Though Swedish folk singer and classical guitarist Jose Gonzalez has become a household name in the U.S. thanks to inclusions on nationally syndicated shows like Late Night With Conan O’Brien and The O.C., Gonzalez is a bit of a mysetery. Just how did a soft-spoken artist hailing from Argentina but raised in Sweden end up writing a collection of songs inspired by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins? Why is he drawn to songs like “Teardrop” (Massive Attack)? Is this the same man that started his music career in a band that owed their sound to bands like Black Flag and the Misfits?
The easiest way to understand an artist like Jose Gonzalez is to start at the begining but to pay attention to the small details. As a child in Sweden, Gonzalez’s parents played a lot of Cuban songwriter Sylvio Rodriguez, and to this day Gonzalez references him as an influence. A cursory listen of Rodriguez’s works immediately shed light on Jose’s affections, as his soft acoustic guitar and sophisticated voice are immediately comparable. Don’t forget the small details, though: Rodriquez is revered around the world for his revolutionary ideals and political themes during Fidel Castro’s rise to power in the ‘60s. Beneath the gentle exterior of a soothing, lilting voice and trademark “chord picking” guitar lies a deeper
-and sometimes darker – driving force. The same is apparent with Gonzalez, who has cited both Dawkins and ethicist Peter Singer as influences over his lyrics on his latest album, In Our Nature.
Not to say that the concept of a folk singer concerned with ethics, politics or the human condition is particularly unlikely, just that upon first glance, we don’t always anticipate such depth. The beauty of Gonzalez’s music takes shape in the arrangement of parts both musical and lyrical. His songs are almost always performed the way they were written, which means it’s simply him, seated, with his guitar, accompanied by the steady percussive toe-tapping. The simple setup is the stage for a more complex piece of art, however, as his incredibly precise finger-picking and astute relationship to his own voice deliver lyrics like, Someday you’ll be up to your knees / in the shit you seed. / All the gullible / that you mislead / won’t be up or it. The beauty in Jose Gonzalez, you see, is that he is able to marry the human condition to both parts of itself, the “ill-hustling” monster to the concerned artist.
When we asked him to perform for KUT’s Retread Sessions he agreed, despite being on a very tight schedule. We hurried to find a place nearby for him to perform, hoping to find a space that would accomodate his soft voice and intricate guitar tones. Our friends at the Blanton Museum offered us a space in their Americas room, a gallery that just so happens to contain large, brightly colored paintings and installations from Brazil, Cuba and Argentina. He performed two songs, “Abram” and “Time to Send Someone Away,” amidst a hushed group of pleasantly surprised visitors and our crew, surrounded by the bright reds, yellows and greens of his homeland’s most visually stimulating artists. It was truly a wonderful moment, as artist became installation, one with his surroundings, in the middle of songs about the artist’s need to escape those comforts and address the real, sometimes cruel and terrifying world.