Nite Jewel Finds Self-Determination In Her Synth Pop Sound

Nite Jewel is the moniker of Ramona Gonzalez, Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter and purveyor of ambient aesthetics. With an edgy, synth-based sound, her work falls somewhere between Ariel Pink—a known associate—and Autechre, a group she commonly cites as an influence.

Since her 2009 self-produced debut, Good Evening, Gonzalez has pursued a sonic vision—at times erratic and lo-fi; at others, lush and shimmering—that follows its own whims. As the artist tells us, it’s an approach that ultimately failed to produce much love between her and Secretly Canadian, the indie label that reissued her debut and released her last album, One Second of Love.

In this interview with ARTISTdirect Interviews’ Gwendolyn Elliott, and in advance of Nite Jewel’s latest album, Liquid Cool (out June 10th via Gloriette Records, Gonzalez’s own imprint), the musician talks about making the new album all on her own, the split with Secretly, and even her namesake cocktail, a boozy creation made of rye and 100% liquid cool.

Gwendolyn Elliott: According to your press release, after separating from your label, you put all your gear, including your 8-track, in a walk in closet. How did this record emerge as a result?

Ramona Gonzalez: I had been working on a few records in 2012 under the guise of a label and finished several, but once I had fully parted ways with them, just because of mostly creative differences, I felt like I wanted to do something more akin to my process when I was more independent. Gloriette was the label I released my first two records on, and I wanted to harken back to that feeling. So, I tried to recreate the environment, more or less, with my very limited set of instruments and gear in my home and see how it would pan out.

GE: Can you talk a little about the creative differences with and your split from Secretly Canadian, the label that put out your last two releases?

RG: It was mainly that I had just worked independently for so long before signing to a label and been pretty successful with an LP and an EP before I had signed to a label. So, my expectations were really high and I basically wanted to sign to a label because it was like this feather in a cap type thing, for financial reasons because of the advances, and how you can build a studio with the money they give you, and the legitimacy that comes with that.

It’s sort of like, I guess what happens is that all of that so-called legitimacy wasn’t enough to satisfy me because the campaign was run fairly poorly. And you know, they admitted that to me afterwards. Basically, it’s like, how do you come to terms with the fact that you can do something better yourself, and you’re also not giving money or rights to a basically unknown entity of like, Midwestern bros? So, that feeling and that juxtaposition was pretty stark to me, and I felt that it was time for me to go back to being fully independent and you know, I have the mind for it, so it just felt like the right time.

GE: Doing so, you went ahead and produced and performed all nine of the tracks on this new album. Can you discuss the kind of freedom this level of control gave you making this record?

RG: It was cool because basically the other thing that comes with being on a label, and a label like Secretly Canadian that has a lot of like pretension to doing things that are fairly pop even though they’re mostly known as being an indie rock label, is that there’s a lot of pressure to create at this certain level.

I was collaborating with my husband Cole [M. Greif-Neill] on a lot of the records that I made in between 2012-2014 and I love collaborating with Cole but his production level is like on another much higher level than mine. I mean, he works for people like Beck and Snoop Dogg, so working with him was like my brain was having to work at a much higher level.

When I took back the reins on my own production and own songwriting, it was like I could do something that was a little more personal, a little more intimate, a little more gleeful and playful and just a little more grassroots, I guess. That process was really relaxing for me and freeing although I really love working with Cole and want to work with him again in the future. It’s a lot of pressure to collaborate in general. It’s a lot of pressure to work with people, and working alone can be really mellow.

GE: I understand the pressure your label was putting on you to produce art in a certain way had to do with whether you could “go pop or not.” The irony is some might say Liquid Cool is your most accessible, pop-friendly record to date. Can you talk about the evolution of your sound from your early DIY years, through Secretly Canadian, to an album like this?

RG: Isn’t that funny, because that’s what pop actually is? It’s about the organic way that people write really great songs. I mean, a lot of pop is manufactured nowadays, and you put 20 or 30 people on a song. But the other kind of pop, which is the more classic kind, is really like intellectual, bright minds coming together in an organic way with music history and with attitude and all this kind of stuff. You can’t really force someone to do that, and I think that’s what was happening with Secretly. They were making the process feel toxic because they were putting too much pressure on me to create something that, I didn’t really even know what they wanted me to do, because their version of pop is so unusually different than mine. They’re dealing in Americana and I’m dealing in electro, like, where are we meeting here?

It felt like we weren’t really on the same page linguistically. And I guess what you’re saying about accessibility is that there isn’t this fear embedded in the process, which I think a lot of people on labels, especially women, when they’re feeling a lot of pressure, there’s just some anxiety that you can hear in the music. It’s just not present on this record.

GE: What kind of lessons and ideas did you incorporate on Liquid Cool from having worked with your husband over the years?

RG: Oh my god, [M. Greif-Neill] was so essential in making this record. On the credits, [it reads] something like “assistance and guidance by Cole MGN” because he is happy to work with me in any capacity and we can write a song from scratch together. We can not write together and he can give me tips, whatever, he’s happy to do any of that, he has no ego as far as that goes.

Basically, it was a process of me writing a song, working on a song, and coming to him like, “It’s just so muddy, what would you do? What EQ curve would you use to get this frequency out of it?” and he would be like, “Set the Q here and maybe you want to try this plugin,” and all this kind of stuff and it was just constant advice about how to produce. It’s not like I would then copy exactly what he said, because he’s working on a different level than I am, he has different plugins, he’s using Protools a lot of the time, you know what I mean? But I would listen to him and understand what he meant on a more scientific level so I could apply it to what I was doing. Really, a lot of production and engineering is like a science when you’re talking about frequencies and stuff like that. So he was really helpful.

