Beyond Boundaries: José Gonzalez And Junip
Having been a fan of José Gonzalez’s solo work and then his work with Zero 7, I was intrigued and then delighted when I discovered his “new” project in 2010 – his band, Junip, and their first full length recording, Fields. Well aware of his popularity as a solo artist, as well as his apparent interest in collaboration, I assumed it was just one of his many side projects, not one that would necessarily take root.
Thus I was excited when their second recording, simply titled Junip, was published this year. Since their second album was self-titled, I am hoping that is a signal that this project will endure in the future.
Gonzalez actually started Junip in the early 2000s with drummer Elias Araya and keyboardist Tobias Winterkorn, but the trio released only one EP before Gonzalez gained international attention with his solo minimalist bossa nova folk. With his signature style, which emphasized rhythm and melody equally, he produced two albums, 2003’s Veneer and 2007’s In Our Nature. However, his transformative covers of songs by the Knife, Joy Division, and Massive Attack brought Gonzalez even more attention, as well as his noted collaboration with UK downtempo duo Zero 7 on their 2006 album, The Garden.
José Gonzalez is a Swedish artist of Argentine origin. These disparate cultural origins alone could foster a broad world view, and his music does indeed reflect the diverse influences in which he was raised. His parents escaped Argentina following a military coup in 1976 and were granted asylum in Sweden. Subsequently, Gonzalez was born and raised in Gothenberg, Sweden. As a child he was exposed to both the Latin folk and Brazilian music that his father loved and the Western pop music in heavy rotation on the radio. Although he was schooled on classical guitar, his first band was a hardcore punk band influenced by Black Flag, The Misfits and the Dead Kennedys. He later played bass guitar in another hardcore band, Renascence, between 1993–1998. In June 2003, González released his debut solo release, a two-track 7" single. The album was made while he was studying for a PhD in Biochemistry at the University of Gothenburg which he has not completed due to his burgeoning musical career. His second solo album, In Our Nature, was released in September 2007. Its lyrical content was in part influenced by his reading of books like The God Delusion by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and Practical Ethics by ethicist Peter Singer. He approaches his music in a similar way that he studied biochemistry – patiently and methodically, intent on finding unexpected angles.
Gonzalez’s solo work has a unique, intimate style consisting of simple vocals over hypnotic rhythmic guitar. Gonzalez sings in an understated but instantly recognizable voice similar to those of Nick Drake, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Sam Beam ( Iron & Wine) and Elliot Smith. With his own masterful classical guitar playing and a poignant voice, he has created his own sonic signature since establishing his solo career in the late 90’s with emotional melodies and thought provoking lyrics.
His band, Junip, further fleshes out this signature sound and adds muscle to his music.
Audiences were captivated by the stark combination of González’s uniquely haunting voice and sinuous acoustic guitar on hits like “Crosses” and “Down The Line,” as well as his distinctive interpretations of cover songs. But then he surprised and delighted fans of his minimalist solo work when he performed in the context of a band, especially one with such a propulsive, electronic beat as found in Junip. In contrast to the stark folk aesthetic of his previous solo efforts. Junip’s songs teemed with driving rhythms, psychedelic atmosphere, and dense texture.
Just as their first full length album Fields pushed boundaries and expectations, their sophomore effort, Junip, expands the stylistic palette yet again with unexpected juxtapositions. The infectious album opener “Line of Fire” layers melody on top of a hypnotic rhythm and flamenco syncopation with González’s vocals cresting with emotion as the track builds towards the climax. “Your Call,” meanwhile, proves a total departure with a pop-disco beat over infectious drum-machine handclaps and an exuberant chorus which wisely advises - “It’s your life, it’s your call/Stand up, or enjoy your fall”. “Walking Lightly” is another personal favorite. It’s a simple melody with repetitive lyrics sung almost like a mantra, colored by an intriguing electronic flourish over a rhythmic almost tribal beat.
As one who enjoys both electronic and acoustic music, for me, Junip is a beautiful and intimate blend of the two, with lyrics that both penetrate and uplift. They portray well the human experience with an inspiring message in an understated delivery. Often people will ask me what is my favorite musical genre. I am often at a loss since there are some many different styles of music and so many unusual hybrids. However, now I can point to Junip, as a fine example of what moves me - acoustic song structure and instrumentation with an electronic beat.
Maria Kelly hosts Open Air heard weekdays on JPR’s Rhythm & News Service and online at www.ijpr.org.