José González, 27, a Swedish singer-songwriter and former Ph.D. student with Argentine parents, doesn't exactly fit the profile of a one-hit pop sensation, but the global success of his cover of "Heartbeats" -- largely thanks to its use in a Sony commercial -- has threatened to turn him into just that. Fortunately, his debut, "Veneer," a collection of delicate, Nick Drake-esque folk finally released in the U.S. this month, suggests he may be around for a little while yet. We asked González, via phone, about bringing his one-man show to America, his celebrated cover versions and, of course, that ad.
"Veneer" came out in 2003, in Sweden. Why has it taken so long to reach America? How does promoting the album in the U.S. differ from back home? Is there an added level of pressure, it being just you and the acoustic guitar?
When ["Veneer"] came out in Sweden it was on a really small label, it was just two guys. And it was only out in Sweden and Scandinavia. Since then we've been licensing to different labels and I've been really picky. So, yeah, it takes time. [Playing in America for the first time] didn't feel that different, but it was really, really good. Almost a bit better than how it usually feels the first time I play in a new country. I'm used to [the pressure] now. I always feel really dependent on the sound, that's kind of the biggest obstacle, since it's acoustic, and it's the only instrument; it's really bad when I have a bad sound. The first shows in South by Southwest were a bit sketchy, because we didn't the time to sound-check, even, and with the acoustic guitar you kind of need to check for feedback frequencies before. But it didnt happen that much, so it was cool.
You've been celebrated for your covers -- I know "Heartbeats" is a cover of the original by Swedish group the Knife -- but you've also covered some very famous songs like "Teardrop" by Massive Attack and "Love Will Tear Us Apart." It's quite unusual, I think, for pop musicians to tackle accepted "classics." Did you feel an added pressure doing this, or was it a challenge you relished? And why do you think audiences have accepted your interpretations of these songs?
You have to be really careful. "Love Will Tear Us Apart" and "Teardrop" both are really well known. Since they are favorite songs for many people, you have to be really careful not to step on anyone's toes. It's mainly trying them in live situations where you kind of get to understand what the audience likes and dislikes. I think I like the challenge, and them being really good songs helps. I think it's a mixture of hard work and doing something special with the cover. And also perhaps taste, like how you present the cover. I don't know, I don't exactly know why [the audience] lets me and then they don't really let some troubadours [laughs].
The song "Heartbeats" has obviously been a very big success for you. How did the Sony advertisement it was used in come about? Were you involved in the decision to use the song? Did you guess at what a big deal it would become? Did you worry about losing credibility by allowing the song to be used?
I got to see the footage before it was decided. I had been in San Francisco and they were really interested in that particular song, especially the director and one other guy at the advertising company. So, there was some discussion. The Knife had some discussion with themselves, whether or not to use the music. For me it was a matter of seeing the ad and liking the video, and knowing that there wouldn't be any voice-over, and it being a not-so-controversial product, a television.
I suspected it [would be a big deal]. Maybe not that it would be this big, this big effect in the U.K. and Ireland. [Credibility] was the big issue in deciding whether or not to use the music. And I guess for many people, they didn't think it was that fun, and it did probably damage my credibility, because, in a way, I am selling myself. It's all about weighing the pros and negative effects. And I think the positive effects have been really big.
-- Matt Glazebrook