The no-frills stylist

Jose Gonzalez makes his way with acoustic guitar, a beat and a soft voice

September 07, 2006|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,Sun Reporter

His setup is simple - an acoustic guitar, a little percussion and a soft, airy voice.

But with this sparse arrangement, singer/songwriter Jose Gonzalez crafts dark, haunting songs that sound fresh and timeless at once. His shows (he plays the 9:30 Club on Wednesday with Zero 7) are just as straightforward.

On stage, Gonzalez sits still with his guitar and goes through the songs, lost in his music. No crazy flailing or walking around, or even rocking back and forth much. Just the music.

"I don't really feel like I'm an entertainer or anything, so I wouldn't make a big deal of it," Gonzalez said in a recent phone conversation. "I like just playing the songs and not doing much more."

Though Gonzalez's debut album, Veneer, came out last year in the United States, "Deadweight on Velveteen" and some of the other tracks were written as far back as 1998, he said. He penned others closer to his recording deadline in 2003, he said.

Veneer "is kind of like a compilation," Gonzalez said. "Once in a while, I made a song."

Gonzalez is more comfortable with some of the album's older tracks.

"It's kind of funny that I actually feel that those songs are some of the better ones that I've done," Gonzalez said.

"Crosses" became Gonzalez's hit in his native Sweden, and "Heartbeats," his cover of a song by Swedish group the Knife, also became one of his signature songs. "Heartbeats" was the score to a Sony Bravia TV commercial that showed hundreds of thousands of brightly colored bouncy balls coming down the street in San Francisco.

"I really liked the original song, and it's one of the covers that I feel most proud of, because I've felt like I really did it in my own style," Gonzalez said. "It's kind of funny that it's one of the songs that's less dark on the album."

Gonzalez has also been known to cover Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," and "Teardrop" by Massive Attack. But fans of his cover versions might be disappointed with Gonzalez's second album, which will come out next year. He's decided not to do more than one cover for the next record, he said.

"I feel that's something I can do later in my life, when I feel tired of writing songs," Gonzalez said. "Or if the record label needs a record really fast. It's a fun thing, but at the same time I don't want to make that the focus of my music."

With three or four songs written and road-tested, Gonzalez said he's got a good jump on the new record. When his tour finishes in November, he'll return to his hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden, to cut it.

Gonzalez said songs on the new album probably will feature the same sparse production as Veneer. When he writes music, he starts with a guitar and finds the chord progression he wants.

On Veneer, he was inspired by his parents' Argentinian heritage and finger-picked most of the songs. This gave several of the tunes a bossa nova/flamenco feel.

Then, Gonzalez records the guitar part on a Dictaphone and composes a melody. The lyrics usually come last. On Veneer, the verses are short and repetitive, but he said he might try different styles on the new album.

"I'm not that strict about that anymore," Gonzalez said. "I listen to all sorts of music, and I feel that I don't need to restrain myself to just doing one sort of song. If the music is good it's good, and that's the way I feel now.

Jose Gonzalez plays the 9:30 Club on Wednesday with Zero 7. Tickets are $25. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Call 202-393-0930 or go to

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