An Interview With Nite Jewel
With influences ranging from Mariah Carey to Kraftwork, Ramona Gonzalez aka Nite Jewel is one singer songwriter with her ears open and her heart in her lyrics. Hailing from glamorous Los Angeles, Nite Jewel insists she is hiding in the art underground movement and staying well out of celebrity culture. She told Way Out Radio ‘I used to visit family in LA as a kid and I thought it was the worst. It was very commercial, very hot, very polluted and very spread out. But when I moved here in 2006 it was because there was a really amazing underground art scene happening here. In New York at the time there was a very ‘TV on the radio’ scene and that had a lot more to do with commercial intent. In LA it was really different and now it’s become more of a destination people look to for new art making and the art scene has exploded. There is a very strong artistic underground in LA.’
I was interested to know about Ramona’s work ethic and asked if she worked to goals. ‘I just try to write any day I have some free time unless I’m hiking or going to the beach because my time is very limited. If I’m in the studio I have to forgo everything for that and there is always an excuse to go into the studio so I’m pretty much writing all the time. Whenever there is an opportunity to release music, whether that’s doing a single for Grand Theft Auto or finding material for a new album, I already have so much at my disposal to work with. With my collaborations, they come really easily, for instance my EP with Damon Funk was done in just over a week’ told Ramona.
After hearing about Ramona’s song ‘Nowhere To Go’ being part of the Grand Theft Auto game soundtrack, I was interested to know how this came about. ‘I had recorded that song a year before and sent the demo to the music supervisor at Grand Theft Auto. When he was finalising the soundtrack he called me and said they wanted the song for the game.’
Ramona began working under the name Nite Jewel eight years ago and her sound has undergone rapid changes since the first release. I asked how her persona had developed over time. ‘There have been mutations of my appearance at least in the eyes of the industry. A lot has changed in the way that I am perceived publicly but also in the way that I perceive myself. From year to year there has been a different release so 2008 had ‘Good Evening’ and there was an EP, ‘Italians Do Better’ and the ‘Summer’ EP. Then there was the ‘Am I Really’ EP, ‘Cycle of Love’ and all these singles that came after. I have moved with the music and it’s been a real zigzag all the way up until now.
In the past, Nite Jewel has mentioned Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey as musical inspirations. I wondered if they impacted her writing now. She expressed; ‘As a kid I thought of Mariah Carey as an untouchable diva force but I wouldn’t say musically she was an inspiration as vocally she’s not something I could aspire to be, she’s so out there! But Janet Jackson is definitely someone that I look to consistently as someone who delivers and writes her vocals with a vibe and emotion that I try to emulate. She has an understated intense coolness and softness that I really like. Those are definitely singers that I still continue to use for my records as a touch stone.’
Ramona went on to reveal the artists she’s most often listening top now; ‘I’m listening to a lot of Abra at the moment. I tried for a long time not to use Spotify but now I use it and I’ve been listening to Moody Mens, and the DJ Kicks compilation. In LA we have an amazing college radio station that plays a lot of underground music and we have KCRW which plays mainstream indie music and we have amazing classic rap, soul and R&B stations. We have a lot of great music here so it’s not hard to listen to good music in LA.’
With Ramona’s influences and current playlist revealed, I was intrigued to know where her stage name Nite Jewel had originated. Ramona divulged; ‘A friend of mine, who is a record collector, found this album by a Santiago group from 1984 and they had a song called Night Jewel, it was a synth, progressive record, pretty cheesy. It was about an elusive lady of the night and at that time I was a little wild and partying a lot so he called me ‘Night Jewel’ jokingly. Then when I was putting my songs online I used it as my name. At that point I had no idea that anyone but my friends would hear the songs.’
