José González on Learning Portuguese and the Likelihood of Hearing ‘Kumbaya’ at His Concert This Weekend

By
Hiroshi Shafer, 2008 Photo: Getty Images

Soft-spoken indie minimalist (and proud atheist) José González first won Stateside attention based on the strength of his whispery covers (The Knife’s "Heartbeat," most famously) before dazzling critics with the intricate originals on his second album, In Our Nature. This Sunday, Gonzalez hits the Gowanus with a special set at New York’s “Campire on the Canal” event. This week, he spoke to Vulture about what songs he will (or will not) be playing this weekend, his upcoming tour of the Middle East, and believing in Santa Claus.

Can we request "Kumbaya" for the campfire on Sunday?
That would be fun. I can't guarantee I remember all the words, though. I think we used to sing it in kindergarten.

I think you'd actually get more requests not to play that. Also, isn't it about God?
Yeah, that’s right. It's "Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya," right? I think Kumbaya is Swahili — I’m not sure. I actually believe in one god. The nylon-string guitar god.

You play a nylon-string guitar and your music feels inspired by Brazilian music, but you're of Argentinean descent…
I learned playing classical guitar through bossa nova and João Gilberto. But yeah, I don’t speak Portuguese so I am not sure how people who actually know Portuguese will react.

Are you practicing your Portuguese right now?
Yeah, that’s the good thing about music. You can imitate pretty well without knowing the language. And I have friends that speak Portuguese so I can get by.

Can you say something in Portuguese?
Bra-sil.

Did you just say Brazil but with the emphasis?
Yeah, exactly. [Laughs.]

The Gutter Twins just released a cover of "Down the Line." What did you think of it?
I love it. I thought it was great, and I got to meet them in Canada at a festival, and they were really nice. I got to see them live and Greg Dulli was telling me, "Yeah, it is about time someone else covered one of your songs." There have been a couple of other artists that have done it before, but I guess the Gutter Twins are the most well known. It's very cool. A hard-core band covered the song "How Low" and I didn’t like it at all.

After New York, you're heading to the Middle East — Israel, Beirut, and Dubai. Do you have a large fan base over there?
Actually the Tel Aviv show was based on a competition on the Web where people could vote which artist they would like to see in Tel Aviv. It's really, really cool. I don't think I won, but I guess I was among the top hundred that they could afford.

Do you expect any backlash for saying that In Our Nature was inspired by Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion?
I did like two hours of interviews with newspapers and magazines from Israel, and some of them were telling me that, yeah, you probably shouldn’t say that you're an atheist. I find that funny. But I am invited to play there because of my music so I am not going to make a big deal about not believing in Santa Claus.

Well, you could say over there that you don’t believe in Santa Claus.
Yeah, and also that I don’t believe in Thor. You know thunder? It comes from electricity in the clouds? "I Don’t Think It's From Thor" is my next song.