José González: Breaking down barriers

The musician moves forward by going back to his roots

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José González’s upcoming U.S. tour includes the New York chamber ensemble yMusic, bringing strings, horns and woodwinds to the songwriter’s reflective tunes.
Malin Johansson

It’s difficult to observe the current state of the world and not feel some level of frustration, disappointment and maybe even a little bit of anger. But most of us can’t sing about these emotions, let alone pair them with gentle finger picking, minimalistic melodies and a soft tone that is ultimately optimistic.

This is exactly what draws listeners to indie artist José González’s music, whether performed with drums, multiple guitars and electric keyboards or with cellos, flutes and horns.

After several years touring with his band Junip and collaborating on such projects as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty soundtrack, González released his third solo album, Vestiges & Claws, in 2015, followed by an international tour, which included a sold-out performance at Boulder’s eTown Hall last April. While the 2015 tour was built around heavy percussion, multiple guitars and lots of vocals, González says he always intended to perform with an ensemble, even while self-producing the album at home in Sweden.

“What happened with the album is that I realized there’s a difference between just trying to have fun and trying to find what’s unique with my own sound,” he says. “One of the reasons that I got back to my original sound is that I thought there’s still more to explore with the sound that I have, with a nylon string guitar and some vocals.”

Which leads him to his current tour around the U.S. visiting concert halls and classic theaters with the six-person New York chamber ensemble yMusic. Known for their work with other indie artists such as Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens and Ben Folds among others, the instrumentalists previously collaborated with González for a one-time performance in 2014. So when González began thinking of a U.S. tour mimicking one he played in Europe with a 20-piece orchestra, yMusic was a natural fit.

The month-long U.S. tour, which stops at Denver’s Paramount Theatre March 17, focuses on “the songs that are more melodic driven,” González says. “And of course with the strings and horns and woodwinds, it’s easier to give melodic structure and bring out harmonies that aren’t there on the albums.”

Such songs include “With the Ink of the Ghost” and “The Forest” from his latest album, which reflects the singer’s personal growth as an artist and as a person.

“I’m more conscious of what I’m writing,” he says. “With the first album (Veneer), I felt like I didn’t have anything to write so I wrote about not having anything to write about.”

But drawing on inspiration from American scientist Carl Sagan and traditional leftist politics, González sings to all of humanity on Vestiges & Claws. With songs like “Every Age” he bridges the gap between self-reflection and action, challenging listeners to leave their mark in a positive way. A sentiment the younger González would deem “cheesy,” he admits.

“But I guess it boils down to humanism and trying to look at each individual, each person as someone who can suffer or thrive,” González says. “And there’s no point in putting up barriers.”

And despite the emotional process to get there, this leaves the artist hopeful in the end. “Not in terms of being able to outlive death,” he says, “but definitely in terms of turning things around and using ingenuity and collaborating towards better goals.”

A son of Argentinian immigrants fleeing political turmoil in the 1970s, the Swedish-born González says his heritage plays a role in his current perspective. With Sweden right in the middle of what many are calling the European migrant crisis, González says, “It feels weird to only talk in terms of what Sweden should do or shouldn’t do.”

The reality, he explains, is there are 60 million refugees worldwide, many of whom are lacking basic resources, as European countries increasingly turn inward instead of creating universal solutions.

“It’s important to have this global view and sort of fight the nationalistic tendencies there are both within the Islamic [world] and within each country in Europe,” he says. “Hopefully I would feel the same way even if my parents would have been Swedish.”

This perspective is felt in González’s music, both with strong, building lyrics and instrumentation influenced by West African guitarists. At the same time, the artist allows himself to be personal every once in awhile, performing the “relationship-related” songs from Veneer or revealing his own internal monologue in pieces like “Open Book.”

Through this juxtaposition of intimate and universal themes, along with the classical accompaniment by yMusic, González aspires to create an internal experience for the listener — a reflection of his own journey trying to find his place in the world.

“I think it’s important that I try to find my role as a musician and try to find a tone that suits,” he says. “I realize that I’m writing something that might not reach that many. But I think that every version of a good message can fill its purpose.”

On the bill: José González with yMusic. 8 p.m. Thursday, March 17, Paramount Theatre, 1621 Glenarm Place, Denver, 303-623-0106.