With his calming, cool José González, has been compared to the likes of a contemporary Nick Drake. González’s newest album, Local Valley, is his deepest and most philosophical album yet, with songs about love, death, humanism, and futurism, González imagines a world that reverts back to a somewhat tribal point of view—where everyone depended on each other in a global village. For example, the song “Visions” could also be called González’s magnum opus.
We spoke with González about parenthood, his artistic style, and dancing apes, as he was pushing his one-year-old son, Matteo, in his stroller, through a park in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Pan M 360: Where are you right now?
José González: I’m actually just walking right now with my boy. He should be sleeping but he’s not. He’s one year old. I’m just walking through Slotsugen park in Gothenburg, Sweden.
PAN M 360: You weren’t a father when you released Vestiges & Claws. How has becoming a parent changed your perspective on songwriting?
José González: The period of time when I was about to become a dad and then became a dad, there were some changes in life, natural changes. Trying to go and see every band that came to town to be OK with not seeing them. I definitely think more about what I value each week. It’s a bit more calm living. As for the music, I didn’t feel as rushed to write local Valley and I let it take the time it did. The pandemic gave me even more time. I think you can sense that when you compare the two albums.
PAN M 360: That calmed state of mind?
José González: Yes. With Vestiges & Claws I had high ambitions with the type of songs I would write. I tried to only do it with one guitar but had to do overdubs. So I think I let go of some of my youth, dogmatic standards.
PAN M 360: This is probably you’re biggest album, theme-wise. You’re speaking or singing to humanity as a whole. Would you say that introspection came from being a new father.
José González: I would say partly. With Vestiges & Claws I was inspired by humanism, effective altruism, and the long future… not only for humans but all sentient beings. In a way, I was already there, but with kids, it gave me more perspective and felt more real in a way. These discussions are a bit abstract, about how civilization might look in 100 or 2000 years from now.
PAN M 360: There’s this philosophical narrator approach to the new album as well. You just quoted one of your songs “Visions,” with the whole sentient beings line. It kind of feels like I’m experiencing a university philosophy class all over again.
José González: I admit that I’ve been reading more and more over the years. And walking around with the stroller, I get to listen to full books and many of those books are philosophy books. It was kind of fun to release that inner nerd. But yes it’s just like a nerdy science class.
PAN M 360: The album art was made by your partner, Hannele Fernström, a designer/illustrator. Did you two talk about the art or was it just her?
José González: We talked a lot. Aesthetically we were both on the same page. We both like Jospeh Frank, the textile designer. We wanted the album cover to be something more colourful. I was involved quite a bit in deciding which animals made the cover too. But once she started doing her thing, it was all her. She’s very into details and we both have very strong opinions.
PAN M 360: I’m always really excited when there is another album coming from you because they don’t happen every few years. You take time in between your releases, especially in this day and age when musicians release albums every one-two years.
José González: Yes I definitely take my time. I had my demos half ready for a while and with Local Valley, I waited until my daughter went to preschool and then really dedicated time to working on it. I was relaxed, but it came from being frustrated about not having the time as a new father. I was still playing and yes, I can bang out a song by just playing, but I wouldn’t like it. The way I work is I sit and write with complex chords or amazing arpeggios and from that demo, the finished song can take years. It’s mainly about combining and finding the lyrics perfectly sit. I need meaning too. So yeah, I’m a slow writer.
PAN M 360: You sing in Spanish, Swedish, and English on Local Valley. Have you tried that before?
José González: Yes, but it never quite fit. I tried that on Vestiges & Claws, but it was easier to sing in English in the end. But I felt it was kind of weird to be this Swedish, Argentinian artist who only sings in English. So this time it felt very natural.
PAN M 360: You said that it’s important for you to find meaning in your songs, but your song “Swing” is a dance track about, moving your body and being free. It’s not a huge idea…
José González: Yes when I say meaning I mean working on many different layers, with the rhythms, and from an album point of view, I tried to have other layers. So I have some songs with the drum machine and playing around with loops. I wanted many different styles on the album. So songs about death, but also a song about moving your body. “Swing” isn’t deep but it does serve a purpose on the album. In my mind, I was thinking about “Happy” by Pharell Williams, When I saw videos of people dancing in secret to that song, undercover, I guess I was inspired by that. It’s not in the lyrics, but it does highlight that, independent of your sexual orientation or religion, we’re basically apes that like dancing.