From the September/October 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Nick Millevoi
Much of the charm of Local Valley, the fourth album from the Swedish-Argentinian singer-songwriter José González, comes from its intimate production values. González’s guitar and vocals lie at the center of the mix, both captured almost exclusively by a single Neumann U67, giving the record a consistent and focused sound, whether he’s using his Esteve 9C/B, or Córdoba Rodriguez nylon-string guitars. On the sonic periphery, González fills out his songs with creative overdubbing, light drum-machine grooves, and field recordings of birds. This simple but intentional approach draws the ears into each song and, rather than making the music sound polished or produced, creates a cozy setting for each track.
The sound of Local Valley is a logical next step for the guitarist. Throughout his career—which has included three solo albums, two full-lengths and several EPs with his band Junip, and placements in a long list of television shows and the soundtrack of a prominent feature film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty—González has established a singular brand of soft-spoken songwriting and practical production techniques. The musical atmosphere on Local Valley reflects not only his recording process but the warm home environment in which he created the record.
In 2019, González and his partner, Hannele Fernström, purchased a house in Hakefjorden, about an hour outside of their hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden, where González set up a dedicated home studio. As he explained during our interview, the beautiful view, the sounds of their life, and the pace of their time spent in Hakefjorden began to shape and influence the recordings as he began crafting a follow-up to 2015’s Vestiges & Claws.
While the feeling of sitting in a sunny home on a Swedish fjord is the lens for the album’s 13 tracks, the songs themselves take us far beyond that place. González draws musical inspiration from a wide breadth of influences, from folk rock to music from Latin America to direct inspiration from a one-off jam with Tuareg guitarist Bombino. Meanwhile, González wrote lyrics in each of his three of his languages—English, Spanish, and Swedish—creating a rich and dimensional portrait of a songwriter whose artistic vision is delivered with a rare sense of humility and grace.
I called González while he was walking near his home in Gothenburg to discuss the inspirations behind the writing and recording of Local Valley and to gain some insight on what he believes to be his most personal album yet.
This is the first time you recorded in your new place in Hakefjorden. How is it different than the kitchen in your home in Gothenburg, where you’ve previously recorded?
What’s different now is that I have the view with trees outside. I have neighbors, but they’re far away, so I can play pretty loud and play my music from a speaker, which I couldn’t do in the kitchen [in Gothenburg]. All the neighbors were closer, and I felt like they could hear me. I felt like they could get annoyed if I was playing the same thing three days in a row. So, I felt freer this time in many ways. Sound-wise, it’s a lower ceiling and it’s all wood. In the kitchen, it’s a bigger room and there is more reverb.
Do you take advantage of not being on a schedule?
Yes and no. I know that I need continuous time—many weeks in a row or many months in a row. I don’t need to work eight hours a day, but as long as I do something every day it’s easier to reach the level that I want to reach. It starts with really basic stuff and I just refine it until it sounds amazing, to my ears.
I just need to get up and do stuff every day. I’d rather have this informal way of working. In this case, I’ve been out walking in the woods or taking a swim in the ocean or planting grass in the garden.
Your partner, Hannele Fernström, sings on “Swing” and your three-and-a-half-year-old daughter inspired you to write one of the songs. Do you think the involvement of your family is a result of working at home?
I think so. When I invited Hannele to sing, it was pretty late in the recording; the album was almost finished, and Hannele was already making the album cover. She also helped to write the lyrics on “Swing.” That one, we did in the utility room in our apartment.
This record is in English, Spanish, and Swedish. What does it mean to you to sing in all three of your languages?
For me, it feels like I’m finally able to be a bit more me. Before I was always writing in English—it was the easy thing to do and I got used to it when I was a teenager. Of course, Spanish and Swedish are my two mother tongues. I’d been trying to write in both for quite some time and it didn’t feel right, but finally I am able to show more of myself on the album in the lyrics, both with the languages and the themes of the songs, which are more in tune with what I think about in my day-to-day life.
Was it intuitive to know what language a song would be in?
I had songs for Vestiges & Claws where I tried to write in Swedish and Spanish and it didn’t work out. When looking at the notes, I see that I was about to write about a different topic in the other languages. When I start writing in a language, depending on the words I find that rhyme, I get different lyrics.
I wrote “Swing” in Swedish first. That version is still playful, but less cool—it’s too much of a children’s song. In trying to rewrite it, it became a different song. I asked Hannele to translate it or rewrite it and while doing that we found other words. The sentiment of swinging or dancing was the same.
When did you first start playing nylon-string guitar and what drew you to it?
