Nature Sounds: José González on how connecting with the natural world has influenced his music

Birds chirping are heard before the first notes of the acoustic guitar, even before José González sings a word of “Visions,” the song he performs on National Geographic’s Earth Day Eve 2021.

That says so much about the folk singer. His love of nature shines through in this cut from the album “Local Valley.” He sings from Särö Västerskog, a nature reserve close to his hometown of Gothenburg, on Sweden’s west coast. Gentleness is woven into Gonzalez’s music and is evident as he talks, explaining his love of nature and music.

Driving near a forest in Sweden, Gonzalez but pulls over to chat with us. What follows has been edited for clarity.

National Geographic: How is your work inspired by nature?

José González: I guess with my second album, back in 2007, I even called the album “In Our Nature,” I was in a way inspired by a naturalistic worldview. And I've studied biochemistry, so it wasn't really new for me, but I started to think about how I could write about my worldview in songs. So it's been more than a decade now that I've thought about trying to write songs that where I talked to humanity, or to think about the globe in general. I think I've escalated my love of nature the last couple of years. I've been writing the songs at home or at our summer house. And I have been making it a habit to go out in nature and listen to my demos and sketches. Maybe because as I've been in nature, I've also been writing more about nature.

National Geographic: Tell us about your part of the world, and how you get to spend time in nature.

José González: It's a forest with granite rocks by the ocean, which I grew up with. With this album in particular, I've been both at the summer house and at our apartment in the city. It's really close to the botanical garden. That's where I've been hanging out a lot. I run in the morning, and I walk there, I meet friends there, my daughter goes there to play. So it's become my second home.

National Geographic: Given the sounds of birds in the song you performed, do you create while in nature? 

José González: I always write inside, but I listen outdoors while walking or running, just to get that perspective. But I always write by my desk—sometimes when I'm traveling, but most of the time it's just at home, more like office hours.

National Geographic: Why is doing a National Geographic concert meaningful to you? What are your Nat Geo connections?

José González: I grew up with National Geographic. My father started subscribing to the magazine when I was young. So before I could read, I was seeing this bunch of the yellow-color magazines on our shelves, and then discovered that the images were really interesting and some covers even had like a 3-D print. So from a very young age, I was interested in these magazines. And then later, I started reading more and more, I felt that National Geographic was good at giving a very nuanced perspective on topics. Of course, the nature coverage was amazing; I think everyone sort of knows that with the photographs. I think how they do the in-depth interviews with regular people living close to nature. Also, I think there was a great coverage of what we need to do as a planet in terms of how we manage what we eat, how we grow stuff—a whole issue dedicated to that. I felt like after reading that I could talk to all my friends and felt like I knew the basics in a very sort of non-polarized way, so National Geographic is balancing.

National Geographic: What small change would you like to see people make with Earth Day, perhaps an easy adjustment that could help the planet?

José González: I think from humble beginnings, you get more appreciation of nature. And so just spending time outdoors, close to nature, has really changed me, and I think that could be a good way to start for anyone who doesn't do that already. Most people live in cities. Just trying to find nature near the cities and maybe there are parks, I guess that would be my suggestion.

National Geographic: And by connecting with nature, then we should feel more of a responsibility to take care of the planet?

José González: I'd rather that we steward this planet full-on before we reached Mars. I don't say that we need to stop trying to go to Mars, but we could definitely try to have both.

Let’s go back to music for a moment. When and how did you learn to play?

José González: I was 13 or 14 years old, and I started to play classical guitar. First on my own and then with a private teacher, but it was also around the time I was playing bass in a punk band and later in a hardcore band, where I was also screaming a bit. So I was an omnivore in terms of styles. But then, with the years, what people seemed to like the most was not me screaming, but playing softly, and doing my arpeggios on the Spanish classical guitar.

National Geographic: What is your goal for the concert and what do you hope happens with it?

José González: Well, I'm excited just to be part of it—being one of many artists that help National Geographic to make people aware of Earth Day. But then personally, I feel like this song “Visions” fits perfectly to the Earth Day agenda, and I feel like with this song I’m trying to speak to humanity around the globe and thinking about a way forward that we can make it better by trying to understand where we come from and where we are.

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