A Chat with José González at Newport Folk Festival

José González's sets during Newport Folk Festival were a special intimate performance.
José González

José González is an indie singer-songwriter from Sweden and, with the release of his first proper album Veneer in 2003, he found a lot of fans, particularly as his songs “Crosses” and his cover of the Knife’s “Heartbeat” got a lot of buzz. The album was successful enough that he ended up not following through with his pursuit of a PhD and he has continued to work on a variety of musical projects since then, most recently another solo release, 2015’s Vestiges & Claws. I’ve followed his musical career since that album and, having seen him perform a couple of times in the past year, was looking forward to his Newport set.

Unfortunately, his Harbor stage slot on Saturday 25 July conflicted with Sufjan Stevens on the Fort stage so I knew I couldn’t see it all of González’s performance. But I did get over in time to watch him perform “Line of Fire”, a song he did with Junip, and one of Vestiges‘ singles, “Open Book”. The next day, it turned out he was to do a surprise set at a corporate sponsored stage but I arrived there to find a large crowd already spilling out of a small room. I could neither see him nor hear his delicate music very well in part due to louder music from the Quad Stage. The two Newport sets were more intimate than the two recent performances I saw of his in New York, so it would have been a treat to see them entirely. But fortunately, I had spotted González lingering back stage (and talking with Jon Batiste at one point) and had arranged to speak with him about his various musical interests, projects and his birthday show last year.

* * *

Happy early birthday! I remember last year you celebrated your birthday at a show at Lincoln Center.

It was a surprise. It was fun. But it was definitely a surprise. I knew my manager Brian knew about it but I didn’t know he bought a cake and that my girlfriend was gonna come out with it. It was good. Everyone was singing.

How did you feel when you were invited to Newport?

It is sorta like festival season. I’m out every weekend. But I got to know about Newport and Winnipeg sort of at the same time — two folk-oriented festivals that I was invited to — and of course [was] very honored because it is the style I do. Acoustic guitar, vocals, fingerpicking. It’s very much influenced by all these people that are on the walls here [gestures to pictures from Newport artists in ’65]. At the same time I guess my style is slightly more like indie folk and not as traditional. So it’s really cool that they invited me.

Speaking of your style, one of the frequent descriptors I find is that it is simple, but that’s somewhat of a simple way out since the music is often warm and heartfelt in its simplicity. How do you describe your music?

For me the style, whenever I try to explain the styles that I’m influenced by or how it sounds, I think it depends on which song I pick. I have songs that are a bit more traditional, songs like from the new album, “With the Ink of a Ghost”, “Open Book” and “The Forest” which are very, I would say, traditional harmonies and traditional finger-picking styles. But then I also have a couple of songs that are a bit more Western African in influence. A bit more droney. But, independent of what style it is, it is some sort of fusion between North American [and] British Folk combined with influences from Latin America.

I remember reading in an interview you wanted to play Flamenco guitar once?

Yeah. I studied classical guitar for a while and my sister was dancing Flamenco. There was one time she asked me, ‘would you like to try play because we have a show?’. I was fool enough to say yes. So I tried a crash course in Flamenco and I just learned the basics. Enough for them to dance but it wasn’t proper Flamenco.

I also read you had played in a punk band before. Do you have any intention of doing any more aggressive music these days?

I think about it once in a while, especially when I’m on tour doing the same for a long period. I mean my taste is very diverse. But I feel like I don’t have a need to ventilate [everything]. I recognize that I’m good at one thing and not as good at another. So I could do other styles just for fun but I don’t see a big point in trying to be like a rebel. I do think about it once in a while. Usually there is so many things I would like to do that it doesn’t end up high on my to-do list. [laughs]

You do juggle a lot of projects, how do you balance them all? There was your recent work on the Walter Mitty score, your band Junip and your most recent, solo album Vestiges & Claws?

For me it’s been about taking time to write, taking time to record, taking time to release, taking time to tour. So it’s almost project oriented. Right now I’m out with Vestiges & Claws and I’m already sort of making plans for ’16 to do shows with yMusic and maybe a string orchestra from Gothenburg and Berlin. So whenever I’m doing one thing, I’m not able to do anything else. Junip is sort of on hold but it’s not like we’re broken up.

Your performance with yMusic at Lincoln Center last year was great.

They are amazing. It’s a good size of an ensemble. There are six. Their set up is perfect together. Slightly more than an ensemble but still few enough to get that warmth and lots of character.

I wanted to talk about your video for “Open Book” with the worm. That worm is also in the Calexico video [“Falling From the Sky”].

The director of the video, Mikel Cee Karlsson, got asked to do a video for Calexico almost at the same time we were asking him to do a video for me. And, like many times, the budgets aren’t big enough to do whatever you want. So it was sort of like being able to use this worm — which is like a mechanical worm that was part of an art installation, an arty dance project. So [he] basically took the worm and made it be a two part video. Where I’m the one who is being connected to the worm, who needs my help to carry it around. It’s sort of annoying but still like a part of me.

I’m always curious to learn about new Scandinavian bands, what Swedish bands do you recommend?

Little Dragon — [my] ex-girlfriend — they are amazing. Amason. There are many. I’m gonna mention a few from Gothenburg. URAN. They are not known at all but they are really good, mostly instrumental, very heavy music. El Perro del Mar, also from Gothenburg. She opened up for me on a couple of tours earlier.

Talking to folks today, I’ve heard a lot of people are looking forward to your set. But who are you looking forward to seeing this weekend?

I was really glad to catch part of Luluc. They sing beautifully. I’ve known them for a while, they toured with my in Australia. It would be fun to see J. Mascis, First Aid Kit. I haven’t listened to some of the bands that are playing, but I’ve heard about them, so I’ll try to catch some of their sets today and tomorrow.

Newport sets often features collaborations, will you invite anyone into your set?

I thought about it but I didn’t really come up with a good idea. I’m playing with Jacob Albinsson. So it’s sort of new with us to do a duo set. Throughout the year we’ve been touring as a five-piece band so at Winnipeg and here, we’re focused on just doing something more simple; two guitars, two vocals. So Jacob is going to be the one who is gonna join me. I can mention that I used to be the backup, second guitarist in his band, in the late ’90s, in one of my first bands. It’s kind of cool to just focus on that.


The Forest

Every Age

Leaf Off /The Cave

Let It Carry You

Killing for Love


Open Book

Line of Fire



What Will

Down the Line

With the Ink of a Ghost



September 28 Hollywood, FL–ArtsPark Amphitheater

September 29 St. Petersburg, FL–State Theatre

September 30 Orlando, FL–The Social

October 1 Atlanta, GA–Variety Playhouse

October 2 New Orleans, LA–Republic New Orleans

October 2-October 4 Austin, TX–Austin City Limits

October 4 Little Rock, AR–Juanita’s Café & Bar

October 5 Louisville, KY–Headliners Music Hall

October 6 Nashville, TN–Mercy Lounge

October 7 Columbia, MO–The Blue Note

October 8 Kansas City, MO–Uptown Theatre

October 9 Oklahoma City, OK–ACM @ UCO Performance Lab

October 9-October 11 Austin, TX–Austin City Limits

October 12 Albuquerque, NM–Sunshine Theatre

October 13 Tucson, AZ–Rialto Theatre

October 14 Mesa, AZ–Mesa Arts Center – Piper

October 15 Solana Beach, CA–Belly Up Tavern

October 17 North Fork, CA–Bandit Town

October 17-October 18 San Francisco, CA– Treasure Island Music Festival