He’s been on its programmers’ wish list for a while now and finally, the planets have aligned: José González will play the Sydney Opera House in February.
The Concert Hall is an ideal spot for the Swedish singer-songwriter’s intimate, finely textured music, even if he himself is surprised that it’s his latest album, Vestiges & Claws, that is bringing him here. Where in the past he’s toured with classical orchestras and ensembles – arrangements he imagines would be more suited to a place with opera in its name – this time his live show incorporates a different set of influences.
While the DNA of Vestiges & Claws is unmistakable, it’s fleshed out with inflections of ’70s Brazilian productions, American folk-rock and West African desert blues. “I’ve been inspired by watching bands like Amadou & Mariam, Femi Kuti and Tinariwen,” González says.
Vestiges & Claws is his first solo release since 2007. González self-produced this record and allowed it to sound a little less exacting, and more raw, than previous work; he fought the impulse to make it completely reproducible in a live context. He has created an opportunity for a dynamic show and for his band to bring the music to life in an organic way.
“I’m playing with some of my favourite musicians,” he says. “I have a percussionist from Los Angeles called Andres Renteria; a singer and multi-instrumentalist from London, called James Mathe [whose own solo project is Barbarossa]; and two other musicians from Gothenburg, Jakob Albinsson and Joel Wästberg.” This means harmonies and extra guitars, congas and drums, handclaps and finger snaps, bells and shakers. “People are reacting better than I thought they would to the more percussive, Western African music,” he says with typical modesty. “And that’s really fun.”
Purists, however, will be satisfied. “I’m still doing many songs in a very stripped-down version, where it’s almost only me, in a style that I think people recognise in my previous albums,” he assures.
González first captured hearts in 2003 with his cover of Heartbeats – a killer song by Swedish electronic duo, The Knife. His slowed-down version from the album Veneer resulted in international fame for him when it was featured in that bouncy balls TV ad for Sony Bravia.
He has since released a follow up to his debut, In Our Nature, and has recorded and toured with Junip; the Swedish folk-rock band he formed with friends in the early 2000s, while doing a Ph.D. in biochemistry, and before his solo career took off.
Despite his international fame, he’s a down-to-earth guy. He enjoys the rituals of early mornings, coffee and siestas. He’s a deep thinker who keeps engaged with world affairs and communicates universal themes through his lyrics and Twitter feed. It’s perhaps not surprising when you learn how his university-student parents fled Argentina after a conservative military junta seized power in 1976.They were in a refugee camp outside Gothenburg before González was born two years later.
When he’s not on the road he still lives in his hometown of Gothenburg, with his illustrator girlfriend, Hannele Fernström, who designed the album artwork for Vestiges & Claws.
When he’s on the road, he feels at home just about anywhere: “With all the touring I feel very local in tour buses and airports! I say that in a joking way, but the point is I feel pretty local in many places on Earth, which is important these days, with people being a bit protective about their nationalities and cultures.”
Returning to Australia, though, will be more like a holiday. “I’m super excited in general because my music has always been really well received there,” he says. “And it feels more like a vacation than work.”
José González plays the Sydney Opera House on February 6 and 7, 2016. Tickets are available here.