From their humble lo-fi start, Nite Jewel is crystallizing its analog-synth sound
"There is a sense in Nite Jewel’s music that has to do with nostalgia for a time that is a fantasy rather than a time you’re actually from, and the time that’s a fantasy to me is right before I came into existence."
by Allen Thayer
Ramona Gonzalez speaks over speaker phone from the Topanga Canyon (on the northwestern fringe of Los Angeles) home she shares with her romantic and musical partner Cole Marsden Greif-Neill aka Cole M. G. N. Cole is finishing some preparations in their home studio before joining the conversation about Nite Jewel. Ramona is the face, voice, and lyrics of this retro-futuristic R&B project that sounds something like the love child of Sade and Kraftwerk. Cole spends most of his time producing for Nite Jewel and his other group the Samps, having recently exited Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti group.
Nite Jewel is unabashedly backward-looking in its influences, training their sonic sights on an aesthetic from the early ’80s when analog production reached its zenith and programmable keyboards and drum machines were just beginning to democratize pop music. Nite Jewel’s first release, the self-produced and self-released Good Evening from 2008, sold through its first pressing of a thousand copies in a matter of weeks. Constructed from gritty, sampled beats and gauzy keyboard washes, Nite Jewel’s debut is murky art-school R&B that appealed simultaneously to the Pitchfork and Stones Throw camps. A handful of 12-inch singles released on Italians Do It Better, Gloriette, and Mexican Summer marked the passing of time between Nite Jewel’s debut album and their follow-up, One Second of Love, released on the eclectic Indiana-based indie label Secretly Canadian.
As this is a Wax Poetics interview, I start by asking the Winnie and Kevin of the underground L.A. music scene about their relationship with pop music’s back catalog. Ramona quickly references a theory her friend and personal music god, Ariel Pink, is fond of talking about: that the best pop music was recorded in a fourteen-year window between 1968 and 1982, which begs the question:
But what if you weren’t alive during these years?
Cole: Everybody’s interested in the music from about five years before they were born, you know? What was the world like?
Ramona: There is a sense in Nite Jewel’s music that has to do with nostalgia for a time that is a fantasy rather than a time you’re actually from, and the time that’s a fantasy to me is right before I came into existence. That time almost feels extraterrestrial or something.
Cole: It also seems like that time was a little less restricted and defined than it is now and it became shortly after that.
Ramona: I feel like people were inventing music during that time. I mean, I also feel that kids nowadays are doing really cool stuff with music, but I don’t feel like there’s as much of an inventive quality, except with serious auteurs like Ariel Pink or something.
Cole: Not to just talk shit about music today—it’s so easy—but nowadays, technology is going the way of convenience, but back then it was about quality. Everything you read about those days, about people spending fortunes and being so ambitious with their studios and everything, and all in the name of the best sound possible. It’s so different than today.
Ramona: That’s what we did when we were working on One Second of Love, our newest album; it really was a record where we were trying to live out the fantasy of that time, except we were going into a studio with no money and still trying to get the most quality. I had been reading On Some Faraway Beach, Brian Eno’s biography, and Cole’s so into this period of recording—we were like, what if we could try and do something like that? We wanted to live out that fantasy too.
Please talk about your progression from lo-fi to hi-fi. How much is the recording process a part of Nite Jewel’s music?
Ramona: At this point, I’m actually having the chance to reflect on the recordings; whereas when I was working on them, it wasn’t really a part of my consciousness so much to think about the progression of the records or anything like that. Each record is really process based, and the process for One Second of Love was tape and high fidelity—high fidelity according to us—and this record is not hi-fi compared to a lot of records, but to us it was.
Cole: We didn’t even realize how lo-fi [Good Evening] was when we were making it. We were maybe more conscious of the recording process in general when we were making One Second of Love, but really I see each of them as a bold stylistic statement in one direction or another, and I think the fidelity is kinda beside the point as far as the records themselves. The Beatles are incredibly lo-fi, but people don’t think of it as lo-fi; it’s good music. Music transcends the medium itself.
Ramona: I think there is one thing that is dissimilar about One Second of Love with the other recordings. Now, playing these songs live from the new record, the songs do have this sort of larger-than-life quality when you’re performing them in a live setting, and it has to do with incorporating more musicians, a band. Something I really love about that era of music, the fourteen-year era [1968–’82], is the larger-than-life quality of the music. Something that’s really missing for me from music nowadays is that serious fantasy and the musician on top the world, and they’re the most powerful person in the world and they’re fucking god to whoever is listening to them. I don’t see anybody as god nowadays. Lady Gaga might be some, like, a satanic helper or something.
