As I prepared to interview Swedish singer-songwriter José González, I played his cover of The Knife’s “Heartbeats” out loud in the office. One of my coworkers balked a the idea that it was, in fact, a cover and not an original song of his. That’s the magic of his work – he approaches music as a living, breathing thing to be reimagined and reinvented constantly.
Now, he’s done the same for his own music and taken frequent collaborators The String Theory along for the ride. While on tour throughout Europe, González and the Berlin- and Gothenburg-based orchestra reimagined some of his best work and deep cuts for a compelling double album, released last month. Before González hits DC, orchestra in tow, we talked to him about this ambitious project, working with The String Theory and how he chooses his cover songs.
On Tap: What was the inspiration behind recording this live album and then bringing The String Theory on tour with you?
José González: We’ve been collaborating for almost 10 years now, and on our first tour together it just sounded so amazing. It was a unique huge project to me at the time, and for weird reasons, both hard drives where we did the backup recordings disappeared — one in Berlin and one in Gothenburg — so since then we’ve been waiting until we got together to record again. When we started, we knew we just had to tour as much as possible and not lose anything ever again. That lead to this double LP that we released. We picked our favorite versions of songs from the European tour in 2017.
OT: A lot of the versions of your songs are a lot different than the studio versions. It definitely feels like your songs are living, breathing things. Why choose the songs you did from this project’s huge catalog?
JG: It started with them choosing which songs to arrange. I never gave them directions, I just let them choose freely. They didn’t know at first if they should choose the more popular songs or if they can chose any song. I wanted to give them that freedom. It’s such a big project to do arrangements for, and I wanted them to be excited, so it was fun to let them choose on their own. They came up with a mixture of songs I was a bit surprised about. Since we started touring we’ve been able to add more arrangements and choose from the songs we’ve been playing live. It feels like a band where I write the songs but they do most of the arrangements and artistic choices.
OT: Even being a bit more hands off with the decisions, what did this overall process look like for you and The String Theory?
JG: Some arrangements they did in great detail before we met, all written down very meticulously. But others were more dreamy and the musicians were asked to improvise. Of course there had been moments were things didn’t work, so I also felt like I was part of this process of making the orchestra more like a band, where people actually say no if they don’t like how we’re doing something — including me. Getting the percussion and beats somewhere I was comfortable with took a long time. My favorite percussionist is in the band, the only one who isn’t from Europe. He’s been touring with my solo band, and I didn’t want to lose that Latino touch since we’re playing with this more Nordic and German orchestra.
OT: Any songs that were particularly tricky to rearrange?
JG: One thing we were battling with for a while was the song “Down the Line.” We had an arrangement where it was very drony and trippy — simple in the arrangement, but heavy so to speak. It’s been changing shape from each concert until last tour when we recorded the album we started to do a Krautrock version, and finally it clicked after a lot of fighting [laughs].
OT: That one definitely struck me as the biggest departure from the original studio version. I can’t imagine coordinating the arrangements with that many people. What’s it been like touring with such a big group?
JG: It’s a lot of fun. When we started touring, many people in the band hadn’t been touring in the way that we were touring, so it was a breath of fresh air to have all these excited and amazing musicians in this trip of their life. For me it’s been amazing to hang out with them, they’re all so excited to sing and hang out. Its just a very different dynamic than going on tour with just a few people. We’re like a little village, traveling around. It’s 22 musicians and then with crew, it’s nearly 30.
OT: Not a tour-related question, but I know you’ve gained notoriety for your unique covers of songs like “Heartbeats” by The Knife and “Teardrop” by Massive Attack. How do you decide what to cover, and what does your process for putting your own spin on these songs look like?
JG: There’s a lot of gut feelings going on. I know when I first hear a song and read the lyrics I’m on the right track, one other trick has been to do songs that are pretty well-known but maybe not expected as a cover. That’s a trick that I borrowed from Cat Power or Johnny Cash where their thing was to do cover songs in an unexpected way — in their own style. More recently, I guess I stopped doing covers in that style and have been OK with doing songs that are just nice to listen to, like “Blackbird” by The Beatles. So those have been my different, but main, ways of doing covers!
José González and The String Theory play the Lincoln Theatre on March 20. Doors at 6:30 p.m. Show at 8 p.m. For more on the artist, visit jose-gonzalez.com.
Lincoln Theatre: 1215 U St. NW, DC; 202-888-0050; www.thelincolndc.com
Arlington, Virginia native Amy Wilcox always loved to sing. But when she got to college, she immersed herself in the craft and eventually commanded a prestigious residency at Nashville’s 3rd & Lindsley Bar & Grill – a breeding ground for up-and-comers. Garnering stellar word-of-mouth in Nashville’s competitive music scene, Wilcox landed opening slots on bills with country music superstars like Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and Kellie Pickler. Then, Wilcox landed a starring role on A&E’s reality show Crazy Hearts, where the world got its first glimpse into the life of the burgeoning country music starlet.
