Less is best

The spare science of José González
By SHARON STEEL  |  March 4, 2008

080307_jose_main
HE CONTINUES TO READ SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN — so maybe that PhD in biochemistry is still a possibility!

Late last year, the New Yorker busted short-story writer Raymond Carver. Turns out the leader of the literary minimalist movement wasn’t much of a minimalist at all — it was his editor, Gordon Lish, who cut, snipped, cajoled, and distilled his words into the shivering slices of life. Carver’s posthumous outing is proof that even a supposed master of a spartan style doesn’t always have the strength to pare his creations down to the marrow. But there are also those who find they can’t make art any other way. They would include José González, a Swede of Argentine descent who, as a singer-songwriter, is ruthless in his devotion to aural minimalism. One might assume otherwise to judge by his hushed speaking voice, his sharp cheekbones, his birdlike frame. Yet during the most intense moments of his performances, with his head bent over his nylon-stringed acoustic guitar, it becomes clear that González, who headlines the Paradise next Thursday, possesses the will power and the patience to dig into each of his songs until he has exhumed its bleeding heart.

“I’m always trying not to add more than I need to. I try to make the most of the guitar,” says the 29-year-old over the phone from his home city of Göteborg. It’s just a couple of weeks before he leaves for a North American tour to support his second full-length, In Our Nature (Mute). “I think whenever you start adding more and more instruments to a recording, you’re also losing something. That’s the main reason I want to keep it simple, because I think something is gained through that simplicity.”

González has kept the essence of this vision intact since the release of his debut album, Veneer, in 2003. (The first US version came out in 2005.) It’s represented in everything from the sparse recordings themselves to the pretty pencil drawings by Elias Araya that adorn the CDs.

At 14, he began learning to play the Beatles songs and bossa nova tunes his father had grown up with. But music wasn’t always his priority. He had nearly completed a PhD in biochemistry at the University of Göteborg when Veneer earned him a sudden global reputation. At first, he attempted to continue with his degree — hardly surprising given his ambition. “At the time, I was working my ass off, and also recording the songs for Veneer and doing more and more shows. So I was worried, because the PhD, the research project, was lacking. But as soon as I made a decision, it was pretty clear that I’d made a good choice.” And he doesn’t regret that choice, though he admits that he’s still “a bit of a nerd” and enjoys reading Scientific American while he travels.

González’s science background might be reflected in his desire for control and discipline in his songwriting — the way you’d prepare the hypothesis for a lab experiment and then take great pains to ensure accurate results. “I think it’s sort of typical for me to be very restrictive and conscious of what I’m doing,” he says of his creative process. “I think it’s more about my personality than anything else.”

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