Ramona went on to tell us more about how her music began taking off with a wider audience and how it affected her writing; ‘It was a gradual thing with little steps. I think that’s how it usually goes with people’s careers but the story is perceived differently. Later in my career I was conscious of writing for an audience and wanted to write songs people could sing along to.’ I was interested to know if Ramona had many female peers to turn to in LA and whether it was a popular location for female musicians similar to her. She said; ‘Yes, LA has a really strong punk underbelly and there are a lot of older punk women who are an inspiration to different generations here and have given rise to people like Janeva Jacuzzi and in turn she has given rise to other artists who make cold wave, art pop. There are a lot of venues for people to play free shows and underage shows. Yes there are a lot of female artists here working on their own terms. It’s very much like a home recorded solo artist arena. A lot of the young kids that grow up in LA are exposed to the idea of becoming a famous artist at a very young age because that’s the culture here. So there are a lot of savvy kids living here. It’s pretty crazy, from the Odd Future contingent all the way to weirdos living in the valley remaking some long lost Beach Boys record. It’s pretty incredible.’
The style of Nite Jewel’s music has been described as lo fi alternative dance. I asked if she agreed; ‘I definitely think my record ‘Good Evening’ was very low fidelity and I think that was a result of my friends who were artist at the time recording to 4-track and 8-track. Lo-fi was an unintentional musical category but I don’t think it can be a genre; it’s more of a technical term. Alternative dance sounds like weird dance music from the 80’s, I don’t really know what it means but I think people will come up with anything to make a piece of music sound unique which I appreciate.’
I was captivated by Ramona’s song writing and recording work she’d done with her husband. Knowing they’d created songs on a portable eight-track cassette recorder together, I was interested to learn more about the process. To me it sounded very Kathleen Hannah and riot grrl! Ramona told me; ‘She only had 4 tracks so she’s pretty genius! Cole showed me how to use the 8-track and I just started recording little ambient compositions on the recorder, mostly instrumental. I was doing sound instillations at the time so I was recording those and then I started recording krautrock jams between the two of us. I used a drum machine and I’d play guitar whilst he played bass. It eventually morphed into me writing my own songs, which went onto the album ‘Good Evening’. It was a pretty quick process and Cole helped me refine parts of the recordings by adding drum samples and playing some bass.’
I inquired as to whether it was difficult balancing time between a music career and home life. Ramona expressed; ‘The brute honest truth is that it’s a challenge, it’s not easy. The lucky thing is that Cole and I have a very unique relationship where we work on music together. Lately we’ve been writing separately which is nice and I’ve become more autonomous with my recording process and he works with a lot of other artists from the UK producing from his recording studio including The Vaccines. Now it’s much easier to balance. It’s crazy to try and collaborate in every single way. Also when your studio is in your house you’re just working constantly and trying to maintain a relationship and touring and having friends over and partying and its madness. For some reason we manage to work through it and make it a success in our careers and our relationship. But I think that’s a totally rare thing to happen.
I was interested in the cover artwork that was displayed on Nite Jewel’s releases as they are often portraits of Ramona. I enquired as to what this meant to her; ‘For this particular album I collaborated with a friend of mine named Hose Wolf who has done a few videos for me and also my press photos. I was really inspired my painters who had done these classic 50’s style paintings but had blocked out the facial features or made is psychedelic. To me I liked updating something of the past and recontextualising it so it becomes alien. People take selfie portraits now but they distort their own face in a way that doesn’t look like them. LA celebrities like Kylie Jenner have had so much plastic surgery that it’s almost as distorted as if they’d taken a bad selfie. So my artwork is a comment on the portraiture of today and how there’s so much distortion that goes on. It relates to a feeling within the record that technology can be alienating from other people but also alienating from ones own sense of self. I’ve always put myself on the covers of my records because all of the records I’ve ever loved have the artist on the cover. With ‘Liquid Cool’ I changed it up a bit because I didn’t want it to be so straightforward.’
I asked Ramona how she thought selfie culture was affecting young girls growing up today. ‘I would love to say young people have it better than we did. I know they’re smarter and probably more capable than we were because of technology but for girls there is a terrible sense of self-consciousness and self-worth issues that get into their minds very early on because of this need to put themselves on display, share and be judged by others. The reason I know that’s true is because there have been studies about it. It’s really scary how people are bullied and the impact of that. It makes me feel like if I were to have children there would be limits on the use of phones and internet because of that. Having to worry about my self-image now because of being a public figure is difficult. It’s not that bad because fans are so sweet but imagine if you were a young kid dealing with it. It’s really tough and I wouldn’t want to subject my child to that personally.’
