It’s hard to imagine what an audience does during a José González performance, especially when the club doesn’t provide floor space or pillows to recline on. Calling his stark, spiraling ballads mellow would be an understatement; trancelike is far more accurate.
“My crowds have become more and more quiet,” says the 29-year-old troubadour. “Now they know the songs, or know what they’re getting. They can be extremely respectful.”
A number of recent South American performances proved the exception, he says. Crowds somehow found a window for rowdiness amid the weightless vocals and gentle lull of classical guitar-inspired finger-picking.
Chalk it up to his recent surge in popularity. As his name less than suggests, González is a product of Scandinavia. Born in Argentina but raised a Swede in the city of Gothenburg, he’s ridden the understated Swedish pop music invasion that’s carried the likes of Peter Bjorn and John, the Knife, and the Shout Out Louds to the fringe of mainstream US pop.
After several years gathering momentum at home, González began developing a robust US fanbase following the 2005 release of his debut Veneer, mostly a collection of stripped-down, reinterpreted indie rock covers featuring just the artist’s breathy English vocals and hypnotically melodic acoustic stylings, a curious blend of Nick Drake and bossa nova. Strangely, two songs were featured in episodes of The O.C., a setting most likely the polar opposite of where the compositions were rooted.
González is back in the States in support of his latest, In Our Nature. Released in June, the album contains almost all original compositions but remains consistent with his now-signature bare-bones, strikingly melancholy compositions. Aside from subtle synthesizer, drum, and vocal accompaniment on some of the tracks, the album is as sparse as his first, conjuring austere northern winters. Existential-themed lyrics speak of struggle, futile love, and as the title track suggests, the harshness of nature. Fitting among the ranks of emotionally charged indie-balladeers Elliot Smith, the Red House Painters, and Songs Ohia’s Jason Mollina, González’ repetitious lines read almost like soul-searching confessionals in the form of somber haikus, the scattered notes of a minimalist observer.
His nature-themed aesthetic is also reflected in the logistics of his current tour, which stops by the Fillmore on Thursday, March 27. In partnership with Reverb, a nonprofit promoting environmental sustainability among musicians and fans, González’ tour will use biodegradable catering products while also offsetting its carbon footprint from transportation, hotel, and venue energy use by supporting renewable energy projects, (though fans will likely only notice a 50-cent ticket add-on).
González’ first attempts at songwriting were influenced by legendary Cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez, but he said it resulted in “cheesy” lyrics that led him to compose darker, more repetitive songs inspired by the likes of post-rock group Tortoise. “That’s when it all sort of fell into place,” he recalls. “I like dark, but not when it’s too melancholy. It’s a sense of struggle, not a sense of giving up.”
Take this cryptic verse from the song “Teardrop”: Feathers on my breath/Teardrops on the fire of a confession/Feathers on my breath/Black flowers blossom.
The similar tempos and tones throughout the album do run the risk of monotony. Yet the mood-setting compositions, filled with González’ lucidly dexterous, sometimes almost flamenco-style picking, and soft but distant vocals have a provocative, seductive, and even haunting appeal that make the album easy to listen to. In iTunes, some of the songs are labeled “Easy Listening,” a categorization González finds pretty amusing.
“I feel that my music is in a way easy,” he muses. “It’s something that old women can appreciate. But I wouldn’t call it ‘easy listening.'”
González’ music career began in tandem with his graduate work in biochemistry, a pursuit he says has partially influenced his methodical approach to composition, but was eventually dropped when his tunes started catching. That the no-frills sound caught on at all, especially on the scale it has, is somewhat of an enigma to the artist, who agrees it’s not exactly music you’d expect to fill up concert halls.
“I was really surprised when it caught on,” he admits, noting the spread from Sweden to the UK and now the US, which has offered the young, soft-spoken artist an impressive degree of name recognition. “It’s not that obvious what part of the music does it.”