José González: The Science of Music

Indie-folk singer-songwriter José González is able to pursue music full time these days. But that doesn't mean he's left the days of academia and biochemistry behind. "I pick up magazines once and a while. There are a lot of good lectures on the web from different universities on Google Video and YouTube, and also a lot of good documentaries from the BBC and PBS."

- Dara Hakimzadeh
Photos by Sheila Busteed

posted December 19, 2007

José González: The Science of Music

     In many music articles and interviews, musicians often talk about giving up their education to pursue their creative interests. It's a different situation for Swedish indie-folk singer-songwriter José González, who balances performing and writing music with education.

     In 2003, he released his debut album, Veneer, in Europe. The album's eventual success ended González's academic career as a doctoral student in biochemistry at Sweden's University of Gothenburg. Despite the change, González remains fond of reading and watching documentaries about biology, religion, philosophy, and human history while being a full-time musician.

     "I noticed I didn't have time for both and initially tried to do both. I would go into the lab five days a week, and then go to different shows around Sweden. It became pretty clear that I wouldn't have the time," he said.

     Last September, González released his sophomore album, In Our Nature, which was partly inspired by the books The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and Practical Ethics by Peter Singer.

     "The whole discussion of religion's role in different countries with different peoples and the whole aspect of ethics became more and more interesting to me," he said, when asked about their influence on the record. His album, he said, is a mature perspective on human nature that many reviews refer to as 'gentle rebel music,' since it subtly addresses issues related to conflict, peace, war and humanity.

     "It's a thin line where art – I include myself here – starts to say things that have nothing to do with music and it doesn't mean your opinions are any better than anyone else's," explained González. "You can use that kind of power to bring up questions and it's a powerful tool to make people focus on certain topics."

     Having grown up in Sweden's secular environment, González said he never really thought about how some people take biblical scriptures literally.

     "Religion seems to play such a big role for the majority of people around the world," he added.

     In the song "Abram," González cryptically sings about all three prevalent monotheistic Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

José González Feature Article

     "I'm picking on all of them because they come from the same root. I kind of feel strange that people haven't reacted to that song yet," he said.

     Recently, González read Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, which argues that evolution plays a role in human behavior. For González, it offered an interesting perspective on the scientific debate surrounding the influence of nature versus nurture.

     Having given up academia for music, González still enjoys reading and watching popular science lectures on his laptop.

     "I pick up magazines once and a while. There are a lot of good lectures on the web from different universities on Google Video and YouTube, and also a lot of good documentaries from the BBC and PBS," he said. "It's on a popular level; it's not on the same level at which I use to study things at the university, but it's almost more fun."

     Fluent in Swedish, González said his next goal is to improve his ability to read English. "I'm really a slow reader, so I'm kind of struggling," he said.

     "It seems natural to sing in English, and Swedish has felt a bit corny. I'm starting to get the feeling that I will be able to write [songs] in Swedish too," he said. "Spanish, I don't have a large vocabulary in, and in Swedish it sounds very direct; everything you say is in your face. With English, living in Sweden, it was more like a shield. It's more poetic, I guess."

     When asked if he'd ever return to the University of Gothenburg, he remained open to the idea.

     "I don't think I would go back to that doctorate because I'd need to start from scratch and if I did that I'd probably pick something else," he said.

     For now he's more content learning on his own. "I'd rather read Scientific American once [in] a while. That is enough for me."