José González Releases a Moving Metaphor for The Moment with ‘Local Valley’

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

With only three solo albums in nearly 20 years, José González has managed to traverse the globe, garnering a cult following with his far-reaching music and lyrical transcendence. His highly anticipated fourth effort Local Valley fell upon hard times. But the seemingly undesirable context surrounding its creation lent itself to a fully realized 13-track collection.

Recorded at Studio Koltrast Hakefjorden, which he set up in his family’s summer house north of Gothenburg and released September 17 via mute, Local Valley proves worthy of the six-year wait.

González began work on this project following his third solo album, Vestiges & Claws in 2015. In 2017, his daughter was born, and his album project was sidelined for a few months as he navigated the new fatherhood terrain. After receiving a scholarship to an artist residency program in France in 2018, González had collected more than half of an album project as guitar-vocal demos. 

“I aimed to do similar stuff as I’ve always done—focusing on just one guitar and maybe dubbed vocals maybe some harmonies — but simple,” says  González. 

While piecing this together, the artist returned to his 2006 debut, Veneer which hosts 11 songs each well under four minutes. By early 2019, he felt he had what he wanted, half of an album. “I decided not to add more of the same but put the producer’s hat on and see how I can make this album with more varied than usual,” he says. Stepping into this role, the multi-talented musician experimented with the drum machine and later filtered a few tracks through looped guitar and vocals. 

González was particular about the spaces where he chose to record and mix the album.  He continues, “Some were really dry, some were more church-like. Other places were very lo-fi.”

The road to Local Valley was long but accelerated significantly by late 2019. Of course, the turn of the new year brought unexpected barriers that, like most, brought González’s work to a screeching halt.” When we sat down to release an album, we didn’t feel like we needed to rush anything,” he says. “All of a sudden I had lots of months to stay at home and hang out with family and work on the album. So I spent a lot of time polishing many of the songs.”

José González | Local Valley | Artwork by Hannele Fernström

His dexterity is reflected in the final recordings of songs like “Visions.” The first version he felt was the type of song that had the potential to sound “very cheesy.” He adds, “It was a hit-or-miss type of lyric. Some will love it, some will hate it.”

In an attempt to do something interesting, González re-visited the track, adding lush layers of guitar and vocals that pinnacle in a dense outro. As he listened through after building out the track, the artist reached the difficult conclusion that it did now sound right as part of the broader collection. His truth test when working as a producer is to play every song with just one guitar to understand the sonic composition at the most basic level of delivery. “I thought ‘Okay, how can I make this sound more like a Crosby, Stills & Nash type of song?’,” he says. “It was hard to try to find the balance that sort of worked for me and my imagined listener in terms of the lyrics, which I would say is pretty ambitious.”

The title track, “Valle Local” shifted in a similar style over the course of the pandemic. “I had a version of it that I thought sounded cool,” says. “But when I went out running see how it felt when I was agitated, it felt way too slow. So I spent many, many weeks rehearsing and trying to play it faster and faster, and then it was too fast, so I slowed it down a bit.”

This type of trial and error repeated itself in what turned out to be a meditative period for the musician. Under normal circumstances, this album project would have stopped evolving over a year ago. Instead, González was able to craft a collection that created both an escape from the chaos ensuing over the last 18 months, but also a space to channel his perspectives on an unprecedented period. He found a metaphor within the songs that spoke to the division experienced on a global scale. 

“I was thinking about a small valley where tribes are caught up and not being able to see each other’s point of view,” he says.  “And not being able to communicate and see the nicer valleys just run over a hill up and down. I started to think about the earth as our local valley, we have our little tiny rock of a planet in a vast and cold universe that doesn’t’ care too much about us. So it speaks to the humanist side of me.”

As a father of now two children, his last decade pushed his own priorities to the back burner as he began to consider what was worthy of his time and energy. Replacing excessive alcohol with efforts to lead a more healthy lifestyle, friends, and paries with family time and reading, González has settled into himself at this pivotal moment in his personal life. 

As a father of now two children, his last decade pushed his own priorities to the back burner as he began to consider what was worthy of his time and energy. Replacing excessive alcohol with efforts to lead a more healthy lifestyle, friends, and parties with family time and reading, González has settled into this period of growth.

“There’s a lot of creativity going on that has been changing me for the better,” he says. “And there’s less time for feeling awkward which I think that’s one of the reasons why I am okay to show more of my different sides and styles. Also, my thoughts and many of the songs are more in line with what I like to talk about when I’m with friends. So there’s been a change from introvert to a bit more extroverted.”

Local Valley is a fitting culmination of his impressive career thus far as it sees González singing in all three of his spoken languages. With global poise, he wields both his native tongue (Spanish and Swedish) and learned dialect (English) to tell the stories that felt important to him at this point in his personal life and music career. 

“I had one where I started in Swedish and another one where I started in Spanish, but I sort of got stuck and was feeling lazy, so I switch to English, which always works,” he says. “But this time I felt more confident in the themes I was writing about so I employed the same tricks I use for English, just finding rhyming words that sound good and interesting, then start to jam. With each demo, I get a hunch of what I want to do with it so the reason I choose Swedish for one or Spanish for another is very slightly different.”

Songs like his Swedish-sung “Tjomme” and Spanish-sung “Valle Local” were inspired by Western African music. Though the colonized parts of these countries are dominated by the French language, much of the traditional music is still delivered through their native tongue. In other places, the language decision was more of a production decision. He felt album opener “El Invento” — which was first unveiled as part of the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize Award Ceremonies —could benefit from Spanish as a “poetic language.”

“In the same way, as I wanted English to sound enigmatic and poetic — when you don’t know the language, it’s more enigmatic — I also wanted ‘El Invento’ to feel that way for people who don’t speak Spanish.”

Rotating with ease through three different languages, González transcends lyrical understand with lush soundscapes that are as evocative as words. Local Valley feels like a natural continuation for the thorough artist who refuses to race to the finish line. 

“I’ve always found little details in every album a song where I feel slightly uncomfortable within my newer version of me,” says González. “And I’m okay with it, as a document of where I am. My first album was 20 years ago so that’s fine like there are some quirks in there that I wouldn’t write today or for this album. But I feel like there’s nothing here yet that I feel awkward about or where I felt like I took the easy way out, and just kept the certain word just because it rhymes. So I’m really happy.”

Listen to José González’s latest LP Local Valley, here.

Photo Credit: Peter Toggeth / Mikel Cee Karlsson

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