José González’s most potent attribute is his manifest intimacy. Generally armed with nothing more than a nylon string guitar and a microphone, the Swedish songwriter has a way of making it feel like he’s singing directly to you. Despite the apparent constraints of this approach, González remains a uniquely compelling artist nearly two-decades into his career.
He’ll release his fourth solo album, Valle Local, next month and has just premiered the album’s quasi-title track ‘Valle Local’ for the Jim Beam Welcome Sessions.
But González isn’t just some nostalgic troubadour with a stubborn attachment to the classical guitar. Over the years he’s collaborated widely, performed songs in multiple languages, covered artists from all across the genre spectrum, made albums with a rock band and toured with a full-scale concert orchestra.
Here are five things you didn’t know about José González.
He’s done songs with Zero 7, DJ Koze and Ane Brun
González has a knack for always sounding exactly like himself no matter how much tinkering is done with the production or arrangement, and this rings true of his various collaborative ventures.
Early in his career, González caught the attention of British electronic chill-out duo Zero 7, who’re best-known for their lengthy partnership with Sia and the track, ‘In the Waiting Line’, which was used in episodes of Sex and the City, House and the film Garden State. But the duo’s third album, 2006’s The Garden, also includes such Café del Mar fodder as ‘Today’ and ‘Futures’, both of which boast lead vocals from González. In fact, the duo were so besotted with González that they re-recorded his song ‘Crosses’ for The Garden.
González made an appearance on 2011 album, It All Starts With One, by Norwegian songwriter Ane Brun; the pair perform a duet on the spooky orchestral folk number, ‘Worship’. In 2018, González was a surprise guest on DJ Koze’s album, Knock Knock. A don of German electronic music, Koze’s known for keeping the party going well into the AM. However, he essentially leaves González to his own devices on the mesmeric track ‘Music On My Teeth’.
Some his best songs appear on film and video game soundtracks
González makes perfect soundtrack music. It’s pleasant, but subtly melancholic; gentle, but deftly textured. As a consequence, his songs have appeared in films like the Miley Cyrus teen drama, The Last Song, and the TV miniseries, Looking For Alaska. But it’s his original soundtrack contributions that have made the biggest impact.
In 2010, González was tapped to write an original song—‘Far Away’—for the Rockstar Games release, Red Dead Redemption. ‘Far Away’ plays during a pivotal moment of the Red Dead story arc, as character John Marston enters Mexico on horseback, and it was named Best Song in a Game at that year’s Spike Video Game Awards.
González’s vocals and guitar playing are all over the 2013 box office smash, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The anthemic ‘Stay Alive’ has become one González’s most popular recordings, though it was actually written by soundtrack composer Theodore Shapiro and songwriter Ryan Adams. The Walter Mitty soundtrack also includes a number songs by González’s band Junip and his version of John Lennon’s ‘#9 Dream’.
He’s multilingual – in life and in music
González was born in Sweden’s second largest city, Gothenburg, in the late 1970s. His parents are both Argentinian and had only recently arrived in Sweden after a right-wing military coup pushed them out of their homeland. González grew up speaking both Swedish and Spanish, but was drawn towards the anglophone pop music of Michael Jackson and Bob Marley.
To this day, he sings the majority of his songs in English, but there are a few exceptions. For instance, González shows up on the 2013 album, Mitt hjärta är en bomb, by Swedish hip hop group Looptroop Rockers, performing the chorus hook on the track, ‘Priset på allt’—in Swedish.
He’s only recently started singing original compositions in Spanish. Namely, ‘El Invento, the lead single for his upcoming album, Local Valley, as well as the West African influenced, ‘Valle Local’.
From The Knife to Kylie Minogue, his covers repertoire is immense
You’ve probably heard González’s stripped-down version of The Knife’s ‘Heartbeats’ and his similarly prettified version of Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’. The former appeared on his debut album, Veneer, before getting picked up for a Sony Bravia TV ad and eventually cracking the UK top ten.
González recorded ‘Teardrop’ for his second album, In Our Nature, in 2007 and like ‘Heartbeats’, it’s been a mainstay of his live setlists ever since. But González’s excellent taste in cover versions doesn’t end there.
He included versions of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ and Kylie Minogue’s ‘Hand On Your Heart’ on the 2004 EPs, Remain and Stay in the Shade, respectively. He then worked his revisionary magic on a version of Bronski Beat’s synth-pop classic ‘Smalltown Boy’, which was used as a B-side for the 2007 single ‘Killing For Love’.
Next, he recorded Nick Drake’s ‘Cello Song’ with experimental folktronica duo, The Books, for the 2009 charity album Dark Was the Night. A few years later he contributed a wonderful version of Arthur Russell’s ‘This Is How We Walk On the Moon’ to the Red Hot tribute album, Master Mix.
He has a krautrock band and can play orchestral pop music, too
Before his solo career took off, González was one-third of the kraut-inspired indie rock band, Junip. Junip released their debut EP, Straight Lines, in 2000 and a second, Black Refuge, in 2005. Junip’s recordings preserve much of the unfussy economy of González’s solo work, with experimental textures supplied by keyboardist Tobias Winterkorn and a motorik thrust courtesy of drummer Elias Araya.
González put Junip on the backburner after his solo commitments increased, but the band returned in 2010, releasing the EP, Rope and Summit, and the album, Fields, in quick succession.
González has a long-standing relationship with the 22-piece orchestra, The String Theory, first working with them in 2011 before reconnecting for tours of Europe and the US in 2019—the fruits of which can be heard on the subsequent album, Live In Europe.
Much like the Junip records, Live In Europe reveals González’s songs can be blown up to wide screen proportions without forgoing their essential intimacy.