We all look for different things in live music. Some want a full show—blaring speakers and bright lights behind a pop star flanked by a fleet of dancers or backup singers, the kind of high-energy performance that’s nothing short of exhilarating. Then there’s the other side of the spectrum: the sweet and sacred intimacy of a solo performance. That vulnerability is a hook, an alluring fragility. José González is a quintessential artist of the latter camp, a man who’s spent more than a decade captivating giant rooms—sometimes festivals—with stark, solo performances of quietly finger-picked arpeggios beneath a tenor delivery of cyclically sung verses. His live performances evoke the kind of soothing quality akin to rustling leaves or babbling brooks.
“Intimacy can be something that happens in a small space when people are close, but it can also be a loud and clear volume that sounds like you’re really up close and people are quiet,” González said. “It’s happened many times in 2,000 [person] capacity venues, just the fact that it’s very quiet, people are very attentive.”
It’s a rare thing to have a small group of listeners, let alone 2,000 people, transfixed by a minimal setup. But that’s the power of González wielded and kept listeners’ attentions back in the early 2000s with his airy, delicate (and wildly popular) cover of The Knife’s “Heartbeats.” Since then, González has for the most part stayed in the same sparse acoustic wheelhouse, but the effect never dulls. Years later, these songs remain timeless and genuine.
“Many people that listen to my music like the authenticity of it, or the feeling of authenticity, so I try to focus on my guitar playing and hope that will be enough,” González said.
There’s a light fluidity to González’s gentle melodies, the kind that feels like it comes easy, which might not be far from the truth.
“Some songs really take a lot of attention, and others like ‘Heartbeat,’ it’s a really easy song to play and one of the favorites for the audience, so I can just relax,” González said. “I notice with all the tours I’m doing, especially toward the end of the tour, I’m able to think about other things—things I’ve been doing during the day or the next day, a bit of daydreaming while I’m playing.”
That tranquility can even bleed into the writing process for González.
“When I’m writing or rehearsing, I get soothed by the repetitiveness,” González said.
For his last record—2015’s Vestiges and Claws—González took the reigns on production, working primarily from his home in Sweden. The result was a minimalist, well-crafted group of songs with standout moments like the enticing bossa nova sway of “What Will,” or the serene closer, “Open Book.” The solidity of songcraft is undisputed, but not far off in sound and style from his previous work, an intentional choice on González’s part.
“The way I did it on my own was actually similar to old albums,” he said. “I’m sort of still doing the same thing I’ve been doing for a while. Guitar, vocals—keeping it simple.”
Even with its simplicity (and maybe sometimes because of it), the smallest variations feel amplified. On songs like “Stories We Build, Stories We Tell,” the slightest grit comes through in a cautious dose of overdrive; as González skips through his guitar lick, you can hear slight splits of distortion, like a frayed tear in well-worn denim.
To be fair, the live delivery of these songs isn’t always soft and solo. González has toured with a five-piece ensemble—guitars, percussion, three vocalists—and even spent the end of 2017 touring with a 20-piece orchestra. As he returns to his tried-and-true solo form, it’s both a challenge and a retreat.
“It’s pretty hard to try to fill out the room on my own again,” González said. “Now I’m going back to basics, to my original style. I get tempted once in a while, whenever I’m about to go out on tour, to add more stuff. Then I sort of relax a bit when I start and stick to just guitar and vocals and foot tapping.”
Though the solo performance is minimal, similar to the recordings, those subtle flourishes or sonic expansions have defined strength. González percussively peppers the rhythmic low-end of his tunes with a small stomp box, giving the songs understated urgency, or simply defining their shape with a sweet little groove. It’s even carried over a bit into reshaping older favorites.
“I’ve changed a few old songs like ‘Down the Line’ and ‘Killing for Love’ to get a bit more action,” González said.
González will be working on a new solo record this year. While touring alone might give some artists space to write new songs, he prefers to keep that work at home.
“I’ve had some tours where I try to write on tour and I usually get frustrated because usually there’s something to do. You’re in a new city, you want to have a coffee or a beer, you’re around people who want to hang out; you don’t want to do homework, so to speak,” González said. “The best thing is to be home and have many weeks in a row where I can sit down a couple hours a day and just write and record.”
For now, as González stays on the road for a while longer, there are a few alternative releases on the horizon.
“This year I’ll be releasing an EP with a live band, and also a live recording of the orchestra,” González said. “They’re all old songs but they’re different versions.”
Once he’s back home, González will pick up on his writing, and spend time with his new three-month-old daughter, one of the few not immediately soothed by González’s song.
“I was really excited to start playing music for her. The first time I picked up the guitar and started tuning, I was tuning too long so she started crying,” González laughed. “It was a moment I’d had anticipation [for]. But since then it’s been really fun, she likes it.”
See José González and his guitar live at the Crest Theatre (1013 K St., Sacramento) on Jan. 30, 2018. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and tickets start at $35. You can purchase them online through Crestsacramento.com.
**This piece first appeared in print on pages 20 – 21 of issue #257 (Jan. 15 – 29, 2018)**