The television show’s since been cancelled, but Wilcox carries on. She released her new EP in Austin on Friday, and then laid down a stripped-down set of country rockers including a choice cover of the Eagles “Heartache Tonight,” at a private showcase at the ROKA eyewear store downtown. Afterward, she spoke with On Tap about her career and making the most of SXSW.
On Tap: Great set, Amy! That was fun. You went to Vanderbilt on a soccer scholarship, but did you always have music in your plan?
Wilcox: I grew up loving music and doing as much music as I could, but was recruited to play soccer at college. I went to Vanderbilt, which was in Nashville, and it was the best of both worlds. I knew in the back of my mind I wanted to move some more music into my life.
OT: How did you begin to make that dream a reality?
AW: As the years went by, I started delving more into live performance and singing with bands in college. I got into an a cappella group and got addicted to that life. I sang in some cover bands and I really wanted to sing my own music, so I slowly started figuring out the songwriter world. I was always into writing [as a] journalism major, so it was a new outlet, a cool transition. Also, it’s amazing how many things I learned in sports that have transitioned into music. [Being] able to deal with disappointment and move on is one of them [laughs].
OT: You’re often pegged as a country singer, and that’s not off-base. But I’m also hearing some grit – rock and blues – that isn’t often apparent in the sound of a lot of emerging country stars.
AW: It’s working then! I grew up loving Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt – singers that were just gritty and cool. Sheryl Crow was part of that rocker lady contingency I admired. I definitely draw a lot of influence from female singers.
OT: Any comments on Austin and the whole crazy SXSW experience? Is there anything you hope to achieve by being here?
AW: I worked SXSW for two years to get a free pass and get a piece of the action, so it’s really cool to be back and have an artist badge and say, “Oh my god, I’m here now. It worked! I’m excited to connect with people and get the music out there.”
For more about Amy Wilcox click here.
Chicks ruled Friday at SXSW. Whether it was the sensual alt-pop of Australia’s Holiday Sidewinder, the passionate country rock of Arlington, Virginia-raised Amy Wilcox, or the retro Motown soul of Austin’s own Charlie Faye & The Fayettes, the ladies in Friday’s lineup showed us that women often surpass the best male performers at Austin’s international musical showcase when it comes to musicianship, stage presence and ambition. Photos: Michael Coleman
Much like its Adams Morgan counterpart, the LINE Austin provides a cultural hub with award-winning cuisine, craft coffee and cocktails in addition to being a hotel. The cavernous, grey design feels like an extension of the lake it sits on. It’s brightened by hanging gold air plants throughout and the low ceilings are offset by sweeping high windows and natural light. L.A.-based Alfred brings its famed matcha to Austin (don’t miss the $10 latte with locally made raw almond and cashew milk) and Arlo Grey’s craft cocktails and small plates by Top Chef winner Kristen Kish are a great choice for festivalgoers burnt out on taco trucks. You may even see a special guest or two – we spotted musician Andrew Bird wandering the bar leading up to one of his many SXSW showcase appearances. Photos: M.K. Koszycki
Austin native Walker Lukens energized a midnight crowd at the iconic Continental Club on Thursday. He lept around the stage and stared into the eyes of show goers, daring them to be anything but transfixed, surely waking up anyone with heavy eyelids from a long day of showcase-hopping at SXSW. His band’s incredibly tight sound laid the framework for Lukens’ soulful voice to shine through, pairing well with bandmate Mackenzie Griffin’s equally impressive vocals. While it would have been easy for Lukens to rest on the laurels of his retro-50s inspired sound, he previewed new songs from his upcoming album Adult that had a modern twist while still paying healthy homage to his musical predecessors. Don’t miss Lukens and company in DC at Songbyrd Music House and Record Cafe on May 1. Photos: M.K. Koszycki
Yes, Holiday Sidewinder is her real name.
Proclaiming “no gimmicks,” the Australian-born singer confirmed the authenticity of her moniker toward the end of her enthralling set at SXSW’s Australia House on Friday afternoon, surely answering at least one question on everyone’s mind.
Cloaked in an orange leotard, stilettos and a cheetah print overcoat, the platinum blonde does seem a bit gimmicky at first glance. But absorbing Sidewinder’s commanding stage presence and watching her deliver breezy but knowing alt-pop songs that reference artists as diverse as Madonna, David Bowie and the Beastie Boys, it becomes clear this is a woman of substance – fully in control of her artistic vision.
After several tours as the keyboardist in Alex Cameron’s faux-sleazy and fabulous lounge act – including stints opening shows for The Killers – Sidewinder has come into her own as a solo artist. From the 80s synth-pop vibe of “Casino” to the propulsive, dance-y “Trash Can Love,” to the sexual empowerment anthem “Leo,” Sidewinder ably borrows from her influences to make a sound all her own. As she sipped straight tequila on ice after her well-received set, Sidewinder sat down with On Tap to talk about her music, her upbringing and taking charge of her sex appeal.
On Tap: You come from a musical family. Is this something you always knew you wanted to do?
