Modern folk music is dominated by the acoustic guitar. It’s so emblematic of folk that Bob Dylan was called Judas in the Manchester Free Trade Hall because he dared to switch to the electric guitar. Unlike the traditional singer-songwriter, Jose Gonzalez replaces the acoustic guitar with the nylon-stringed classical guitar. Walking on the streets of his native Sweden, he explains the decision to use such a seemingly non-traditional western folk instrument.
“When I was young, it was the only instrument we had at home,” says Gonzalez. “It was kind of natural to play the Spanish guitar. Then I started playing the Spanish classical—it’s been the instrument I’ve been most used to.”
With classical guitar in hand, Gonzalez has found a bit of a niche covering a diverse range of conventionally un-folky artists like the Knife, Massive Attack, Low and Kylie Minogue. While electronica and pop music may not always lend itself to a straight-up cover by a classical guitarist, Gonzalez’s soulful re-imaginings allow him to make music that doesn’t have to go through his finicky songwriting process.
“When I started playing guitar, I started playing the Beatles and bossa nova on my classical [guitar],” explains Gonzalez. “Instead of trying to sit down and write your own song, you can pick out one song you like and figure out the finger picking. Then it’ll be done, which is kind of nice.”
Lesser folk singers seem to churn out easily-produced, overly-melancholic heartbreak songs meant to make teenagers weep, but Gonzalez’s lyrical focus is different. His first record, Veneer, was released in 2003 and it wasn’t until 2007 that he finally launched his second full-length album, In Our Nature. In a music industry where four years is the entire career for some bands, that same amount of time between albums can be an artist’s undoing.
“I’m always saying about myself that I’m a slow songwriter,” says Gonzalez. “I tend to be very picky and self-critical. That’s one of the main reasons it took so long between the two albums. I’ve been trying to avoid the usual relationship songs. At the same time, I wanted to have this feeling of frustration that’s found in songs that are about philosophical and political issues, without being too specific. In a way, I’m trying to get that feeling that political songs give you without singing about the political stuff.”
With the constant touring that musicians inevitably have to do to support themselves and their albums, this slow songwriting has been further exacerbated. Returning home for a bit of time to rest and recharge his batteries has given him the opportunity to reflect on what’s been missing in his life—sun, friends and the ability to sleep in his own bed.
“I’ve noticed that when I’m home for long periods of time and I’m able to play music in a more relaxed situation than on tour, it’s easier,” explains Gonzalez. “I feel that I’ve been touring too much these last couple of years. Now that I’m home, it’s sunny and I’m hanging out with my friends, I’m enjoying that. Touring can be nice too, but when you do too much of one thing you start missing the other stuff."
Jose Gonzalez plays the Mewata Main Stage on Sat., June 28 at 11:50 a.m.