On ‘Local Valley’, José González is a master craftsman, leaning even harder into his signature sound and flexing his well-practiced storytelling muscles in ways that deepen and expand his political message.
Stream: “Head On” – José González
Award-winning singer/songwriter and guitarist José González has been called “one of the most recognizable sounds in indie rock.”
When Atwood Magazine asks the visionary musician in a recent interview what he thinks of that statement, González laughs. “I take it as a compliment that I have a characteristic sound,” he says. It’s something that the Swedish-born guitar hero of Argentine descent hears often. “I’ve heard many times that people recognize my sound when they hear the guitar playing,” González says. On his newest album, Local Valley (released September 17, 2021 via Imperial Recordings), González does not shy away from the finger-picking acoustic sound that put him on the map. Instead, he leans even harder into his signature sound, flexing his well-practiced storytelling muscles in ways that deepen and expand his political message.
González joins our interview from his home base in Sweden via Zoom early one evening in August. He has just begun to tour in anticipation of the release of Local Valley. Yet when Atwood Magazine reaches him on Zoom, González is outdoors, walking his young child. “We got a bit delayed,” he says. “And now my son is crying.” It’s evident then why González and his team have called Local Valley, the artist’s first album in five years, a “family affair.” There is evidence of his growing family’s influence throughout the album, in the joyously danceable “Swing” which features his partner, Hannele Fernström’s vocals as well as the wonderful sing-along, “Lilla G,” which González wrote for his young daughter. As the young child fusses in the background, one can guess as to why González has leaned even more into his political ideals on Local Valley, why the album feels more pressing, more determined than ever.
González’s music has always been political, steeped in questions about the shape of the world we live in. But on Local Valley, he is even more open and willing to put himself on the line. When asked to describe the album in one word, González uses the word “humanism.” “Humanism is a framework for thinking about our existence,” González tells Atwood Magazine. “How we can try to flourish with this life we know that we have without asking for more lives before or after this life in contrast to other religions or other world views.”
For González, then, the timing of Local Valley’s release, in the still uncertain aftermath of a deadly pandemic, couldn’t have been more apt.
It “feels timely because of the global character of our times and the global issues I bring up in many of the lyrics,” González tells Atwood Magazine. In “Visions,” for example, a beautifully crafted treatise that ends with the lines “we are in this together,” González notes that he has tried to “envision a collective future not only for certain countries but for the whole of humanity and not only for the next generation but for generations to come.”
However, González never starts an album with a specific political message as he tells Atwood Magazine. Rather, he takes each album song by song. He lets the message come organically. “After releasing an album,” he says of his process, “I tour with the album and then I start gathering demos, gathering ideas, and collecting them for a later moment when I sit down and try to polish these demos to finished songs.” The messaging, thus, emerges later in the process when González looks at a collection of work in progress and tries to make sense of his thought processes. The result is work that never feels heavy handed, work that is as poignant as it is beautiful, that stirs but never overwhelms.
González ’s message is delivered on Local Valley in the three languages he speaks: English, Spanish, and Swedish. It’s the first time González has worked language into his work, and it opens up the album in surprising and spectacular ways. “Spanish and Swedish are my native tongues so it felt important at some point to write songs in those languages,” González tells Atwood Magazine. “The time was right, and I felt more comfortable with who I am, what I’m trying to convey. Each song has its own style,” González says. And this is wonderfully true. From the bouncy “Swing” to the guitar-classic “Head On,” González infuses a range of styles on Local Valley, with influences ranging from classic folk music to the Beastie Boys.
Because he has recorded three out of four solo albums in his home studio, González calls the sounds of his albums “lo-fi.” “I’ve been trying to keep it that way,” González tells Atwood Magazine. González doesn’t want his work to sound too polished. But he admits that on Local Valley, he “started to experiment a bit.” He started with the guitars and the vocals as he usually does and then “tried out the drum machine and layered guitars and vocals and tried to make an album that was more varied than the previous ones.” “Maybe I should change the name to ‘mid-fi,” González jokes. “Because I used expensive mics and by now I’ve learned a lot about recording so it’s not as lo-fi as it used to be.”
For an artist who has been making music for more than two decades, nothing González puts out ever feels dated. And Local Valley is no exception. The album is beautifully fresh, surprising in its timeliness. “In a way,” he tells Atwood Magazine. “It just ended up being similar to my previous albums. I think about similar topics all the time.” Yet the similarities between Local Valley and González ’s earlier works feels like a continuation rather than a repetition.
González has begun a tour to support the album and the day after our conversation, he is slated to perform in Germany. When asked how he is feeling about being on stage again, whether the pandemic has changed how he hopes to interact with fans and listeners, González says that he’s just going to do what he usually does. As people return to the daily activities that had been impossible a year ago, González notes that he can sense the excitement and the camaraderie as he tours. Of a recent festival he played in the UK, González calls the experience amazing, the atmosphere that of relief.
While touring and promoting the album, Gonzalez will be met by fans who have been hungry for his unique blend of soft folk and experimental rock.
On Local Valley, González’s vocals are harmonious and rich, nylon-stringed Spanish guitars gliding effortlessly over complex lyrics. The magic of the album rests in its powerful lyrics, in the understanding that we are witnessing a turning point in González’s artistry. From the Spanish language opener “El Invento,” to the wonderfully melodic “Tjomme,” listeners will be wowed by González’s unique force, gentle and kind but always determined. This might just be González’s best work yet.
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📸 © Peter Toggeth / Mikel Cee Karlsson
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