José González discovered Arthur Russell’s music where many of us found it, on a burned CD passed along by a friend. In 2003 Jens Lekman showed him “That’s Us (Wild Combination)” before a show they played in Gothenburg. He hoped they could try their hands at a cover together. The two guitarists did, singing the verses in a fan’s unison, showing the song’s tender and plain bones.
With his use of the classical guitar to make space between poignant words, González became widely known for a gentle cover of The Knife’s “Heartbeats” released on his debut album Veneer in Sweden that year. To some, his version of the tortured love song was more disquieting than the original. Others only heard sweetness and promises. When the album saw its U.S. release two years later, many stateside couples used González’s take in their wedding ceremonies — perhaps the only song with a word like “razorblade” low in its flourishing used so often down the aisle.
“I don’t feel like I’m adding anything new,” González says of his knack for covers, by phone from Sweden. “At first it was just picking out songs that would be unexpected for the audience, different in style to my own. Once I started playing more and more behind my albums—it was more about just having a version that worked really well with the audience.”
Listeners are what this solo winter tour is about, González says. He’s on the road with no album or single to promote — “no agenda,” he adds, sounding relieved. (Last week González did put out a new EP, but it features filled-out versions of his earlier songs.) The Beatles’ “Blackbird” is one he’s been knocking around often lately as he plans set lists unencumbered. That ballad fits snugly with his picked-out questions and occasional whistling on 2015’s Vestiges and Claws. He’s eager to test it out on this run.
“It’s more intimate for me too,” he says. “I think what happens when I’m on my own is that I know that everything I do will be heard. When I’m playing with a band or orchestra I can relax for some parts of the set. But at the same time when I’m playing solo I can relax in another sense, to just be able to switch between tempos.”
González plays out with a single guitar, which frees him from the ceremony of switching instruments but yokes him to pauses between songs while the audience watches him adjust the strings to altered tunings. It’s part of a deliberately transparent approach to making music that began with a base in hardcore, the first genre González entered as a young musician.
“Many people actually like that about my approach to recordings,” he says. “I’m also pretty sure people are thinking to themselves, ‘He should get a guitar tuner,’ he laughs. “It keeps me on my toes. It’s probably like an aesthetic of doing things myself,” he says. “Another [hardcore] connection is that some of my lyrics have an accusational tone.”
There is a certain underlying hurt that he uncovers, so subtly, in songs by other people. Australian singer Kylie Minougue released an ABBA-bright uptempo pop song called “Hand on Your Heart” in 1989. González’s version, though warm, finds its sadness by simply laying it bare: “they like to talk about forever / but most people never get the chance … put your hand on your heart and tell me it’s all over / I won’t believe it till you put your hand on your heart and tell me.”
Emotion in these interpretations is still measured. Sometimes his plain delivery itself bends the statement — or, in some ways, seems to bend it back to an original thought. González’s singing voice sounds not a little like Arthur Russell, though he’s two accents separated from the late American composer as a Swede born to Argentinian parents. Lekman introduced González to Tom Lee, who was Russell’s longtime partner. They had dinner together at his home.
“I feel very connected to his music and some of the people that were closest to him. I felt very moved when he told me my voice reminded him a lot of Arthur Russell’s,” González says.
He was among the first to choose a song for the Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell tribute record, to which the likes of Robyn, Sufjan Stevens, and Lonnie Holley contributed covers. North Texas native Dustin Reid led the project with Lee’s help to benefit the AIDS awareness group Red Hot Organization, all in Russell’s honor.
González settled on “This is How We Walk on The Moon.” For no other reason, he says, except that a friend mentioned it was her favorite. His version opens the double album.
“It wasn’t one of the ones that I’d been thinking of at all,” he says.
Friday José González plays with Bedouine at The Majestic Theatre. Find tickets here.