José González on His Upbringing and His New Album “Local Valley” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, April 23rd, 2024  

José González on His Upbringing and His New Album “Local Valley”

My Global Audience

Sep 16, 2021 Photography by Peter Toggeth / Mikel Cee Karlsson Web Exclusive
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Internationally known musician, José González, is one of those artists who exhibits such an intricate, discrete touch with his work that it becomes an obsession for his listeners. Each note is its own rabbit hole to fall down into, only to do the same in the next riff, song, or record. The Argentinean-Swedish songwriter, who has earned millions of song and video streams and an audience of devoted fans around the globe, is set to release his newest LP, Local Valley, tomorrow on Mute. The record, spare and lovely, will sure to enlarge González’s followers.

We caught up with the musician to talk about the development of the new LP, how González found his signature style, what it was like growing up as the son of two academics and politically-minded parents, and much more.

Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): When did you first find music?

José González: Well, there’s a picture of me sitting with headphones on when I was three. So, yeah, my parents were—it wasn’t really a musical family. But my parents had a small record collection that I sat down with once in a while. My dad used to sing when he was younger and he would sing to me. There’s a recording of us singing together and I’m mimicking his style.

But music wasn’t a thing for me until I was a teenager and I picked up the guitar. I was 13 or 14. That summer, I had pimples. And I just decided to learn guitar. It was sunny and warm outside but I stayed and learned all the Bossa Nova songs I could learn, and The Beatles. So, that’s when I started, basically 13 or 14. During that time, I also started to play bass. A couple of friends started a punk band. So, yeah, teenage years.

Was learning the guitar more of a social practice for you or was it about diving headfirst into the music?

It was both. With Bossa Nova and The Beatles, that was basically me picking up the guitar and my dad was so excited that he got the opportunity to sing these songs that he used to sing when he was younger. But then on the other hand, with my friends, they were into punk and later hardcore. We would skate together. And one of my friends was like, “Let’s start a band.” And he would sing, like, Misfits.

They needed a bass player, so I started playing bass. But it was not so much about meeting other people. It was more about having a hobby. I mean, trying to be cool? Yeah, I think that was part of it. I would skate not only because it was fun to skate but because it was a lifestyle, yup!

How did you get better? How did you go from hobby to investing deeply?

Yeah, so that was—in a way, I got pretty good on my own. Especially with the Bossa Nova, which was really hard at first. That’s where I learned all the jazzy chords. With The Beatles, I learned how to do the classic fingerpicking with songs like, “Blackbird,” and other folky Beatles stuff. Also, of course, Silvio Rodriguez. His guitar playing was also pretty intricate.

So, it was one year on my own. But then I wanted to learn jazz guitar. I went to this private teacher and I said, “Can you teach me jazz guitar?” He said, “No, no. But I can teach you classical.” So, I said, “Yeah, okay, let’s do classical.” That’s where I learned how to play even better and on a level that was, I guess, impressive to other singer/songwriters, if not maybe to other classical guitarists.

Well, they’re impressed now! Okay, so your parents were academics. My parents were also academics.

Which subjects did they teach?

Romance languages, they were both French professors.

Ah, okay!

Pretty heady stuff! And you, as the son of two academics, how did that environment impact how you thought about the world or politics growing up?

Yeah, it did affect me, I think. Both my parents were really supportive of my studies, the type of parents who got excited if I got good grades. They liked to talk about what I was studying. So, my father was on the side of psychology and anthropology and my mom was on the side of biochemistry.

And you asked about politics? That affected it too, especially with my father being into listening to the news from Latin America, the world news. So, we would sit and eat and listen go the news from around the world. Then also, of course, being political refugees, my dad would be very vocal about his views about good and bad politics.

I imagine that must have set a tone for you, too? If he was vocal about what he believed then you could be in your music. It seems to me that your music reflects your own ideology of anti-dogma, inclusiveness. So, did his speaking his mind help shape you to do the same? And, if so, how do you know when an idea is correct or worthy of being shared?

Yeah, that’s a good question. I try to be anti-dogmatic and that includes me. So, it’s all about changing your mind if you’re presented with good arguments or good data. For me, it’s been interesting to focus on the worldviews that seem to have dogma embedded in them. So, many religions are that way.

Also, a couple of political ideologies are dogmatic. But how do I know? I guess, if you’re into science and reason then you just know that you have to change your mind, there’s no other way if you’re presented with solid data and good arguments. But not to say that it’s easy, but that’s the aim, at least.

In your music, you often play songs that are very spare, just you and the guitar. What do you enjoy about this style, this approach?

When I started to find my own style back in 2000-2001, I already knew that I wanted to do just guitar and vocals. Partly because I heard records of Chet Baker on his own, maybe just his voice and piano and trumpet. I just liked that so much more than when it was a bigger production or just a band. So, there’s something about the spare sound or the focus on just one instrument or the voice that attracted me.

And of course there are lots of folk music that has that natural sound, like Nick Drake and Simon and Garfunkel. So, in a way, it was about the sound but also about being able to do my own thing without a group. I had been playing in groups for many years and there were always compromises. So, it was nice to have my own thing!

Yeah, the band dynamic can be very difficult.

At times, it can be.

What was the genesis of your new LP? Was there a thesis you were pursuing?

I knew I was going to write a fourth album at some point. So, I started to collect riffs and arpeggios and ideas. I just felt like, at first, that I wanted to go back to my first album and do these short, iconic songs. So, that was the first round where I made a couple of demos with just guitar and vocals, “Void,” “Horizons,” and “Head On.”

I love “Head On”!

Yeah! Thanks! But then once I felt like I had the core of the album, I felt like it was okay to experiment. I’ve been doing these beats while traveling for many years, where I get bored sitting on a bus or plane and I bring up the drum machine and do a couple of beats. So, it felt fun this time to be a bit more playful.

I wanted a more eclectic album. So, I feel like I have the classic songs, like “El Invento,” and the beat songs like “Swing” and “Tjomme.” And the Western Africa songs, “Valle Local” and “Head On.” And the more sacral songs, like, “En Stund Pa Jorden,” which is a cover of a Swedish artist.

It’s a great album. For me, it grows. There’s depth despite how spare it is, which I think is a testament to your skill and style. It’s almost like a Trojan Horse, what you pull off!

[Laughs] Thank you!

You have an international background and I wonder how that influences how you think about audience. Many American bands think about succeeding in their home cities or in the U.S. But as an international person, how do you think about your audience and where your music will be delivered or land?

Yeah, I was thinking about my global audience when I was writing. In a way, I was writing a bit closer to who I am, singing in Swedish and Spanish. But I was also thinking about the audience. I’ve been aiming to play more outside of Europe and North America. So, I got surprised when—for me, it felt very natural to think about this wider audience both in terms of style and languages and how it seems to be more and more okay for, like, streaming services to show series from all over the world with not only in English.

So, I got a bit surprised when the record label said they felt it might be difficult to release an album with so many different languages. But to me it felt very natural and mainly like this is who I am. Also that people seem to be okay with different languages. As long as you have the translation, you can read the translation and then understand what the meaning of the song is. And you don’t have to know the language to enjoy it.

That’s surprising. Well, I’m glad you were able to make the album multilingual! That’s one of the great aspects about it, for sure. Okay—last question. What do you love most about music?

Oh, well I always get surprised how music can just hack your emotions, hack your brain. So, I use music to hack my mood, so I can go from a low and maybe bored mood and I put on a playlist, maybe three songs, and all of a sudden I’m in a different zone. That keeps surprising me how well it works! People use all kinds of substances but music is pretty awesome and doesn’t have that many side affects!

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