I started when I was 13, first by playing The Beatles, Silvio Rodríguez, and bossa nova. A year later I took it to the next level by learning classical guitar. Apart from a Casio synth and a flute, it was the only instrument we had at home. But as soon as I started, my father got very excited and saw the opportunity to revisit the songs he used to sing with his friends back in Argentina. I learned a lot by looking through tablatures and singing with my dad.
Is there something about nylon-string you prefer over steel-string?
I probably just got used to the sound as a kid—no hard feelings toward steel-strings! I love the round sound from a Spanish classical guitar, especially when played softly, because flamenco shows that you can play loudly with the same guitar and then it’s a completely different sound. The times I like steel-string guitars, it’s mostly with old strings, like Nick Drake played.
How do you choose which of your guitars you used on a given song?
The guitars have different resonances; the bigger one [Esteve] seems to resonate in A and the smaller one [Córdoba] in G. It’s not super important, but it does give slightly different flavors to the songs, which is good when I’m trying to vary the impressions on an album. On the song “Valle Local” I used the smaller guitar with very old strings—I’m happy with how old-school it sounded.
It sounds like you’re using quite a few tunings throughout the album.
It’s a few different tunings. “El Invento” is dropped D, “Visions” is D A D A B E. Maybe half of the album is E A D A B E—I think “Void,” “Horizons,” “Head On,” and “Lasso.” “Honey Honey” and “Swing” are B A D A B E. One fun thing is that I use the capo on five out of the six strings on “Lasso.” I do that sometimes where I retune, but it works better to leave one note outside of the capo.
On “Visions,” “Lasso,” and “Honey Honey,” there are bird sounds, almost as if you were recording with the window open.
I was writing and recording many times with the window open, so that was the birds I was hearing. When you have a close mic you don’t really hear them, so I actually had to record them on their own with a stereo mic. I tried them out in different songs. For a moment, all of the songs had birds, but that was too much, so I had to choose a couple of songs and once I chose the track order if felt natural to have them in the beginning, middle, and end.
You’ve said that “Valle Local” and “Head On” were inspired by a jam you had with Bombino and I think the Tuareg sound is pretty evident in the parts you’re playing on those tunes.
Get stories like this in your inbox
He was on tour in Europe and my manager put us in contact to see what would happen. We invited him to Gothenburg and he had an off day, so he took the time to come here and hang out. We had this jam session in a studio and it was great just sitting next to him. I had a couple of riffs to start it off and it was just amazing; he followed me and basically took over. We had one day that was really fun and we had to leave it at that, just a fun jam session.
We set up a solo show for him in the evening where he played alone, just an acoustic guitar and a stompbox and that was very inspiring to see. I like him with a band, but it’s just different when it’s acoustic and just him. I continue to be inspired by music from that area of Africa. I’m mimicking to a certain extent, but also I find my own version of what I’m hearing and it becomes some sort of hybrid.
Had you ever played with a Tuareg musician before?
Yeah, I got to be a guest with Tinariwen once in Stockholm and once in London. Before that I did a short tour with Sidi Touré, so I’ve had my fair share of seeing amazing guitarists up close.
Were there any specific insights you learned from playing with Bombino that you applied to those songs?
I had already studied the style of the Sahel desert by listening to records and playing along and seeing these other musicians, but with Bombino it was slightly different because he was able to make it sound so much his own. With Sidi Touré and Tinariwen, they are groups, so there’s less pressure on any one person to perform. With Bombino, he had it nailed down how to make it sound rich and full. That’s always been my aim, to think in terms of a solo classical guitarist, how you can make a room sound full.
More specifically, I was surprised how much he played with just his thumb and index finger. There’s not that much arpeggiating going on, just thumb and index and a lot of hammer-ons and pull-offs. There’s a lot of notes just bubbling, but not that many fingers on the right side.
You cover [Iranian-Swedish singer-songwriter] Laleh’s “En stund på Jorden.” Why did you choose that song?
Laleh is also an artist from Gothenburg—now she lives in L.A., but we’re from the same neighborhood. The title means “a moment on earth,” and she wrote this song when her mom died. It’s a song about death, but to me it’s always sounded uplifting and very humanistic, and that appealed to me a lot. I wanted to have a song that reflects the finite part of being human apes on earth in a poetic way and that song was just perfect.
Can you tell me a little more about what you’re trying to convey in your lyrics?
Ever since my second album, I wanted to have another layer to my music. So, I have an agenda of trying to make secular music that doesn’t sound dull. I want to have the same depth as sacral music from churches; I want to have lyrics that have this worldview underneath but still feel rich and add more poetry to the naturalistic way of life.
There’s part of me that has matured. The first album was a lot about inner struggle and how to combat inner demons or about relationships. The older I get, the less of those thoughts I have and it’s more about the world and humanity.