In light of Ramona’s concern over the pressures on young girls, I asked if she felt education was important to her, knowing she had a degree in philosophy. ‘Yes, very. I got a scholarship to go to school though. I don’t know if I’d feel the same had I paid $50,000 per year to go to private school. I feel like my degree is incredibly important to me. It taught me how to think critically in conversing about my music and other issues. It made me reflect on my life and understand what I want from it.’
The latest Nite Jewel album is far from lo-fi in sound. I asked what the recording process was like for ‘Liquid Cool’. Ramona stated; ‘I started it in January 2015 and finished it in November 2015. I had recorded about 3 albums prior to that which I was thinking about putting out with my label. When I split from my label and decided to put things out independently, I felt that the sound of the records I’d made was not exactly right for an intimate release on my label so I started to record some new material. I put a few of my instruments into a closet in my house and wrote the album. I mixed it myself and mastered it with an incredible mastering engineer here in LA.’ She went on; ‘The record is super personal. It was intended to be that way which is why I recorded it on my own.’
Rapt by the independence of Nite Jewel’s recording process, I peered into the song content to find out more. Ramona revealed; ‘‘Kiss the Screen’ was one of the first songs that I wrote for the record. I was thinking I wanted to make a Kraftwork type track for the album because I love them and they’re a big influence for me. I wanted the song to be a comment on technology and started recording the beat and doing the chord changes. I was doing the vocal and I stopped before the chorus because I couldn’t figure out how to sing it. The main chorus line was in my brain so I walked away from it and after some time this huge chorus melody burst out of me and it was a shock to me because I’d never sang that way before so it was pretty exciting.’ She continued; ‘The band have just started learning ‘Running out of time’ which is the 6 minute track on the album. That song I really like because the lyrics most closely point to the personal experience of what it’s like to leave
the core of the industry and venture out on one’s own and how it feels to look at yourself and continue to work without the backing of a label. It’s also about how you maintain your confidence in the face of people telling you that you can’t do it. The melody and lyrics are toying with the idea of whether you can have faith in yourself. It’s about that tension and it’s a very personal song. Also the spoken word section is a poem that I wrote before recording ‘Liquid Cool’ and it served as the centrepiece for the entire record.’
Nite Jewel was unwavering as to the records notion of loneliness; ‘It relates to everyone because although it appears that we are constantly in contact with everyone, I think most people spend a lot of solitary time. It’s a weird paradox by being constantly stimulated and in touch with other people but at the close of a laptop you’re alone. That’s what I am toying with on the record, who are you even talking to? Because you’re actually by yourself and there are a lot of songs about lacking another person, talking to people, dreaming about people but no one actually being there. We’re wrapped up in our own psychology as a result. Every song is written in that context.’
Absorbed by Ramona’s point I said ‘There is a perception on our society that people have 500 friends or more on social media but in reality you’re lucky to count your true friends on one hand. Do you have a small number of true friends?’ She replied; ‘I’m lucky to have maybe two handfuls of true friends, which is great, but I constantly feel like I have to maintain those relationships because you can get really side tracked. Also being married,
you have your best friend with you all of the time so that’s also a challenge to maintain. I don’t consider the social media area of my life to be tangible. Some people do but I didn’t get the Internet till I was about 17 because my mum was a technophobe. So I’ve always been very sceptical of the Internet. I definitely always thought it was the root of all evil, although now I know that to be completely absurd. I know it’s a great medium for people to communicate and share really innovative ideas and it has mutated into an arena for niche interests, niche fundamentalism and consumerist, corporate interplay. So I am just every weary of it as a median at this point for what it has become. I try to nurture and cherish my real life in general.’
Moving back to the music, I asked if she felt that performing live had helped her in life. She replied; ‘Yes, for sure. It’s just a form of therapy at times. Other times it’s a form of interplay and stimulation. Sometimes it’s a form of torture. Sometimes it’s a form of fun and other times it’s a form of therapy and performance in particular because you’re not inventing anything, it’s a form of therapy for sure. It can be frightening but not always!’
Lastly, I asked what’s on the horizon for the rest of the year? Ramona said; ‘I’m doing some shows in the US, doing a European tour and booking more dates for the fall and heading to Australia for winter.’ Ramona will be back in the UK on September 16th performing in London and Glasgow.