I can’t pretend I always know what the Swedish singer-songwriter José González sings about. It almost doesn’t matter: whether his lyrics are in Swedish, Spanish or English, González’s music is great, thoughtful and moving … he’s like a world traveler Nick Drake for our time. And his guitar playing? It’s just as beguiling: no other contemporary songwriter uses a nylon-string guitar with such force. No wonder his compositions are so often licensed for film and television – each of his albums is itself a soundtrack with which we can all identify … otherworldly and yet personal.
Six years after its acclaimed Remnants & Claw Album González has released his fourth solo work, Local valley. It’s introspective and intimate, with rhythmic flourishes that remind you of González’s Argentinian roots. It is also his first album since he became a father (he has two children, a baby and a four year old). Through the magic of Skype and across multiple time zones, we talked about the making of the new album, his songwriting process, his favorite guitars and more.
Fretboard Diary: When did you record this record?
José González: What was it? 2018, 19 and 20? I started with old demos. So technically I started earlier. I had a moment in France in 2018, out in the country, but most of it was [written] north of Gothenburg in Sweden in our newly purchased summer house.
FJ: So it was written before the pandemic?
JG: Yes. I had a version of the album in February or March . I met with my label and we talked about the album and it was exactly the time [COVID] started to become a fact when WHO mentioned it was a pandemic. So we postponed the album and then I spent a little more time on a few songs. But basically everything was written around March 2020.
FJ: And how far did some of these demos go back? What’s the oldest melody here?
JG: 2016-17 I think? It’s similar to how I usually work. As soon as my new album is ready, I’ll start collecting demos. I always have a few songs that are three, four or five years old.
FJ: That’s almost refreshing to hear. There is certainly a demand for your music and people want more from you, but you take your time between albums. Do you wait for a topic to come up or does it just take you a while to figure it out?
JG: I just need a while. It takes me many months in a row without many interruptions to get started and reach a level that I’m comfortable with. In a way, I’m setting the bar a little too high for myself when it comes to guitar playing and poetry. Over time, I feel more and more comfortable and suddenly it feels good to give it to the world.
FJ: Do all these songs just start with you on the nylon string guitar? Do you start with the lyrics first? How is the process?
JG: Always guitar, melodies, lyrics and then the recording production. There’s an exception here on this album too “Lilla G”, that’s what I sang to my daughter when we were just hanging out face to face. I would hum this melody and it’s just that phrase Lilla, Lilla Gumman. One of the few exceptions where I start with melody and lyrics, even though it was easy. And then I made a song out of it.
FJ: Do you only jump back and forth between the languages as needed?
JG: No, most of the time I just start with English and end with English. But on the last album I tried Swedish and Spanish. I wasn’t really happy with the results and got stuck and switched to English and then all of a sudden I had the lyrics. With this album I tried harder and it felt more natural and I ended up writing a few songs in Swedish and Spanish.
FJ: Regardless of the languages, it’s nice. Would you say that this album is surrounded by a theme or an overarching message? I know there are some nature sounds in there …
JG: For me it is a continuation of the other albums that try to make poetry out of the secular, humanistic scientific worldview. Basically, the worldview of We-Are-Who-We-Are is natural and not made supernatural. Both celebrating that fact and … polemics with other worldviews.
But it’s a collection of songs. Some are silly, some are danceable and some are a little heavier. I think the songs related to this thread I am talking about are “El Invento”, “Visions” and “Head On” which align very well with my thoughts on worldviews and alternative these current topics Facts and culture wars.
FJ: Most of our readers are guitarists. Has your favorite guitar changed over the years? I know you have used an Alhambra in the past. What are you using nowadays?
JG: Yes, it is an Alhambra, an Esteve and a Cordoba guitar. I don’t have that many and all of the ones I use live have Fishman pickups. They’re all pretty cheap in some ways.
FJ: In the past you have spoken of how listening to traditional music from your parents got you on this path. Still looking for traditional nylon string guitar music?
JG: I feel like I’m still learning and finding new things. I’m not actively searching, but every now and then someone mentions that I should listen to a particular artist. I will never stop finding old things that I probably like.
FJ: Back to your demo process and how these songs came about, does the same methodology apply to the more beat-backed songs like “Swing”? Do they all just start with you and your nylon string guitar?
JG: With “Swing”, “Tjomme” and “Lilla G” I initially had it with just one guitar. But I got the idea of using drum machines and loops for a while and felt like the time was right to have this trio with loops. I can’t do everything with just one guitar, I can allow myself to loop and see how I do it later on stage.
FJ: Have you tried a few songs with the beats and loops that just didn’t work and did you go back to the purely acoustic formula?
JG: The way I did it, I had the main riff and the drum machine. And then when I started recording, I just layered it up like I was using a loop pedal and figured I’d get into the technical side later. At the moment I’m actually trying out loops, but in the studio I just recorded like I had loop pedals.
FJ: And when you play live again, can you either way?
JG: Not really. “Swing” is actually the first single in my entire career that I can’t play live. I don’t have a solo version of it with just one guitar.
FJ: One more question: your music is featured on so many soundtracks. I’ve seen it on TV, in Hollywood productions, and even in indie skateboarding films. What do you think it is about your music that relates to so many cinematic or theatrical settings?
JG: I’ve heard of the people doing the syncs on TV shows and movies, and they’ve often mentioned how songs like “Crosses” or “Line of Fire” work on an emotional level. But with my solo music it also works tonally because I use the nylon string and have no cymbals or high hats. In the high frequency range, not so much happens, which is good for dialogue. That’s a fun detail. Then of course it only depends on certain songs and the taste of the person who is dubbing.
FJ: Are these sync people reaching out to you all the time wanting new music from you? Or do they have to wait for the records to come out like the rest of us?
JG: Exactly. When people ask about new music, I often say no. I very rarely make music, especially for television or film. Most of the time they just go through my albums and see what they like.
FJ: Final question: you mentioned a little about your creative process. Now that this record is finished, are you already digging through the demos for the next one?
JG: I always collect demos, but I do that very sporadically. I have a feeling that when I have free time, I will spend it rehearsing “swing”.
FJ: Hoping that one day you can perform it live?
JG: Exactly. It could have been three years now. [laughter]