I really love too.

Veneer is pretty much a solo effort, from writing to performance and production. Why is that?

If you want to get some drums, it takes some skill to know how to mike it properly for example. So it means you have to go in the studio and then borrow someone else’s skills. But with only just a guitar and vocals, it is pretty easy. I didn’t know much about recording, two cheap mikes and my computer and that was it.

I guess I am a control-freak in that respect, if I am to have a bad sound, or bad percussion, at least it will be totally my own. But it’s easy to become over-protective, so I think for the next album there will be more people involved. I will most certainly call the two percussionists who are on tour with me. But I don’t want to have that many more instruments. As for a producer, I think it would make me quite uncomfortable. I usually test the songs before recording them, so it is like this audience of friends with their feedback are doing half of the production for me.

Talking of your different influences, “Stay in the Shade” sounds very Nick Drake.

I remember that at one of my early shows, a lot of people came to see me afterwards and said that I really sounded like Nick Drake, but I didn’t know him then. After that, I listened to him a lot, especially Pink Moon, which was an influence while recording; it showed it was ok to do a short record with only guitar and vocals. “Stay in the Shade” is definitely the one track where I tried to emulate his style.

Is Chet Baker also a conscious reference, I am thinking of the trumpet on “Broken Arrows”, the last song on the album?

Totally! I recorded myself singing the horn line and then showed it to the trumpet player, the brief being to make it sound like Chet Baker. He has been a very big influence on the way I sing, just like Joao Gilberto, this way of singing very softly.

I noticed that apart from “Born in the USA”, all the covers you made were originally performed by female singers.

“Born in the USA” wasn’t my choice originally. A friend of mine organised this show with seven different bands doing the same cover. So it is a bit the odd one out. But the fact I covered songs performed by female artists, I never thought about it! “Heartbeats” and “Teardrops” were the serious ones, and I suppose “Hand on my heart” was a bit tongue in cheek, but not that much. I thought it had good lyrics and the way the melody turns out when I do it, it suddenly stops being a joke. I hope it is a bit like Mark Kozelek doing AC/DC covers.

Reading your biography, you were previously involved with punk and hardcore bands, genres we would not necessarily associate you with.

From the age of fifteen I played bass in this punk band which was influenced by Blackflag, the Misfits and Dead Kennedys. But that was only for a year. Then I joined the band of the guy who’s doing my artwork now, (he was the drummer). It was a hardcore band, which went on for five years but only release one 7inch, so it never made it. After that I did electric guitar with this indie rock band [Only if you call me Jonathan] and we released an album, went touring round Europe.

I guess all that experience has influenced my music in some way, for example how I am going to concentrate on how the bass sounds. Also the genre has a directness that a lot of singer-songwriter music doesn’t have, and which I try to recreate.

I believe you are also quite into Electronica?

I listened to a lot of House music when I was recording “Remain”, the second track of the album, so that is where the influence shows. But if I were to do electronica, it would only be as a side-project. I’m working on my next album and I want to keep it as bare as the first one.

You also grew up surrounded by Latin music, from Flamenco to Bossa.

Originally I wanted to learn jazz guitar, but the teacher I met only knew classical guitar. I have taken lessons, once a week for three years, so that’s the most formal training I’ve had. As for Flamenco, I need to rewrite my biography, because I’ven never played Flamenco. But a lot of the classical guitar songs I played were Spanish.

My biggest Latin influence is Silvio Rodriguez, this Cuban singer-songwriter. His early albums I still listen to regularly and they are really good. When I started playing guitar, my father encouraged me. When he was younger, he used to sing in an Argentinian folk band but he didn’t play any instruments so he was happy I picked up a guitar so he could sing these songs again! That’s how I learnt my first bossa-nova songs.

Where do you draw your folk sound from?

When I was young I listened to a lot of South American music, Brasilian, Cuban and some Argentinian, all with nylon string guitar. I also always liked Simon & Garfunkel and Beatles’ tracks like “Blackbird”.

I then followed a lot of indie rock bands whose members went solo like Jeremy Enigk from Sunny Day Real Estate or Geoff Farina from Karate. Then it was Cat Power and Songs:Ohia

Being an excellent musician, how come you haven’t chosen the instrumental route?

That’s where Junip [side-project] comes in. It’s not strictly instrumental, but has more of that monotonous, beat quality of instrumental music. It’s so easy to write songs, I mean, not that easy but somehow it comes more naturally to me. But I thought about doing instrumentals a lot recently, and I may do some in the near future.

I wondered whether you’d seen Scorcese’s documentary, where you see how Bob Dylan caused a public outrage when he went electric. Do you think audiences are more tolerant today?

I am pretty sure if I were to change genre people wouldn’t like it. A lot of footage in that documentary is from that one show where people started booing. I guess it all depends on what people expect. Maybe few people knew he was going to have half the set acoustic and half the set electric. As long as you tell people what you are doing, I think they won’t resent it because they know what they are getting. But on the other hand, I know you are not entirely free to do what you want.

If I went into a different genre, it would be under another name, or a band name, so that they know what they are getting. The Jose Gonzalez brand is guitar and vocals and that’s that. You think it is pessimistic?

You are currently touring a lot, but do you have time to start writing for the next album?

I give myself a lot of time, probably two years, as I am a slow writer. If I didn’t have the success I have with “Heartbeats”, the record company would be on my back by now, but there is a lot happening, a release in the States, so I don’t have any pressure.

The sound that seems to emerge from what I am doing now is quite repetitive, maybe it is because I listen to a lot of Fela Kuti. Also I started again to listen to a lot of Bresilian musicians like Joao Gilberto and Vinicius de Moraes. I have taken three new songs on the tour so far, and two seem to work quite well. By testing songs live, I know if I need to rework anything!

I saw your performance on Top of the Pops the other day, between the Strokes and Shayne from the X-Factor. How was that?

It was a very strange experience. When the audience started waving I didn’t understand what was happening. At one point they started clapping along, but the BBC girl on the set stopped them, it would have been horrible otherwise. I’d done a talkshow before that was big for Sweden but never anything as big as this.

How do you manage the massive sudden media exposure you are getting?

I had a similar situation in Sweden two years ago. This time it is a lot bigger, but at the same time there are a lot more good people around me I can trust and talk to, who manage all the mails, calls etc… It is still a bit scary though.

Gothenburg seems to be a very prolific scene. Who are the movers and shakers there? Aren’t you also friends with Jens Lekman?

One band that influences the whole of the Gothenburg scene is Soundtrack of our Lives. They have a big studio where a lot of bands record and hang around. I go there regularly and have my own room. As for Jens, we had a show together and have been friends ever since. We also realised we went to the same kindergarten!! Gothenburg is a small town, but there are a lot of different scenes I wasn’t involved in, lots of bands I didn’t know. When you start releasing albums on a more commercial level, you tend to meet these same people everywhere you go.

Thanks to the commercial, your music has reached a very wide audience it would never have reached otherwise. Where do you go from here?

Yes, I am aware of that. There could never be another commercial with one of my songs that would ever have the same impact. When I release the next single, it will probably reach a tenth of the people who know me for “Heartbeats”. It may feel like I have disappeared but I would just have ended up at a slightly higher level than when I started.