Maybe god in music is played out. To take an example from my day job, when somebody can say, “Hey, you nailed that Excel spreadsheet—you’re a rock star,” that just kills the idea of rock star. Post Madonna and Michael Jackson, is there such thing as a music god?
Ramona: There definitely is! There absolutely is, because when I first listened to Ariel’s music, he was a total god to me. I was like, “What the hell is this?’ And I see musicians who do provide that for their audiences like Dâm [Funk] or John Maus. You see people going completely bonkers, and it’s because they’re producing themselves in a lineage of a certain kind of music, and they’re not trying to be cool at all. They’re not trying to be in the scene of indie bullshit.
Is Nite Jewel an entirely L.A. phenomenon?
Ramona: I started recording on eight-track in 2007, not Nite Jewel at first, but different things. So we had been in L.A. for about a year, and then about a year later is when things started coming together around it being an actual recording to be released. It was totally an L.A. thing. Originally, the first Nite Jewel recordings were just sound installations—they were just things I was recording to put to visual art, because Ariel’s friend had a gallery, and she was like, “Do whatever you want in the gallery—anything!” I mean, it was a really open culture there. We used to just go to Ariel’s house at midnight and just jam all night, just playing whatever—it’s just such an open environment, and people are so accepting. But the thing is, they’re also not accepting, because if you came into Ariel’s house and played some bullshit, he would be like, “Get the fuck outta here.” We came there and we were playing good stuff, and he could tell, and it was kindred spirits right away.
Cole: I think the point is that there’s a whole group of friends that were all doing a similar type of art, and we just came in and found ourselves in that community and started doing what they do, and Ramona found herself working on a sound installation in a gallery, and then she recorded it onto cassette because a friend of ours had an eight-track.
Ramona: Cole actually had to teach me how to use it. It was cool, because when I finished about five recordings, I gave Ariel a CD of them, and he was like, “This is fucking amazing—you gotta keep doing this!” And again, we didn’t meet on the Internet—we met on the street.
How much is Nite Jewel Ramona, Cole, or the band?
Ramona: The band is just a live-show thing. Hopefully, for the next record, they can contribute more of their own ideas. I write the songs mainly—I write the lyrics and come up with an idea for a song, and in some cases, Cole will be free enough that we can work on the song from scratch together. Like on One Second of Love, there were a lot of songs on that record that we were able to work on from scratch together. But mainly the project is Cole producing the music.
This one’s for Cole: as someone who’s been a touring band member, session player, and producer, what do you enjoy most and see yourself doing more of in the future?
Cole: I’ve always played music and been a musician, but I’ve always known since the time I was a kid that I didn’t want to just be a musician, because it just seemed like a hard life. Like, when I was a kid, I was into jazz—my dad was into jazz. So people like Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, different people had fucking horrible lives a lot of the time, and I would go down to this jazz club and see people play as a kid, and these legends were playing for a room of, like, five people. And so I found that to be unbelievable—but an amazing opportunity for me as a kid. It made me not want to be a musician, I think. So I feel like I’ve been making the transition away from being a [touring] musician to spend more time in the studio. I think after that, I got really into records as a medium. It’s kinda weird to say, but I’ve pretty much always felt that I like recorded music better than live music. I love the process and the manipulation; and performing in the studio is fine, but performing live is not my calling. Once I stopped playing with Ariel, it was a conscious decision to spend more time just recording and producing and writing music.
Is Nite Jewel the same as Ramona Gonzalez?
Ramona: I’ve been doing music for so long: classical, jazz, rock music—Nite Jewel is definitely a musical idea that came about in a certain time in my life where I was listening to a certain type of music and getting into records in a certain way that lent itself towards this style, and the style is sort of nostalgic, electronic, rhythmic music. I don’t think that represents every part of me personally, it’s just this part of me that is needing to be exorcised musically.
Can you imagine your music career continuing in a different style that is not Nite Jewel?
Ramona: Right now, I’m really interested in this project. In a way, I really feel like it’s just begun, and that sounds weird to say, because nowadays an artist working for four years is retiring. But I really see a lot of music coming out right now. I’m so excited about songs that are happening in the future, because I’ve been done with One Second of Love for a long time. I’ve been writing for about a year now up in our house here in Topanga. It’s kind of consuming, actually. The other musical sides of myself, I haven’t really been able to explore in this moment of time, and Nite Jewel has kinda taken over.
Cole: I think Nite Jewel is expanding to become something that can include all of our influences. That’s what we’re constantly trying to do. Ever since you’re a kid—and I think most musicians feel this way—when you hear all of these different kinds of music, and you just want to hear this thing in your head that’s just a combination of all those statements. I think we’re working more towards that.
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You’ve recorded for a lot of different labels since your first release. Why is that?
