Rohini Kejriwal spoke to the Argentinian-Swedish singer-songwriter about the sweet intimacy of his folksy music and the India experience
In 2005, he broke out on the music scene with his cover of The Knife’s Heartbeats, that song became responsible for catapulting his unassuming debut album Veneer into one of the most unexpected hits of the year. Since then, the 39-year-old singer-songwriter, José González, has recorded three albums, the last of which was Vestiges & Claws (2015) which featured the hit singles Every Age and Leaf Off/The Cave. He also has a krautrock inspired band Junip alongside organist Elias Araya and drummer Tobias Winterkorn
Incidentally González has a huge fan following in India, and since Rohini Kejriwal is one of them, she caught up with indie-folk artist on what it takes to bring a feeling of raw-intimacy into music.
Your music comes from a really personal space. How does it feel having people relate your songs? Do they stop feeling like your own?
I do think about it in those terms. I write the music. Once it’s out there, it lives its own life. People find it in different times of their lives and sometimes, they just shrug their shoulders because they can’t connect to it but once in a while, they do. I’ve heard stories of people connecting very strongly to my songs. I don’t take credit for that. I think there’s a power in music and lyrics that’s beyond the songwriter.
Is there a filtering process to say ‘I’m not putting this song out. It’s too close to me.”
I do choose how personal I want things to be. My ambition very often has been to write something that sounds personal but doesn’t necessarily come from my own experience. It’s a combination of my own and friends’ experiences, and maybe movies. I see them as themes. For example, everyone’s gone through a breakup; everybody can relate to it.
But how do you make corniness sound so pretty?
When I was young and writing my first songs, they were pretty cheesy and corny. I’ve been experimenting with how to make them less corny but still honest. It’s about that balance. Musically, it’s about adding some earth, some dirt – maybe some droney guitars, staying away from major seventh chord, finding how much of the whisper voice to use. It’s like condiments when you’re cooking: you got to add just enough. ‘Just enough’ is different for different people but there’s some common ground that everybody goes by. Like a song by Backstreet Boys works but it’s too cheesy. I just use the same things with way less. There’s a lot of details.
Are you someone who can write music anywhere and everywhere?
I’ve tried to write on tour and it didn’t work so well. So a couple of years ago, I just decided not to try anymore. Usually, there’s other things I want to do than sit and write. If I’m in a new city and I’m trying to write, it feels like work. I’d rather sit at home once in a while and write in my living room. I like putting on some coffee, playing a bit of guitar, putting up my dicta-phone and recording something, then going for a walk, and coming back. I’m not the kind of guy who goes into the studio and sits there forever.
Tell us about your relationship with your guitar, does he/she have a name?
I have a couple of guitars and I don’t have names for them. I’m very unsentimental. I gave away the guitar I recorded my first album with. Being unmaterial is something I’ve been striving for. I haven’t really succeeded. I’ve heard about people who have given away all their stuff and start from scratch. I still have lots of boxes in my basement. But yes, the guitars don’t have names yet I know the different resonances. I’d be quite sad if I lost one of them.
How do you strike a balance between music and love and family and all the other aspects of life?
I try to find the balance. It’s about being home enough and not losing your relationships. I’ve had problems with my first and second albums by being away too much. Every person needs caring and the human touch, and sometimes, I’m away too long. So I try and limit my touring and just be home enough.
On that topic, are you someone who finds muses to inspire you?
Well, I have a thought that comes up many times about how some people can be very honest in their lyrics even when they’re in relationships, and I’m against that. I’ve always felt that I don’t want to use my music as therapy. I want it to be pleasant and sounding good. I like the idea of music and art as general therapy. In the last album, with the song Open Book, I was thinking a lot about other peoples’ breakups and losses and how they could perceive the lyrics. It wasn’t for me to express this. It was more on the lines of ‘what can I write that will help a person going through a certain thing’.
Do you see your lyrics as poetry?
I feel that music lyrics/first grade poetry is rhyming and very cheesy. If you read my lyrics, they’re overly simplistic. They make sense in the music but on their own, they’re way too simple. Aesthetically also, they don’t work as poetry.
Fair enough. Does a guy like you have days when the writers’ block kicks in?
Oh yeah, definitely! I try to find my tricks to get in the mood. Running in the woods has become one of my favourites. I just put on my headphones and listen to a podcast or audio-book and run. Another new one is breathing exercises – breath in and out actively 25 times and hold your breath. It’s meditation in itself and helps me focus and feel in the moment and worry less. But it doesn’t always work. It feels like I’m constantly experimenting!
Considering you often write about the state of affairs in the world, are you a realist or optimist?There’s an expression called a ‘possibilist’. There is a reality, but you have trends. Once you are aware of trends, you can try to notice what makes a trend go in the right or wrong direction. It’s a term coined by Hans Rosling, a Swedish health professor who has a very famous TED talk where he talks about statistics and how the world is improving and yet isn’t. There’s still stuff to do, so we can’t just sit down and hope for the best.
And you see music as a possible solution?
I’m in the business of making and spreading a means to make someone dance a little bit or just relax. I’ve also been incorporating ideas of global ethics into some songs. I’m an idealist in the sense that I think there are ideas that can make a difference. It’s about humanity and knowing ourselves. Sugar’s one of the things we could try to avoid – it definitely causes more harm than good.