You can't discuss Sweden's José González without mentioning a certain legendary folksinger, so let's get it out of the way: Nick Drake. In his delicate fingerpicking and hushed, incantatory vocal style, the Gí¶teborg resident certainly recalls the late Englishman, but whereas Drake was a veritable poet-philosopher, González is best known for covering songs by pop acts like the Knife and Kylie Minogue. That suggests he may be something of a Drake Lite. Good as that theory sounds on paper, something peculiar happens when González plays his guitar and sings, something that can't be explained by references to Drake: he hypnotizes you.
That mesmerizing quality is largely due to the structure of his songs, which often consist of a single acoustic -guitar motif repeated ascetically throughout, with only slight changes in tone and volume. It's a structure born from González's two primary influences: loop-based electronic music and '90s-era post rock. Reached after a gig in Dublin, Ireland, the singer says that while he was recording his new album, In Our Nature, he immersed himself in another heavily metrical, spellbinding form: Afrobeat.
"In all the music I've listened to from Africa, there's always an emphasis on the rhythm, and that's something I've been inspired by in my cold, European way," González explains. "With Fela Kuti, the music has a primal aspect to it, and that's something I've used in my own songs."
It's initially difficult to hear Kuti's exuberant and explicitly corporeal music in González's tunes, which have a cerebral, almost church-service air to them. But the influence reveals itself subtly, especially on In Our Nature's "Killing for Love", where the Swede picks his strings angrily, tracing out a strident minor-key backdrop for lyrics denouncing religious fundamentalism in all its forms. It's a powerful moment for an artist who's usually cast as a placid folkie.
"I wish that people would listen to my music loud," he says. "When we were mixing the album, and even when I was writing the songs, I tried to emphasize the rhythm, and tried to get a rich sound that you can listen to at a loud volume. And in many of my live shows, I really try to pump up the volume."
In Our Nature certainly works as pleasant dinner-party music, but when it's played loud, it becomes the kind of record that can shut up even the chattiest storyteller. Asking for silence from concertgoers is something González might wish for, but he admits he's too shy to demand it; in fact, you usually won't find him saying much of anything to the crowd when he's on-stage.
"It's nice when the music can stand for itself," he explains. "I remember being younger and watching shows, and being annoyed when bands joked too much or talked too much. I like it when you get to the point where it's almost like a cathedral, where you have complete silence between songs. There's something about that where I think people can get even deeper into the music.
"And," he adds, laughing, "I usually don't have anything to say."
José González plays Richard's on Richards on Saturday (November 24).