Ramona: Are you calling me a label-slut?I’m kidding, but seriously, I have a big problem with authority, that’s for sure. I mean, I dropped out of college twice. And I’m really glad that I haven’t had to sign to a label for a long time because I have all the rights to my music, pretty much, at least to a large portion of my catalog. I put out Good Evening by myself in 2008. I made up a name—me and my friend—for a label, and we made it up and we put it out. As far as the singles and stuff, only a label with some money would be stupid enough to put out a twelve-inch vinyl, because nobody makes money off of that. I could never afford to do that, so that’s why I’ve flirted with different labels, because I can’t put [something like] that out, because it’s so expensive. And [the label] Italians Do It Better puts out such quality as well as far as vinyl and artwork that releasing with them was just really amazing because it was just two songs but so high quality. Johnny [Jewel, half of Italians Do It Better] and I are sort of estranged now because of stuff that gets between artists and people who run the label, but I think in the beginning, he helped me profoundly as far as getting me started with playing live shows. He forced me to play a live show outside of L.A. and outside of a gallery.
Ramona: I sent him a message on MySpace in probably ’08, telling him how much I loved this mix he threw together with the Rah Band on it. “Messages from the Stars” was my jam at the time, so I knew we were kindred spirits. He just said hey and thanks, but we didn’t fully connect until someone at Groove Merchant in San Fran put on my song “What Did He Say” while he was in the store, and he was like, “What the fuck is this?” So he drew up my old MySpace message and responded fully this time, like, “I love your music! I slipped PB Wolf a copy!” etc. etc. We just kept on staying in touch after that. We have a bunch of songs we’ve been working on, and we hope to finish them up as soon as we have a break from our busy schedules.
Seeing as you’re friends with Dâm and Peanut Butter Wolf, how come you didn’t land on Stones Throw? It seems like it would be a good fit, though it is a very dude-centric label…
Ramona: You know, it was definitely a possibility. I love Stones Throw; it’s an amazing label, one of the last bastions of real quality output from a true music lover [PB Wolf]. Since we signed with Secretly Canadian, there’s been some leadership changes at ST, which I think will help them greatly in signing more artists like myself who are atypical and female.
As far as other labels, the label I’m on right now, Secretly Canadian, the main reason I signed with them is because there’s certain people at that label—underlings—who have just incredible taste in music and have been following Nite Jewel forever and [we’ve been] exchanging records forever. It’s really clear to me that there’s a serious love and understanding of music at that place and it’s not just solely about business and whatnot. Because I have such a nostalgic side to myself it’s important that there are people there who respect that history.
When you tour, what takes you to a place like Visalia, a small agricultural town in California’s fertile central valley?
Ramona: Well, you know I’m Latina, right? As in Mexican…
Well, by your name I would gather that…
Ramona: No, I just named myself that for cool points actually. Whenever we’re in the more Latin parts of the country, we like to hit those places up because we actually have a good crew of fans in places like Visalia, Fresno, El Paso, Texas, different places like that. Playing in the Central Valley is always a trip and a pleasure, so that’s what brought us there. In my music, I definitely feel a connection to the history of Latin rhythms, and it’s really important to me to play those parts of the country and it is actually a pleasure, because people are incredibly enthusiastic and total music-lovers at the same time.
How do they find out about you?
Ramona: Honestly, Allen, I have no idea. I mean, two years ago, we went to El Paso and we performed there, and we sold out this club in El Paso, and I’m like, “What the hell?” And I asked the promoter, “What is the deal?” And they’re like, “It’s just the Latina connection.” I don’t even get how that is, but word spreads like wildfire.
I think the one thing that my music definitely does channel is this underdog thing. It’s a similar thing that Ariel’s music has, and he’s also Latino, you know? I feel that people latch on to stuff that they can relate to and that speaks to them in that underdog status whether through being a person of color or through being a woman, or through being a weirdo, or whatever. It gains you a certain legion of fans I feel like.
Is your love of R&B and underdog music a result of growing up Latina in the Bay Area? Is this the music your family and friends listened to?
Ramona: I grew up multi-racial in the Bay Area to a family and a set of circumstances that weren’t particularly blissful. You’re just into music that is made by people who are not wealthy and who are not having a great time. I never got into the Strokes or that kind of stuff. I was listening to OutKast, and I was listening to music by some people who had been through some shit. I mean, I wouldn’t say that my music is 100% dark, but I would say there’s this certain sense of melancholy, I guess. That’s the music that I’ve always had a connection to, music that is that so utterly poppy and in your face and you can dance to it, but it’s dark. I think that’s what our music has that is different than a lot of L.A.-based music that is really sunny and talks about the beaches. That’s what makes it the underbelly of L.A. as opposed to something on top. I’ve always been into that kinda music.
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