José González Returns With 'Local Valley'

Sep 16, 2021
Originally published on September 16, 2021 8:38 pm

When indie folk star José González arrived at the time to create his latest album, Local Valley, he reached for – what else – local sounds: "I took an evening, set up the stereo mic and recorded an hour of just bird songs," González says in an interview with NPR's Ari shaprio. Aside from his costars, the singer-songwriter recorded the record in the same mode, at his home studio outside of Gothenburg, Sweden, where he lives near the coast in a forest of birch and pine.

It's the first project where Gonzalez sings in English, Spanish and Swedish. González, whose parents are from Argentina and was born in Sweden, says he started writing in English as a teenager and became accustomed to it. "It was almost like a shield from my emotions. I could hide behind metaphors," he says. But, now, as an adult and a new father, he's ready to put all of himself, and his feelings, into his art. "I think becoming a dad, you have less things to feel awkward about, you don't have time for that. I also felt the urge to be a more varied artist and sort of show more of myself on an album."

Listen to Ari Shapiro's interview with José González in the audio player above, and stream González's latest album below.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Jose Gonzalez is an indie folk star who fills concert halls all over the world. When he sat down to make his latest album, "Local Valley," he reached for very local sounds - just outside his front door.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CHIRPING)

JOSE GONZALEZ: I took an evening, set up the stereo mic and recorded an hour of just bird songs.

SHAPIRO: He recorded the album, including this bird song, at his home studio outside of Gothenburg, Sweden. The house is near the coast in a forest of birch and pine trees. And he weaves the music of the birds into a few tracks like this one, "Honey Honey."

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSE GONZALEZ SONG, "HONEY HONEY")

GONZALEZ: During the summertime, especially during the sunset, you can hear all the birds starting to have a party. And it's got this calming effect that I enjoy so much, so I had to have it on the album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HONEY HONEY")

GONZALEZ: (Singing) Honey, honey. Honey, honey.

SHAPIRO: Many songs on this album have a calming effect, even as the lyrics raise big existential questions. The first single, "El Invento," opens with the strangeness of simply being and goes on to ask where we are going and why.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL INVENTO")

GONZALEZ: (Singing in Spanish).

The lyrics reflect these existential questions, the questions that all cultures ask themselves, maybe every human ask themselves at least once in their lifetime. The way I wrote it was to leave it open and leave the questions as they are, so the listener can enjoy the music without feeling judged.

SHAPIRO: And am I correct that your young daughter helped inspire some of the lyrics of this song?

GONZALEZ: Yes. So I think the inspiration from her is more in terms of the topic for me as a dad saying how I was a child first and my parents are growing old. So there's this sense of, you know, the limited time on earth knocking on the door. So yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IL INVENTO")

GONZALEZ: (Singing in Spanish).

SHAPIRO: Another song that explores some of these unanswerable questions is "Visions," where you have this beautiful line - we are patiently inching our way toward unreachable utopias.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VISIONS")

GONZALEZ: (Singing) We are patiently inching our way toward unreachable utopias.

Yeah. I felt like that was important to mention in that type of song. I'm hoping or aspiring to get people to think about our collective future. And there are so many examples of the utopian - of ideologies that have these utopic visions of the future. And then once they have this - you - they might do anything or everything to get those utopias. And I think it's good to be realistic in terms of how to go incrementally towards something that's better, not necessarily try to jump start it by making worse.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VISIONS")

GONZALEZ: (Singing) No, we can't know for sure what's next, but that we're into this together.

SHAPIRO: Your parents were born in Argentina. You were born in Sweden. You grew up speaking Spanish. You have previously only recorded in English. And this album is the first time that you have songs in English, Spanish and Swedish. Why do you think it took you until this point in your career to release an album that has tracks in all three of the languages that you speak?

GONZALEZ: I think one is just silly reasons why I got stuck with English. I was...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Stuck with English - that's a fun way of putting it.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, because I mean, I started writing in English when I was a teenager, and I become accustomed to it. And it at first it felt good because there was this language that wasn't part of what we were speaking. So it was almost like a shield from my emotions. I could hide behind metaphors. So it wasn't until the third album that where I tried to write in Spanish and Swedish, I tried, got stuck, switched to English and it worked.

SHAPIRO: Well, what do you think made the breakthrough work this time?

GONZALEZ: Yes. I think me becoming a dad, you have less things to feel awkward about. You don't have time for that. I also felt the urge to be a more varied artist and sort of show more of myself on an album. So those show my views in general and then also show who I am with all three languages.

SHAPIRO: Let's listen to one of the Swedish tracks on the album. Am I pronouncing this correctly, "Tjomme"?

GONZALEZ: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSE GONZALEZ SONG, "TJOMME")

SHAPIRO: If you only heard this instrumental line, these rhythms, you would not guess that this is Scandinavian. You would not guess this is Swedish.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, that's a good feature. Many of my playlists have music from all over the world, and I don't understand half of what they're saying. And I still enjoy it.

SHAPIRO: And tell us what the song is about since the lyrics are in Swedish.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: I'm reading the translation. Are you completely deranged? Have you lost it?

GONZALEZ: Exactly, exactly. And it sounds harsher in English, actually. And so tjomme means dude in Swedish. So have you lost it? Are you not able to think for yourself? Are you only basing your views on hearsay? So it's basically a song about these dudes that so many people follow and that have so certain ideas about the future, about how we should lead our lives. So yeah, and it's not only the Abrahamic dudes. It's also a nicer, I would say, a nicer dude like Buddha. He also had very specific ideas about the apocalyptic times. And yeah, for me, it's weird that so many people believe this thing so hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TJOMME")

GONZALEZ: (Singing in Swedish).

SHAPIRO: So on this album, you're not only offering sort of an affirmative vision of what it means to exist and how we move through the world, you're not only asking the big questions, you're also calling out the people you disagree with and saying, dude, what are you thinking?

GONZALEZ: Yeah, not by name, but now in interviews and in more general terms, because I think it's a common feature for not only these very well-known dudes, but also it's a common feature among my friends. Some are very certain about the future and how we should lead our lives. And I'm more for a non-dogmatic view, one where you can change your mind depending on the arguments and data that someone presents to you. And that's what I'm trying to promote through good music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TJOMME")

GONZALEZ: (Singing in Swedish).

SHAPIRO: Jose Gonzalez's new album is called "Local Valley."

Thank you so much for the music and for talking with us about it.

GONZALEZ: Thank you. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.