Talk about your stranger in a strange land.
Singer-songwriter José González, Swedish by birth and Argentine by heritage, is on his cell phone in Knoxville, Tenn., before a gig on his first tour of the American South.
"I've done two U.S. tours before this, but I've just been to the West and East coasts," González says.
And he's completely unfazed. Delivered in English better than most Americans speak, his ruminations on this foreign experience are limited to effusive statements about the "opportunity to visit wonderful different places, and all the different foods you get to eat."
The people he meets, by the way, "have been nothing short of nice, and usually a lot better than that."
González is touring the United States to promote his unnervingly beautiful debut album, Veneer, which originally was released by the independent label Hidden Agenda last year, and is now available widely through a distribution deal with Mute Records.
The CD justifiably has won him comparisons to such creative and introspective musical artists as Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, Tim Buckley, Will Oldham (Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Palace Brothers), Mark Kozelek (Red House Painters, Sun Kil Moon), Joseph Arthur and Paul Simon.
That tour will come to Tucson for González's Oct. 2 gig at Plush, with opening act Death Vessel.
Although González grew up digging American indie and alternative music, he has a sound that will strike many listeners as a wholly unique voice.
Playing only a nylon-stringed classical guitar, González's arrangements vary from loud to soft, tender to aggressive and back again, and he often incorporates flamenco and bossa nova styles into his acoustic soundscapes. With his light, airy tenor, he sings remarkably cogent and concise pop songs that bring a clear focus to messy emotional issues.
The combination often results in trance-like music, which is underlined by his minimalist lyrics. "We'll keep on whispering our mantras," González sings on the album's opening track, "Slow Moves."
In fact, the two songs that follow--"Remain" and "Lovestain"--consist of just two and three repeated lines, respectively, repeated over and over with minute variations to nevertheless convey an intense, changing interior narrative.
On "Heartbeats," a cover of a tune originally performed by fellow Swedish artist The Knife, González's double-tracked vocals allow him to sing close harmony with himself, the song sounding like a recently unearthed outtake from a lost Simon and Garfunkel recording session.
Born in Gothenburg, in 1978, González is the son of two Argentines who relocated there in 1976. American music was always around the house, including the Beatles, as well as styles from around the world.
During his teenage years, González played bass in punk and hardcore bands--with names such as Back Against the Wall--inspired by the likes of Black Flag, the Misfits and Dead Kennedys. When he started writing his own songs at 14 or so, he realized they were more appropriate for the solo acoustic-guitar setting.
"So for many years, it was a kind of back-and-forth process, where I'd play hardcore with the bands and acoustic on my own," he says.
About 2003, he took the leap to become a full-fledged solo artist. In addition to Veneer, he has released several EPs, including one that is anchored by his surprising cover of Kylie Minogue's "Hand on Your Heart."
Testifying to his eclectic tastes, González also has been known on occasion to whip out unique acoustic versions of such tunes as Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," Bronski Beat's "Smalltown Boy" and Massive Attack's "Teardrop," not to mention "Born in the U.S.A." and "The Ghost of Tom Joad" by Bruce Springsteen.
Recently, González has collaborated with the downtempo English duo Zero 7 and sang four songs on their most recent album, The Garden, one of which is "Crosses," also on Veneer.
Although he's currently headlining his own tour, González recently finished touring with Zero 7, opening their shows with his solo set.
González is also a member of the chamber-pop trio Junip, in partnership with organist Tobias Winterkorn and drummer Elias Araya. Reports liken the group's sound to the experimentalism of such acts as Low, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, A Silver Mt. Zion and Do Make Say Think.
So far, Junip has recorded just one EP, Black Refuge, which was released last month in the United States, and the trio is on hiatus while González tours the states solo, but he promises something special for Junip fans in the near future.
Since the re-release of Veneer early this year, González has been busy making the rounds of the tastemaking American media outlets. He's been on National Public Radio's All Songs Considered, Late Night With Conan O'Brien, Last Call With Carson Daly and, with Zero 7, The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. He also played an acclaimed showcase to music-biz types at the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference this past March in Austin, Texas.
González is well aware of the somewhat storied tradition of Swedish bands enjoying success outside of their home country, and usually doing so by singing in English.
Preceding him to these shores has been a diverse assortment of musical Swedes: from ABBA, Roxette, Ace of Base and The Cardigans to Sahara Hotnights, The Hives, Millencolin, The Hellacopters, Meshuggah and Yngwie Malmsteen.
He's heard it said that Sweden is the third-biggest exporter of music in the world, and much of that is in English.
"So I don't know what it is. I think there's a kind of an attitude, when you're young and copying a lot of your favorite musicians, that Swedish sounds kind of corny in music most of the time, especially when you're a teenager. Now I know a lot of bands that sing in Swedish that I really like."
Like many Scandinavians, he learned English in school at a young age, but González grew up speaking three languages, including his parents' native Spanish.
"We always spoke it at home, so I'll probably end up singing in Spanish at a later stage in my career."