There’s one thing you can’t run away from: time. Heading into his 30th birthday, singer-songwriter Joao Gonzalez, known as Soft Glas, not only felt he was wasting precious time but the pressures of a then-stagnant career boiling over. With his new song “Cyclones,” he turns a corner in his life and rallies himself to keep pushing forward. “Holding on feels right / I don’t want to waste more time,” he sings.
“Cyclones” firmly whips through an entire array of emotions, mostly the crushing oblivion that seems increasingly claustrophobic. “I think that sentiment has become stronger as I get older. I turned 30 this year, and I still remember turning 20 like it was yesterday,” Gonzalez tells American Songwriter over email.
“When I was 20, I had so many goals I thought I’d meet in the following 10 years ─ goals that, at the time, defined ‘success’ for me,” he continues. “When I didn’t meet those goals, it was easy to ask myself, ‘What have you been doing?’ I tend to feel that time passed is time wasted, though I know that’s not true.”
When writing the song, he was in a “very transitional period of my life” in more ways than just his age. He was caught between two cities, and so he set about crafting the song “as a way to talk myself through what I was thinking at the time,” he recalls. “The song was written linearly, almost like a real-time log. The first verse was very much reflecting on the turbulence I was experiencing, the uncertainty and the frustration. The second verse is an acceptance of that turbulence. I think the choruses act as a refrain or a mantra: I repeat what I want to convince myself to feel.”
The accompanying visual (below), a glitchy, intimate lyric piece, leans heavily into a conversation Gonzalez had with his brother about art’s intent being broiled directly into its format. Almost stop-motion in execution, the video hones in on the performer’s inescapable anxiety and emotional journey, following him waking up in the morning to posing lethargically on a playground.
Its film-like haze makes sense. This year, Gonzalez has been drawn to several films that seem to showcase exactly this approach. Prolific filmmaker Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” tops the list, “not a surprise given my obsession with the passage of time,” he reflects. “I was overwhelmed by how that theme was so inherently baked into everything: the editing, the music, the costumes. I love that movie.”
Gonzalez also revisited the 2015 film “Steve Jobs,” directed by Danny Boyle and starring Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet. “I read about how Sorkin wrote the movie in three parts, reflecting three points in Steve Jobs’ life,” he says. “So, Danny chose to shoot each part in different formats (16mm film, 35mm film, and digital). That’s so cool to me!”
“Barry Jenkins and his colorist Alex Bickel similarly used the movie’s three acts to explore different formats. They color-graded each chapter in ways that emulate three different film stocks, depending on the emotion they were trying to evoke. I know these are films, but I think film lends itself to this idea because of how many different moving parts there are.”
Gonzalez’s excavation of such raw, unruly emotions is not surprising, as he’s “always been frustrated and anxious. I’ve always feared becoming the proverbial ‘frustrated musician,’ who never reached their potential or gave up on their dreams,” he offers. “That haunts me. But aside from that, I’ve always had plenty of reasons to be happy. I think, at least in my case, it’s been possible to be happy and anxious at the same time.”
With anxiety constantly pressing upon his shoulders, he often turns to exercise, “the simplest coping mechanism for me,” as a way to de-cloud his mind. “Exerting physical energy really grounds me and gets me out of my own head. Escapism, such as watching a movie or listening to music, also helps. I haven’t totally figured it out, but I’m proud to say I’m much more aware of my anxiety now than I was earlier in my life. It was tough to feel anxiety without context of what and why I was feeling.”
Originally from Cuba, Gonzalez grew up with a legendary jazz performer for a father named Gonzalo Rubalcaba. To say such a legacy had a lasting impression on his musical chops is an understatement. “Though performance and lyricism have been more of a personal journey, my dad has taught me everything I know about musicality. If I had to pick one specific lesson, I’d say it’s the idea of progression within a song,” he says. “When I started producing in college, I would send him beats to get his thoughts. His constant feedback was that I should try to make sure a song has momentum ─ that it evolves, grows, shrinks, breathes, builds.”
“It was easy for me to come up with a loop and repeat that loop for as long as I could because…the loop was cool! But he really pushed that idea of an intentional musical journey. It’s something that guides every song I make to this day.”
“Cyclones” samples Gonzalez’s forthcoming, yet-untitled, new record ─ which roots itself in the passage of time. “I’ve been obsessed with how time affects us internally and externally. Some songs are about how it affects my relationships with loved ones,” he notes. “[This song] is about how it affects my relationship with myself.”
Heading into the body of work, he takes a moment to surmise how his songwriting has shifted, if at all. “I think that my writing is getting more specific. I don’t know if I’d say it’s detailed, per se ─ because it can still seem very loose and vague ─ but I’ve tried to avoid writing about emotions or people in a general way. I’ve tried to write about things from the perspective of a very specific POV or moment in time. It’s been a conscious thing, too. I know the word ‘personal’ gets thrown around, but I do believe there’s power in being personal, and my most effective way to write from that place is to write very specifically.”
Gonzalez is also enjoying quite a Grammy glow. Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Aymée Nuviola’s Viento Y Tiempo – Live at Blue Note Tokyo was recently nominated for Best Latin Jazz Album, on which he is credited as the mixing engineer, post-production editor, and keyboard programmer. While in the studio working as a cinematographer for a live session, his mom texted him the news. “It was amazing because my girlfriend was there with me. She’s been with me through my entire career and journey, so to share that moment with her was special,” he shares. “I called my mom and my dad immediately; it felt so wholesome and warm.”
He then takes a moment to consider if this high-profile nomination feels like validation. “I think validation is something very dangerous to seek, but it always feels nice to have it,” he says with a laugh. “If anything, it eases my imposter syndrome a little bit. It’s a little harder to doubt myself now.”
Watch the “Cyclones” video below.