GE: You’ve frequently collaborated with Dam-Funk as well; was he much of an influence on this album? While we’re on the subject, did you bring in any musical guests?

RG: No, I didn’t. On the previous record I did, meaning the one that I made before this one (2012’s One Second of Love), there was a lot of different people involved, people that I collaborated with. And by a lot I mean like three, but Dam, no he wasn’t like a big influence on this record per se. I think that Dam is always just rooting for me and always listening to songs I send him and Dam to me is a very important figure musically because he’s always focused on the bass and voice which I am as well.

The bass is a very important instrument in my music, it is for him as well. And I would remember that, I’ll make a song and remember to keep it simple, feature the bass, feature the voice, if it has a rhythm that’s all you need. I tried almost to emulate analog recording, I really tried to keep everything to 8-track. I bounced everything down and if I had a lot of drum sounds I would bounce them down to one track so I would only be working with 8-tracks again and I’d be committed to the sound. You know, just keeping it really simple, keeping it kind of old school in your techniques is kind of something that Dam has always really been behind.

GE: Timeline: When was the album recorded, and where?

RG: It was recorded in January of last year until I pretty much finished the record in the fall of, what year are we in, 2016? So, it was like January 2015 to like November, October 2015. It was actually a really short process.

We move around a lot, but it was recorded in my house in Echo Park and a little bit in my apartment in Koreatown.

GE: You’re known for releasing a number of EPs and singles, is approaching a full album cycle like this different for you at all?

RG: It reminds me of releasing the record with Secretly Canadian except not from a place where everything is a mystery to me. Where I’m not like, “What’s the reaction, what’s going on? When are the records getting pressed? When am I supposed to tour?” Instead it’s basically the exact same team that I worked with save for the in-house people that Secretly used, but basically someone if not as good, better as far as radio or something. Basically the same exact team that I used for Secretly except I am at the helm of everything.

So, everything is going perfectly in that sense because I’m just saying, “Hey, what’s up, let’s talk, let’s do this, creatively what’s going on, timeline wise?” I feel like it’s probably the most relaxed I’ve been for an album coming out ever, aside from Good Evening, where basically I didn’t know that was happening. It’s very chill, I feel a lot of support from my teams and from fans too. Everybody just seems really happy and that makes me happy which is a good feeling.

GE: Seems to me like such luxurious freedom, especially after the experience you had with your former label, and in contrast to those records you mentioned where you can sense anxiety as a result of the label partnership. Do you think these pressures are specific to female artists like you?

RG: No, I think it’s worse for female artists, because there’s this natural sort of power play that goes on between label heads and their female artists, sort of like this father-daughter thing or even a romantic relationship where one seeks to dominate the other. I think that it’s more pronounced [with women], but it happens with male artists as well. I mean, friends of mine who are male singer-songwriters are feeling insane amounts of pressure from their labels and don’t feel good enough and don’t feel like they’re putting enough into their album and they’re making terrible music.

GE: What was it that made you want to make the jump and just say, “I want to do it myself and see what happens?”

RG: To be honest, basically a lot of people on my team who are very close to Secretly Canadian told me that I should leave and said that it wasn’t a good fit. People that don’t have any investment in that, like my lawyer, for instance. But then also, to be honest, I recieved a pretty good fee from Grand Theft Auto [for the song “Nowhere To Go”] almost at the exact same time that Secretly and I were considering parting ways, and I knew that if I stayed that they would get half of the fee from a song that I recorded on my own without any input from them and I just felt like that was really unfair. I just think that’s unfair, the whole process of what labels take from artists is unfair and I thought, “F*** that, I’m just going to take this fee from this video game and I’m gonna make my album with it.”

GE: Based on your success, do you have any advice for other artists who might find themselves in similar situations wondering if they should make a leap like that?

RG: I think that the key is, of what it means to be an artist where you get discovered and get signed and all that kind of stuff, is a fantasy. The reality is we need to survive as artists and the only way to do that in some cases is to take matters into your own hands if you’re savvy enough. And most kids nowadays are savvy enough because they learned to use computers at a young age, people are making apps when they’re ten years old. You can do this on your own. Many companies like Red Eye, who I work, with and other distribution companies who offer label services now to artists are very happy to see the artists becoming more and more independent as the music industry implodes more and more. I think that artists should feel like they can create their own new story of what the music industry means, not the ‘70s story of what it means to be a band and get discovered but what it means now in this new era.

GE: You had a residency at the Standard last month, how was that?

RG: I’m still doing a DJ residency at The Standard West Hollywood where I play a pretty much all vinyl set in the restaurant there, Alma Restaurant, an amazing restaurant in L.A. And it’s just a super chill dinner evening. They have a Nite Jewel cocktail where you order it and you get free records from me because I need to get rid of some albums here in my house and also it’s a nice opportunity to get some exclusive vinyl. But yeah, it’s super cool! It’s nice, I’ve always had this fantasy that I would start my own restaurant and the music would be something like this, what they play in there is all like smooth stuff, but kind of some outsider music as well. It’s really fun.

GE: What goes into the Nite Jewel cocktail?

RG: Well, it’s very boozy because that’s my style, it’s rye with Fernet, bitters, shrub, and a cherry. It’s delicious.

Purchase Nite Jewel music on iTunes.

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