José González: ‘As a father, I felt the urge to show my creative and playful sides’

Folk singer on making a pro-science album, playing in Ireland and broadening his sound

For a musician who grew up listening to The Beatles and Bob Marley, studied Spanish classical guitar, played in hardcore band Sweet Little Sinister and indie-folk band Junip, and collaborated with orchestral project The Göteborg String Theory, José González’s solo albums have resolutely stayed in the field of acoustic, melancholic minimalism.

That global introduction he gave us in Heartbeats – The Knife cover, also memorably used in Sony’s bouncing balls ad – typified the sound of his debut Veneer, where the intrigue was more in the micro than the macro.

If 2007’s In Our Nature took a small step in broadening his style, his last album Vestiges & Claws cast the net a little wider – in particular Leaf Off / The Cave stood out as a groovy bop of an acoustic track.

In his own understated way, fourth album Local Valley continues this direction, only there's no mistaking his intention. From his very first track in Spanish to the Caribbean vibes of Swing to the reappropriation of Junip's Line of Fire, more facets of José González are represented here.


“I’ve had outlets for my different styles, but I felt the time was right to incorporate them into my own work,” he explains, video calling while out walking in his blue-skied hometown of Gothenburg in Sweden. Watching him, you wonder why we’re all not doing this.

The big change was the birth of his daughter with artist and partner Hannele Fernström (who designed the artwork for the album) in 2017. Becoming a dad, he says, had noticeable impacts on the album. One was that González, who is from an Argentinean background, spoke to his daughter in Spanish so she could pick it up, “and that loosened up my sensibility for the language,” he says.

And so the Spanish track El Invento takes a bold position as the album’s opener. “Also the playfulness of the album comes from hanging out with her and being forced to be silly and think creatively. By becoming a father, I felt the urge to not be the enigmatic, melancholic singer-songwriter but to show more of my creative and playful sides. It felt natural to bring a variation of styles to the album and be a bit more eclectic.”

Aside from pulling in threads of his wider influences and tastes, González’s work in other projects helped him “put on a producer’s hat” to critically examine how to broaden his sound.

There's a pro-science theme to the album that emerged after a while, so for that theme to work well, I needed personal struggles

“My aim was to say, ‘okay, you have the bones of an album with guitars and vocals, what should you add to make it more interesting to everyone with a short attention span?’,” he says. “I wanted to push each song into different rooms, into different styles. That’s when I get sacral sounds like En Stund På Jorden [a Laleh cover], which sounds like being in a church, and then playful and light songs like Swing or Lilla G.”

“With Line of Fire, I wrote the lyrics and it feels like part of me. Once I started adding it on the live show, it became one of the favourite songs to play so it felt right to put it on the album. Also, once again, looking at the album as a producer, the album was missing a bit of the personal melancholic touch, and I think Line of Fire brings that. It’s needed to give more depth to the playful songs.

“There’s a pro-science theme to the album that emerged after a while, so for that theme to work well, I needed personal struggles, otherwise talking about existential questions might not seem like they’re coming from someone who can actually feel. There’s this misconception that if you are very pro-science and reason, you’re basically Mr Spock.”

The theme of Local Valley is secular humanism: the idea that society should operate without mystical or religious input. Given these last eventful years, a number of musicians have responded with observations on society at large, as seen with Grimes' Miss Anthropocene or Tune-Yards' Sketchy for starters. González's own take focuses on "a thread of ideas of being these smart primates on this little rock out in space, and trying to find our ways to flourish as best as we can but without any ghosts or goblins or gods," he says.

Three songs form the cornerstone of the theme: “The Void is about the emptiness that comes from death, from losing something. Horizons is about when you realise that you’ve lost something but you start to look up and see the possibilities, and Head On is the activation song – it’s time to do something.”

The latter weaves together a rich tapestry of societal issues, from corrupt oligarchs to flawed economics, and González’s plea is to “forget your miracles/forget your God/join forces and deal with it head on”.

That takes a deeper resonance in Covid times, when religious dogma is wrapped up in the anti-vaxx movement. It’s a chagrin of González’s, especially as a former academic in the field of biochemistry.

“They’re delaying this phase of the pandemic that could have been so much shorter,” he says of the anti-vaxx movement. “I was at the Green Man Festival in Wales and another one in northern Germany, and as long as people were vaccinated or showed antibodies or negative results, all the restrictions were gone. That’s basically how all rich societies could have been right now if only more people vaccinated themselves.

Once I started playing Heartbeats in Ireland, everyone sang along and as soon as it stopped, they chanted, 'Olé, Olé, Olé! José! José!'. It was a weird 40 minutes but it was amazing

“It’s really maddening. But once you stop being frustrated, it’s also very interesting to watch these conspiracy theorists talk about ideas that are mind viruses – it’s all things that replicate and copy themselves in different ways. Some viruses are biochemical, and others are information that’s programmed in our brains. It’s all interesting for me as someone who has studied viruses, and I’m still very excited to read about these topics.”

Covid restrictions haven’t much hindered his plans to tour the album, even though that requires plenty of testing along the way. It means he’ll be in Ireland soon enough, with dates to be confirmed soon. “I always enjoy playing Ireland. There’s a love of the folk tradition, and acoustic guitars and singers,” he says. “I have strong memories of playing Ireland and having the rowdiest crowds but also the most loving crowds. I remember playing a festival when Heartbeats was in the charts, and people were so excited. Once I started playing Heartbeats, everyone sang along and as soon as it stopped, they chanted, ‘Olé, Olé, Olé! José! José!’. It was a weird 40 minutes but it was amazing.”

More imminently, he's off to the States to play a co-headlining tour with another rousing alt-pop hero Rufus Wainwright. Given the pair haven't yet met, how did that come about?

“They asked me and I said yes,” he says, grinning. “He plays the piano, I play the guitar and we probably have some overlap in fans but we might also reach some new ones. It’s a US tour in areas where I love being like Botanic Gardens in Denver, but also around cities where I don’t usually play, so that felt fun too.”

Given that the live industry has been shut for 18 months, I wonder about the financial practicalities involved in bringing out two headliners on one tour, and González assures that “Rufus has been very kind. He’s basically the headliner but it’s presented as a co-headline and he’s giving me a good portion of the money. It’s good economics – sometimes you reach an even bigger audience by playing together, by reaching new people, by creating more buzz around the tour.”

Still, with Local Valley heralding a new era for José González, he can expect a buzz in his own right too.

Local Valley is released on Friday, September 17th on City Slang