José González :: The AD Interview

It’s been six years since the last album of new studio music from José González, but from the sound of his latest, Local Valley, there’s clearly been a lot on his mind over that time. The Swedish songwriter’s latest is a record that stretches the sound and focus of what has been an impressive body of work dating back to his 2003 solo debut. The album’s title describes a mindset as much as a place – a comfortable, complacent environment where its denizens struggle to see up and about, only around, and an inability to see beyond the present moment and the place. Which may explain why this is one of González’s most diverse albums, topically, finding his focus moving from internal reflection, to the more sensual, to the more playful and loving, to even the words of others. Local Valley may just be the sound of the artist escaping from his own comfort place.

We recently caught up with González to discuss learning to be a working musician with kids, expanding the actual language of his songs, putting listeners in the room with him when he records, and finding number one hits in your own head. | j neas

Aquarium Drunkard: Not that it has been unusual for you to have lengthy periods between records, but it’s been six years since your last solo album and you’ve also now become a father twice, right? Congratulations on that, by the way.

José González: Thank you, yeah. So my older daughter, she’s almost four and the other [child] is seven weeks old today. So it’s one of the reasons why it took longer than usual, but I take about three years between albums, and I had some tours with an orchestra and we released a live album with them and then [my daughter] came and then I wasn’t able to to get my flow until she started kindergarten, and then the pandemic hit, so I have three bigger reasons.

AD: How has working and writing as a parent been a new experience for you? Have you figured out the way to effectively work as a parent, or like you said, did you have to wait until she was in kindergarten to sort of have that time to do that?

José González: Yeah it did take that long. I think it has to do with me not being the best guitarist, not being the poet I want to be. I set my bars a bit too high for myself, and so it’s easy for me to jam, [have] guitar sessions and find something interesting, but then to work on these demos until I feel like they’re ready for the world, that takes time, and it can be months in a row without any serious interruptions. So yeah, when my daughter came I had to try to figure out how to be effective in writing, and so the few times when I did have time to write, I was more effective than I used to be with my other albums, so much so that I never really felt like I got stuck this time. Whenever I had the time to practice guitar,I did that, when I was trying to write, I did that. And it wasn’t like the first albums when I felt like I had constant writer’s block.

AD: One thing that’s sort of different about this record in terms of your writing is that “El Invento” is your first Spanish language song and you have your first Swedish language song as well. One of the things I read a while ago is that you tried to write in Spanish previously, but that this was the first time you were satisfied with it. You’ve spoken Spanish pretty much your whole life. What is it that took you so long to get your writing where you wanted it?

José González: Yeah I think there’s a couple reasons. One is that my Spanish is the most limited of the three languages I speak. We speak it in the family, but Swedish is my main language. I read a lot in English, so even though I’m not as fluent, I have the biggest vocabulary in English, so those two reasons. And I think another one is more silly in a way – I started writing in English when I was a teenager, so I got used to it and it kind of comes more naturally than Swedish or Spanish

AD: You said that talking with your daughter in Spanish kind of helped you.

José González: Yeah, I think even though I speak to my family in Spanish, we don’t talk every day. So speaking to [my daughter] in Spanish was every day, and that made me a bit more used to subconsciously thinking in Spanish, and not only that, but I think the fact that I saw myself as a Spanish speaking parent, that self-image, helped me propel myself to just do it basically, to not feel awkward, not feel restrained, and just look up synonyms in the same way I use synonym word books with English. I’ll use them with Spanish and Swedish because I never got caught up thinking that that was a weird thing to do or anything. As I’m getting older, and as a dad, you can’t really go around feeling awkward about stuff.

AD: That single we were talking about, “El Invento,” that premiered last December at the Nobel Prize ceremony and was released in February, was not attached to Local Valley. That record had not been announced yet.

José González: Yeah, it was more like a teaser. Labels work that way; they don’t want to reveal that there’s an album. They just want to show that I’m still around. [laughs]

AD: But even with that first official single which was in April, that seems like an extraordinary lead time for a September release. Was that pandemic related or was it more kind of teasing it out like you were talking about?

José González: Teasing it out. That’s the main reason I think. The people who work with my main label in Sweden, they’ve been around. They know it takes time for people, especially for an artist that’s been away, it takes time to make people aware that I’m around, and that there’s a new song, and a new album coming out and sort of get used to if there’s a new style. Magazines take time to write reviews. So yeah, they’ve been working in this very long term format with all my albums, and in the beginning it felt weird, but I’ve gotten used to it by now. On all my albums there are always songs that are like three or four years old, and so the first time we were releasing stuff, I didn’t know what they were doing, but yeah it takes time for ideas and songs to reach people.

