When José González released his debut solo album, Veneer, in 2003, the project was a quiet storm for the Swedish singer-songwriter.
His stripped-down take on Swedish electronic duo The Knife’s single “Heartbeats,” as well as the original “Crosses,” became unlikely hits. In the years since, many of González’ recordings have amassed a further following, thanks to frequent appearances in television shows and commercials.
Sometimes drawing comparisons to folk trailblazers Nick Drake and Elliott Smith, however, González’ sound is unique and unmistakable, sung with a soft voice and a prominent use of low-tuned classical guitars. It’s simple–just González and his guitar, with the occasional percussive flourishes. But while long gaps between his albums are regular, González was never truly absent.
Veneer’s follow-up, In Our Nature, came in 2007, but between solo projects he performs as one half of Junip, a group that features a similar sound, albeit more driving and synth-heavy. González has also remained busy this decade with prominent work on the soundtrack to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, as well as an original song for the video game Red Dead Redemption.
But when González returned in 2015 with Vestiges & Claws, his first solo album since 2007, it was a welcome return to his stripped-down sound. While he cites his writing process in Junip as a jam with bandmate Tobias Winterkorn, he views his solo process similarly.
“It’s always with music first and without a pen—no paper,” González says. “I’m just trying to find either arpeggios or rhythms or chord progressions that sound good.”
He then documents the recordings to keep track of the steady flow of ideas.
“What I usually do is I just record them on my phone or laptop,” he explains. “It’s only when I have a deadline or I’m trying to pick out the demos that I want to make songs out of that I start to find words and try to write down lyrics.”
When he feels it’s time to introduce lyrics to his ideas, he starts with the melodies.
“I hum around maybe a guitar recording and I do two or three hum takes where I try to find melodies, but I also almost say words,” he says.
That’s when it hits him.
“All of the sudden the word pops out as something that sounds good. That’s one of the tricks I use.
“Another one is to collect pairs of rhyming words. I try to have a piece of paper filled with rhyming words that I think sound good in the context of the mood of the demo. I think on ‘With the Ink of a Ghost,’ the first song on (Vestiges & Claws), I even had a trajectory scheme of the type of moods that I wanted in the different verses.”
He doesn’t fight his ideas. He finds inspiration in many places and wherever the mood may strike.
“It varies a bit, but it’s usually at home,” he says, adding, “The train ride from Gothenburg to Stockholm is one of my favorites. It’s like a three-hour ride; lots of space and good nature to look out on.”
The pieces all fall into place when he takes his demos along on his runs.
“When I’m almost done with the songs or lyrics, I usually do half-finished songs that sound pretty good that I can listen to while running. That’s usually when I get the last pieces of the puzzle into the song.”
Because he documents melodies and riffs with his laptop and phone’s voice memos, some ideas marinate for years before seeing the light of day.
“The oldest one (on Vestiges & Claws) was ‘Open Book,’ which was many years (old)–could be maybe five years or something,” he says.
“One of the newer ones was ‘With the Ink of a Ghost,’ which I did a version for the Walter Mitty movie, but it didn’t make it, so I took it for myself,” he adds with a laugh.
It’s the same with Junip, he says.
While it may not have been intentional, Vestiges & Claws is González’ longest solo project, clocking in around 43 minutes compared to Veneer’s 31 minutes and In Our Nature’s 33 minutes. Each project, however, is around a concise 10 or 11 tracks.
“I like the idea of keeping things simple,” he says, “but something that has been changing with the years has been all the live shows. I think that affected me a bit.
“For Vestiges & Claws I did a couple of longer songs that actually are among the most fun to play live. So, ‘What Will’ and ‘Let It Carry You’ are great to play live.”
While he is quick to detail his desire for simplicity, he has pushed more expansive song lengths since In Our Nature.
“I think from the second album, when I did ‘Cycling Trivialities,’” he says, “it gives you more time to go from one mood into another. So that’s something I’ve been enjoying a lot.
“But on albums, I also have this old school way of thinking where I really like the very short songs that remind me of the bossa nova songs or, like, very short Beatles songs like ‘Blackbird.’”
While the albums are minimal and instrumentally sparse, González alternates between solo acoustic shows and performances with either his five-piece backing band or the 20-piece The Göteborg String Theory orchestra when touring. His next project, he says, will document his recent orchestral tour.
“The plan is to release a live album with the orchestra,” he says. “The arrangements are pretty varied and very different from the original versions, so I think that will be quite a big release for me, and interesting for the fans. So that’s coming up next.”
Before the live recording sees the light of day, however, he will return to the States with a mini-tour featuring just him and his guitar. The tour will include a January 29 stop at The Van Buren. Beyond his touring, however, and with Junip on hold, he predicts another solo studio album will come along.
“When I’m writing, I’m mostly writing for myself,” he says. “I think that’s the next album.”
José González w/Bedouine, The Van Buren, 401 W. Van Buren Street, Phoenix, 480.659.1641, TheVanBurenPHX.com, 8 p.m. Monday, January 29, $34-$50.