Ellis Ludwig-Leone (San Fermin) Talks José González’s Vestiges and Claws

José González knows exactly where he wants to take you. And he’s patient and organized about getting there.

One of the first things you have to decide as a songwriter is what emotional space your music is going to occupy. It seems like a straightforward question, but in the process of actually writing a song, things can refract in funny ways. You think you know what you want to do, but then you tinker with the lyrics, cut a chorus, add a trumpet and suddenly it’s this totally different beast from what you set out to write. In the process you can lose track of the feeling you were trying to capture in the first place.

José González doesn’t seem to have this problem. His music is satisfying because he knows exactly where he wants to take you, and he’s so patient and organized about getting there. Listening to Vestiges and Claws is like drawing a warm bath in a pleasantly musky bathroom with Simon and Garfunkel drifting in through the crack under the door. González never overextends himself, never loses his way and the water’s always warm. These are qualities that make me jealous.

Take, for example, “Afterglow,” a meditation on three simple lines:

All of this will be gone some day
You and me and everyone we know
Leaving memories and traces for the afterglow

Those three lines, if I were clever enough to write them, would last me approximately eight seconds on a San Fermin record before I would panic and throw in a horn chorale, a meter change and a new singer talking about “Your nostalgia is embarrassing” until the moment of existential horror had passed.

But González delivers the lines slowly… so slowly!… and you realize he’s savoring this terrifying thought. He takes 55 long seconds to get through it, and then repeats himself for the rest of the nearly four-minute song. He seems so utterly calm, and his voice is so even and burnt-sienna that you almost believe him: we’re all gonna die and it’s all OK. But cleverly, he never actually resolves the issue — he’s hypnotized by the thought, he’s not over it, and he leaves us with a long instrumental tail. Nothing is accomplished, and everything fades away.

On “Leaf Off/The Cave,” he’s more prescriptive. “Take a moment to reflect who we are,” he insists, “let reason guide you.” He’s got big issues on the brain, and he wants to talk about them plainly. He urges us to appreciate “How we flourish and thrive/What it means to be alive.” These are not subtle or even particularly helpful instructions.

This gets at the heart of an issue that I have mixed feelings about. Basically, González has one of those voices with which he could sing anything, in any awkward old way, and it wouldn’t matter, it would sound great. Listen to how he delivers the line “exposing myself in this neighborhood” in “Open Book” — the syllables don’t work, he sounds like a streaker, and somehow it still doesn’t break the spell.

I don’t sing, so when I write lyrics, I have to do it especially carefully, because I know that Allen and Charlene, my singers, won’t sing anything they think is goofy or awkward. And even though I know their voices well, I am always surprised by how my words sound coming out of their mouths. I live in fear of the dead line — a phrase that looks good on the page but sounds false on the voice.

So it pains me on some deep level when a line like “I hear you whisper in my ear/Your love belongs to everyone” (from “Open book”) doesn’t fall flat, but instead lands solidly and with significance when delivered in González’s conversational tone. It’s like when an old friend offers you a piece of advice, and on the surface you know it sounds very plain, but because they know you so well, it rings like a bell when they say it, and you find a deeper truth there.

At the heart of it, this is what is so good about Vestiges and Claws, and really everything in González’s oeuvre. He’s a musician who knows his tools, who can set the right mood so that plain words ring true. His voice always sounds doubled even when it’s not, and his finger-picked guitar lines are always the right combination of tangled and clean. The percussion is reassuringly intimate. You’d be hard-pressed to find a moment that doesn’t hit exactly the way it’s supposed to.

When I was a freshman in college, I signed up for a class called “Galaxies and the Universe.” The first thing the teacher did was show a short film called Powers of Ten. It’s a perfectly awful movie; it starts with a couple on an afternoon picnic and then the camera rises up and up and up, the field of view widening by powers of ten until Earth is a tiny dot and the viewer is devastatingly convinced of the meaninglessness of life. After a few minutes, I began to feel ill and had to leave the room, never to return to that class again.

González’s music video for “Every Age” shares basically the same plot as Powers of Ten. It starts with a hot air balloon being let go in a twilit field. As the balloon rises, people and trees get smaller and smaller until the camera is so high above the earth that you can see the blue haze of the atmosphere and the curve of the planet. But instead of a crushing, breathless panic, it feels somehow celebratory. The guy holding the balloon is smiling, the sun is setting and it’s beautiful. This is someone who is OK with letting go.

Ellis Ludwig-Leone is the songwriter and keyboardist for San Fermin. Their sophomore record Jackrabbit comes out on Downtown Records on April 21, 2015. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.