AD: I was gonna say, a lot of times I’ve heard from other artists that it’s almost like by the time an album comes out, you’re already tired of hearing it. You’ve already written 10 or 15 new songs that you’re more interested in.

José González: Yeah not in my case, I don’t write new songs, but I do need to rehearse the ones that I’ve written, so actually I haven’t been able to find the time to rehearse, so it’s the first single during my career that I’m not able to play live. [laughs] It’s partly because I’m using these loops, and I’m not used to loop pedals, and now I’m able to play it, but I’m not sure I will be doing it for the first few shows I’m doing.

AD: With the new record, one of the things that stuck out to me was the bird/nature backdrop in a couple of the songs. And the first thing I thought of was the first Heron album, how they recorded out in this field and you hear all these noises going on- can you tell me about why you decided to put those on there?

José González: Yeah, I have done it a couple of times before in my career, in an early Junip we had some seagulls. But yeah, this time it was me writing the album and recording out in the countryside, the North of Gothenburg, and for me that was a natural thing while I was writing and recording, to hear the birds and the nature sounds. But once I started recording and having all these closed mics, I couldn’t hear them, so I decided to record with my stereo mic one evening. I decided to at first layer them on all the songs, but the producer inside me said ‘stop it,’ that it was too much [laughs], so I tried to figure out which songs I could put them on, and decided to have a beginning, middle and end – “Visions,” “Lasso In,” and “Honey Honey,” and yeah those are the coastal birds in the evening in the summer.

AD: There’s something almost like you wanted people to feel like they were there for that in a sense?

José González: Yeah, yeah so I always felt really aware about how noise, ambient sounds, the hiss of a tape recorder, a distortion, all those sounds can become a comforting blanket almost, and in a way, especially major sounds, where there are evolutionary reasons to feel calm. If you hear birds singing you know there’s not a predator around, because that’s when they make other sounds, or get quiet. So there’s this calming effect that I enjoyed when I’m there, and I wanted to use it on these particular songs.

AD: You mentioned “Lasso In,” which I wanted to ask you about one of the lyrics in that one, thinking about Local Valley as a record, but also that idea of a Local Valley. There’s the lyric “watch the tireless monkey mind / grasping for things in front / for things from behind” and it made me think about this idea of the human tendency to focus too much on the future or the past as opposed to looking at the present.

José González: Yeah exactly, I mentioned in “Visions” about trying to make sense of the past, trying to make sense of the now to show us how. So yeah, it’s a reoccuring theme, but in “Lasso In” it’s tied into meditation and inspired by Buddhist meditation, where the phrase “monkey mind” comes in, and yeah grasping for how to shape the future or just looping stuff that you’ve done in the past, and so yeah in a way its a simple lyric in that sense that it’s about meditation. But I have some favorite phrases in there: “to note the state your disposable soma is in.” So that’s the idea of our bodies basically just being vessels for our genes to replicate and also that the second time I say to “note the state your meme machine is in”, which is our brains, that are our meme chunking machines.

AD: That’s a term, “meme,” that in terms of English is so much older than people think it is. It’s something that we connect with such different ideas now.

José González: Yeah, Richard Dawkins coined it when he was writing about genes and wanted to acknowledge that we have these cultural things that also copy themselves and even though we don’t know how or what they consist of, some sort of information, but we don’t really know how they’re stored and processed, not in detail at least, and so similar to how people came up with the name ‘meme,’ even though they didn’t know anything about DNA, he coined the term “meme” from memory or mimicry, and by now it’s popular to talk about memes but more how they relate to viral videos of cats mainly getting replicated on YouTube.

AD: One of the Swedish language songs, “Lilla Gumman,” which means “Sweet little boy, sweet little girl” which is a diminutive name, right, it means like a child, yes? It seems like something that maybe you came up with to sing to your kids, was that the origin of it?

José González: Yeah, “little darling,” exactly. So when it was just me and [my daughter] just hanging out, I would hum and sing all the time, and once in a while I would come up with a melody that would get stuck, and if I sang it more than one time and after a while I would make variations, and yeah so it became a hit in my head. One of the few songs where I start with a melody and lyrics and then make a song out of it, and of course the lyrics are just “lilla gumman” over and over again, which if you translate word by word is “little old lady,” but yeah it’s the way Swedish people talk to their kids.

