JOSÉ GONZÁLEZ: THE QUIET MUSICIAN ON A MISSION TO DO GOOD
By Malin Norman
With a career spanning two decades, more than a billion streams on Spotify and sold-out concerts around the world, José González is loved by the people. Currently on tour with his new documentary A Tiger in Paradise, he is also celebrating the 20-year anniversary of his first album Veneer, and performing songs from his latest album. The modest musician’s universal voice has a clear and consistent message: to do good.
In March, the new documentary A Tiger in Paradise premiered at CPH:DOX, Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival. This year, the film will be exclusively screened around Europe together with a unique live show where José gives insights into his world of ideas and performs songs from his most recent album Local Valley.
Directed by Mikel Cee Karlsson, who co-directed The Extraordinary Ordinary Life of José González with Fredrik Egerstrand in 2010, as well as many of José’s music videos, the film is a surreal journey into the creative, sharp and fragile mind of the musician, inspired by his past experiences with psychotic episodes – states of delusion in which he couldn’t separate fantasy from reality.
Structured around José’s musings on creative expression and communication, the film examines notions of personal routine, stability, meaning and the broad-scale transmission of ideas through art. But the tone is anything but grandiose: his philosophising is spiked with deadpan humour while playful visual effects feature throughout – such as pixels that coalesce to form little vessels that move across the screen. “It’s an exciting aesthetic to play around with,” José says. “In the film, we use these pixel sequences to visualise how ideas live their own life in the ether and shape how we act – a bit like Don Quixote battling against the windmills, but in a funny way.”
From solitude to resilience
Often on stage alone with just a guitar, José is widely praised for his artistic integrity and soothing music. It’s a source of comfort to many, akin to being taken by the hand and told that everything will be OK, as with the song Crosses, whose lyrics read: “Don’t you know that I’ll be around to guide you? Through your weakest moments to leave them behind you.”
As part of A Tiger in Paradise, José was forced to reflect on his mental health and previous psychotic episodes, something he was not entirely comfortable with but found therapeutic. Many things have fallen into place for the father of two in the last decade though: a busy family life in Gothenburg, a long-standing and rewarding career, and stable health and wellbeing.
Over the years, José has learnt the importance of implementing routines, such as regular sleep, meditation and exercise, for long-term health. “It’s about building resilience,” he means. “For instance, to manage stress better, it’s important to rest but also to exercise. I like sports and running intervals myself, which is basically controlled stress during a short timeframe with time to rest in between.”
With a mostly solitary profession, the quiet musician also extols the importance of challenging yourself in social settings: “Having interactions with others and doing things outside of work will not only enrich your life, it will also train you to handle social contexts better.”
Optimistic view and humanism
In A Tiger in Paradise, we see him reading a list of catastrophic risks and existential risks to his partner Hannele in their kitchen. In person, however, it’s evident that José is a curious-minded optimist. Having earned a doctorate in biochemistry before leaving the lab in favour of a music career, he retains an inquisitiveness for evidence-based science and solutions.
When asked, he enthusiastically talks about effective altruism, a global movement that uses evidence and critical thinking to find the best resources and to prioritise efforts to do good. Inspired by this idea, José donates parts of his income to a few selected charities. “If something is deemed 100 times more effective, in my view it makes sense that this is what we should support.”
Ecomodernism is also an area that motivates the biochemist-turned-musician. These ideas are centred on using technology to reduce environmental impact while maintaining a high standard of living. “Economic growth and environmental protection don’t need to be at odds,” he explains. “Ecomodernism has the view that both humans and nature will be able to thrive.”
A self-proclaimed humanist, José also endorses secular humanism, which uses human reason and science as the basis of morality and decision making. “This means looking at what has worked in the past and what is true. The starting point is always the people and how they can feel as good as possible; for instance, by embracing the need for rituals but without involving religion and superstition.”
Celebrating 20 years of Veneer
José’s first album Veneer was released in 2003, on the then-new record label Imperial Recordings, the brainchild of Joakim Gävert and Magnus Bohman. The album became a worldwide success with songs such as the much-loved Crosses and his cover of The Knife’s Heartbeats, which later featured in a TV ad for Sony Bravia with thousands of colourful bouncing balls on the streets of San Francisco.
Since the debut, José has had over one billion streams on Spotify, performed thousands of concerts, and had songs featured in TV shows such as The O.C., One Tree Hill and Scrubs, and Ben Stiller’s movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. In addition to four solo albums so far, he has released two albums with the indie rock band Junip. In fact, a song by Junip features in the documentary Wild Life – another film presented at CPH:DOX, which tells the story of eco-activist and founder of the North Face clothing brand Doug Tompkins’ efforts to save Chilean wildlife.
2023 is a busy year: apart from the film and Local Valley, José will also be touring with 20 years of Veneer, and has started working on a new album. The anniversary is not important as such, he says, but is a great opportunity to meet the audience again after the pandemic. “20 years of Veneer is a bit nostalgic, but in a positive way,” he says with a humble smile. “I remember how much I enjoyed seeing some of my favourite bands perform their first albums, and hopefully people will feel the same about Veneer.” No doubt, they will.
For more info on A Tiger in Paradise, check out www.atigerinparadise.com
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