Holiday Sidewinder: Yeah, I did. My mom’s a singer, my uncle’s a songwriter and my grandfather’s a songwriter. My mom recently showed me a drawing I did when I was five where I’d drawn myself and it says, “Holiday Spice,” and it has an airport banner and I’ve got a suitcase. I guess I’ve manifested that because I haven’t had a home in years. [Sidewinder calls Los Angeles home, but says she is “literally homeless.”]
OT: How’s Austin treating you? What do you hope to accomplish at SXSW?
HS: I’ve been here four times now. It’s such a cool town. I’m just having a great time. Everyone told me it was Hell on Earth (because of the SXSW crowds), but I have had an amazing time. I saw [funk rock legend and mega-producer] Nile Rodgers yesterday. I spoke to his manager, which was really cool. I have a lot of friends who are playing here and it’s a community thing. I think it’s for us all to get together with the film industry and come together and support each other in a digital age. We’re all here, we all love this and we’re looking for solutions to make it work for us financially.
OT: Let’s talk about your music. You have a new album, Forever or Whatever, dropping this spring. I hear a lot of different influences in your sound. Where does all that come from?
HS: I referenced a lot of different things when we were writing this record. It’s Beastie Boys, New Order, early Madonna and Tom Tom Club. I have eclectic taste. I listen to a lot of Exxótica and weird sh-t like the Talking Heads. I just like keeping the energy high. I usually start with a rhythm or a beat or a groove. I feel if you have a good groove, the rest of the song will carry itself.
OT: Sexuality looms large in much of your music – and certainly your persona. Is that intentional?
HS: I figure if I’m going to be sold on my sexuality anyway as a woman, I may as well take control of it. I was kind of liberated a year and a half ago with a few books I read. My perspective really changed. I found it empowering. With gaining sexual agency, a lot of other good things come – especially for women. We live in a rape culture and women have been second-class citizens in the patriarchy, and I think gaining that power back is the first step in a way.
Learn more about Sidewinder here.
When I met Jared Kolesar of Phoenix-based indie folk band Jared & The Mill, we were about 20 minutes behind schedule. I blamed our inability to share our whereabouts and locate each other on mercury retrograde. It’s also what I’d blamed for the great Instagram and Facebook outage earlier in the week, but Kolesar insisted “that was a big marketing scheme by us.” For reference: the band’s latest album, released last month, is called This Story Is No Longer Available, and the title fits all too well with the social media mishaps and miscommunications from earlier in the day.
“I like it because there are so many meanings you can pull from it,” Kolesar says of the title. “The idea that social media is this thing where if you want to peer into someone’s life, you have access to it. There were a lot of times where you could have no idea what was going on in someone’s life unless you were right there with them, and those days are far gone.”
The record itself isn’t just about social media, though. It’s about being a better person and the struggles to better yourself and gain understanding for those around you in the process. While it sounds heavy, it’s a positive message – and Kolesar is quick to explain that he sees making mistakes as a good thing in the grand scheme of growing into who you are as a person.
“I’m a big believer in celebrating the good things you have in life, and that you have to have things that you regret doing in order to be a good person so that you can empathize with people who also have regrets in life,” he says earnestly.
The band brings this optimistic message to SXSW hot on the heels of their record release. And while it’s their seventh time at the festival, it’s a special one because of how much they have to celebrate with their new music.
“A lot of people I’ve talked to here have said that this is their favorite album yet, which is awesome to hear,” he explains. “A lot of times people are suckers for early stuff. But they’re really excited to hear the new stuff. It’s the best feeling in the world.”
I can’t help but wonder if jumping into performing at something as intense as SXSW a mere month after releasing a new record is a lot, but as they’re no strangers to the madness that is the festival, they’re able to focus on connecting with fans and celebrating their new material live on stage every night.
“There’s no god at SXSW,” Kolesar says with a laugh. “You just kind of give it up and accept the chaos. It’s our seventh one, so we all knew what we were getting into.”
Jared’s SXSW Favorites and Must-Sees
“There’s a lot of cool things that happen at Hotel Vegas and a lot of good food trucks around there.”
“There’s a really cool mezcal bar on seventh street attached to a whiskey bar called Seven Grand.”
Thursday, March 14, of SXSW festival started with a bang – make that an explosion – as DC’s Priests blew a packed lunchtime crowd away at Mohawk, one of a slew of outdoor venues in downtown Austin’s Red River entertainment district. A mesmerizing set by Philadelphia’s Japanese Breakfast followed. Marlon Sexton, son of Austin guitar hero and Bob Dylan bandmate Charlie Sexton, brought his crew, Marfa Crush, to Cooper’s BBQ downtown followed by rocker Jackie Venson, fresh off her win as Best Guitarist at the Austin Music Awards. Garrett T. Capps of San Antonio put on entertaining set of experimental country – he calls it NASA country – and Meghan Thee Stallion of Houston threw down a ferocious but short set of highly-charged sex raps at Cheer Up Charlies. Phenomenal music all day and all night – that’s what makes SXSW magic. Photos: Michael Coleman