José González scales up his spare sound with String Theory

Singer-songwriter José González (in blue shirt) with the String Theory.
Singer-songwriter José González (in blue shirt) with the String Theory.Johan Bergmark

For a long time, the soft-spoken Swedish-Argentinian balladeer José González didn’t think he wanted to collaborate with an orchestra. In fact, he explains on the phone from his hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden, he actively resisted it.

“I felt an easy way to move forward as an artist is to do versions with strings,” he says. “And I felt like that was too obvious. How do you say? Not punk enough.”

And when one considers his distinctive solo sound — exquisite acoustic miniatures and a few sparely superb covers of synthpop and rock, seemingly whittled out of oak bark, wisps of mist, and the sound of his fingers softly squeaking on the guitar strings — one might be skeptical about gilding the lily with an orchestra in the first place. (Fans of “Friday Night Lights” might remember his voice as the soundtrack to many an onscreen gut punch.)


But the String Theory, the Berlin and Gothenburg-based chamber orchestra led by conductor and arranger P.C. Nacht, caught him off guard, he says. The diverse musical backgrounds of the musicians appealed to him, as did the connection he felt when he worked with them for the first time a decade ago.

Since then, the collaboration has led to many concerts around the world as well as a recently released live album. González doesn’t feel like he’s just standing in front of the String Theory as a special guest, he explains. “I really consider this project as I’m one of those 22 musicians on stage.”

The North American leg of their 2019 tour together kicks off March 18 at Symphony Hall.

Q. What have you been reading or listening to lately?

A. It’s in a way the same, because I listen to my books nowadays. I’m reading a book called “Scale,” by Geoffrey West. It’s an amazing book about connections between scaling and age, or how cities are different from each other depending on the size, and just the fact that people walk faster in bigger cities. It’s a fun book. Then I listen to a lot of podcasts. I’m really enjoying “80,000 Hours,” and “Secular Jihadists from the Middle East.”


Q. “80,000 Hours,” the Effective Altruism podcast?

A. Yeah! I love those in-depth interviews. I played at EA Global in London last year. I’ve been following them for a while, and I just started using Twitter and re-tweeting a lot of their stuff.

Q. Speaking of scaling, did scaling up your music to play with the String Theory affect anything you didn’t expect at first?

A. Oh, yeah. The first time we collaborated I was one of many artists in Gothenburg. We did one song each. I didn’t expect that much when I went into the studio. I was playing my part and all of a sudden I started to hear all these beautiful harmonies and instruments, and I really got blown away. I got goosebumps. Since then I’ve invited them to do more, and it’s the same feeling many times when we’re playing live. Especially in the parts when I’m not doing things that actively, and I can just sit back and listen to what they’re doing. It has a lot to do with dynamics, and how the sound of all these acoustic instruments sounds in the room.

Q. Would you say that your conception of the way your songs should sound has become more fluid?


A. Most of the time I’ve been feeling like I still want to stick to my format, just one guitar and vocals and maybe some percussion. I always envision myself playing solo, and I really want the music to be able to plan for itself in this format. But then with the band and with orchestra I’ve felt more loose in terms of how intricate the guitar needs to be. In a couple of cases I’ve loosened up a bit.

Q. Do you think your background as a scientist influences the way you make music?

A. Sort of, yeah! I never felt like a real musician. I always had friends where music comes natural for them. Some of them had studied, others were very talented. For me I had to take the time to sit down and think a lot. In that case I’m taking a . . . I wouldn’t say scientific method to write it, but a structured way of writing, where I do some things that come easy but after that I need to work. It really feels like I’m working, in a way that’s a bit similar to being in a lab and setting things up and trying things out and figuring out what
went wrong.

Q. On Twitter, you say you’re interested in ecomodernism — what is that, how’d you encounter it, and what speaks to you about it?

A. I found it through the Long Now Foundation, where they think about a 10,000-year horizon for humanity. It’s people who are interested in the environment and climate and many other things, but from a human perspective, and look at the data and see where it leads them.


Ecomodernists are more OK with some technologies than others. They’re pragmatic, basically, not as hardline, like taking down all the nuclear power. That’s one of the issues that sets them apart from other groups. But yeah, long-term and pragmatic thinking are the main issues. Human flourishing is central to the ecomodernists. It says you follow reason and science where it leads you, in a way. You don’t decide beforehand what you’re against.


Presented by World Music/CRASHArts. At Symphony Hall, March 18 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $32-$75, 617-876-4275, www.worldmusic.org

Zoë Madonna can be reached at zoe.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.