José González on his education and his new album “Local Valley”
My global audience
Sep 16, 2021
Photograph by Peter Toggeth / Mikel Cee Karlsson
Internationally renowned musician José González is one of those artists who shows such a complex and discreet touch with his work that it becomes an obsession for his listeners. Each note has its own rabbit hole to fall into, so it does the same in the next riff, song, or recording. The Argentine-Swedish singer-songwriter, who has won millions of songs and streaming videos and a dedicated fan base around the world, is set to release his latest LP, Local valley, tomorrow on Mute. The disc, sober and charming, will not fail to broaden the followers of González.
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 to grow up as the son of two academics and politically minded parents, and even more.
Jake Utti (Under the radar): When was the first time you found music?
José González: Well, there’s a picture of me sitting with headphones when I was three. So, yeah, my parents were – it wasn’t really a musical family. But my parents had a little record collection that I used to sit with every now and then. My dad sang when he was younger and he sang for me. There’s a recording of us singing together and I’m imitating his style.
But music wasn’t a thing for me until I was a teenager and picked up the guitar. I was 13 or 14 years old. That summer, I had pimples. And I just decided to learn the guitar. It was nice 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 at 13 or 14 years old. During this time, I also started playing bass. A couple of friends started a punk band. So, yes, adolescence.
Was learning the guitar more of a social practice for you or was it about diving head first into music?
It was both. With Bossa Nova and the Beatles it was basically me picking up the guitar and my dad was so excited he got the opportunity to sing those songs he sang when he was younger. But on the other hand, with my friends, they were in punk and later in hardcore. We would skate together. And a friend of mine said to me, “Let’s start a band.” And he would sing, like, Misfits.
They needed a bass player, so I started playing bass. But it wasn’t so much about meeting other people. It was more about having a hobby. I mean, try to be cool? Yeah, I think that was part of it. I skated not only because it was fun to skate, but because it was a lifestyle, yes!
How did you improve? How did you go from being a hobby to investing deeply?
Yeah, so it was – somehow I was doing pretty well on my own. Especially with the Bossa Nova, which was really tough at first. This is where I learned all the jazzy chords. With the Beatles, I learned to do classic fingerpicking with songs like “Blackbird” and other Beatles folk stuff. Also, of course, Silvio Rodriguez. His guitar playing was also quite complex.
So, it was a year on its own. But then I wanted to learn jazz guitar. I went to this particular teacher and I said, “Can you teach me jazz guitar?” He said, “No, no. But I can teach you the classic. So I said, “Yeah, okay, let’s do some classic.” This is where I learned to play even better and at a level that was, I guess, impressive for other singers / songwriters, if not maybe for other classical guitarists.
Well they are impressed now! Okay, so your parents were academics. My parents were also academics.
What subjects did they teach?
Romance languages, they were both French teachers.
Pretty heady stuff! And you, as the son of two academics, how did this environment impact your perception of the world or politics growing up?
Yeah, it affected me, I think. Both of my parents were really supportive of my studies, the kind of parents who got excited if I got good grades. They liked to talk about what I was studying. So my dad was on the psychology and anthropology side and my mom was on the biochemistry side.
And you asked about politics? It affected him too, especially with my father who listened to the news from Latin America, the news from the world. So we would sit and eat and listen to the news from all over the world. So too, of course, being political refugees, my father would be very vocal about his views on good and bad politics.
I imagine that must have set the tone for you too? If he was talking about what he believed then you could be in your music. IIt seems to me that your music reflects your own ideology of anti-dogma, of inclusiveness. So, did his speech help you do the same? And, if so, how do you know when an idea is correct or worth sharing?
Yeah, that’s a good question. I try to be anti-dogmatic and that includes me. It is therefore a matter of changing your mind if you are presented with good arguments or good data. For me, it’s been interesting to focus on the worldviews that seem to have dogma built into them. So many religions are like that.
In addition, some political ideologies are dogmatic. But how do you know? I guess if you love science and reason you just know you have to change your mind, there is no other way if you are presented with solid data and good arguments. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, but at least that’s the point.
In your music, you often play very sober songs, just you and the guitar. What do you like about this style, this approach?
When I started to find my own style in 2000-2001, I already knew that I just wanted to play guitar and sing. Partly because I’ve heard Chet Baker records on my own, maybe just his voice, his piano and his trumpet. I liked it so much more than when it was a bigger production or just a band. So there is something about the reserve sound or the emphasis on a single instrument or the vocals that attracted me.
And of course, there’s a lot 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 being able to do my own thing without a band. I had been playing in a group for many years and there were always compromises. So, it was good to have my own thing!
Yes, group dynamics can be very difficult.
Sometimes it can be.
What was the genesis of your new LP? Was there a thesis that you were pursuing?
I knew I was going to write a fourth album at some point. So I started collecting riffs, arpeggios and ideas. I just felt at first that I wanted to go back to my first album and do these iconic short songs. So that was the first round where I did some demos with just guitar and vocals, “Void”, “Horizons” and “Head On”.
I love “In the head”!
Yes! Thank you! But once I felt I had the heart of the album, I felt it was good to experiment. I’ve made these beats while traveling for many years, where I get bored sitting on a bus or a plane and open the drum machine and do a few beats. So, it was fun this time to be a little 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 songs from West Africa, “Valle Local” and “Head On”. And more sacred songs, like “En Stund Pa Jorden”, which is a cover of a Swedish artist.
It’s a great album. For me, it grows. There is depth despite its sparing, which I think is a testament to your skill and style. It’s almost like a Trojan horse, what you shoot!
[Laughs] Thank you!
You have international experience and I wonder how that influences your perception of the public. Many American groups believe they are successful in their hometown or in the United States. But as an international person, what do you think of your audience and where your music will be delivered or landed?
Yes, I was thinking of my global audience when I was writing. In a way, I was writing a little closer to who I am, singing in Swedish and Spanish. But I was also thinking of the public. My goal was to play more outside of Europe and North America. So, I was surprised when – for me it felt very natural to think of this wider audience both in terms of style and languages and how more and more acceptable it looks, for example. , that streaming services broadcast series from all over the world. world with not only in English.
So, I was a little surprised when the record company said that they thought it might be difficult to release an album with so many different languages. But to me, it felt very natural to me and that’s mostly how I am. Also that people seem to agree 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 need to know the language to enjoy it.
It is surprising. Well, I’m glad you were able to make the album multilingual! That’s one of the big things about it, of course. Okay, last question. What do you like most about music?
Oh, well, I’m still surprised how music can just hack your emotions, hack your brain. So I use the music to change my mood so I can go out of a low and maybe bored mood and put on a playlist, maybe three songs, and all of a sudden I’m in. a different area. It continues to amaze me how well it works! People use all kinds of substances, but the music is pretty awesome and doesn’t have that many side effects!