AD: One of the things I’ve been loving about the record is the idea of revisiting the work of people who are sort of contemporaries, and the Laleh song that you cover, “En stund på jorden,” when I read the translation of the lyrics and everything, I was just like wow, this feels like it really fits the theme of this record. Was that something that drew you to it? That song is from 2014, but did you have this song in mind as a part of the theme for this record or what drew you to cover it?

José González: Yeah, I can’t remember exactly when I started thinking about it as a song for the record, but I felt like there was something missing in terms of my ambition of having a variation of songs, having silly songs, happy songs, danceable songs, heavy songs, combative songs. And so just really re-listening to her song, I felt like the lyrics were perfect as a last puzzle [piece] for the album and basically because it deals with death. She wrote it for her mom, thinking about her mom when she passed away, and to me it’s a very uplifting lyrics, and especially her version of it, it’s a very uplifting production of it, and from my point of view it’s a very humanistic view on our limited time on Earth. That we should celebrate without asking for more in a way, without asking for more life after it, except for the celebration that happens in the minds of friends and family and whoever else cares about that person.

AD: Yeah there’s that imagery in the song of the first creature to step on land as a metaphor for that sort of existence.

José González: Yeah exactly, so I don’t know exactly how she thinks about her lyrics, but “I saw how we were stars that land in the ocean and stepped up on land” but I think there are some references to her life and family as refugees, and so I’m not sure how much what she’s referring to is evolution and how much is her life story, but anyway I think even though I don’t care too much about the details, there’s the sentiment of having a limited time on earth and celebrating it.

AD: That’s right, she and you have a lot in common in terms of the experiences that your families had coming to Sweden, right? [ed. note – Laleh’s family fled Iran and settled in Sweden.]

José González: Yeah, I was born here so I only lived with the stories from my parents, but they fled from Argentina and had to start all over again in Sweden with a new language and culture, and [Laleh and I] grew up outside of Gothenburg in a suburb with lots of immigrants.

AD: Another thing that you did on this record – you were talking about sort of channeling and revisiting songs. There’s “Honey Honey,” which was a song you did with DJ Koze in 2018 under the name “Music on My Teeth.” And then there’s the Junip song “Line of Fire,” that you re-record here. And you compared it to – “it’s kind of like how the Beastie boys between Check Your Head and Ill Communication kind of crawled back to sampling themselves and using that sort of stuff. So that Junip song was already one of the biggest songs you all had as a group, so what made you revisit that song?

José González: It’s first of all one of my favorite Junip songs and one of the more popular ones, and it’s one that I’m proud of as a writer. So when I was touring and playing solo or even with an orchestra, it’s always fun to incorporate at least one song from Junip apart from all the other covers, and yeah, “Line of Fire” became one of my favorites and a crowd favorite. So it felt good to include it on the album, and I think it has a part in varying the songs on the album, since it is more of an introvert, and I felt like that was a part that was missing on this album.

AD: And I guess, the other one, “Honey Honey,”, it’s very sweet but it’s also got this kind of- um- I’m trying to think of the word-

José González: I can tell you what I was thinking when I wrote it. When DJ Koze asked me to write something for that song, I said no, only because I’m so slow. But then I decided, this should be easy, so I just decided to do a bit more of kind of stream of consciousness type of writing and I decided to make it more of a sensual song. So once again going out of my comfort zone and trying to push myself in a direction that’s also me but not common to what I usually write, and yeah it was really quick and easy and a fun and a missing piece if I want an album that has many different types of moods. So sensuality is something that has been missing in my albums.

AD: Just having those different types of songs puts your other more introspective stuff in some sort of sharper relief right. Not saying it’s comedic, but it’s the equivalent of the comedic piece in the middle of a Shakespearean drama. It’s designed to sort of break the tension.

José González: No definitely, I think I’ve ended albums on a heavier note and I kind of like the sense of relief. And “En stund på jorden,” even though it’s outward looking, it’s still about death. I wanted something more like a type of song like when the Beatles had “Her Majesty” ending their album. A short nice little song. And in a way, it’s fun to do versions of my own work or collaborations, especially when I’m proud of the collaboration.

For heads, by headsAquarium Drunkard is powered by its patrons. Keep the servers humming and help us continue doing it by pledging your support via our Patreon page.