I’m unclear what it is, but it’s obvious Joao Gonzalez is in search of something. We’re in the music room at his new home in Los Angeles and his face, vacillating from a furrowed brow to a satisfied grin indicates that––mentally––he’s truly at intersection and discovery and wonderment.
It’s probably just a sound he wants. In the rough stages for a new track on his forthcoming album, he’s playing a soft, pensive melody on his guitar. Though I’m honestly a bit distracted, just focusing on his hands. Gonzalez, who performs under the name Soft Glas, has wanted to be a professional musician since age 6. And because he expressed that to his parents with a believable level of passion, at times it was their job to protect him from himself.
Gonzalez was born in Havana, Cuba, lived in the Dominican Republic for six years, then moved to Coral Springs, Florida in the United States, where he spent his formative years in a sports hotbed.
“I was obsessed with basketball and football,” Joao says. “But my parents wouldn’t let me play. They said, ‘You can’t be on the football team. You’ll break your fingers. Then you won’t play music. You could ruin your tools.’” As a kid, he hated that he was banned from the field. But in hindsight? “I’m glad I don’t have any insane injuries to my hands.”
Unsullied by the numerous jammed fingers that would have come with shooting hoops and mangled ligaments from trying to guard a football, Gonzalez’s hands effortlessly go from plucking acoustic strings to the keyboard as he looks for notes to partner with his riff from earlier. He’s solid on the piano as well. We all love music to some degree, but Joao truly lived and breathed it from birth.
His father is Afro-Cuban Grammy-winning jazz pianist and composer, Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Rubalcaba’s consistent practice with different bands, his jazz quarter, or classical in the house is a fond memory for Joao. His great grandfather and grandfather were composer-pianists, too. It’s in his blood.
“All I want to do is have an idea and bring it to life. Have it be rich and have as much depth as possible.”
Not wanting to completely follow in his forefathers’ footsteps, Gonzalez opted to play the drums. “I didn’t even want to open up that comparison,” he says through laughter. “The drums seemed so cool to me. They were loud and physical.” By high school, he was both a band nerd playing for stadiums and a homecoming king. While studying Psychology at Florida State University, his Soft Glas moniker was born.
“It was kind of a joke,” he says.” He thought it’d be cool to have a two-word name. “Soft” came to mind. And his girlfriend came through with “Blue,” which they quite randomly learned is “Glas” in fading Brittonic language Welsh. And that was that.
After graduating, he jetted to New York City, living in Brooklyn with dreams of becoming a music producer. There, he made beats for his underground rapper roommate Rufat, then for string duo Chargaux–a position that morphed into a music director role while on tour. Each opportunity Joao scored led to another. “I would gain new skillsets,” he says. “Someone would ask me to play keys. Then I’d get hired for that. It was a fun and active way to learn, out of necessity.”
He eventually hit the road with the electronic-pop group Overcoats. This was in 2016. Back then he didn’t have many aspirations to be a front-facing artist. But as a drummer with the twosome, new goals appeared. “Seeing them on stage playing music they wrote,” he recalls, “their own stories and seeing how fulfilled they were. That seemed like the pinnacle of artistic fulfillment and I wanted to feel that.”
What’s followed since is a wave of deeply introspective, self-produced projects as Soft Glas. To listen to a Glas album is to hear the world as Gonzalez consumes it (or fights being swallowed up by it). Recorded in his tiny Brooklyn home studio, he describes 2016’s Late Bloom album as his most New York-sounding set. “That claustrophobia I had would rear its head in my music,” he says. “My music was crowded and darker.”
On 2017’s Orange Earth he grapples with becoming an adult, yearning for the comfort of his South Florida childhood as he confronts the fact that he’s only getting further from it. He recorded a chunk of the album during an extended stay there. “My mixes were thick because of humidity in Florida.
“Observe, absorb, and reflect,” he says of his writing process. “How do the people around me make me feel? That’s my point of view, making sense of the world around me.” He tells me all of this before then summing it up: “I’m very influenced by my environment.”
It’s exactly what brought him to Los Angeles. His Brooklyn box didn’t fit him anymore and he certainly was over the harsh winters. Joao was also beginning to outgrow the identity Soft Glas was nailed to. In NYC, Soft Glas was a prideful one-man band. In Los Angeles, Joao’s building a proper collective he happily shares the responsibility of executing his vision with.
“In LA,” he starts, “I feel this openness. I can look out of the window and see the fountains. I can kind of stretch out. I think that my music has been reflecting that lately. The weather’s great. I don’t have to worry about getting Seasonal Affective Disorder. Getting depressed and not wanting to make music because I haven’t seen the sun in two months. That helps.”
With light shining consistently and room to move, Joao seems to be flirting with the idea of a name change. “Soft Glas” was frivolously selected, “completely aesthetic,” as he says. “It has no real meaning. And in a weird way that’s kind of haunted me.” His NYC lifestyle as jack-of-all-trades soloist injected it with a persona and backbone. But still, his angst lingers.
“There was no intent at the genesis of my journey as an artist [with my name],” Joao says. “I want to have a purpose behind everything. My name doesn’t really have a purpose. That rubs me the wrong way. It’ll be fun to think of something new.” (Worth noting: In November he released Running, a thoughtful instrumental EP that positions him as an artist ready to score films, as Joao Gonzalez.) It won’t be as simple as just going with his birth name. The clique he’s put together likely will get one that uniquely fits them.
As he gets back on his guitar and we walk around his home, ambling toward the pool, he sings a few of its lyrics. “I am what I am/ But that’s not good enough for me,” the first verse begins. Conversely, the second bit starts with “I am what I am/ And that’s just good enough for you.” The warmth in those lines–the friction in wanting to be a better person whilst being loved by another for who you are currently–creates a warmth that competes with the rays beaming through the branches above us.
When Gonzalez’s next album comes out, it’ll reflect his journey up until the moment he declares the project finished. “All I want to do is have an idea and bring it to life,” he says. “Have it be rich and have as much depth as possible. I’m confident that I can make people feel something.”
It’s apparent now that Joao Gonzalez is in pursuit of many things: poetic music that matches his feelings, a deep connection with its listeners, and self-actualization, among others. Driven by intention, all seem within reach.
Creative Direction & Article by Brad Weté
Video by Serrandon
Photography by John Marquez